|Where Icathia Once Stood|
By Graham McNeill
My name is Axamuk Var-Choi Kohari Icath’or.
Axamuk was my grandsire’s name. A warrior’s name, it means keeper of edges, and it is an auspicious title to bear. Axamuk was the last of the Mage Kings, the final ruler to fall before the Shuriman Sun Empress when she led her golden host of men and gods into the kingdom of Icathia.
Var is my mother and Choi my father. Icath’or is the name of the blood-bonded clan to which I was born, one with an honorable history of service to the Mage Kings.
I have borne these names since birth.
My name is Axamuk Var-Choi Kohari Icath’or.
Only Kohari is a new addition. The fit is new, but already feels natural. The name is now part of me, and I bear it with a pride that burns bright in my heart. The Kohari were once the life-wards of the Mage Kings, deadly warriors who dedicated their lives to the service of their master. When Axamuk the King fell before the god-warriors of the Sun Empress and Icathia became a vassal state of Shurima, every one of them fell upon their swords.
But the Kohari are reborn, rising to serve the new Mage King and reclaim their honor. I bear their sigil branded on my arm, the scroll-wrapped sword.
My name is Axamuk Var-Choi Kohari Icath’or. I repeat it over and over, holding onto what it represents.
I do not want to forget it. It is all I have left.
Was it only this morning I and the rest of the reformed Kohari marched through the streets of Icathia? It seems like a lifetime ago.
The wide thoroughfares were thronged with thousands of cheering men, women and children. Clad in their brightest cloth, and wearing their finest jewelry to honor our march, they had come to witness the rebirth of their kingdom.
For it was Icathia that was reborn today, not just the Kohari. Our heads were high, my chest swollen with pride.
We marched in step, gripping the leather straps of wicker shields and the wire-wound hilts of our curved nimcha blades. To bear Icathian armaments had been forbidden under Shuriman law, but enough had been wrought in secret forges and hidden in caches throughout the city, in readiness for the day of uprising.
I remember that day well.
The city had been filled with screams, as baying crowds chased down and murdered every Shuriman official they could find. Resentment for centuries of humiliating laws intended to eradicate our culture—and brutal executions for breaking those laws—came to a head in one blood-filled day of violence. It didn’t matter that most of these people were merely scriveners, merchants and tithe-takers. They were servants of the hated Sun-Emperor, and needed to die.
Overnight, Icathia was ours again!
Sun disc effigies were pulled from rooftops and smashed by cheering crowds. Shuriman scriptwork was burned and their treasuries looted. The statues of dead emperors were desecrated, and even I defaced one of the great frescoes with obscenities that would have made my mother blush.
I remember the smell of smoke and fire. It was the smell of freedom.
I held to that feeling as we marched.
My memory recalled the smiling faces and the cheers, but I could not pick out any words. The sunlight was too bright, the noise too intense, and the pounding in my head unrelenting.
I had not slept the previous night, too nervous at the prospect of battle. My skill with the nimcha was average, but I was deadly with the recurved serpent bow slung at my shoulder. Its wood was well-seasoned, protected from the humidity by a coat of red lacquer. My arrows were fletched with azure raptor feathers, and I had carved their piercing heads from razored obsidian sourced from the thaumaturges—the magickers of earth and rock. Long runs through Icathia’s lush, coastal forests and along its high mountain trails had given me powerful, clean limbs to draw the bowstring, and the stamina to fight all day.
A young girl, her hair braided with silver wire, and with the deepest green eyes I had ever seen, placed a garland of flowers over my head. The scent of the blossoms was intoxicating, but I forgot it all as she pulled me close to kiss my lips. She wore a necklace, an opal set in a swirling loop of gold, and I smiled as I recognized my father’s craft.
I tried to hold on to her, but our march carried me away. Instead, I fixed her face in my mind.
I cannot remember it now, only her eyes, deep green like the forests of my youth…
Soon, even that will be gone.
“Easy, Axa,” said Saijax Cail-Rynx Kohari Icath’un, popping a freshly shelled egg into his mouth. “She’ll be waiting for you when this day is done.”
“Aye,” said Colgrim Avel-Essa Kohari Icath’un, jabbing his elbow into my side. “Him and twenty other strapping young lads.”
I blushed at Colgrim’s words, and he laughed.
“Craft her a fine necklace from Shuriman gold,” he continued. “Then she’ll be yours forever. Or at least until morning!”
I should have said something to berate Colgrim for slighting this girl’s honor, but I was young and eager to prove myself to these veteran warriors. Saijax was the beating heart of the Kohari, a shaven-headed giant with skin pockmarked by the ravages of a childhood illness, and a forked beard stiffened to points with wax and white chalk. Colgrim was his right hand, a brute with cold eyes and a betrothal tattoo, though I had never heard him talk of his wife. These men had grown up together, and had learned the secret ways of the warrior since they were old enough to hold a blade.
But I was new to this life. My father had trained me as a lapidary—an artisan of gemstones and maker of jewelry. A meticulous and fastidious man, such coarse language was anathema to him, and unfamiliar to me. I relished it, of course, eager to fit in with these leather-tough men.
“Go easy on the lad, Colgrim,” said Saijax, slapping my back with one of his massive hands. Meant as a brotherly pat, it rattled the teeth in my skull, but I welcomed it all the same. “He’ll be a hero by nightfall.”
He shifted the long, axe-headed polearm slung at his shoulder. The weapon was immense, its ebony haft carved with the names of his forebears, and the blade a slab of razor-edged bronze. Few of our group could even lift it, let along swing it, but Saijax was a master of weapons.
I turned to catch a last glimpse of my green-eyed girl, but could not see her amid the tightly packed ranks of soldiers, and the waving arms of the crowds.
“Time to focus, Axa,” said Saijax. “The scryers say the Shurimans are less than half a day’s march from Icathia.”
“Are… Are the god-warriors with them?” I asked.
“So they say, lad. So they say.”
“Is it wrong that I can’t wait to see them?”
Saijax shook his head. “No, for they are mighty. But as soon as you do, you’ll wish you hadn’t.”
I did not understand Saijax’s meaning, and said, “Why?”
He gave me a sidelong glance. “Because they are monsters.”
“Have you seen one?”
I was filled with youthful enthusiasm, but I still remember the look that passed between Saijax and Colgrim.
“I have, Axa,” said Saijax. “We fought one at Bai-Zhek.”
“We had to topple half the mountain to put the big bastard down,” Colgrim added. “And even then, only Saijax had a weapon big enough to take its head off.”
I remembered the tale with a thrill of excitement. “That was you?”
Saijax nodded, but said nothing, and I knew to ask no more. The corpse had been paraded around the newly liberated city for all to see, proof that the Shuriman’s god-warriors could still die. My father had not wanted me to see it, fearing it would enflame the desire to rebel that had smoldered in every Icathian heart for centuries.
The memory of exactly what it looked like is gone now, but I remember it was enormous beyond belief, inhuman and terrible…
I would see the god-warriors later that day.
And then I understood Saijax’s meaning.
We formed up on the gentle slopes before the crumbling remains of the city walls. Since the coming of the Sun Empress, over a thousand years ago, we had been forbidden to reclaim the stone or rebuild the wall; forced to leave the rubble as a reminder of our ancient defeat.
But now an army of stonewrights, laborers and thaumaturges were hefting giant blocks of freshly hewn granite into place with windlass mechanisms that crackled with magic.
I felt pride at the sight of the rising walls. Icathia was being reborn in glory right before my eyes.
More immediately impressive was the army taking position athwart the hard-packed earthen road leading into the city. Ten thousand men and women, clad in armor of boiled leather and armed with axes, picks, and spears. The forges had worked day and night to produce swords, shields and arrowheads in the days following the uprising, but there was only so much that could be produced before the Sun Emperor turned his gaze upon this rebellious satrapy and marched east.
I had seen pictures of ancient Icathian armies in the forbidden texts—brave warriors arrayed in serried ranks of gold and silver—and though we were a shadow of such forces, we were no less proud. Two thousand talon-riders were deployed on either flank, their scaled and feathered mounts snorting, and stamping clawed hooves with impatience. A thousand archers knelt in two long lines, fifty feet ahead of us, blue-fletched shafts planted in the soft loam before them.
Three blocks of deep-ranked infantry formed the bulk of our line, a bulwark of courage to repel our ancient oppressors.
All down our line, crackling energies from the earth-craft of our mages made the air blurry. The Shurimans would surely bring mages, but we could counter their power with magic of our own.
“I’ve never seen so many warriors,” I said.
Colgrim shrugged. “None of us have, not in our lifetimes.”
“Don’t get too impressed,” said Saijax. “The Sun Emperor has five armies, and even the least of them will outnumber us three to one.”
I tried to imagine such a force, and failed. “How do we defeat such a host?” I asked.
Saijax did not answer me, but led the Kohari to our place in the line before a stepped structure of granite blocks. Shuriman corpses were impaled upon wooden stakes driven into the earth at its base, and flocks of carrion birds circled overhead. A silken pavilion of crimson and indigo had been raised at its summit, but I could not see what lay within. Robed priests surrounded it, each one weaving intricate patterns in the air with their star-metal staves.
I did not know what they were doing, but I heard an insistent buzzing sound, like a hive of insects trying to push their way into my skull.
The pavilion’s outline rippled like a desert mirage, and I had to look away as my eyes began to water. My teeth felt loose in their gums, and my mouth filled with the taste of soured milk. I gagged and wiped the back of my hand across my lips, surprised and not a little alarmed to see a smear of blood there.
“What is that?” I asked. “What’s in there?”
Saijax shrugged. “A new weapon, I heard. Something the thaumaturges found deep underground, after the earthquake at Saabera.”
“What kind of weapon?”
“Does it matter?” said Colgrim. “They say it’s going to wipe the gold-armored dung-eaters from the world. Even those thrice-damned god-warriors.”
The sun was close to its zenith by now, but a shiver worked its way down my spine. My mouth was suddenly dry. I could feel tingling in my fingertips.
Was it fear? Perhaps.
Or, maybe, just maybe, it was a premonition of what was to come.
An hour later, the Shuriman army arrived.
I had never seen such a host, nor ever imagined so many men could be gathered together in one place. Columns of dust created clouds that rose like a gathering storm set to sweep the mortal realm away.
And then, through the dust, I saw the bronze spears of the Shuriman warriors, filling my sight in all directions. They marched forward, a vast line of fighting men with golden banners and sun-disc totems glimmering in the noonday sun.
From the slopes above, we watched wave after wave come into sight, tens of thousands of men who had never known defeat, and whose ancestors had conquered the known world. Riders on golden mounts rode the flanks, as hundreds of floating chariots roved ahead of the army. Heavy wagons the size of river barques bore strange war-machines that resembled navigational astrolabes; spinning globes orbited by flaming spheres and crackling lightning. Robed priests came with them, each with a flame-topped staff and an entourage of blinded slaves.
At the heart of the army were the god-warriors.
Much else fades from my mind; the blood, the horror and the fear. But the sight of the god-warriors will follow me into whatever lies beyond this moment…
I saw nine of them, towering over the men they led. Their features and bodies were an awful blend of human and animal, and things that had never walked this world, and never should. Armored in bronze and jade, they were titans, inhuman monsters that defied belief.
Their leader, with skin as pale and smooth as ivory, turned her monstrous head towards us. Enclosed in a golden helm carved to resemble a roaring lion, her face was mercifully hidden, but I could feel her power as she swept her scornful gaze across our line.
A palpable wave of terror followed in its wake.
Our army shrank from the scale of the enemy force, on the brink of fleeing before even a single blow was struck. Steadying shouts arose from our brave leaders, and an immediate rout was halted, but even I could hear the fear in their voices.
I, too, felt an almost uncontrollable urge to void my bladder, but clamped down on the feeling. I was Kohari. I wouldn’t piss myself in my first battle.
Even so, my hands were clammy and I felt a sickening knot forming in my gut.
I wanted to run. I needed to run.
We could not possibly stand against such a force.
“Big bastards, aren’t they?” said Colgrim, and nervous laughter rippled through our ranks. My fear lessened.
“They may look like gods,” said Saijax, his voice carrying far and wide. “But they are mortal. They can bleed, and they can die.”
I took strength from his words, but I wonder now if he knew just how wrong he was.
“We are Icathians!” he roared. “We are the heirs of the kings and queens who first settled this land! It is ours by right and by birth. Aye, we are outnumbered, but the warriors our enemies have sent are slaves, and men whose only loyalty is to coin.”
He raised his weapon high and the sunlight shone from its polished blade. He was glorious in that moment, and I would have followed him to the very end of the world if he asked me to.
“We fight to live in freedom, not in slavery! This is our home, and it is a land of proud people, of free people! There is nothing stronger than that, and we will prevail!”
A cheer began in the Kohari ranks, and was swiftly carried to the other regiments in our army.
It echoed from the rising walls of our city, and was carried to the Shuriman host. The god-warriors spoke swiftly to their attendants, who turned and ran to bear their orders to the wings of the army. Almost immediately, our enemy began to move uphill.
They came slowly, their pace deliberate. On every third step, the warriors hammered the hafts of their spears on their shields. The noise was profoundly unnerving, a slow drumbeat that sapped the will of we who were soon to feel the tips of those blades.
My mouth was dry, my heart hammered in my chest. I looked to Saijax for strength, to take courage from his indomitable presence. His jaw was set, his eyes hard. This was a soul who knew no fear, who rejected doubt and stood firm in the face of destiny.
Sensing my gaze, he glanced down at me. “Egg?” he said.
A pair of peeled eggs lay in the palm of his hand.
I shook my head. I couldn’t eat. Not now.
“I’ll take an egg,” said Colgrim, taking one and biting it in half. Saijax ate the other, and the pair of them chewed thoughtfully.
The Shurimans drew ever closer.
“Good egg,” noted Colgrim.
“I add a dash of vinegar as I boil them,” Saijax replied. “Makes them easier to peel.”
I looked back and forth between them, unable to reconcile the mundane nature of their words as an all-conquering army marched upon us. And yet, I felt soothed by it.
I laughed, and that laughter swiftly spread.
The Kohari were laughing, and soon, without knowing why, our entire army was laughing. The fear that had threatened to undo us all now fled. Fresh resolve filled our hearts, and put iron in our sword arms.
The Shurimans halted two hundred yards from us. I tasted a strange texture to the air, like biting on tin. I looked up in time to see the spinning globes on the war-machines burn with searing light. The priests attending them swept their staves down.
One of the flaming spheres detached from the globe and arced through the air towards us.
It landed in the midst of our infantry, and burst in an explosion of pellucid green fire and screams. Another sphere followed, then another.
I gagged as the smell of roasting flesh billowed from the ranks, horrified at the carnage being wrought, but our warriors held firm.
More of the spheres arced towards us, but instead of striking our ranks, they wobbled in the air before reversing course to smash down in the heart of the Shuriman spearmen.
Amazed, I saw our thaumaturges holding their staves aloft, and crackling lines of magic flickered between them. The hairs on my arms and legs stood up in the shimmering air, as if a veil was being drawn up around us.
More of the searing fireballs launched from the Shuriman war-machines, but they exploded in mid-air, striking the invisible barrier woven around our force.
Cheers overcame the cries of pain in our ranks. I let out a breath, thankful that I had not been among the war-machines’ targets. I watched those piteously wounded men dragged to the rear by their comrades. The temptation to remain there must have been tremendous, but we Icathians descend from explorer kings, and not a single warrior failed to return to their place in the battle line.
The strain on our mages was clear, but their power was holding the Shuriman barrage at bay. I glanced over my shoulder to the pavilion atop the pyramid. There too, the priests were straining with all their power. To what end, I could not imagine. What manner of weapon lay within, and when would we unleash it?
“Stand to,” said Saijax, and I returned my attention to the army before us. “They’ll come at us now. A big wave to test us.”
I looked back at the Shurimans, who now came at us in a run. Arrows flashed from the lines of archers ranged before us, and scores of enemy warriors died. Bronzed plate and shields saved some, but the range was so close that many fell with shafts punched clean through their breastplates.
Another volley hammered the Shurimans, swiftly followed by another.
Hundreds were down. Their line was ragged and disorganized.
“Now!” roared Saijax. “Into them!”
Our infantry surged forward in a wedge, spears lowering as they charged. I was carried by the mass of men behind me, managing to drag my blade from its sheath as I ran. I screamed to keep my fear at bay, worrying that I might trip on my scabbard.
I saw the faces of the Shurimans, the braids in their hair, the gold of their crests, and the blood smearing their tunics. We were so close, I could have whispered and they might have heard me.
We struck their wavering ranks like a thunderbolt. Spears thrust and shivered, hafts splintering with the impact. Driven by sheer will and a thousand years of pent-up anger, the momentum of our charge clove deep into their ranks, splitting them and breaking their formation completely.
Anger gave me strength, and I swung my sword. It bit into flesh and blood sprayed me.
I heard screaming. It might have been me. I cannot say for sure.
I tried to stay close to Saijax and Colgrim, knowing that where they fought, Shurimans would be dying. I saw Saijax felling men by the dozen with his huge polearm, but could no longer see Colgrim. I soon lost sight of Saijax in the heave and sway of surging warriors.
I called his name, but my shout was drowned in the roar of battle.
Bodies slammed into me, pulling at me, clawing my face—Icathian hands or Shuriman, I had no idea.
A spear stabbed towards my heart, but the tip slid from my breastplate to slice across my arm. I remember pain, but little else. I hammered my sword into a screaming man’s face. He fell, and I pushed on, made fearless by fear and savage joy. I roared, and swung my sword like a madman.
Skill was meaningless. I was a butcher hacking meat.
I saw men die whose skill was much greater then mine. I kept moving, lost in the swirling tide of flesh and bone. Wherever I saw an exposed neck or back, I struck. I took grim pleasure in my killing. Whatever the outcome of this day, I could hold my head high in the company of warriors. More arrows flew overhead, and the cheers rising from our army were songs of freedom.
And then the Shurimans broke.
It began as a single slave warrior turning his back and running, but his panic spread like fire on the plain, and soon the whole formation was streaming back down the hill.
In the days leading up to this moment, Saijax had told me that the most dangerous moment for any warrior is when a regiment breaks. That is when the killing truly begins.
We tore through the routed Shurimans, spears plunging into exposed backs, and axes splitting skulls. They were no longer fighting back, simply trampling one another to escape. The bloodshed was appalling, yet I reveled in it as hundreds of bodies were crushed in the slaughter.
I saw Saijax again, then, standing firm, his polearm at his side. “Hold!” he yelled. “Hold!”
I wanted to curse his timidity. Our blood was up, and the Shurimans were fleeing in panic.
I did not know it at the time, but Saijax had seen how dangerous our position truly was.
“Pull back!” he shouted, and the cry was taken up by others who saw what he had seen.
At first, it seemed our army would not heed his words, drunk on victory and eager to plunge onward. We were intent on slaying every one of the enemy, wreaking vengeance upon soldiers who had held our land hostage for centuries.
I had not seen the danger, but all too soon I understood.
Screams and fountains of blood sheeted from the leading edges of our battle-line. Severed heads flew backwards, spinning like rocks skipped over a pool. Bodies soon followed, tossed aside without effort.
Screams and cries of terror erupted, and the songs of freedom were snuffed out.
The god-warriors had entered the fray.
Three of them surged into our ranks; some moving like men, others like ravenous beasts. Each was armed with a weapon larger than any man could lift, unstoppable and invincible. They waded through our ranks with sweeping blows that slew a dozen men with every swing. Icathians flew in pieces from their crackling blades, were crushed beneath their tread, or were rent asunder like bloodied rags.
“Back!” shouted Saijax. “Back to the walls!”
None could pierce the god-warriors’ armor, and their ferocity was so primal, so inhuman, that it froze me to the spot. Spears snapped against their iron-hard hides, and their bellowing roars cut me to the marrow with terror. One, a cawing beast with ragged, feathered wings and a vulture-like beak, leapt into the air, and searing blue fire blazed from its outstretched claws. I cried out at the sight of my fellow countrymen burned to ash.
The elation that had—only moments before—filled us with thoughts of victory and glory, now shattered like a fallen glass. In its place, I felt a sick horror of torments yet to come, the retribution of an unimaginably cruel despot who knows no mercy.
I felt a hand grab my shoulder, and lifted my bloodied blade.
“Move, Axa,” said Saijax, forcing me back. “There’s still fighting to be done!”
I was dragged along by the force of his grip, barely able to keep my feet. I wept as we streamed back to where we had first formed up. Our line was broken, and surely the day was lost.
But the god-warriors simply stood among the dead, not even bothering to pursue.
“You said we had a weapon,” I cried. “Why aren’t they doing anything?”
“They are,” said Saijax. “Look!”
What happened next defies my understanding. No mortal eye had ever seen such a thing.
The pavilion exploded with forking traceries of light. Arcing loops of purple energy ripped into the sky and lashed down like crashing waves. The force of the blast threw everyone to the ground. I covered my ears as a deafening screaming tore the air.
I pressed myself to the battle-churned earth as the wail burrowed deep into my skull, as though the world itself were shrieking in horror. I rolled onto my side, retching as stabbing nausea ripped through my belly. The sky, once bright and blue, was now the color of a week-old bruise. Unnatural twilight held sway, and I saw flickering afterimages burn themselves onto the back of my mind.
Slashing claws... Gaping maws... All-seeing eyes...
I sobbed in terror at the sight of such horrors.
Alone of all the things being stripped from me, this I gladly surrender.
A nightmarish light, sickly blue and ugly purple, smothered the world, pressing down from above and blooming up from somewhere far below. I pushed myself upright, turning in a slow circle as the world ended around me.
The Shurimans were streaming back from the city, terrified by whatever force our priests had unleashed. My enemies were being destroyed, and I knew I should be triumphal, but this... This was not a victory any sane person could revel in.
This was extinction.
An abyss that bled purple light tore open amid the Shurimans, and I saw their ivory-skinned general overcome by whipping cords of matter. She fought to free herself with wild sweeps of her blade, but the power we had unleashed was too much for her. The pulsing, glowing light spread over her body like a hideous cocoon.
Everywhere I looked, I saw the same slick coils rising from the earth, or from the very air itself, to seize the flesh of mortals. Men and women were swept up and enveloped. I saw one Shuriman clawing his way over the earth, his body seeming to dissolve as the tendrils of foul energy overwhelmed him.
I began to hope, to pray, that this doom was what had been planned all along.
I saw shapes in the flickering light, too fast and indistinct to make out clearly. Stretching, swelling limbs of strange, tar-like matter. Men were clawed from their feet and pulled apart. I heard the gurgling, hooting bellows of things never meant to walk the surface of this world.
As awful as this day had become, I wondered if this was the price of the great weapon our priests had unleashed. I hardened my heart to the suffering of the Shurimans and remembered the centuries of misery they had heaped upon us.
Once again, I had lost sight of Saijax and Colgrim. But I no longer needed their presence to steady me. I had proved myself worthy of my grandsire’s name, worthy of the brand on my arm.
I was Kohari!
The sky groaned and buckled, sounding like a vast sailcloth tearing in a storm. I turned and ran back to the city, joining up with other soldiers. I saw the same desperate, horrified looks on their faces I knew must be upon mine.
Had we won? None of us knew. The Shurimans were gone, swallowed whole by the terror we had unleashed upon the world. I felt no regret. No remorse. My horror had given way to justification.
I had lost my nimcha blade somewhere in the frenzy of the battle, so I took my bow from my shoulder and pumped it to the sky. “Icathia!” I yelled. “Icathia!”
The chant was taken up again by the soldiers around me, and we stopped to watch the enemy finally overcome. The seething mass of matter that had consumed them lay like a shroud over the flesh it had consumed. Its surface was undulant, and swelling blisters of glistening matter burst open with frothing birth-sacs that twisted and unfolded like newborn animals.
I turned as I heard a deafening grinding of rock.
Booming cracks echoed as more and more chasms tore the landscape open. I dropped to my knees as the earth shook, and the walls of Icathia, fallen once and now rising again, were shattered by a groaning bass note that split the earth.
Geysers of dust and smoke erupted from within the city. I saw men screaming, but could not hear them over the crash of falling rock and splitting earth. Towers and palaces that had stood since the first Mage King planted his star-metal staff were swallowed whole by the ever-widening chasms. Only rubble and shattered fragments remained, my beloved city reduced to a charred skeleton.
Fires spat skyward, and the wails of my people were somehow magnified by the canyons of the city as they fell into the hideous doom below.
“Icathia!” I cried one last time.
I saw a flash of movement, and flinched as something flew through the air above me. I recognized the vulture-headed god-warrior from earlier in the battle. Its flight was erratic, its limbs already partially ruined and unmade by the strange matter spilling from the rents in the earth.
It flew towards the pavilion with desperate beats of its ravaged wings, and I knew I had to stop it. I ran towards the towering creature, nocking an obsidian-tipped arrow to my bow.
The thing stumbled as it landed. Its legs were twisted and its back was alive with devouring tendrils. Feathers and skin sloughed from its head as it limped past the bodies of dead priests, whose own flesh bubbled and roiled with internal motion.
Fire built around the god-warrior’s hands, ready to burn the pavilion with the last of its power.
Saijax had said the Sun-Emperor had more armies, and we would need our weapon intact if we were to defeat them. I drew back the bowstring, an obsidian arrow aimed at the god-warrior.
I loosed, and the arrow sped true, punching through the dissolving matter of its skull.
The god-warrior fell, and the fire faded from its hands. It rolled onto its side, the flesh falling from its bones—I saw threads of sinewy, pallid matter forming beneath.
The god-warrior sensed my presence, and turned its vulturine head to me. One of its eyes was milky and distended by growths of a strange, fungus-like substance spreading across its skull. The other had my arrow protruding through it.
“Do you even... know… what you... have done… foolish… Icathian?” the blind god-warrior managed, its voice a wet growl of dissolving vocal chords.
I sought to think of some powerful words, something to mark the moment I had killed a god-warrior.
All I could think of was the truth. “We freed ourselves,” I said.
“You… have opened a door... to… a place… that should... never be opened…” it hissed. “You have... doomed us all…”
“Time for you to die,” I said.
The god-warrior tried to laugh, but what came out was a gurgling death-rattle. “Die…? No… What is to come… will be far worse… It will be… as if none of us… ever existed…”
I left the arrow embedded in the god-warrior’s skull. Men were limping back from the battle, bloodied and weary, with the same look of incredulous horror in their eyes. None of us truly understood what had happened, but the Shurimans were dead, and that was enough.
We milled in confusion, none of us knowing what to say or do. The landscape before the city was twisting with unnatural motion, the flesh of the Shuriman army utterly obscured by pale, coiling ropes of hideous matter. Its surface was darkening as I watched, splitting where it hardened like some form of carapace. Viscous ichor spilled out, and more and more I had the impression that this was just the beginning of something far worse.
Light still spilled from the colossal rents torn in the ground, and alien sounds—a mix of shrieking, hissing and crazed howls—echoed from far below. I could feel tremors rising up from the bowels of the earth, like the slow grinding of bedrock that presages an earthquake.
“What’s down there?” said a man I didn’t know. His arm was all but encased in a translucent caul that was slowly creeping its way up the side of his neck. I wondered if he even knew. “Sounds like a nest. Or a lair, or… something.”
I did not know what hideous things lived down there. Nor did I want to.
I heard a voice call my name, and looked up to see Saijax limping toward me. His face was a mask of blood, thanks to a jagged wound that ran from above his right eye to his jawline.
I hadn’t thought Saijax could bleed at all.
“You’re hurt,” I said.
“It’s worse than it looks.”
“Is this the end?” I asked him.
“For Icathia, I fear it is,” he replied, moving away to grab the bridle of a cavalryman’s mount. The beast was skittish, but Saijax hauled its reins, and vaulted into the saddle.
“I would have given everything to see the Shurimans defeated,” I murmured.
“I fear we just did,” said Saijax.
“But… we won.”
“The Shurimans are dead, but I’m not sure that’s the same thing,” said Saijax. “Now find a mount, we have to go.”
“Go? What are you talking about?”
“Icathia is doomed,” he said. “You see that, don’t you? Not just the city, but our land. Look around you. That will be our fate too.”
I knew he was right, but the idea of simply riding away...? I didn’t know if I could.
“Icathia is my home,” I said.
“There’s nothing left of Icathia. Or, at least, there won’t be soon.”
He extended his hand to take mine, and I shook it.
“Axa...” he said, casting a glance back at the creeping horror. “There is no hope here.”
I shook my head and said, “I was born here and I will die here.”
“Then hold to who you are while you still can, lad,” he said, and I felt the weight of his sadness and guilt. “It’s all you have left.”
Saijax turned his mount and rode away. I never saw him again.
My name is Axamuk Var-Choi Kohari Icath’or.
I think… I think Axamuk was my grandsire’s name. It has meaning, but I can no longer remember what.
I wandered the ruins where a great city once stood. All that is left is an impossibly wide crater, rubble, and a tear in the fabric of the world.
I feel a terrible emptiness before me.
Axamuk was a king, I think. I do not remember where. Was it here? In this ruined, sunken city?
I do not know what Var or Choi mean. Icath’or should have meaning to me, but whatever it was is gone. There is a terrible void where my mind and memories once dwelled.
My name is Axamuk Var-Choi Kohari.
Kohari? What is that?
There is a mark on my arm, a sword wrapped in a scroll. Is it a slave mark? Was I the property of a conqueror? I remember a girl with green eyes and an opal necklace. Who was she? Was she my wife, my sister? A daughter? I do not know, but I remember the smell of her flowers.
My name is Axamuk Var-Choi.
I repeat it over and over, holding onto it as if it can stave off this slow dissolution.
I do not want to forget it. It is all I have left.
My name is Axamuk.
I am being erased. I know this, but I do not know why or how.
Something awful writhes within me.
All that I am is unravelling.
I am being undone.
My name is
In order of appearance:
- For a detailed look, see Where Icathia Once Stood.
- Where Icathia Once Stood serves as the first main event to re-introduce The Void into the new canon.