Happy Tuesday, everybody!
Did you know that the name for “Haagen-Dazs” ice cream was actually created by a Polish Jewish couple who immigrated to the United States in 1921 and made the name up to sound Danish-ish? The more you knooooow!
Anyway, right down to it.
Today’s is the fourth installment in the Amwren Origins series (duh, by the title) and it’s the one that I probably put the most time into. We’ll explore just why that is more fully in The Take (below), but for now, may I present:
Tsal Maveth, Host of Bu’ul the Ravager
Tsal awoke with a gasp. His head pained him terribly and his wrists ached. Turning this way and that, he saw only darkness, as he could feel the cloth of a blindfold covering his eyes. His breathing quickened as his mind searched for answers to his many questions. From what he could tell, keeping himself from panic as best he might, he was chained in some sort of prison with manacles clasped about his wrists. He felt cool, rough stone against his back, and the air was moist and gave him a chill. He noticed the pain in his shoulders and, at the same moment, realized he could move his feet freely, meaning he was suspended by the manacles the held him. Tsal strained his ears, but heard nothing more than a soft drip and his own breathing to break the silence. He tried to think through the pulses of pain and remember how he’d come to be in such a circumstance.
He’d been in his stall back home in Calypso, keeping up his work as a wheelwright, when Dabjorn, his adoptive father had called for him. He remembered setting his tools and rag aside where he’d always set them and left out the cabin’s western door. As he crossed the small homestead where the two lived, he recalled taking note of how low and full the moon was set in the sky. Crossing the threshold of he and Dabjorn’s home, he saw his father sitting by the fireplace with his back to the door.
“Father,” he had said to announce his presence, but the man by the fireplace didn’t stir. Tsal repeated himself as he crossed the room and, with a hand on the man’s shoulder, shook gently to rouse him but yelped with shock as Dabjorn’s head fell limply back to reveal blank, white eyes. Tsal’s heart raced and a hooded figure leaped quickly from the shadows behind him. After that, he awoke here.
The sound of a heavy wooden chamber door interrupted his thoughts. He heard the shuffling of several pairs of feet and, after a soft clattering of chain, collapsed to the ground as his legs suddenly took on his full weight. He opened his mouth to speak, to question his captors or saviors, but was swiftly struck and silenced. While he was dragged through what felt like winding halls and across steep stairs, he heard those that carried him speaking in a tongue he did not recognize. He could tell he was being handled by men, but the language was guttural and sounded as if to come from abyssal, nightmarish creatures. He heard the sound of another heavy door opening, this time into a chamber full of chanting voices. The air grew hot and he was forced onto his knees. His mouth was forcefully opened and stuffed with a cloth gag. There came a flash as his blindfold was gruffly removed and his eyes adjusted to what light there was.
Tsal looked around in a panic to take in his surroundings. He was encompassed on all sides by tall figures in robes of deep red and embroidered black trim. There were perhaps a dozen of them in the room and they wore tall headdresses and dark veils over their faces. Amid the many robed figures that surrounded him, there stood one dressed more elaborately than the others with a skeletal mask on its face in place of a veil like the others. It carried a scroll held tightly to its chest in one hand and a wand of darkened bone in the other, held at its side. The room Tsal was in was actually a small cave, perhaps the size of a tavern’s common room. It was dimly lit by candles of dark wax and, looking up, he saw the ceiling had been made into a mirrored surface. There also was a hole in the cavern’s ceiling that gave a ray of moonlight to a central altar, before which he had been made to kneel; however, it was what adorned the altar that dominated Tsal’s vision and would plague his dreams for years to come.
It was a man also on his knees and restrained with rope about his wrists, his arms outstretched and held wide by those tethers, and a sack over his face. It looked to Tsal as though the man had suffered lengthy torture at the hands of their captors. What rags he wore about his waist were filthy and his exposed body showed bruises, burns, and cuts both deep and shallow. As Tsal looked on in disgust and imagined what sort of methods had caused such harm, two of the robed ones stepped up to the altar and removed his hood. As the man on the altar was revealed, Tsal gave a unintended shriek into his gag. The man looked exactly like him – the same eyes, the same nose, hair color, brow, everything – a perfect likeness, as though looking at his reflection.
The two locked eyes with equal horror and Tsal’s heart began to beat faster and faster until it raced as though meaning to break from his chest. Tsal saw the other man cough in pain with him as he felt himself torn from the crown of his head to the pit of his stomach, an excruciating, ghastly pain that reached his very soul. And so the two stayed for several long moments, feeling their existence wrenched from them, before the masked one barked orders and the other robed figures assembled from the cave’s edges to a circle around the two Tsals, their chanting growing more intense.
The collective voices hummed and reverberated off the cave walls, assaulting and wracking Tsal from all sides. He looked up and the two men once again locked eyes. The pain intensified and they saw one another’s form begin to shift and leave them, each other’s outline swaying from them like a shadow cast from a flickering fire. The droning chants of the collected mages, as now Tsal could only assume they were mages of the occult, hummed steadily on and a deep red glow began to emanate from behind his other self. The figure with the wand once more barked orders in the same infernal tongue and two followers moved to the man on the altar. Together they held a long, sleek dagger which they raised high above the man’s head. One last look was shared between Tsal and his ‘other’ as a third follower approached and forced the man’s head low.
The red glow grew brighter.
The chanting ceased.
The knife found its way driven down the man’s back and into his heart. His body fell limp and lifeless, there came several red flashes that filled the room with a dreadful light, and Tsal felt a force assault his body and fill it as if with hot coals. He wailed with agony and writhed against those that held him. They loosed their grip and he fell to the floor on his back as, internally, he wrestled with this foreign, burning presence. Tsal felt the pain of claws raking him as the chanting returned and he saw his reflection in the ceiling above. Glowing runes of deep black and brilliant ruby were carving themselves onto his torso. When they’d finished and the pattern complete, they covered his body in the fashion as one might where a cross harness. The glyphs on his body soon lost their glow, but the agony remained. His mind dazed from the ritual, the next several minutes Tsal would only ever recall as a panicked blur.
The chanting abruptly halted and the door to the ritual chamber crashed open. Soldiers in decorated plate mail flooded the room, brandishing shields that depicted a golden flame and glistening swords. The skirmish between the two groups was as intense as it was terrible. Bolts of hideous arcane energy cracked the air and cries sounded from those that fell to the sword, with the splatter of gore and gnashing of bone to accompany the screams of both sides. He had no idea how he’d managed to escape the halls during that time of madness, but the next sensation Tsal would remember was the brush of soft grass about his legs and the breeze of cool, midnight air on his arms.
Days later, Tsal wandered the streets of Kolbath, unsure and with no memory of how he came to be there, so many days’ travel from his home. His only thoughts when he tried to recall the days since his capture were of tortured unrest or plaguing, nightmarish dreams. He walked amid the poor and collected himself the best he may, a crescent moon adorning the high sky, when he heard the muffled cries of a young woman. Following the sound, he came across a woman being battered by a stumbling man that stank of sour ale. A finger to his lips signaled at the maiden, he crept up being her assailant and, finding a loose brick in the wall to his right, struck him.
The drunk fell to the ground, motionless. Tsal moved to drop the brick, but found himself strangely unable to. Rather, he held it in hand and, staring at the man’s chest rise and fall with unconscious breath, felt a strange anger begin to churn in his belly. He gripped the brick tight, dropped to a knee, and began to strike the prone form again and again well after the man had stopped twitching. Tsal looked up from the fresh corpse and, looking the frightened woman in the eyes, felt the foreign rage subside as they locked gazes. The woman’s expression slowly lost its edge of shock and fear and became one of a strange softness and allure. He dropped the brick and approached her.
“And what is your name, m’lady?” His words’ sound was sweet to ear, but held an acrid taste.
“Lydia,” she replied with a coy smile.
He gripped her gently by the waist, pulled her close, and intimately they knew one another.
“It’s a late hour that finds you here, m’lord. What can I get you? Look to me like you could use a drink and a bed.”
“Stiff drink, soft bed,” Tsal replied. He tossed a pouch of coin onto the bar.
“Very good, sir. The key. And that drink’ll be with you shortly.”
Tsal found the batterer from the alleyway hadn’t much on him once he’d sent the young lass on her way, but there’d been petty coin enough for a drink and a room for the night at the Hewn Heart, a local tavern and brothel. Tsal felt he didn’t like the innkeeper very much. He didn’t quite know why, he’d known plenty a man like him back home in Calypso, but tonight the man’s features annoyed him. His balding head, pockmarked face, clammy complexion, and unkempt beard all repulsed him very much. He took his drink and key and moved to a table across the way, far from the innkeeper. At that time, a man in lavender robes entered the tavern, seeming to look around the room rather frantically. Tsal was just lifting his mug to his lips when the robed one laid eyes on him and swiftly approached.
“Are you Tsal Maveth?” he asked, breathing hard.
“And who wants to know, pretty boy?” Again, the words that came were not his own.
“My name is not for you to know,” he said, pointedly, “but I come on behalf of my master and the Order of Bokonon. I come to you on purpose of summons, as you are called for a matter of great importance.”
“Right,” sighed Tsal, intent on moving tables, “I think you have the wrong guy.”
As Tsal made to stand, the man in lavender robes waved his hand briskly through the air and Tsal felt his muscles tense, unable to move. The priest gave a sad sigh.
“I see that I was too late. I’m sorry, friend, that I could not find you before…well, before this.” He reached into a fold in his robe and produced a pendant on a thin silver chain. The jewel set in the necklace was a deep colored amethyst and when the priest laid it on Tsal it gave a soft flash. Immediately, Tsal gave a deep, desperate gasp and fell forward, clawing at the table. Other patrons, as well as the innkeeper, looked across the room at the commotion, but with a look and a hand from the lavender priest, they each went back to their own business. Tsal continued breathing hard, but this time with thanks, not struggle. He looked down at the pendant and saw it now held a soft glow, and deep within it something stirred, like a mass swimming on the bottom of a murky lake.
“Th-thank you,” Tsal stuttered. “What did you do?”
The priest seemed to give a soft sigh of relief. “It will ease your struggle, but I’m afraid it won’t remove it of you. For that, I’m sorry as I was too late. It will, however, protect you from their sight.”
“We have been watching you, Tsal Maveth. I’m aware of your ordeals of late. You-…we are very fortunate that you escaped, but I’m afraid so did a handful of your captors. When they finish licking their wounds, they are sure to pursue you.”
“Pursue me? Why? I haven’t done anything to them. I haven’t done anything to anybody! Why would they want me?”
“You’re a foreigner in these lands, friend, and a very valuable one at that.”
“I’ve been to Kolbath before. I know people here and my homestead’s only a few days ride-”
The lavender priest gave a soft, sad smile and a shake of the head.
“In the days to come, you will come to know my meaning. You sought a place in your world from your first steps. Now, you will feel that ever more strongly in this life.” The priest searched Tsal’s expression and his confusion before continuing. “There is much to explain, and understanding your new place takes more time than we may afford. You must come with me to my order, in Tallin. Here, for supplies,” the priest offered him a small pouch that clinked with coin. “Rest tonight, and we must leave with the rising of the sun.”
Desperately confused but with little other recourse, Tsal acted as he was bid. In the morning, the two supplied and made ready for the two day journey to Tallin. While Tsal had many questions that longed for answers, their march was a largely silent one. Though, as they walked, something changed with Tsal. As he looked at the roads they walked, the fields and people they would pass, there came a sensation that would not leave him. Everyone he passed felt like a stranger, whether he would know their face or not. The land he walked, though familiar to him from travels past, felt foreign and may as well have been the Scythian tundra. The longing for answers, he knew, would eventually drive him to madness.
After a few days of walking and meditation with the priest, the crested a hill in the road and Tallin lay before them, the City of Temples.
The Take: I always really liked this one. Life wasn’t kind enough to let it play out quite as imagined in the actual, living campaign, but it stayed a favorite anyway. Prepare yourself for some woo-woo, because the main idea at work was this:
Tsal had been kidnapped by a group of blood mages from a parallel plane, stolen from his home plane to theirs. Their goal was to abduct a vessel from another plane because that person’s substance would be…loose, in a foreign plane compared to someone who is existing on their home world – kind of like the separation from one’s home plane leaves microscopic cracks in the fabric of their being, cracks that a summoned demon could then fill (like water filling a sponge).
From there, they proceeded to take him to face his alternate self who was of that world and ritualistically sacrifice that Tsal, since the same being cannot existence twice in the same time and place, and therefore binding Tsal Our Hero to this foreign plan.
That’s why the ritual plays out as it does, as well, explains Tsal’s uncharacteristic behavior when first in Kolbath.
Anyway, I know this one was dense, and while I don’t expect it, I rigorously welcome any hardcore fantasy nerds to comment, message, or email me with questions or comments. And if you missed any of the previous chronicles of the Amwren Origins series and wanna get caught up, I encourage you to spend some time and meet Revan, Cerlina, and Aldis. We’re nearly there to having the whole gang together!
Otherwise, I catch you all Thursday. Ciao!
Interested in more? Like knee-slappers and chin-scratchers? Check out my first published work in the Third Flatiron’s “Hidden Histories” anthology here (and tell ’em Evan sent ya!):
Today’s FableFact source: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/haagen-dazs-fake-foreign-branding?utm_source=reddit.com