Desert by andyparkart, ©2007-2019 andyparkart
The mage leaned back in his chair and gave his apprentice a discreet look. Nehiyah knew better than to think her master aloof or condescending. A subtle glint of amusement beneath his bushy brow told her otherwise. Amid the silvery haze rising from his pipe, a glow revealed a scene of jagged rocks standing tall in a sun-drenched wasteland. The long shadows of Soltan’s sunset reached for the dark horizon where a blue and white globe emerged, bright and glorious over the desert’s amber and saffron hues. Nehiyah recognized it as her own native world: Calidar.
“You see, Caldwen’s history started well before humans set foot on Calidar,” Aziel began. “There was a time of darkness, when Gandarians of Munaan were little more than goat-herding tribes, impious and quarrelsome folk mired in archaic customs and obscurantism. Their bickering and rivalries over trifles only led to their ruin in the face of Nicarea’s rise. Masters at sowing discord between kingdoms and spreading self-serving beliefs in Soltan, the empire conquered all that stood in their path. So it was that ancient Gandaria fell to Nicarea’s steel-clad cohorts. Its great city of Karsa, Jewel of the Desert, remains but a mystery today. No one quite knows how magnificent it may have been or what secrets may have lain hidden in its walls. The overseers razed Karsa, drowned in their blood those who rejected the cult of Soltan, and removed all that harked back to Gandaria’s olden times—writings, monuments, tombs, and schools. Sages and most of those who could tell the story of the tribes’ past were taken away and never heard of again. Even the native language was forbidden.”
Nehiyah plucked a few grapes dangling from a nearby bowl and, before popping them into her mouth, looked up at the wizard. “Well then, how do you know all this?” she asked.
Aziel raised an eyebrow. “I said ‘most’ of those who could preserve history were lost. The others hid in the desert. They spent lifetimes saving all that could still be preserved. Much knowledge was entrusted to scrolls sealed in jars and buried in dusty caves that wayward goatherds would discover centuries later. Some lore was magically recorded in stones that could only reveal their contents with sacred words spoken in ancient Gandarian. A secret sect rose during those times. Its quest was to preserve the old knowledge and protect the places where it was buried. They became known as the Maghia.”
“Truly?” wondered Nehiyah. “I thought they were thieves and murderers.”
“Not quite, little one. There is a lot more to the Maghia than what most people believe today. It is to them that Caldwen owes its knowledge of the arcane, for soon after the fall of ancient Gandaria came a scourge that engulfed the whole of Calidar and its moons.”
The scene in the pipe’s smoke faded away. Nehiyah’s eyes widened as she slowly nibbled on the grapes, watching a starry sky replace the parched landscape. A shimmer distorted the firmament, like ripples on water. Enormous and whale-like, haphazardly covered with bits of armor and bristling with skull-adorned banners, mangy worms appeared out of the darkness. Nehiyah stopped chewing and observed the beasts fly toward Munaan, her mouth gaping. Aziel casually lifted her chin with his index finger. Barely noticing her master’s gesture, she watched a beast fly closer, as if it intended to swallow her. Nehiyah let out a muffled squeak when she saw a figure sitting behind one of the monster’s huge, crystalline eyes. She could have sworn this was some sort of primitive sorcerer.
“Yes, dear,” said Aziel. “A hidden world has roamed the Great Vault since the beginning of times, always unseen and unpredictable. It is Ghüle, a world filled with most-horrid beasts. They fly out to nearby worlds and their moons, riding inside these great worms. As if attracted by the blood and chaos that followed Gandaria’s demise, Ghüle unleashed swarms of orcs, ogres, and trolls to wreak havoc upon Munaan. They left as quickly as they’d come, taking with them endless throngs of captives to whatever beastly doom. Three centuries of obscurity followed during which the Maghia survived to safeguard their precious heritage. The empire recovered and soon afterward resumed its rapacious hegemony over Gandaria.”
The wizard dispelled the vision and replaced it with that of skyships departing Munaan. “It’s been hypothesized that the damage the Ghülean invasion inflicted upon Calidar and its moons caused the world’s magic to weaken in the Great Caldera. This created an opportunity to settle what otherwise had been a deadly wilderness. Under imperial scrutiny, Gandarians set sail to this new world and established the colony of Nav-Gandar. Half-mad and consumed by their hatred, some among the Maghia still lingered in Munaan’s desert, while others plotted against the occupiers, inflicting the worst of atrocities upon man, woman, and child. The Nicarean inquisition mercilessly hunted them until even fewer remained. Caches of ancient knowledge were uncovered and their contents promptly destroyed or spirited to Nicarea for unknown uses. A tenacious few disciples of the Maghia hid among departing settlers and took with them what precious lore they could. They endeavored to continue their centuries-spanning quest in Nav-Gandar, however bloody their methods, for imperial repression wasn’t quite as effective there as on Munaan, at least not yet.”
While Nehiyah gazed at the fading scene of Gandarian skyships descending through clouds, Aziel replaced his pipeweed with the best of shredded Dreamleaf, and conjured images anew with a few puffs. Slightly dizzy from the aromas of star anise, vanilla, and night lily suffusing the chamber, Nehiyah returned her attention to her master’s work. Beyond wisps of glittery smoke lay a city with a great tower rising at its center. “The colony prospered,” continued Aziel. “A great library was built in Arcanial, and beginnings were set that would become the Colleges of Magic. Colonial forces secured the borders in the north and south, claiming the vast area that is Caldwen today. The population grew, attracting settlers from places other than Gandaria. There was a good reason why the first settlers chose this region. Gandarian explorers had already surveyed its mountains and valleys, unveiling sources of raw magic. Disciples of the Maghia later schemed to suppress this knowledge. An ulterior motive emerged in their minds, one that would take centuries to succeed. As decades slipped by, disciples persevered in their efforts to smuggle from Munaan lore and artifacts needed for their plan, but they became imprudent. It didn’t take much to catch the Nicarean inquisition’s keen attention. After quietly building their case like a spider its web, inquisitors fell upon the great library and seized forbidden works from its dungeons. These were shipped back to Nicarea while the librarians and anyone associated with them were tortured to admit their heresy and betray its sources. Banned or not, remaining books, scrolls, engravings, and countless other relics were burned in a great pyre, the librarians tossed into the blaze, and their magnificent edifice razed in the aftermath. It was a decision the empire would come to regret bitterly.”
Visions of smoldering corpses emerged in the pipe’s smoke. Whispers in the shadows... Echoes of marching cohorts in the streets... Cries in the night... Aziel took a long breath and resumed his tale. “The Maghia still remained, as determined as ever, its ranks swollen with the angry, the destitute, and the opportunist. Tit for tat became the norm between imperial forces and seditious Nav-Gandarians. The colony teetered between its will to prosper and outright treason. A Maghian hero, Darbyses the Black, assassinated the Nicarean emperor of those days, up on Munaan. In truth, he turned the monarch into a ghoul, which inquisitors had no choice but to slay ignominiously. They later captured the necromancer in Nav-Gandar and executed him in a most horrific way, earning him eternal martyrdom.”
Nehiyah winced in horror at the sight of a man flayed alive and burned at the stake. She returned the last of her grapes to the bowl and curled up on her chair, pulling her knees to her chin when the tortured victim’s charred head was chopped off and planted on a pike above the ruins of the library.
Aziel muttered an arcane mantra before stirring the sinister imagery into a new silvery billow. A view of a council meeting appeared. “Meanwhile,” he continued, “the colony’s imperial archon argued with landowners over matters of local administration, merchant rights, and taxes. There also was the troubling matter of Soltan’s cult waning in Nav-Gandar. The colonial inquisitor accused the archon of neglect, pointing at evidence of other faiths gaining followers. Ancient Gandarian beliefs were once again on the rise, along with tales of demon fornication and worship. It was a portent of changes that would seal the fate of Nav-Gandar as an imperial colony. The grand inquisitor knew it, and as matters worsened so did the exactions of his agents. Throughout decades of bloody repression, the Maghia labored to revive ancient cults and a race extinguished centuries earlier on Munaan—the shatim, half-blood progeny of mortal and demon parents. It was all part of the Maghia’s grand scheme, for which they had needed their Munaani forebears’ secrets and Nav-Gandar’s natural sources of raw magic. It wouldn’t be much longer before the overseers would be overthrown, and Caldwen proclaimed a free nation.”
Nehiyah perked up from behind the rampart of her knees. “So that’s when demons came to Caldwen, didn’t they?”
The old mage responded after an ephemeral pause and a subtle smile. “Not exactly, little one. Demons of this realm go back to the origins of Gandaria. There was a time when they ruled over the tribes’ elders who were eager to learn their masters’ magic. They led Gandarians to build Karsa and fabulous palaces to honor them, sharing just enough of their knowledge to keep the elders wanting more and, in so doing, obedient. Robber-mages who would later form the Maghia originally were vulgar thieves seeking to steal demonic secrets from whomever had earned them, so they could share them amongst themselves for profit. Centuries of larcenies created a most extensive repository of demonic spells, well beyond what tribal elders could enjoy.”
“I don’t understand,” said Nehiyah. “Why didn’t the demons devour everyone and enslave their spirits for all eternity? After all, it’s what I’ve always been told demons do to people.”
Aziel groaned. Nehiyah wasn’t sure whether her ignorance annoyed the mage or her question embarrassed him for some reason. “In old Gandarian,” said Aziel, “the term ‘demon’ referred to a spirit guardian, regardless of ethos. A guardian was only expected to be faithful in its service. It is only because early Gandarians faltered that some demons stepped up to better protect those who’d summoned them. The original bonds faded over time, enabling the vilest of demons to enforce their own wills. So it was that servants became masters. This alone gave the Nicareans their greatest justification for destroying Gandaria—champions of the sun against champions of darkness. Until then, some Gandarians greatly profited from the tyranny of demons while others suffered under it. To this day, other cultures still see demons as frightening beasts because they wield great powers, which are misunderstood and therefore feared. Anything evil from their points of view is called a demon, as is routinely taught by well-meaning but self-serving followers of foreign gods.”
The apprentice hesitated. “At least those really nasty ones are gone now,” she said with cautious relief, spying for some reaction on her master’s face. “Before my parents sent me here from Osriel, friends of mine told me that Caldwen was infested with demons. It’s what most people believe.”
The mage grinned enigmatically. “Oh, but it is,” he finally revealed. “All sorts of demons dwell in this land of ours. I’m a little surprised your parents, both Caldwen born, never told you. Their lineage goes back to the early days of Nav-Gandar. Demons are the spiritual patrons of most things here, such as rivers, roads, bridges, gates, farms and fields, towns and villages, cemeteries and monuments, families, skyships, schools, and so on. Some are even the mascots of colleges and protectors of students like you. But they are the servants they always were meant to be. You see, a time had come in the olden days when a savage bloodletting took place among ruling demons. The most powerful of them devoured all the others and, in so doing, attained divinity as a patron of wizards. His name was Naghilas the Black. Though originally malevolent, his godly nature shifted so that he could attract a greater number of mortal followers. He hungered no longer for flesh and soul but rather for power born from worship of the many. Over time, he became Naghilas the Gray, neither good nor bad, but supreme master of magic. In a way, despite his lingering looks and manners of demons, he remains beholden to his followers. Dormant after the fall of Gandaria, Naghilas owed his renaissance and the revival of his cult to the Maghia’s centuries of struggles. He stands now as the patron of our magiocracy, and many among the sect became his faithful. Under his supremacy, demons are made to serve Caldwen. Some are good, many not so much and quite selfish, just like most people of this world.”
Aziel leaned on his elbow and crossed his legs while Nehiyah pondered her master’s words. Her gaze slowly drifted down the mage’s robe, whose lower edge had pulled up just enough to reveal a cloven hoof. The mage casually bounced his lower leg as he observed his apprentice. He nodded when his apprentice lifted her eyes, troubled and confused. “Well, little one. You are now mine to protect and guide. It is as your parents bargained, like their forebears did for them and so back to the beginning of their kind. Make them proud.”