An Agemonia story by Mike Pohjola
Many sleeps ago, back when crystal was plentiful and all peoples lived in abundance, a great evil rose. His name was Xotho, and he believed our kind were superior to all others because crystal grows in our bodies. He and his followers allied themselves with the Aox demons, and turned their backs on all other peoples, including their own. He interned many of our compatriots in the lost mountain of Lok Torr, and they have been asleep ever since.
Sleep comes easy to all peoples and even the beasts and the birds. Our sleep is different. We might plant an acorn just before we fall asleep, and wake up to find a full-grown tree.
While we sleep, we draw strength from the earth, and let our bodies heal and grow more crystal. Some call us crystalbacks, but we call ourselves agurians.
I am Torrax, and this is my story, which may one day be carved on my body.
I am a ward of the Lightbearers, a small group of agurians dedicated to fighting the Aox demons. Or so they say. I have never seen them do any actual fighting. I have never even seen an Aox demon. All I have experienced are endless wise talks, and healthy physical exercise, and abstaining from water, and listening to the earth. It sounds really meaningful until you start doing it. Then it just becomes boring.
Harox is the worst of them. He is so old he is flaking, half asleep most of the time, rattling when he walks, his crystals obscenely big, his hammer frail. The cracked surface of his skin is full of blue runes, each one meticulously carved every time he wakes from the sleep.
"Good morning, Torrax," he says. "Do you remember Lok Torr?"
"I do not", I tell him. "I did not remember it yesterday, and I do not remember it today."
"Ah. I hope you will remember it tomorrow."
I say nothing.
"You carry the memory, you can find it if you look."
"Then why isn't it carved on my body? Look, it's smooth as wet ice."
"You carry the memory inside you. You are older than you think."
"Sure." How could I be older than I think?
He wants me to remember Lok Torr, the mountain where our people are imprisoned. I tell him I have never been there. If I had, I would still be a prisoner! The Lightbearers believe they have to find the mountain and free the people as part of the fight against the Aox demons, and that I have to find it.
There are a million things I would rather be doing. For one, take care of commerce with the Amethyst Order. They want Agura crystals, and only we can grow the crystals on our bodies. We should focus on getting a better deal. Or set up a proper system of defense against the raiders. Instead they want to talk about memories.
We stand in a stone circle, our hands, hammers and faces pointing towards the sky. We hum a low melody. The power of the earth moves inside us and the ground rumbles together with us, joining in on the melody. Pebbles bounce off each other, dirt turns to dust, and small beasts try to escape.
The morning ritual is observed from a high point by someone with dark feathers, gleaming white eyes, and a black cape covering a long beak. The quothian is standing in the shade of a tree, just watching.
"Torrax, go see who it is", Harox tells me after the morning exercise.
I walk towards the tree. Quothians are an uncommon sight in the desolate hills of the Mutelands, for they call the forest beyond Ravenland their home. I have seen a few working for the Amethyst Order, but this one seems younger.
"I'm glad it was you", she says.
I don't know what to tell her so I say nothing.
"Grandmother has told me you have a part to play in the battle in the Breach."
"Where the Aox demons live."
"That's right. And she wants me to help you get there."
"And who are you?"
"My name is Venia. I come from Heartwood in search of you."
"Would you like to talk to my guardians?"
"Not really. Just you."
"Look, I'm not coming. Thanks for the invitation, but I don't really believe in this prophecy stuff."
"It's not a prophecy. It's history."
"Well, whatever, I'm not interested."
I start back towards the others. Then I realize I have been rude, and turn. "Would you like some water or something?"
"I sure would," she says and joins me.
She finds shelter from the sun behind a cliff, and the others gather around her. They ask news from Heartwood, from Benem, from the Amethyst Order. And they ask about her and the Breach. She answers all their questions and asks none, but it is clear she observes them with great interest, and pays close attention to what sorts of things they ask.
Eventually they ask her about her Grandmother.
"She's right here," she says, and points to her bag.
"May we see her?" asks Harox.
She nods, and opens the bag. Inside there is a beaked skull with deep black eye sockets. I look at the skull, her Grandmother. The eyes draw me in. I cannot look away. They seem to grow darker until all I see is black.
No, I see black because it is night. But there is a glow, a radiance, which helps me see better. I see many agurians, some pushing others into a cave. Once they are inside, someone touches the walls and shapes the rock until the gate is closed. It is then sealed with great magic to never be opened again. Another takes his hammer and carves a face and a rune into the closed gate. It is locked with such power that no one inside may open it. Maybe no one at all. But who could hold such power? Is it Xotho? I turn to look for him, but I can see nothing. Water splashes on my face.
It is not raining. I open my eyes and realize Harox is pouring water on me.
"Torrax! Wake up!"
"Was I asleep?"
"This is not how we sleep," Harox says. "This was something else."
I see all the Lightbearers around me, and Venia of Heartwood.
I tell them everything I saw, and they are all very excited. I finally remembered. I remembered Lok Torr.
Harox nods and smiles. "I am proud of you, my ward."
It feels good.
Although I did not see a map or many landmarks, I did see a mountain range that the elders believe to be the Reflection Range mountains. We strike camp and start towards south and west, filled with a new sense of purpose. Venia joins our band.
The Lightbearers have only five members, one of many wandering groups of agurians in the Mutelands. Some groups live and work in Benemite cities, others sleep in caves and hillsides. Many harvest Agura crystals from other agurians, transport it to oases where they barter with the caravan merchants of the Amethyst Order. The caravans take the crystals to Copperton, Ambergate or Starhaven, from whence they are distributed all around the world. The devices of the Ancients need Agura to function, but the machines are too big to carry around. In the cave towns of my people they are in active use in mining and teleportation.
Harox is the leader of our group, and its oldest member. I am the youngest. Matho is big and solemn, the strongest of us, his body shiny black basalt. Clathax jokes, Matho is quiet as a rock. Clathax is the funny one, thin and tall, of red granite. He helps make my days less boring by always having some humorous story or snide mark in store.
The fifth member is Mixxo, a marble bodied warrior who sees the beauty in everything. In the sunset, in the desert, in the animals, in the stories he tells. Agurians do not usually wear clothes but he has acquired a cape of quothian silk that he wears for some reason. Clathax comments on it every day, asking if Mixxo is perhaps cold, or if he hides his body because of his modesty or if he wants to impress a nighteye or a quothian. Mixxo just smiles, and says he think it suits him.
Old Harox usually does not have to bear the edge of Clathax's humor, but if he does, he can deflect it with a sentence or two, reminding us of some foolish mistake Clathax has done.
That is our group. Now including Venia of the Heartwood, as well.
For many days we walk the sunbaked paths of the Mutelands. We debate which road to take. Clathax would have us head south towards Copperton and hire a ship, Mixxo would prefer getting a ship from Moongate to the west. When Harox asks for Matho's opinion, he shakes his head indicating he prefers neither option.
"What, you think we should walk all the way across the continent?" asks Clathax quickly.
Matho is silent at first, and then says only, "Yes."
Harox promises to make a decision soon, but in any case, our first stop will be the glowing pyramid Ata Cahay, where the roads cross.
During the long journey we sing and we talk and we think. Mixxo, and Clathax, and I tell Venia a little of our people, she tells us of hers. Sometimes when she thinks she is alone, she talks to the skull she calls Grandmother. The quothians are a bird-like people who prefer the dark. I have never seen one of them carry a skull around, but they are strange and alien. Unlike us, they have two genders, and keep their men in cages. We have no gender, no birth, no death, no hunger and no defecation. Being made of rock we simply exist, then sleep, then exist again. Often with no memory of the last time we existed.
Do we even live, as beasts do and quothians do? Or are we just moving rocks? I do not know.
It is a day's journey to Ata Cahay when we make camp. We need no rest at night, but we have our rituals. We wash ourselves, we exercise, we hum the melody of the earth. Venia opens her bag to take out her meal.
In the next morning we stand in a circle with our hands and hammers towards the sky when I hear a strange whirring noise coming from the direction of the sunset. Before I have time to turn, I notice a flying snake entangling around Clathax. No, I realize, it is a weapon made of rope and weights, meant for capturing.
Our skins cannot be pierced but these are perfect arms against us! Mixxo and Matho are also hit and ensnared before we have time to react. Their feet tied together, they fall to the ground.
One of them rides towards us, and I hit her with my mace. Wounded, she falls off her bird and retreats. I am about to walk right into the battle when Harox grabs my hand and pulls me away from the circle.
"Come protect me," Harox says, "while I take them down."
I take Venia's feathered palm, and drag her with us. We run behind some large rocks.
From that hiding place we try to see what is going on. A band of raiders moves around the circle riding on flightless birds. The raiders are dressed in blue shrouds that cover their heads and bodies, and yellow vests and trousers.
I have heard of The Shroud, but have never witnessed an attack by them before. They are a criminal organization harvesting crystal. From us. I have heard they take members from all peoples, as long as they have defeated an agurian.
Through their silk robes I observe tails, horns, fins and wings, indicating that they really are a mixed group of brigands. No agurians, though. At least that is what I tell myself.
There are a hundred Shroud raiders, maybe more.
The four-armed leader of the Shroud group barks orders at some of the others and they dismount approaching the ensnared agurians. Until they are stopped in mid-stride and whisked in the air backwards, landing on their backs or heads. That was Mixxo's telekinetic powers at work.
Next I look at Clathax and see the granite of his body become spiky and sharp, cutting through the ropes, releasing him. He gets up, and cuts the two others free. Matho puts his hands in his side, pulls a large black boulder from his body, and throws it with full force against the four-armed Shroud leader. She flies off her mount and falls to the ground painfully, crushed by the rock.
Now the three of them brandish their large crystal maces and walk towards their would-be captors ready to smash them.
A few of the Shroud raiders come towards us. Harox just stands and hums. I pull out my hammer, preparing for a fight. One hit at a raider or his mount is enough to disable the threat. I do not bother killing them, but let them scamper off, scared, as I move forward pummeling one bandit after another.
I see Mixxo telekinetically drawing enemies closer to him before destroying them with his mace. Matho swings his two-handed maul sweeping through many raiders with one blow. Clathax stuns Shroud warriors with one hand while hitting others with the mace in his other hand.
That's when I feel a tingling in my feet, and realize what Harox was doing. The ground starts to vibrate, and the Shroud mounts shriek and bolt, throwing many riders off their backs. As the earthquake becomes stronger, even us agurians have trouble hanging on.
We five Lightbearers will overcome the hundred Shroud raiders with ease!
"Torrax! Help!" It is Venia's voice. I turn around, and I see the Shroud was better prepared than I had thought. Some of their members have flying mounts, and even one of the raiders has wings like an insect. They have surprised Harox from behind, and have tied his arms with chain maces. The earthquake starts to subside as they throw a net over the old agurian, forcing him to fall down.
I run towards Harox and Venia, swinging furiously to force the flying raiders back. Venia speaks some words and a darkness appears from nowhere, similar to the one I saw earlier, but different. We are still there, but it is dark. Yet, I can see just fine.
"Quick! They can't see us now. Can't you do something?"
Together Venia and I rip the net off Harox. Then he grabs us tightly, and bends towards the ground. His large body completely covers us, forming a small cavern where I dimly see Venia's agitated face.
Soon the darkness lifts from around us. We hear the clawbeats and wingflaps of Shroud mounts getting closer, circling the large rock, and then returning to the others. They must have decided we got away.
"We must help them," I tell Harox.
"We have lost this battle, young one," he says. "We are the last of the Lightbearers, and I would not have all of our band taken."
"I cannot stay in hiding and listen to my friends being captured."
"Yet that is what you must do."
With that, we stay hidden but listen to the sounds of the dying battle. I hear Clathax yell furiously for them to release his hands. Apparently, his spikes cannot cut through the metal chain. I hear another agurian fall to the ground, perhaps Matho. Then, slowly, the sounds of battle stop.
The raiders laugh and talk loudly, until they start toiling at something. There are low scratching sounds, the noise of animals, and then silence.
We wait a little while before Harox stands up. It is as if a small cavern rose up and the sky suddenly appeared. The three of us run to the empty battleground.
It is too late. Everyone is gone, except for one. There is a large marble boulder wearing the remains of a silk cape. Mixxo is asleep, his crystals taken.
"Why did they do that?" Venia asks.
"Agura crystal is expensive," I tell her.
"They will take them to an oasis and sell it," Harox explains.
"And the others?"
"They will be taken to a city awake. There their crystals will be taken, their souls crushed, metal plates will be bolted in their skin. They will become stone monsters in service to other monsters."
We are silent for a while, trying not to think about that.
"And what was it you did, Harox?" Venia asks. "How did they not see us?"
"They did see me," Harox says. "They saw a large rock. Then they moved along."
"Thank you. Should we move Mixxo into a crypt?"
"No. He is not dead. We will leave Mixxo there to sleep. It will be many years until his crystals have grown enough for him to awaken."
Venia looks at Harox in awe, first immobile, then her beak moves a little, indicating a gentle nod of understanding.
We form a circle around the sleeping Mixxo, join hands, and sing a little tune. This time Venia joins us. After that we continue on our way towards Ata Cahay.
It is a glass pyramid which glows with same white light as Ata, the bigger of the moons. I believe the pyramid is named after the moon, but what its name means, I cannot say. I wonder if there is a blue pyramid somewhere named after Eti, the smaller moon. Or one mimicking sunlight.
The Lightbearers are the only friends and family I have ever known. They were my people. Now there are only two of us left here. Harox the wise master, and me, his pupil and ward. It is up to us to bring light into darkness, to find Lok Torr, and to awaken those whom the evil Xotho imprisoned there. Up to me.
I have lost many friends this day, but Harox is still with me. Suddenly a fear grips me: I feel certain that I will lose him, too, and soon. I would be by myself, not knowing what to do. No guardian to guide me. Lost and alone. I look at Harox who bears the loss of his companions much better than I do. Or does he?
"Harox?" He looks at me absentmindedly. "I am sorry they are asleep."
"It is the way of things", he says solemnly. As if that were that. But soon he turns to me, and says, "I am sorry, too. I will miss their company."
I place my hand on his cracked shoulder. It is cool to the touch even though she sun is already high and hot. I sense the bond between us strengthen.
I sense the rocks in my face move against each other involuntarily, grinding each other into white powder, which blows away in the wind.
"I didn't know Agurians can cry", Venia says.
"Now you do," I reply.
We walk in silence for a long time. This part of the Mutelands is desolate, with only a few spiky plants and nothing to offer shade. Venia has deviced herself a moving shade made of sticks and cloth. During the hottest part of the day we agree to rest a bit in the shadow of a cliff.
As we drink water, Venia asks about our quest. "Who are the agurians imprisoned in Lok Torr? Were they Lightbearers like you?"
"It is a history very meaningful to all agurians but perhaps most of all to us Lightbearers." And then Harox tells the story.
Many sleeps ago crystal was plentiful and all peoples lived in abundance. The Ancients built their machines which made life good for quothian and agurian alike. In their envy the Aox demons attacked the Ancients and drove them away. Their devices fell into disrepair, and peoples turned against each other. Yet everyone needed crystal, which only agurians produced.
The Amethyst Order was found to regulate the distribution of crystal, buying it from agurians, and selling it to those who needed it the most. That is why some, like the Shroud, also hunt us and take our crystals by force. It has become valuable. And it is no longer plentiful and there are those among all peoples who live in poverty and despair.
This was the world when Xotho awoke. He believed we agurians were superior to others. He allied himself with the Aox demons to carve an army as hard as granite and to build an empire as large as a mountain. Many agurians resisted, and since they also resisted the darkness of the Aox demons, they were called the Lightbearers.
Xotho imprisoned most Lightbearers into Lok Torr, leaving only a handful of us around. Then Xotho disappeared and his army and his empire crumbled like dry sand. Some say he saw the error in his ways. Others say he has merely withdrawn, planning for his return. He might simply be asleep somewhere. This was many years ago, before you were hatched.
We, the last of the Lightbearers have been looking for Lok Torr ever since, but no one knows where it is. When Torrax awoke, we took him in as our ward, teaching him the ways of the Lightbearers, waiting until he would remember Lok Torr. Why he should remember it, we cannot say, but we always knew he would. And now he has.
So the two of us, the last of the Lightbearers, will go to Lok Torr, and release the prisoners.
"Shall we continue?" asks Harox after ending his story. Without waiting for an answer, he sets off. Venia and I follow.
"So you've always been a Lightbearer?" asks Venia of me.
"You didn't decide to join them? You didn't feel a calling? You were just brought up to be one?"
"This is who I am. Of all the times to question my beliefs, why would I do it now, when everything I have been told has been proven? I have remembered Lok Torr just as they always said I would."
Venia clicks her beak together in a gesture I do not recognize. "I'm just saying, if they had told you that one day a quothian would come and take you to the battle in the Breach, you'd come with me. You'd find it normal, even."
I say nothing, since it sounds reasonable and wrong at the same time. Yes, if that were what my guardians told me. But they did not. I have no desire to battle the Aox demons, unless that is what the Lightbearers will do after the rest of them have been released. If Xotho has somehow escaped to the Breach, we would probably go there. But no one has ever said anything of the sort.
"I cannot leave the Lightbearers," I speak eventually.
"Who says you can't? The Lightbearers?"
"Yes." I feel stupid.
"Let me ask you something else," Venia goes on. "Is this the first time you have been awake?"
"No. I have slept many sleeps."
"Were you a Lightbearer before you last went to sleep?"
"I do not know. I remember nothing of my past wakes."
"Is that usual?"
"Yes. Most agurians do not remember their previous wakes. Not all of them, anyway. Which is why they are carved in our skins with runes and pictures."
"I noticed all the other Lightbearers had many runes on their skin", Venia says and pauses for a moment. "But your skin is smooth."
That is a difficult subject. I do not know why I have no runes. Years ago, I tried to search my body for some signs of them, but none were to be found, not even in my back between the crystals, or any other hard to reach place. I have no runes, but the Lightbearers tell me I have lived many wakes. I think the runes have been polished away by someone. Was it a part of some punishment I cannot remember? Maybe I was tortured by Xotho or his cronies?
As I ponder this, Venia puts her hand inside her bag where I know she keeps the skull of her Grandmother. "Yes, I thought as much," she says, to the skull.
That's when Harox stops. He has climbed on top of a dune and stays there silhouetted by the pale sky. We walk towards him. He points to the horizon where we see something glinting in the glow of the sun which hangs above it. The glowing pyramid Ata Cahay!
Between us and Ata Cahay the dry and barren Mutelands continues. Near Ata Cahay there are some trees, and we can make out the outlines of the roads leading there from the east and the south. We will reach Ata Cahay before nightfall if we make haste.
"Before we continue," says Venia. "I would like to tell you the story of my Grandmother."
Having said that, she pulls the skull from her bag. The skull with the big black eyes like holes of space without stars. They fill the world.
I am at the gates of Lok Torr in the Reflection Range. I give the order, and one of my followers carves a face and a rune with his hammer. I concentrate and raise my hands. My arms are overgrown with crystal, more than I have ever seen on anyone. I sense massive amounts of energy flow through me into the gate, until it glows tourqouise, and is locked forever.
I turn around and my followers look at me with fear and respect. They kneel. One of the rocks of the Reflection Range mirrors my image. I see I am covered in crystal, an Agura crystal given life. That is when I realize who I am. I am Xotho.
It was I who sealed all those agurians in. This is why all my runes were smoothed out. The Lightbearers are not just my guardians, they are my jailers. I am the enemy.
The realization brings me back.
It is dark and cold. Night has fallen on the Mutelands, only illuminated by the stars and the far away pulsating glow of Ata Cahay. Venia stands next to me, wrapped in a dark cape. Her large, white eyes seem like small Ata moons.
"You were gone a long time," she says. "When you were gone, they attacked again. The raiders."
The Shroud was here? Again? Why did they not harm me? Where is Harox? I look around and cannot see him. I call his name. There is no reply, only the howling of the desert wind.
"What happened? Where is Harox?"
"They got to him," Venia says, her voice breaking into a caw. "He protected me, but they got him. He's asleep now."
She turns her head and her beak points at a boulder that was not there before. Harox. I go to my guardian, my jailer, and put my hand on him. Cold to the touch as always. The light of the stars reflected in his crystals.
"Wait a minute," I say. "Why did they not take his crystals?"
"Something scared them away," she says. "I don't know what."
Could it have been my awareness of the power I used to command as Xotho? Could that have leaked from the memory to me and somehow scared away the Shroud raiders? Or was it Venia's skull? Or Ata Cahay?
There is too much to understand. I am Xotho. The Lightbearers were not my guardians and teachers, they were my captors. And now all of them are gone. Did the raiders really come here? Is Venia telling the truth? Should I follow her to this battle? And if I did, would I fight against the Aox demons like the Lightbearers? Or with them like Xotho? I feel tired.
"Let's sing for him," Venia says. It is a good idea. We stand around Horax, hold hands, and sing.
"Come with me," Venia says after the song.
"I must find Lok Torr", I tell her.
"We will find it together. It's the road that leads to the battle in the Breach. I told you it was prophesied. Let's go right now."
"I cannot see in the dark."
"I'll guide you."
With that she takes my hand and leads me towards the road leading south. I follow her.
Her other hand slides into her bag, and I can tell she is listening to the voice of her dead Grandmother.
I am the last Lightbearer, blind in the dark. She will show me the way.
"It's done," she whispers.