Chapter 1: The World That Remains
"It was a clear cold morning, my child, and Hareetha knew she was doomed. Behemoth Mountain lay in ruins, but I could hear her laughing. For was her god not the god of ruin?"
Mother stirs the ashes. Quick, angry motions. Everyone else who tells the story of the war rushes toward its glorious conclusion. Not her. She stabs at the story, poking at bits and pieces, like a bored celebrant at one of Empress Zoriza's desert feasts. Suddenly she returns to the beginning.
"I was no older than you when I left home to seek glory battling the dark priestess. Me and Pon, the warrior kings Hyras and Vankred, Col the satyr with his clever strategies, Heroch the Navigator who guarded us at sea, and little Zoriza. Oh, and the one I told you never to mention—the Golden Archer. I was young, but already…"
My mother, Para, lapses into reflective silence. But I know the story.
"You were already a renowned warrior of the Sea Kingdom."
Mother smiles into the ashes. "Corini is famous for its sailors, but in those days every ship needed a guard to stop pirates and dockside thieves," she says. "My first night, three Peithian mercenaries crept aboard. They were fresh from plundering the Southern Coast and had swords of bronze. I only had an oak staff. Afterward, I kept one sword and sold the other two to your father. That's how I met him." She points her blackened stick at me. "You, too, have that strength, that ferocity. If only you would use it."
She brushes the brown hair from her face, tugging absently at a lock now streaked with gray, then her eyes get a faraway look as she remembers Hareetha and the ruins of Behemoth Mountain.
"It was not easy to enter the mountain, even with it shattered and burning. The two kings and I were exhausted from battle. But your father already knew a way inside."
My father, Pon, was never prone to boasting, but he loved that story. All those great heroes, standing outside the sealed gate of a blasted mountain, bickering like spice merchants because no one knew how to get inside. And then. Long ago, he had bartered a map of the tower from a priest of the god of lies. (And kept his soul in the process!)
"We kept arguing even as Pon drew out a leather scroll and started sketching diagrams in the sand. I learned only later that he had haggled in Patabesh, the City of Thieves, with a priest of the god of knots. Your father was always a gifted negotiator and a brilliant scholar, and he proved himself then by getting us inside the tower through an unguarded window. We always respected his resourcefulness, which you have inherited, my child."
I touch the beads I wear around my throat. One symbolizes my father's talents for negotiation and scholarship.
A chip of amethyst representing Amiria, worshipped in Pon's forest home as the goddess of glory and charm.
The desert capital of Shalmek has the Black Library. The Sea Kingdom city of Erethonia has the Grand Academy. But the Northern Forest has only wandering scholars, musicians, and counselors, who revered Amiria as the goddess not just of beauty but of poetry, wisdom, and the power to command. Though born a farmer of the Apple tribe, my father learned from those wandering poets how to act with dignity and honor–and how to crack a lock when necessary. Touching the sharp piece of amethyst, I remember my father's eloquence and wonder how I might compare.
I realize Mother has continued her story, through the unguarded window my father's map revealed, past the trolls and divs that guarded Behemoth Mountain, to Hareetha herself and her ax, which bent the servitor races to her will. The story is always the same from here. The great storm that swept aside her army of monsters. Hareetha's death and her death-curse. The loss of King Vankred as the mountain crumbled, the mysterious disappearances of Heroch and the Golden Archer, the abduction of Zoriza. Col's grief and rage. The heavenly temples welcoming a new generation of greedy and venal disciples, as those who had fought in the war had almost all died. And then my parents' flight here, to a minor village of the Northern Forest.
My father's death. Those were bitter years, though I were too young to remember. Para lapses into silence.
"I'm wasting your time," she says. "It is not yet dusk and I keep you here, trapped in my memories. Go outside and find your friend, that troll. Learn from what he teaches but do not trust him."
I try not to leap to my feet. Instead I rise, careful not to strike my head on the low beams, and push aside my mother's bow and straight-bladed bronze sword to claim my mantle–the traditional garb of young men in the forest tribes.
As is customary, I wear a blue-gray mantle with a complex design of apples and pine trees whenever I'm outside. Though it provides scant protection against the cold of early spring, Mother says that the braids that hold it shut came from Col himself–the satyr who ended the Sun and Moon War and then matched wits against Acamon, the god of destruction.
"Be wary of trolls, my son!" Para calls as I shove open the wooden door to my house. "Today they come to trade, but yesterday they came to kill, enthralled by the dark ax Raun. Who can say what tomorrow might bring? They are not like people. Their souls are weak. They crave servitude, which is why we call them–"
The servitor races, yes, yes. But the dark ax is gone, and the trolls are free, and my friend Gronput is waiting for me. I race through Hetch, the village of the Pine tribe–or rather, the town, as it has tripled in size since my mother became chieftain and lured merchants from the Sea Kingdom cities of Corini and Tralcho to this small community of artisans nestled deep in the woods. I run across the new bridge, which is tall enough that small boats can sail under it, and head for the forest and Gronput and the ruins of the Impossible Empire.
I first met Gronput, the troll peddler, years ago during a particularly bitter winter, when the ice-winds flew down from Mount Ulgas. The old chieftain, believing the village cursed by a nymph, ventured into the woods and perished, crushed by a falling pine bough. Though my parents taught me well, I'm no hero like them, and I made a mistake as a boy that nearly killed me.
I were a foolish child, and foolish, clumsy children often come to bad ends in the North. When the rotten planks gave way, I hung on for as long as I could, then fell into the river. The thick ice saved me, as only my leg touched the swift-running water. But that was enough: I dragged myself free and made it a dozen strides before I collapsed, freezing, in the snow. But I left a trail near a troll fishing hole, and Gronput found me and carried me to his firepit in an old ruin. He warmed my freezing limbs, and while my left leg remains a bit slow to this day, I survived.
But Gronput did more than save my life. He introduced me to the marvels of Nepherine, the Impossible Empire. They are scattered all over the Northern Forest.
But the ruins are nothing I can recognize. That empire of philosophers and miracle workers must have lived in houses, worshipped the gods in temples, supplied their cities with aqueducts and wells, yet none of that remains. Only strange heaps of rubble, sometimes marked with images or abstract designs, litter the Three Nations. Seeing those ruins for the first time as Gronput's fire warmed my exhausted body, I marveled not just at the strange mosaics and broken writing, but at how none of the remaining pieces made any sense to me.
The remains of the Impossible Empire still make no sense, years later. As I reach the outskirts of the ruins, I slow and pull my blue-gray mantle close to protect myself from the chill wind.
No one else comes here. No one else cares about a civilization that fell centuries ago. Only me and Gronput, and he only visits once per year, when his family passes through Hetch to trade.
"The first one!" Gronput shouts behind me. "The very first one—do you remember the sight?"
I remember the first mosaic that stopped me in my tracks.
But First, I think back to what I've learned about the Impossible Empire.
Most of what I know from the Impossible Empire, I have pieced together with Gronput, working together to glean clues from the ruins or to learn from scholars and philosophers.
Rising from the ashes of the world's near-destruction, the Impossible Empire began a millennium and a half ago as a philosophical academy far to the north. When these philosophers learned to access the Oricalchum, the vast machine powered by the labor of dark gods and damned souls that maintains the world, they unlocked the power of true philosophy.
They used this true philosophy to travel instantaneously, to cure disease, and to build towering cities. The Impossible Empire flourished. But some dreamed of more; they wanted to repair the damaged world or to escape it.
Seven hundred years ago, ambitious philosophers nearly freed the dark gods while meddling in the Oricalchum. When the prisoners tried to escape, the heavenly gods reacted with fury. They reimprisoned the dark gods and damned souls, then they permitted Acamon, the god of destruction, a minute on the surface. In that time, he utterly annihilated the Impossible Empire.
Now back to Gronput's question.
"A heroic general. I could see her glorious bearing and how she taught her soldiers to fight with swords and spears."
"Yes, you saw that general, so unlike the shabby warlords of today. But you remember also the impossible thing it depicted, don't you, Pon Para?" Gronput says. "The voice became like a hundred voices, the woman's helmet, a hundred helmets, and her sword like a hundred swords."
The strangeness of it filled me with wonder, but the general filled me with admiration. They followed her because she knew the art and science of battle. The sight compelled me to learn how the Impossible Empire fought, for though its soldiers employed many wondrous weapons, it still relied on swords and spears to win the day–and the mosaics showed me exactly how to fight with them.
I turn to look at Gronput. The troll stands on an irregularly shaped pillar covered in intricate, incomprehensible knotwork. The substance of the pillar is neither metal nor stone. Gronput is an old troll, his hairy body gray all over, the muzzle of his little vulpine face almost white, though his teeth and eyes are still sharp. Like all trolls, he is small and fast and fragile-seeming, with little backward-curving horns. Trinkets for sale clatter on his wide belt. It is hard to imagine these creatures in their teeming thousands, armed with spears of fire-blackened wood, standing fearlessly against my parents and the other heroes of the Behemoth War.
Yet there is something different about Gronput this year. His eyes seem fever bright, his expression wild. His lips curl involuntarily back in a snarl, as if he has seen something terrible. He looks afraid. I have never known the jolly, contented old peddler to show a trace of fear, even when haggling with my mother–and everyone is afraid of her.
"Gronput, what troubles you? Let us take counsel together." We have always been honest and patient with one another.
The gleam of madness in Gronput's eye vanishes as soon as he sees my worried expression.
"I am sorry, Pon Para," he says. "Long journey. Just a long journey between cities, making the great circle my family makes. I lost many sons-of-sons. There is nothing else."
There is something else, and I think that I could get Gronput to open up with enough time and some kind words.
"But," the old troll says, "I am still calling you by your little boy name, and you are a man grown, are you not? What are you called now?"
"Ponrin," Gronput says. "I like it. It is a good name for a scholar. Trolls, of course, must earn their names. I am called Gronput because…"
Then the old troll's muzzle twitches, and his lips peel back again, as if he smells carrion. He looks around, but there are only the ruins. Crows suddenly take flight and rise, cawing, before they disappear over the eastern hills.
"Have you seen anything in these woods, Pon Para?" the troll asks. His expression is vague and unfocused.
There are many strange things in these woods. Gronput is thinking of something in particular, but I do not know what.
I'll try something new: the stoic techniques of the Erethonian sophists. "Tell me about this worry you have. Is it a problem we can solve now, or not?"
"By the god that made me," Gronput howls, "I can! I can silence them! I can silence them forever! The witch is awakening, and her servants hunt these woods, but I will stop them!"
The witch? I don't know who that could be, though I know that the god who made the trolls was Pel, the god of thieves, and nothing good ever comes from him. But before I can learn more, Gronput howls again, his voice like a wild animal's. Then he leaps off the ruin like a far younger troll and scampers madly into the woods!
I call after him, confident that my commanding tone will stop Gronput in his tracks.
Gronput smashes through the underbrush, splashing through muddy puddles and breaking sticks. But my voice cuts through his panicked flight. I hear him freeze somewhere just out of view, screened by dead trees.
He clears his throat. I can almost see his throat working, the way a person might work up to an apology. But he says only, "We did not take her! Philosophy took her!"
And then he's running again, too swift for me to follow. But I feel as if I just learned something–not from the words, which I don't understand. But I understand now how to make people obey with only the tone of my voice. Even a mad troll stopped short when I spoke.
Gronput stopped but did not return. I fear the worst. Searching for any sign of him, I find only his peddler's trinkets, abandoned in the snow.
The last of the light fades in the west, turning the trees black and the sky purple-red. I retrieve Gronput's scattered trinkets, wrapping them carefully in my mantle, then find the road and head back toward Hetch before the first stars appear. People call to me, their voices polite and friendly. I pay them no mind.
The words echo in my mind: "We did not take her! Philosophy took her!"
A witch in the woods. An old friend driven to distraction, perhaps madness. Even I feel it: some change in the air. The night winds are bitter, and I know this spring will not be like the others.