A/N: If you ever feel confused about certain aspects of the lore and the world. Check the glossary.
No one ever asks when my rebellion began. They assume the answer is obvious.
They would be surprised to learn that it began eight years before any price was put on my head, before any priest damned me as a servant of Xaos, before my name was known to anyone outside the Shayard Rim. It began the first time I found myself eye to eye with a man who intended my death.
He could have killed me with relatively little consequence. All the power of the Karagond Hegemony stood behind him; I were just a provincial child.
And even as a child, something in me grasped. Under his unhurried, murderous stare, I grasped that in the end it would come down to myself or the Hegemony.
Not incidentally, it was also the first time I had been confronted with: The intensity of the Hegemony's violence to its lower castes.
As a child, I loved escaping my town to explore the wooded hills of the Rim. Scurrying past the vineyards and orchards, over the mossy boulders of the mill-stream, traversing broad slopes of oak and pine. There was no clear line where wilderness began. The trees would grow denser and darker, the undergrowth more thorny and persistent. The trails would turn into animal traces, and then into nothing at all.
In such moments, facing the impenetrable forest, I would realize that the last glimpse of a house or temple or road up though the trees had been an hour ago…and suddenly, the fifty miles separating me from the Xaos-Lands would feel much shorter than the two miles back to home. I would sprint back, shrieking and whooping to fend off the beasts of the wild.
I was eleven years old when I ran into the dying helot.
The collision knocked the breath out of me, so I couldn't scream—not when I realized the man was covered in blood, nor even when he grabbed my shoulders and sobbed something incomprehensible into my ear. His drab kyrtle, cowl, and leggings hung around his body in shreds. He looked as if he had been savaged by a bear.
As I struggled to recover my wind, I recognized the helot. He was owned by a minor aristocratic estate on the same end of town where my family lived. He had always seemed sweet-natured and friendly. I didn't remember ever hearing anyone say his name, or whether he was a field hand, a house drudge, a quarry worker, or something else.
But he recognized me too, and unclenched his fingers. Jaw sagging open, he managed to get out two hoarse words: "They're coming."
I had no idea what he was talking about. I gasped out on instinct. "Keep running—I'll distract whoever's chasing you."
The helot shook his head, eyes wide and fear-crazed. "No, child…just run…."
"Go!" Up to that afternoon, my sense of invulnerability had survived unshaken. "Leave the trail, go straight up there. Keep going when the brush gets thick. No one can ride after you there. You'll lose them in the wild."
With another incoherent sob, the man scrambled away up the hill. Very faintly, from downwind, I began to hear the hounds baying. I climbed to the top of a huge, conspicuous boulder and waited for the hunters to arrive.
As the howls grew louder, I felt the hairs rising along the nape of my neck. I'd heard aristocrats' packs pursuing a stag before, but these sounded different: a deep-throated, gravelly roar, as much lion as wolf.
When the two hounds finally broke from the trees, my mouth sprang open in a shocked, voiceless scream. They were Plektoi—the Twisted.
Reshaped by Theurgic sorcery, the onrushing dogs were nearly the size of horses. Their snouts were unnaturally stretched, their hairless necks and shoulders thick with added muscle; I could imagine them seizing a man's waist between their jaws and worrying him as a normal hound might do a rabbit. A row of bone spikes emerged between their eyes and ran down their spines to the root of their poised, prehensile tails.
I felt the rocky outcrop shudder with each footfall as they bounded toward me. My late grandmother had told that the bones of a Twisted One were as weighty as iron. Her tales had given me screaming nightmares, until she managed to reassure that in this remote corner of the Hegemony you'd never see Plektoi—not hound, horse, nor human.
Now all I could see was the ravenous black of their eyes.
The hounds thundered to the base of my perch; the muscles in their massive limbs bunched to jump. I squeezed my eyes shut and shrieked, so sure I was about to die. For a long moment, nothing happened. Then I heard a voice from above, calm and impossible: "Look at me, child."
Whimpering, I screwed my eyes open and saw a man hovering in the air. I had seen Theurges before, of course, every time they came to Rim Square for a Harrowing. Also had seen them kill to fuel their Angel-granted powers. I almost hoped this one would kill me now, to spare the horror of the Plektoi's jaws.
But I forced myself to look down and saw that the nightmare dogs remained crouched in place, tails lashing the air. The flying Theurge spoke crisply, with pride. "Trained to perfection, are they not? They attack only at my word. So, child: where is the helot whose blood they smell on you?"
"He ran that way!" I waved my finger toward a different hill.
The hovering Theurge stared up into the forest, then glanced back to his hounds with a hint of uncertainty. His olive skin, curly hair, and fine, beardless features marked him out as a citizen of Karagon, the heart of the Hegemony; he wouldn't be familiar with the landscape out here in the Shayard Rim. "You knew him?"
The words flooded out of me. "No, kurios—I mean, I'd seen him before, but I didn't even know his name. I don't know why you're chasing him. I was exploring. He just ran into me. He got blood all over me…."
Without taking his eyes off me, the Theurge thrust a fist into his long black coat. He pulled a bright red phial from a bandolier, smoothly displacing an empty one which clattered from his hand to the rocks. His tongue darted out to moisten his lips, and I suddenly found myself more afraid of his shining eyes than the Plektoi's empty ones. "And to whom do you belong when you're not exploring, child?"
I blurted out the truth,"My family is noble! We're cousins to the aristarchs of the district!"
The Theurge gestured in the direction I had given him and snapped, "Hunt!" to his monstrosities. They sprang away from my perch with a gravelly, shattering howl. "House Keriatou should know that their faithful service to the Hegemony in Acron has not gone unrecognized." The Karagond mage's voice was cool, with a faint note of regret. "We are naturally solicitous of their cousins. Do mention me to them." Without waiting for an answer, he skimmed off over the trees, following the baying of the Plektoi.
I clung to the boulder for what felt like hours. Finally my paralysis lifted and I limped back into town, sticking to the late afternoon shadows. Especially avoided the columned porticoes of the great noble estates. My own home was fairly humble for aristocracy—My father owned barely more than the land the house stood on—but the carved doorframes and bright colors set us apart from the mere merchants further down the hill.
When I saw my father just outside the doorway, I were so distraught that I ran straight to him, sobbing, arms outstretched. He looked up in customary irritation, a caustic remark forming on his lips. Then he saw the bloodstains on my clothes and the expression on my face. A look of near-panic appeared in his own eyes, he half-turned toward me…and for a moment, I thought Father was going to run to me.
He didn't. But he allowed me to throw my arms around him, and even rested his hand stiffly on my head as he said, "There, there…son."
His voice was hoarse. "What…whatever has happened, child?"
I mumbled through my tears. "Plektoi.."
Father immediately clapped a hand over my mouth and dragged me into the house. "What are you thinking, saying such things on the street?" he gaped, shutting the door with a barely controlled slam. "Do you want every House to hear?" His unaccustomed tenderness was wholly gone.
"I'm sorry!" I cried. As I choked out my account of the afternoon, Father's face harden in ways I didn't understand.
"Little fool," he said when I were done, voice tight and furious. "You tried to help that man?"
"He needed my help! Mother said…always help those in need…."
"Don't you quote your mother at me." Father leaned in close and caught my face between his hands. "Son, if you see someone running—especially a helot—you assume that they broke the law. You should know that by now."
"What if they didn't? What if they need your help?"
His lips twisted incredulously. "We're talking about a helot! And even if it had been a noble or tradesman, your first duty is self-defense. Never forget—if they have broken Canon, their lawlessness can taint you. You know Xaos spreads like a disease."
I'd heard that my whole life, but for the first time something in me rebelled against the idea. "How do you catch it?"
"By asking questions!" Father snarled, shaking me. "Now I don't want to hear another word. Clean yourself, burn those clothes, and go to your room. You won't leave this house until I say so."
Father's command was unnecessary; by evening, I had a raging fever, muscle tremors, and couldn't keep any food down. For three days I shivered in my bed, thinking numbly about my failure to protect the helot from the Karagond mage. On the fourth day, I regained some appetite, and Father nodded grimly. "I've made some discreet inquiries, and it appears your escapade has gone without notice. The Theurge and the Plektoi have departed, and so it's time for you to be seen again. Before anyone starts wondering why you fell ill."
"What happened to the helot?" I asked weakly.
Father's face instantly darkened with rage. "What did I tell you about questions?"
Fighting not to cry, I raised my hands to protect my head. "The…the Theurge told me to tell our Keriatou cousins." I had nightmares about how I would fulfill his order. "What if he told them he met me? What if they come asking, and I don't know how to answer them?"
"Xthonos damn it, it's only been months since we lost your mother," Father barked. "I won't lo…won't listen to any more foolishness from you. You won't say a thing. Especially not to anyone from House Keriatou!"
I gave in to tears, wordlessly nodding and bowing my head. But when I left the house…I headed back up to the woods, to see if I could find any trace of the helot.
Mother always told me to face my fears directly—"And the bigger the fear, the more important it is that you put it in its place." Walking back up the trail into the wilderness of the Rim was the most terrifying thing I had done in my life. More than once, I had to stop because my legs were shaking too violently to continue. When I reached the clearing where the Theurge found me, my nostrils caught a faint, metallic musk—the scent of the Plektoi—and I lurched to my knees, spattering the pine needles with vomit.
The tang of bile drowned out the monsters' smell as I lay curled on the ground. My pulse slowed again, and murmuring, "Face it…face it," I regained my feet. Although I didn't have much woodcraft, the scars the Plektoi left in the earth would have been obvious to a blind man.
At first, the clawprints followed the false heading I had given the Theurge. After a half-mile or so, they veered back in the actual direction the helot had fled. "No…." I groaned miserably. Clearly they had been close enough to catch some scent from the helot.
The hounds' trail ran up into dense, thorny underbrush—and straight through it. Whatever gap in the thorns the helot had found had become an avenue of uprooted trees and flattened brush, as if a whirlwind had passed through. My knees started to tremble again.
Several hundred yards later, the destruction ended abruptly. The Plektoi had clearly forged through to this point, then turned and ripped a new path heading back towards town. I heard the sound of a waterfall, and realized I were approaching the brink of a cliff. Peering over, I felt a sob burst from my lungs. It was a long drop to the rocks below, and the long grass clinging to the rockface clearly could not support a man's weight. There was a shadow at the bottom which might have been a log…but I knew it wasn't.
"I'm sorry I couldn't save you," I murmured at last, staring over the edge. "The Plektoi didn't get you. But I'm so sorry." For a long time, I stood there shivering. "I don't know why they were chasing you. My father says…" I swallowed against a knot in my throat. "It doesn't matter."
"They're monsters—the Theurge as much as the hounds."
One day, the legend of my rebellion against the all-powerful Thaumatarch of the Karagond Hegemony will be retold in countless versions. Some poets will paint me as a ruthless bandit, others as a righteous idealist. Some will call me the scourge of the aristocracy; others will accuse me of conspiring with the nobility to keep the drudges and helots under control. But the poets will surely all agree on one thing: the dramatic moment in Rim Square when the uprising began.
They'll be wrong. My rebellion began much earlier, on a day me and my father never spoke of again.
Like everyone else in the Shayard Rim, from childhood my daily life had been shaped by rules that went unspoken and unquestioned. No one ever challenged the Ecclesiasts' interpretation of the sacred will of Almighty Xthonos and Its Angels. No one stood up to the bullying Alastor law enforcers, who kept the helots in line and imposed the Karagond Canon across the Hegemony.
And no one spoke at all when the Theurges descended on the town for a Harrowing. No one questioned how they chose their helot victims, or why such a terrifying quantity of blood was required to keep up the Xaos-Wards.
The day I first asked myself, "Does it really have to be this way?"—that, in truth, was where my rebellion against the Thaumatarch started.
But the legends of the revolt will inevitably begin eight years later, on the day I confronted the Theurge Chirex at the Harrowing.