An Agemonia story by Mike Pohjola
They were perched on the treetop, inspecting the silk in the moonlight. Men had milked the speendles of their silk and woven it into cloth, but women had to make sure that the quality was sufficient. While they worked, Grandmother often told Venia stories her mother had told her. Stories from the past of the Quothians, stories known to the dead and few others.
"The world exists inside an egg. The earth and the Heartwood are the yolk. All the rivers and seas are the glaire. The upper part of the shell is heaven above with all its stars. The lower part of the shell is the shadowlands under us where the Aox demons live, those that would destroy the egg. It is upon us to protect the egg."
"Yes, Grandmother. But should an egg not be hatched?" asked Venia.
"You fool of a girl," cawed Grandmother her beak open. "If the world egg were hatched, what would become of us who live inside it? Never say such things again, do you understand?"
Venia turned her large eyes back on the moonlit silk.
Grandmother was a member of the Council of the Dead, and would sometimes allow Venia to follow her to Snag Plaza. Unlike most parts of the city, which existed on treetops and high branches, Snag Plaza was on the ground. It was surrounded by seven giant dead trees, old already when the first foremothers were hatched. Between the trees was an oval opening on which were the perches of the Council and an amphitheatre for the public. The perches were claw-shaped and made of a white material, which Grandmother called the stone of the Ancients. The amphitheatre was a later addition, made from greytree wood and lined with silk and decorated with glowmoss.
In the middle of the seven perches was a white pedestal, and on it a large black orb that reflected the light of the stars and the moon and the glowmoss. The orb was called the Egg of the Dead, and although it was not talked to, it was part of what gave the council meetings their sacral aura.
Venia sat hunched on the back aisle of the amphitheatre. Beside her were silk merchants, speendle farmers and journalists. In the better seats were generals, expert poison apothecharists, admirals, artists, healers, undertakers, and high-ranking male keepers. Obviously, no men were allowed in Snag Plaza.
The council consisted of seven venerable Quothian women, each older than the other. Their grey feathers were moulting, and sometimes missing altogether. Their beaks were chipped, their talons long and fragile, and their large eyes whiter than egg shells.
"All are present," declared the oldest of the chancellors with a shrill voice, "thus do I open this meeting of the Council of the Dead. May we heed the wisdom of those that came before us. And may we keep their knowledge for those that will come after us." She paused dramatically, and drew a whizzing breath before continuing. "Bring forth the foremothers!"
In the roots of each giant snag was a tunnel that, Venia knew, led deep underground. From each tunnel emerged an acolyte, a woman in black-and-grey robes and a hood over her eyes, carrying a skull of one of the seven foremothers of the Quothians.
A sense of calm and reverence swept through Venia when the foremothers arrived. She could feel herself connected to the mothers of her mothers, to the very roots of the earth, and to the world egg. She and all the Quothians were one. Past, present and future were all right there, surrounding everything and everyone. Venia felt a strong pull toward the snag of her mothers, but resisted it to follow the ceremony.
The acolytes could not see, but were telepathically guided in their steps by the foremother. They hung each skull on a hook in the same perch where their very old granddaughter sat waiting. With the foremothers now present, the Council of the Dead was complete.
"Welcome, foremothers," said the elder chancellor. "Once again, we beseech your advice. First is the matter of the raised tariff in Benem, which affects the profits from our silk trade. My foremother proposes we place Benem under a trade embargo until the tariff is lifted. Any other opinions?"
It was Venia's Grandmother's turn to speak. "Esteemed foremothers, good chancellors, it is the opinion of my foremother we should summon the Benemite ambassador in the Sky Hall, and discuss if the tariff could be lifted for silk."
"Will not the Amethyst Order protest this?" asked another chancellor. Whether she was speaking on behalf of her foremother was unclear.
The exciting part of the Council meeting was over. From now on, it was a mundane matter after another until dawn. Venia had great respect for the dead but using their wisdom for such trivial questions seemed to be a waste of a good foremother.
"I might as well be laying eggs for all the sitting I'm doing," she quipped to her neighbor, a slow-witted speendle farmer from Blindgrove.
Venia got up, and again felt a pull or a call from the snag of her mothers. The foremother had left the tunnel, but her own mother, and all her mothers' mothers would be there, waiting, eager to meet her again.
In the shadowlands, an Aox demon stirred.
Outside of burial ceremonies, entrance to the tomb was strictly forbidden from anyone but the acolytes and the dead themselves.
Venia did not plan to approach the snag but somehow her aimless preambulation had taken her to the thick twisting roots, as tall as she was. As all living eyes were concentrated on the council meeting, she could sneak to the tomb entrance and take a peek inside the tunnel.
The tunnel was like a black hole into the insides of the tree, into the bowels of the earth. She stared into the abyss. That was where her mothers' mothers were, waiting for her in the darkness.
"Come, daughter," said a voice from inside.
Venia decided not to step in, but took a step closer to hear better. Her clawed hands were clutching the snag roots, and she felt as if she could see something in the darkness. As a Quothian she could see quite well at night, but the darkness in the tomb was different. Cold and shapeless, hard to make sense of.
She could hear the call again, but knew she had to turn back. As she looked behind her, she realized the exit was already far. She had entered the tunnel without realizing it, and taken dozens of steps inside. She had already entered the tomb.
Having already transgressed, there would surely be no harm in going a little further, she told herself. The ground was firm under her talons. The walls of the tunnel were cold and moist to the touch. The smell of still air and earth hung heavy in the corridor, mixed with some scent she did not recognize.
The tunnel winded counter-clockwise, and down, down, ever down. She had only been there once, when her mother had been buried. First she entered an oval room, with empty pedestals. There was nothing in that room, so she pressed on, further down.
The next oval room was where she found her mother. Her skull was white and shiny, resting on the black silk cloth Venia herself had placed on the pedestal at the burial ceremony. In her beak, the red flower placed there by Grandmother.
Mother had been killed five years ago by masked Benemite brigands. She hated those feline nestrobbers!
Next to the flower-beaked skull were Venia's mother's aunt and grandmother. And there were some empty pedestals, too, reserved for Venia and her Grandmother, and some others.
"Come, daughter." She had thought the voice would have been her mother's, but no. It came from still further down.
There was a doorway in the other end of the tomb with a winding tunnel leading down again to a tomb where her mothers' mothers from centuries ago had been buried. She had never been this far down, but could no longer resist.
This tomb was much like the one above it, except this time there was a faint glow from the next doorway, and the air grew denser. She hurried through the next doorway, down the winding tunnel, and into a new tomb, this time with walls not of earth, but of the stone of the Ancients. The tomb was lit and perfumed by a gigantic egg on the opposite wall. She had seen a similar azure glow before in the agura powered platforms sometimes used for transport and in some other devices of the Ancients. Probably the egg was laid by the same people who made those devices. Were the foremothers the Ancients?
In front of the egg were several pedestals, one of which was empty. That was, of course, the one from where the acolyte had taken the foremother. The other pedestals were occupied by skulls of the foremother's daughters and those of their daughters. These, she knew, were called the Urskulls, and the acolytes would sometimes relay messages from them.
"Come, daughter." She looked around. Was the call coming from the egg? No. It was one of the Urskulls who had bid her here.
She kneeled in front of the beaked skull colored light blue by the light of the egg, and looked into its eye holes. There was nothing but shadow there. Yet she knew this was the one, this was the mothers' mother who had called here.
"Pick me up, daughter," said the Urskull in her mind.
Her claws gently clutching the frail bone, she lifted the Urskull from its pedestal. She could feel an immediate connection, to her mothers' mother, to the world egg. The azure glow and the heavy scent were no longer alien but pleasant and empowering.
"Look into my eyes, daughter," spoke the Urskull.
She did as she was bid. She peered deep into that darkness, and stood there for a long time, wondering, fearing, doubting. Dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before. The silence was unbroken.
The darkness in the empty eye sockets seemed to grow and engulf her whole. The experience was scary, like a nightmare. She saw the Heartwood burning, the Snag Plaza on fire, the First Tree aflame. Soon all of the city and all of the land were in cinders, reduced to a wasteland like Crowland up north.
Then she saw quothians fleeing in panic, feathers burning, chaotically running or riding bactyls, escaping their own homeland. Grandmother tried to run to her but was burnt to death before she could reach her.
The experience was horrifying but distant as well. She moved without moving, pulling back from it all, first slow, then faster and faster, until the whole world curved in on itself, and she could see the world egg floating in the darkness. The world egg became more and more distant until it was nothing but a speck, and then it, too, disappeared.
She saw darkness and nothing more.
It was the eye socket. She was standing in the tomb, looking at the Urskull.
"You have seen the future, daughter," said the Urskull in her mind. "One that you must stop."
"If it is the future, how can I stop it?"
"A possible future then," spoke the Urskull.
"So, it was not the future?"
"It will be, lest you act."
"More like a prophecy, then? Or a premonition? A threat, even?"
"Are you trying to be clever, daughter?"
"The Heartwood and the World Egg will be destroyed, lest you act. Can we agree on that?"
"Good. There is much I would tell you. Do you know what the Aox demons are?"
"They are the shadows that would enter the world through the gates which our people guard. They would set the Heartwood ablaze and destroy the World Egg."
"Yes. But your people have failed. Your grandmother and her mothers have failed. Do you understand?"
"The foremothers who advice the Council of the Dead are not the spirits of long dead quothians. They are Aox demons who secretly rule over your people. You are the instruments of the World Egg's demise."
At that Venia was silent. Surely this could not be true. But why would an Urskull lie about it? Did Grandmother know? She could not have. If this were true, Grandmother would be nothing but a demon puppet. And it would be upon her to rescue her people, and the World Egg.
I have so many questions for you, Grandmother, she was about to say. But before she could speak, a sharp voice yelled from the other end of the tomb. "Put down the Urskull!"
In the shadowlands an Aox demon felt disturbed.
The unhooded acolyte approached Venia menacingly, the skull of their foremother in her hands. Venia had no business being there, but perhaps she could have talked her way out of trouble. The acolyte Malka was, after all, her distant cousin, and they had known each other as children.
But looking at the acolyte she knew the Urskull had spoken the truth. The drawn hood revealed the horrible face. The down growth had been burnt with fire leaving only scarred tissue around the beak and the eyes. And the eyes. Completely punctured and blinded, as if two bad eggs were sticking out of Malka's face. No foremother could have demanded this of their daughter. It had to be the work of Aox demons.
Malka was holding the foremother's skull like a weapon. Venia noticed she was doing the same with the Urskull.
"You must defeat her," said the Urskull. "The demon controls her."
"Yes, Grandmother," replied Venia.
Doubtless, Malka the acolyte was going through a similar dialogue in her mind with the Aox demon. Venia had no desire to hurt her cousin, but somehow felt Malka was not a quothian anymore, but a demon pawn, impersonal and worthless, one who deserved no mercy.
Venia kicked the blind acolyte with her taloned foot, but Malka ducked expertly. The demon must give her some extrasensory abilities, Venia realized.
Malka clutched the foremother harder, and an azure light started to shimmer in its eye sockets. Soon the luminescence from the giant egg grew brighter, as well, and Venia could feel their energies draining her own life force. She tried to run, but was too weary.
"Malka, please, stop!" she pleaded, but for naught. Her cousin was silhouetted against the huge egg. The egg radiated its unnatural light which seemed to concentrate in Malka's skull and from there emanate straight towards Venia. It pained her, weakened her, sucked the life and light out of her.
She was ready to give up when the Urskull in her claws shifted a little. Or maybe she shifted it. Malka's rays of painful light were sucked into the Urskull. It was as if it ate all the light from the foremother and the egg, since soon the whole tomb grew dimmer.
Venia could see the acolyte turning her head in incomprehension. There was a moment of neither quothian knowing what would transpire before the Urskull shot the light back at Malka who flew against the egg with the foremother. In a lightning flash of light, a pungent smell of smoke and Agura and a cry of pain, and then Venia could see, smell nothing. The aroma hung in the air but slowly subsided as Venia's vision came back.
She was alone in the tomb with the Urskull in her lap, and the giant egg slowly pulsating with azure energy.
"Do you believe me now, daughter?" asked the Urskull.
In the shadowlands one Aox demon wrestled control over a gate from another.
The Urskull explained to Venia the eggs are gates which she must close. To do so she would have to take the Urskull itself into the vortex on the other side of the world, and cast it there. The Urskull would be destroyed, but the Heartwood saved. This was the purpose of the quothians, and the only way to protect the world egg.
But she was still inside the tomb, and surely many quothians would still linger in the Snag Plaza, not the least of whom her grandmother. The live one.
She walked through the skull-lined halls, slowing down to bid final farewell to her mother, and kept ascending. The room after her mother's tomb was empty. But only for now, she realized. This is where they will someday bury my daughters' daughters.
If I am successful.
And if I am ever allowed to return.
A melancholy feeling took over her. She realized she might leave her hometown and Heartwood forever. Was it really worth it? It had to be. What is the happiness of one quothian compared to the survival of the entire world egg?
In the darkness she brushed her feathers, buttoned her dark blue robe, and prepared to face her grandmother, and then finally, to escape Heartwood.
"Are you all right?" asked the Urskull.