An Untimely Meeting
a tale of Mythic Qin
She was a vision in black, her hair braided in tiny rows, held close to her scalp and then plaited together ran down her back to her waist. She was of the clan Modru, the Sundwellers, so she was of a dark brown hue, her skin, smooth like fine ironwood, with full lips, slightly parted as she look down into her hands at a small glowing device. It whirred quietly as she waved it about from the cover of her cloak.
When she looked up, her brow furrowed, her eyes burned like coals, she was a woman with a mission. Her cloak, long and flowing covered her wide, strong shoulders, and she wore a right proper lady’s full dress, it too, in full black with only the tiniest traces of silver running down the bodice. I did not see it at first but she also bore a straight sword beneath her cloak at her hip, but it moved imperceptibly, part of her.
She turned down the brightly lit streets as the galaxy’s core had risen some hours ago and brilliantly lit the night. There were still a few people about, but this late, most were returning to their homes to be locking their doors against the night. I would be too, if I had a home from which to return. Many of us had been displaced after the wars with the Clockwork King of Lantu and even with his defeat, our suffering was still great. Homeless, I expected to huddle through the night, nibbling this crust of bread in my lap.
As I sat swaddled in darkness, I would have passed it off as a noble lady looking for a trinket but there was something about her that seemed out of place. Then she turned toward me and I could feel the power of her stare. My mother, cursed with the darkness passed it to me; I could see it in others. Even in the complete darkness, she could see me, I could feel it. Her gaze held me in place and as she approached, but I felt no malice, so I waited.
“Good sir, if I may have a moment of your time?”
Her manners, so deferential, to me, little more than a forgotten veteran of a dozen wars, I loved her in that second. “Yes, miss, how can I help you this evening?
“Have you seen anything passing strange or untoward this evening, near this corner? Anything that would make you wary or fearful? I know it seems a unusual question, but I ask your forbearance while you think.”
“I had seen something amiss but for the life of me I cannot seem to remember it. It was…” As I struggled to remember, I struggled for breath. My chest felt as if it were in a vice, the very air wrest from my lungs.
The lady looked into her hand again as the air above the tiny device began to glow strongly as she proffered it in my direction. Its clockwork parts clicked wildly. “Touch it. Now.” Her tone brooked no refusal and as I could not draw breath I was hardly in a state to refuse. Once I touched it, I could see a shape on my chest akin to a snake wrapped around me squeezing me tight. She took the strange device and pressed it to my chest and I could feel her will around me, solidifying and then the pressure was gone. As she withdrew the device I could see a silver thread pulled into it and fade after a few moments.
“What I seek is here, tell me quickly old veteran and then get as far away as your legs will carry you.”
Now that the creature was gone, the horror returned to me of the unspeakable things I had seen. I scrambled backward until I struck the wall and cowered, senseless for a few seconds. Then my words returned. “It was a Dsur daemon covered in brass armor, floating with three of its windkin slaves. It was fiery red and lightning flashed between its fingertips.” As my heart calmed, I remembered more. “I thought I was, at first, too deep in my cups. The creature rode a soldier who had come into town, sick with what I thought was Theron’s pox. I had it as a child, so I had no fear of him. I tried to convince him to share with an old hand, but he was lost in his visions. He asked which way to a chirurgeon and I pointed him down Lacksmir Way. He passed me a penny and as I thanked him, I saw it, I saw the Dsur and it saw me. The penny was infected with the creature and I could see it take me but could not resist.
“Where is Lacksmir Way?” Her voice had softened and she put the strange device away in her cloak and she reached toward a small pouch at her hip. I pointed wordlessly and she gave me a small collection of oddly shaped coins. They were Modruan silver bits, to me, a small fortune. “Now run as fast as you can from this place and head to the inn near the center of town. Rashaban’s Place. Tell him the Lady Ishtar sent you as my guest. He will provide anything you need. Now hurry. You have been of great service.”
I wanted to flee and not look back but as I stood to thank her, I felt the sudden chill, out of place on this warm summer night. The same breeze I felt earlier when the soldier passed. But this time, I saw the chirurgeon, an older man whose name escaped me because I had always been lucky enough to never go to him, but I knew his face and this was not him. Then the darkness parted and I could see the daemon’s essence again, hovering over the body of the chirurgeon, my bowels turned to water.
“It’s here.” I scramble away and she turns, draws her blade and deflects three kunai thrown at her from the three mistwraiths floating over the shoulders of the chirurgeon.
“Aethermancer. So nice to see you again. I knew I could count on your timely arrival. After our last interaction, I needed a new host, no thanks to you. This time, I am fresh and you’re exhausted. It will end differently, I assure you. Destroy her.” He points and the mistwraiths swarm out with spirit kunai knives whirring through the air, each whistling a tiny song of death.
She stands her ground and her sword is a flashing blur, knocking away the kunai, their intent blunted, they vanish like smoke. “Run sir, there is naught here for you now but dying, you are not safe from either of us. Make haste and never look back!”
I ran down the street, as fast as my wizen feet could carry me, scrambling on my hands and knees as the terror came from the Mistwraiths in waves, mixed within their smoke that comprised their bodies, they were covering the entire area in a cold fog of icy ennui. A tendril touched my leg and I fell over, tumbling limply in the street until I stopped moving. I felt nothing. No fear, no terror, no concern for my life.
My life had become crushingly filled with despair and there was no release save death. I slowly sat up, hearing the sound of battle two dozen steps away and the deadly play of her sword work, but try as she might, she could get no advantage on the mistwraiths, nor could they press their numerical superiority, her sword seemed to be everywhere. I pressed my rags for a knife, and found the scrap of a blade that I carried for self defense, something broken found on a battlefield long ago. I found my wrists and sat down. My first cut was pain-free and soothing, the crush of life began to fade from me. And I watched her, drawn to the beauty of her dance.
She moves to gain more mobility and whirls her cloak through the air, blinding a Wraith. Pulling her blade back to her, extending her arm behind her and blade in front, she whispers the word, “Shikai.” The mist in the area explodes away from her and one of the wraiths who was to close is disrupted along with the rest of their glamour. The wraith who was covered by the cloak in those seconds, phases free, only to meet her glittering blade now covered in shimmer field of blue energy. The wraith blocks with his spirit kunai, but they stop nothing. He is no more. Her body is covered in the same blue aura, but her breath is ragged now and she stands still as the last Wraith retreats to the chirurgeon.
“You weak pathetic fools. I will destroy her myself. But you will feed me first.”
“No, Master, anything but that.” A terrible vortex appears over the mouth of the chirurgeon and the mistwraith is drawn toward it, unable to escape. It’s terrible wail as it is being consumed echoes down the street.
“Now Aethermancer Ishtar, destroyer of cities, breaker of gates, and slayer of the Clockwork King, his vengeance is now upon you. I was summoned from my castle of Brass, enslaved to his will and even his death did not free me. It would seem only yours will suffice. Have you made your peace?”
“One of us will die this day Daemon, but it shall not be me. You still have five kin left on in the Realm. I will not leave this work undone, no matter what the cost.”
“We shall see. Defend yourself.” He moved, impossibly fast, first he was standing ten steps away, and then he was one, his hand swung through the air, a blade formed of his dark aether, but when he expected contact there was none.
“We both know Shumpo, the quickstep. You will have to do better.” She smiled. For just a moment she seemed her old self, fast, beautiful, dangerous, but their battle had simply moved to a different level, they were still too evenly matched. As my life bled out, I knew I might die, before the battle was determined. Each strike of her weapon or his aether, rang out, creating waves of force that wore on the very ground and buildings around them. At one point, a group of constables appeared, and the force of the battle knocked them back down the street. They fled.
I could hear her breath now, fast, hard, rough. She is slowing down, but so is he, his skin tightening upon his face, becoming grey and lifeless. His muscles disappearing every time he tries to increase his speed. The two are now moving at speeds that resemble human combat again. Still fast, but no longer the ghostlike blurs of a few seconds ago.
“Rhackomanon, no more talk? It’s not like you to be silent. Not feeling as confident as you were?”
“No sorcereress, I am simply savoring your last moments. Your sword is heavy, isn’t it. Your legs like lead. Shunpo deserts you now. You are just flesh, your chi expended, what can you possible do against the likes of me!” The body of the chirurgeon falls to its knees and opens its mouth. the Daemon Rhackomanon pours forth, a ghost with flesh, crimson with fanged tusks, bright brass armor covered with noxious runes, they hurt my eyes to see. He towers over her, covered in flames. “Time to die, Witch.”
She looks at me. I feel her sadness. I feel the pain at what she is about to do. I forgive her as I feel my spirit drawn to her.
“Bankai.” Her whisper belied the power of the word. The world grew silent.
Suddenly I see her as I could never in life. She is not diminished, she is like a star, suddenly brighter than I could have imagined as I rush into her and surround her with the eight others I see standing with her. My energy invigorates her, and she slashes with abandon. Rhackomanon parries but it is of no use, her sword now tears into him, breaking his brass shield, his brass armor, he claws but she is never there. She is like a surgeon striking again and again, each blow steals more of his aether.
She uses the quickstep and appears near my body, staring at the blood all around it. Rhackomanon sees her looking at me and rushes as his fires surge blue-white he appears and her sword is through his chest, slashing, with abandon, until she strikes the heart of the daemon. Then she grabs his mighty form, and says to him, “See this man. He was your undoing. When you return to your hell for a thousand years, weak and prey for others of your kind, I want you to remember his face. Not mine. His is the sacrifice that binds your spirit. To Hell with you.”
She releases him and makes a series of gestures. A shimmering field with dark tendrils reaches out and Rhackomanon is still conscious as his diminished form is drawn back into the void. His screams chill the blood of any who hear it and will cause those to have nightmares to last a lifetime. His promises of power fall on deaf ears.
Her sword, with the aether it has absorbed, glows and beats with a sinister life. She whips it around into its ornate scabbard. Covered with runes, darkly sinister, etched in malice and blood on the sheath quell and bind the daemonic power for use another day.
She turns to me, and she can see me. The other eight spirits disappear, leaving the two of us alone. “I am sorry this happened to you.”
“What does this mean, I thought I was dead?”
“You are, but you are bound to me and my quest. As long as I live, or your spirit persists, you will lend your power to me.”
“I don’t have any powers.”
“I know, but the human soul is a power in and of itself. Do you suppose daemons would not bargain so hard for them unless they had a power we do not appreciate?”
“Will I ever be released?”
She walks over to her cape and with the tiniest application of her power, her cape and clothing resume their previously pleasing forms. With the last of her dwindling power, she destroys my body, leaving not a trace of me in the world. At first I resented it. Then I realized, I wasn’t doing anything with my life until she came along. Perhaps dead, I might make more difference than I did in life.
She looked at her compass and turned west. We walked into the setting light of the galactic core.
Aethermancer:An Untimely Meeting © Thaddeus Howze 2011. All Rights Reserved
First Appearance: The Aethermancer Ishtar and the demon prince Rhackomanon have a history that goes back several years. However, when we first meet him in the novel Aethermancer, he is getting his ass handed to him and starts the story being the second casualty of our heroine. Once we start going backward in time, we will see their struggle was much more complex than it appears in this scene.
About the Artist: Another *Rhado masterpiece, there are no words for this piece other than bodacious, covered in awesome-sauce. The piece, called Zarah Neman, was another of his commissioned works made in a variety of media. I chose it for the demonic being called Rhackomanon because of the six of his demonic brothers, he is still the most likely to appear human even outside of a host being. He gets his ass handed to him because he is arrogant.