Genesis Scrolls Round 3: {Fallen Necropolis}

Name/Pseudonym: {Ticklish}
Contact Info: {}
Ethereum Wallet Address: {0xB1b3751834646fb999EDd18CA62C69663071cF43}

Author’s note: this story takes place immediately after the events of “The Colours of Light.” It takes place some years before the events of “Fallen Cavern,” and in the same location as “Something More Than Loot Itself.” It references and expands on events from “Sow the Wind.” The idea of demons living inside Loot bags comes from “Fool’s Errand.”

The Wanderer stopped to rest in the necropolis. He held up his palm, which told his charge it was time to make camp for the day. He had passed through this place many times, and it held no terror for him. He liked it very much, as it was quiet and he knew of dozens of high places where he could stand and regard the scenery as he photosynthesised through the hours of daylight.

The Wanderer’s name was Odavwaro óyan Ediruo, and his charge during this particular crossing of the necropolis was a young mage named Sayadaw. She had recently graduated from a convent school run by Sisters of the Order of Vitriol. Sayadaw watched Odavwaro as he climbed up onto a towering mound of mulch, using vines as nimble handholds, then assumed his lookout at its top. He planted his feet, toes spread wide, his cloak of grass with the hood turned up, draped over the length of his body, and he became quite still. He gazed abstractedly down at the village that had been swallowed by tragedy. Below him were mouldering frames of buildings, dotted by standing stones in their tell-tale pattern. Above him was the dawn, and the sea kneeling before the curve of the horizon. He intended to not move again until evening.

Sayadaw had witnessed this routine every morning of their journey together. That journey was less than halfway done, but it was the longest on which Sayadaw had ever been. It was not an especially long one for Odavwaro, who had walked up and down the length and breadth of the world more times than he could recollect. It was the job of a Wanderer to find exceptional people like Sayadaw and then offer to accompany them to the Realms of Power. Their journey had begun at Sayadaw’s home in the Realm of Spezlaas and would end at the Tides of Tears in the South, where she would be installed at one of the ambitious academies run by the Order of Power. There she could continue her training among the other wunderkinds that the Order had plucked from the trees of the world.

​​Sayadaw watched Odavwaro for a moment longer as she drained her water flask and plotted out the things that needed to be done during the scrap of morning she had before she needed to sleep. She took out her eyeglass and fastened it to her head. The tube of the eyeglass contained a ring, and when light passed through its mounting it was changed. So when she looked at Odavwaro through it, she saw the pale light of sunrise ripple across Odavwaro’s cloak as thousands of billowing colours. The cloak translated the light into waves down each stalk of long grass like the untwisting of thousands of threads of the finest gossamer. This is how any plant looked in the sunlight when seen through Sayadaw’s eyepiece, but she had yet to become accustomed to the process being in the shape of a man. She noticed that Odavwaro was flowering that day, and tiny buds were emerging from their sheathes on his back. Perhaps that was why he had been especially taciturn for the past few nights. She was undergoing a flowering of a more mammalian type, so she left Odavwaro standing there and found a clump of dense shrubs that provided some privacy from him and the empty town. She removed her wool bandage and swapped it for a clean one. She stamped off to find somewhere to wash.

Odavwaro heard Sayadaw’s footsteps recede for a considerable distance even over the distant roar of the sea. With his hood up, he could hear for miles around. He had discovered Sayadaw for the first time in exactly this way - by simply waiting in the sun and listening carefully. In the case of Sayadaw, he had been standing on a grassy knoll beside a road in the Realm of Spezlaas when he heard an inexplicable burst of birdsong. While Odavwaro was very tall, and had features rarely seen in that part of the world, he was rarely noticed when he stood out in the open. He made no sound except for the rustling of his cloak and a tiny periodic slurp when he drank the sap that the cloak had made for him. He moved only with the currents of the wind, which a sensible eye was trained to ignore. Only people who knew the area well would spot him, and very few of them had the courage to approach him, though if they did he was perfectly polite according to the rules of all the cultures he wandered through. All of this made him an excellent spy, especially when combined with the keen hearing granted to him by the hood of his cloak. When he stood in the sun on a tall ledge or atop a hill, quite out of anyone’s way, his entire body became an ear. In any given week he heard enough conversations, arguments, plots, gossip, confessions and affairs to fill a library. But while Odavwaro very much enjoyed hearing what people had to say, he kept almost all of it to himself, except for any hints of someone who had found the use of a remnant of the Old War.

The Order of Power swept these remnants up from every Realm into which it had sunk its claws. In this, it was much like any of the other Orders that cast their shade across the Earth like looming clouds. But the philosophy of the Order of Power was focused around the cult of the individual and that focus allowed its elders to see that the wielder was often more important than the tool. So while the Archive of the Order of Vitriol isolated the remnants for endless study, and the Royal Houses of the Order of Protection threw them in their vaults and the Order of the Twins bestowed them as gifts to their faithful, the Order of Power preferred to look for people. People who already knew the subtleties of the remnants they possessed, and the best way to put them to use.

Sayadaw had been given such a remnant, fashioned into an Amulet, to train with at her school. She had used it to make a flock of birds whistle a folk song, which Odavwavo heard while he was standing out in the thin Northern sun. He moved closer to the school and discovered, in his utterly passive way, enough about Sayadaw’s skill with the Amulet that he decided to present to her one of the signed and sealed letters from his employers. She was in many ways a perfect candidate - her command of the Amulet was linked to her deep connection with her eyepiece, which was likely a remnant as well. Through her scope, she could see the vital dance of lights that happened inside living things and, with the Amulet, she could tap out her own tune and change the steps of that internal dance from the outside. People in her village spoke of her often, and with admiration, though Sayadaw herself spoke to few of them. Her House was far from destitute but her home was empty, and a sympathetic Sister from the Order of Vitriol would see the opportunity that came from Odavwavo’s letter.

Being a charge of Odavwaro the Wanderer did have one persistent drawback - he was slow to remember that other people needed to eat. He had never offered any of them a draw on the well-bitten reeds that fed from his cloak to his mouth, and none had ever asked for it. He did eat with his family when he returned to them for the holiday period but only a small amount, for most foods tasted bitter compared to the nutritious elixir provided by his cloak.

So the next thing on Sayadaw’s mind was to find breakfast. Being a creature of the village, she wasn’t much of an outdoorsman, but her marvellous sense of sight helped her forage with some efficiency. Eggs were an easy target because the hard work of building an animal produced a particularly bright soup of lights. She discovered a clearing near a massive gnarled tree surrounded by what appeared to be a garden of large stones. The stones were sunk partway into the soft ground, and covered entirely with moss and creepers so that they looked like tired soldiers guarding mud. Many of those soldier-shapes wore nests as their helm, and those helms seemed like crowns, studded with shining egg-shaped gems, when seen through her eyepiece. She stepped onto one of the broader, flatter stones and leaned across to a taller one so she could pluck two eggs from the nest. As she jumped down, her feet kicked away a chunk of muck from the stone she’d been standing on. Underneath the muck was someone’s hand.

Sayadaw checked with her eyepiece and saw that the hand was not alive. It was, rather, the sculpture of a hand. She gingerly kicked more moss and algae from the stone and found that the hand was clutching a head. The stone on which she had stood to steal eggs was a statue of a woman on her knees, cowering in fear, feebly protecting herself from an unseen assailant. Sayadaw stood, egg held in each hand, and regarded this crystalised moment of horror that had travelled from the past into her current time. Emotions rose within her, but she felt curiosity bob up to the surface of her mind before fear, revulsion or pity.

She set her eggs down, found a small stone buried among the undergrowth, and carefully struck the statue of the woman. The blow sent a wave of excitation through the stone that Sayadaw could see as colours through her eyepiece. The internal structure of the rock was not that of a sculpture, but of a fossil, for the mineralized forms of the veins, sinews and bones of this woman were still intact. Sayadaw found this slightly thrilling. She looked about at the overgrown stones about her, and imagined how they might have been distributed. If they were once people, unnaturally turned to stone, they were not standing like a crowd of people would stand. There was enough distance between each statue for her to walk freely, for her to get a look at each one. She was not standing in a crowd but in a gallery. They had either been moved after their fossilisation or had been directed to stand or kneel in their specific place before it happened. She pictured how the scene might look like from above - the statues were arranged more or less radially from the great tree.

She had to pause at this point to fend off the grief of a returning mother gull, showering angry calls at the one who had robbed her nest. This prompted the other mothers to answer the call and so Sayadaw’s world was filled with screams and stink and swooping birds. She cursed the birds, then stood her ground while she tried to get a look at the thoughts flashing through their tiny heads. She fished her Amulet out from her vest and tapped on it with her practised fingers, to find the timbre of the furious minds wheeling above her head. This kind of gull didn’t range as far as Spezlaas so she fumbled the control but when she locked on to each bird she could make them relax their wings and careen into the ground. This didn’t seem to damage the gulls but it did give them something else to think about other than Sayadaw’s breakfast.

She sat in the lee of two statues embracing at the foot of the tree, and made a small fire over which she heated her little skillet. While the metal came up to temperature she examined the tree. It resembled a wild plum but with thornier leaves, and much larger than any Sayadaw had seen. All at once she realised that the tree had been trained into a particular shape - pliable branches had been bent and woven by human hands and had then hardened into wood. She studied the tree through her eyepiece as she cracked an egg onto her skillet. The tree was turning air into food just like trees and Odavwaro did, but the colours dancing from leaf to trunk to root were different. The hues were off, the intensity shifted, the connections more complicated. She rose, eyepiece clutched between her brow and cheek, and carried her remaining egg to the trunk of the tree. She cracked it above the roots and let the contents fall to the ground. This was an eccentricity of hers that she had picked up at an early age. It was a delight to her to see the soil come alive when it was offered something as immediately digestible and nutritious as an egg. Thousands of living things clamoured for the jelly seeping into the dirt, making their bargains with each other, staging ambushes and calling in alliances. It was like being able to summon up a private showing of a subterranean aurora borealis that shimmered for miles in every direction beneath her feet.

But this time, in this place, before the great tree of the fallen necropolis, the aurora reflected something different. The tiny fibres at the ends of the tree roots lurched for the prize with a selfish ferocity and speed that shocked Sayadaw. It was more like watching the orderly procession of a troop of ants than anything botanical. The root system bullied all other living components of the soil into submission, and would leave them barely a scrap to share amongst themselves.

The smell of burning caused Sayadaw to leap over to her own egg, and she let out a wail of lament at her breakfast rendered inedible. She became incandescent with fury for a hot second and her mind worked hard to find a way that Odavwaro could be to blame for the prolongation of her hunger. But, as inventive as she was, she could not calculate a way to make that blame plausible. She endeavoured to calm down by studying the tree once again. She stood above the egg she’d given to the soil and tried not to feel resentful towards it.

Any other observer might have noticed that the egg was not attracting flies or worms, and was soaking into the ground a little quicker than it ought to. But Sayadaw’s practised eye, squinting through her brass tube, saw that the egg was being rapidly disassembled. The substance of it was being drawn into the roots in a tight spiral which twisted towards a black bulb deep beneath the trunk of the tree. She saw that the entire tree was growing out of that darkness. Judging by the power with which the tree was consuming the egg, she estimated that most of the tree’s body was hidden inside of the bulb. The blackness of it was unnerving to Sayadaw, as the world seen through her eyepiece was one of constant light. She knew that, to her human eyes, black meant an absence of light. She was less sure what black meant through her eyepiece. Her Amulet appeared black when not in use, but as soon as she tapped on its surface it exploded with colour - the colours which ran through metal, under the skin of living things and down the leaves of plants. The colours she saw were the secret lights that bound her body to earth, the earth to the sky and the sky to the sea.

Was the black bulb underneath the tree something outside of all those things?

She removed her Amulet from its place around her neck and put it on the ground near the egg. It was a jewel of perfect opacity against the seething storm of light. If the tree was not quite a tree, then perhaps she could interfere with the pathways of its mind the way she could with animals and people. She focused on the pulses entering the black bulb. She tapped on the Amulet, sending waves of interference through the soil. She saw a faint shimmering of the waves cancelling each other out and improved her patterning. Something caught, and she felt the delight of discovery. Then, she saw the Amulet turn bright white for an instant, and her mind shattered.

Odavwaro rocked on the balls of his heels, sipped nectar through one of the straws that connected his gut to the inner workings of his cloak, and wondered in a distant way what harm might befall Sayadaw as she walked alone through the necropolis. People for hundreds of miles in every direction had concocted stories about the place. Though the stories were often entertaining, Odavwaro had seen no substance of them during his visits there. All he saw was the usual sort of life blanketed thick over an abandoned town. Whatever had made the statues did it long ago. He often felt that the world was far less dangerous than people wanted it to be. But Odavwaro, who walked only at night, who needed no sleep, who trod lightly and carried no weapon, had in his long life seen mostly sunshine and peace.

He supposed Sayadaw could fall while exploring, or could be trapped if a house collapsed with her inside it. He had only lost one charge before - an androgyne teen who had been bitten by a water snake and drowned. Odavwaro thought of them sometimes, though he had not told anyone what had happened. The Order of Power hadn’t noticed, as Odavwaro was not in contact with his handlers except when he arrived at their door with a fresh recruit. When he had discovered the body it was too late, he had left it for the soil to reclaim and embarked on a new search.

Sometimes, by happenstance, he heard about what had become of a former charge of his. They all thrived at the academies, for Odavwaro was an excellent judge of character. But the Order of Power set them against each other, so they often fell victim to their former classmates when the intensity of the rivalry imposed upon them met the danger they could cause through mastery of their craft. The heartless ones and the lucky made it through, fully ordained as a hunter or warrior or mage. With a mixture of grim realisation and strange pride he felt that Sayadaw would make it too.

Then he heard her scream. He turned his head a fraction of an arc towards its source. She had been making breakfast and then she had indulged in her habit of feeding an egg to the ground that Odavwaro disapproved of but never acknowledged. He had heard her burn her breakfast, express some rage and then she had gone rather quiet. He turned towards the direction of the tree as he sucked up a mouthful of honey. If anything, it would be the tree, he thought, and he strode away from his perch.

Sayadaw was both blinded and seeing too much. She could still hear the sounds of the peaceful meadow in which she stood while she saw a cacophony of shapes and movements that threatened to deafen her. Urgent winds blew within her body and she tasted saltpeter with her toes. She staggered away on weeping legs and scoured the texture of failure and fear from her arms. She swung around the pair of entwined statues and put their reassuring weight between herself and the Amulet, glowing like the Sun at the foot of the tree. The assault of sensation faded, her eyes slowly rediscovered how to see images and her hallucinations morphed into the familiar feeling of mere pain. The muscles in her ribs and back had been sprained, and she realised her throat was hoarse from shouts she had not heard. She vomited over the feet of both statues, which helped to clear her head. She sat with her back pressed against stone and haltingly forced herself to peek back at the Amulet through her eyepiece. It was once again black as night. She breathed, and then a shadow passed over her. Odavwaro was blocking the light.

“What?” she snapped. Odavwaro looked at her, then at the vomit in her hair, then at the ruined egg on the skillet, then over at the tree. He sustained a long, thoughtful inhalation of air.
“Your Amulet is on the ground,” he said at last. Odavwaro was not inclined to speak out loud so this observation was his version of a gigantic reprimand. Sayadaw felt it like a sharp slap across her face.
“I dropped it when I was being sick,” she muttered but Odavwaro was away. He covered the ground between the statues and the Amulet in three strides then stopped to peer at it. He dropped to his knees. It was a ridiculous thing to see someone so tall bend themselves to be so close to the ground. His knees thrust out like lances and his cloak fell across the ground like an outstretched palm going to seed. He produced a finger and hovered it over the cold surface of the glass.
“This is what you used to make the birds sing,” he said. Sayadaw detected no question and so remained silent, though she rose to her feet and floated towards Odavwaro’s presence. He was humming The Eighth Hymn of Vitriol, the song that Sayadaw had compelled the birds to sing on the roof of her school, almost imperceptibly to the ground. Then he twisted his head towards Sayadaw, and she felt the uncanny sensation of a hillock turning to notice her.
“Perhaps you are lucky the birds did not make you sing,” he said. He retracted his hand into his cloak and stood up. Sayadaw clacked her teeth once with irritation and decided to share some details.
“It tried to send something to me. It wanted to command me to do something. But it didn’t know how to do it properly,” she said.
“The tree?” asked Odavwaro, studying it. It was the only one of its kind he had seen, though that was not so strange by itself, as rare and singular things were often found by Wanderers.
“The tree is a feeding apparatus. The main body of the creature is inside a bag buried underneath us,” she said. Odavwaro grimaced at that, for he knew about the bags that the world held hidden about itself. They could contain more than they seemed to be able to, sometimes a lot more. Remnants of the Old War were often found inside of them. Sometimes demons made lairs in them. He carefully picked up a leaf from the tree that had fallen to the ground. It wasn’t really a leaf at all, now that he thought to look at it properly. He nodded, a small gesture of recognition from one spy to another. He let the leaf fall and started to walk away. He held his palm up behind him, a signal to Sayadaw that she should follow him.
“No,” she said. Odavwaro continued to walk. He was not a treasure hunter. The Order of Power paid him handsomely, and they paid him to find people. He would not gamble their safety on whatever was held in that forgotten bag.
“I want to know what it wants,” called Sayadaw. Odavwaro paused. His own curiosity was rising within him.
“It made you cry out. It wanted to lure in others,” he said.
“But why would it do that?” asked Sayadaw. Odavwaro consulted his internal record of everything he knew about demons.
“So it can eat them,” he said.
“It didn’t eat you and I can’t see any bones or teeth under the ground. If it wants to eat people it hasn’t done it before.” said Sayadaw. Odavwaro turned to face her and the tree that wasn’t a tree. It was a feeding apparatus. It ate the light and whatever decomposed at its roots. It stood in the sun and waited and listened until it found someone of interest. If it found one, where would it want to take them?
“How will you know what it wants?” said Odavwaro at last.
“Trial and error,” said Sayadaw, her eyes flaring.

Sleep was out of the question when there was a mystery to untangle so Sayadaw conducted her experiments throughout the day while Odavwaro stood in supervision from a safe distance away. Distance was the key, as the tree demon could not send a signal to the Amulet that was strong enough to debilitate her when she stood a certain distance away. This was something she already understood from her own use of the Amulet - fine and forceful work was best accomplished up close, and the tree demon did not have the benefit of years of practice. If she tapped into the tree demon’s mind from up close, she would suffer the kind of fits that had her father confined to the asylum for most of his life. But outside of what was once the village square, she suffered only nausea and visual disturbances. The angle at which she held the Amulet was also a factor. If she held it up above her head, aimed at the sky, when she tapped into the tree demon’s lights, very little of the response was reflected back into her nerves and brain.

Then came the understanding of blocking. The Amulet could not send a strong signal through the stone statues. If Sayadaw hugged one of the statues so that she was behind its dense material and the Amulet held in her hands facing the tree demon directly, she could avoid the worst effects to her senses but produce terrible muscle cramps in her exposed hands. After some coaxing she was able to bring Odavwaro close enough to demonstrate that his cloak acted as an effective shield. If he had his back turned to the Amulet then he suffered almost no ill effects from the confusion it beamed out when angled towards him.

The breakthrough came when Sayadaw saw how Odavwaro’s cloak responded when it was bathed in the Amulet’s broadcast. Through her eyepiece she saw the grass flicker and flare in a way it did in mere sunlight. He reported that it tickled some, and was mildly unpleasant but otherwise bearable. So by crouching behind one of the kneeling statues and with Odavwaro’s back positioned just so, Sayadaw could cast the tree demon’s thoughts onto his cloak like a screen that only she could see.

The sun was climbing down the sky when meaningful communication was established. During the experimental phase the tree demon was learning as much about sending as Sayadaw was learning about receiving. When it had reached out to Sayadaw initially, it had been trying to speak normally, and Sayadaw’s physiology was simply not compatible. Gradually it understood that it could limit the scope of its speech to produce certain wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation that would cause photoexcitation in the leaves of green plants. And so eventually it figured out how to draw pictures with its words - pictures that Sayadaw could see on Odavwaro’s cloak through her eyepiece.

They were abstractions by necessity and crude by craft but Sayadaw could recognise that three circles, by way of their relative sizes and positions, were a depiction of the Sun, the Earth and the Moon, just as she’d learned at the nunnery. A blob moved on a trajectory between the Earth and the Moon and moved into the Earth. She had seen meteorites and even a comet when she was a girl.

The scene was repeated again and again until the scale changed. Now the meteorite blob was the focus and it was filled with squiggly asterisks that Sayadaw understood represented trees, meaning they were others like the tree demon itself. They were scattered across the curve of the Earth, inside little raindrop shapes. After that the scene became less clear. There were rows of indistinguishable asterisks, shapes that were unrecognisable, circles with lines drawn between them that resembled constellations, and then endless repetition. As evening set in the drawings became brighter and more vivid in contrast but then Odavwaro turned towards her and the screen closed. He held up his hand and signalled that it was time to walk.

Sayadaw was too exhausted to protest. She was aching everywhere from the unnatural movements of hugging the statues and operating the Amulet. She had completely forgotten about eating for the entire day. Her feet were leaden and her mind was both sluggish and racing. She struggled to keep pace with the Wanderer as he marched them towards their next camping spot, with its perch for him and mysteries for her. She thought about running back to the tree, of finding a shovel to dig the bag out from under it, and drawing every secret from the demon stuck inside of it: Where were the other trees, where did they come from and what did they keep inside the black bags from which they sprouted? But they walked on in darkness, guided by Odavwaro’s hearing, and even with her eyepiece she wouldn’t be able to find her way back to the necropolis at night.

Odavwaro was consumed with thoughts of his own. He thought of his family, who he would see when the lunar holiday came, which was quite soon. His fee was enough that they lived lavishly in one corner of the Realms of Power, the closest thing to aristocrats that the Order could tolerate. Soon he would sit with them and hear of all their stories and triumphs and defeats and gossip. He would eat food again while his oldest grandson practised wearing Odavwaro’s cloak. Every night he would picture every one of his children and grandchildren, his nieces and nephews and all the spouses they collected. But on that night he also pictured all his former charges, most of which had also passed through the necropolis. He tried to count how many had fallen short of the Order’s exacting standards, which put failure, infirmity and sometimes kindness in the same standing as death.

When dawn came again they had reached the outskirts of the coastal town of Pasapi. Sayadaw was so exhausted that she collapsed almost as soon as Odavwaro held up his palm to tell her to stop the march. He found himself showing her a secluded place to wash, and when she returned he had brewed a sweet tea from the nectar made by his cloak. She sat with him by the fire and sipped it gratefully. She noticed that it helped ease her cramps.

When she lay down to sleep she called Odavwaro to her side. She had a strange expression on her face when she asked, “Will the Order be pleased to know I have found a bag for them, and a dormant demon?” Odavwaro was silent, which was all the response Sayadaw expected of him. He realised that her expression was strange because it was childlike, one he saw on the face of his grandchildren when they wanted an adult to be impressed by them. He felt he had something inside of himself that it was important to share.
“The Order doesn’t need to know,” he said. “They have bags of their own. The secret of the necropolis is yours and mine, but I give my share to you. It is a present. It will help you, I think,”
Sayadaw’s face dissolved into a little frown, which remained until she presently passed into sleep. Odavwaro stayed at her side for a while. He tried to picture the trials she would face and failed, but knew that she would be better prepared than most.

The sun rose and he found a place near the edge of a cliff and stood to meet it.

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