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Fulmin grimaced and spluttered as grit and brimstone irritated his already ravaged throat. He carefully took a mouthful of water from his flask and peered out from the high, igneous pockmark in which he was housed, across the smouldering expanse of the TzHaar City. Twisted formations of rock furled upwards like claws from the concave hollow of the volcano, distorted ethereally at their roots by the heat from magma reservoirs, and inscribed with glyphs that glowed like embers. Lava bled from abstract, alien sculptures; the dull radiance from below deepening their strange shapes with shadow. The roar of the molten rock was punctuated with the clash of obsidian and granite from the Fight Pits and the claps and bangs of air suddenly crashing into preternatural vacuums - the aftershocks of the fierce, primal pyromancy of the TzHaar-Mej.
A scorching updraft caught his face and brought tears to his eyes. If anywhere on Gielinor was akin to the Infernal Dimensions - the Demon Worlds - this was it. If nothing else, it served as an excellent reminder of what awaited him, should he fail.
Fulmin and his party had arrived earlier that day. As they had reached the end of the tunnel, he had exhaled hoarsely and shielded his eyes against the wall of hot air that rushed to greet them.
Kolm, the son of a blacksmith, was unperturbed by the dry heat. Instead, he had glanced around, snorted derisively and barked, to no-one in particular, that somewhere in this damnable sweat-pit there must be a place for a man to fill his belly with food and ale. He had barrelled toward the nearest inhabitant of the city - a squat, broad being of stone and magma with a rolling orb in place of legs - shouting and gesticulating as he went.
Rodrig, Fulmin’s other companion, had glanced back, shaken his head scornfully and growled that old men who couldn't keep up were liable to be left in a ditch with their throats cut.
Fulmin had said nothing, watching as Rodrig loped away like a wolf. He knew that Kolm and Rodrig had been lured here by gold, produced via alchemy and paid on arrival at the destination, as well as the rumour of perpetual battle and plunder in a city populated by giants of stone and magma. He knew enough of the pair's reputation to know that Rodrig's threats were not empty ones, and he would waste no time in producing their payment. If it came to it, he was confident that his magic was enough to kill both in a head-to-head fight, but his body was becoming slow and weak, and it was inconceivable to take such an unnecessary risk. Of course, neither knew Fulmin’s true purpose in coming to the city; they saw him as a frail mage with coin to spend and little time left in which to indulge the wanderlust of his twilight years. He had no intention of discouraging that belief. Fulmin had lived on Gielinor for around four lifetimes of men, and his original name no longer mattered. He had been a sage of sorts; a caster of bones, purveyor of salves, cures and potions; and a medium for departed spirits. He had ministered to the dead and the dying for most of his life, and the idea of taking that final, inevitable step into the dark himself had been too much to bear. He had convened with all manner of spirits and otherworldly entities on the subject, but none could offer the answer he sought - until he had raised the demon, Razmus.
Razmus had introduced himself as a minor envoy from the Infernal Dimensions, although he appeared as an elderly man with a kindly face, and had spoken to him as if an old friend. Razmus spoke of Death as a dark watchman, whose patrols in the night were unrelenting, and whose gaze fell on everyone eventually. Fulmin had laughed then, and boasted that he would evade that watchman with wit, guile and blood, if need be, and that the demons could take him if he was proven wrong. Razmus had smiled and said "Then consider this a gift," before disappearing in a flash of blinding light that burned images of torment into his vision as it faded. He had known the demon’s gift then: he could transfer his soul to another's body, usurping his host’s consciousness and taking the body for himself. He had known that if he did not prolong his life in this way, then his suffering would be eternal.
His first victim had been a militiaman, whose head had been nodding with fatigue as he stood at his post on the night watch. He remembered guilt, at first, but fear had been stronger, and eventually it had given way to acceptance. His latest adopted identity, Fulmin, was a seer and archaeologist - an unassuming personage whose profession afforded him an academic legitimacy. Prior to the invasion of this body, Fulmin had been researching Karamjan folk legends and the travel logs of pioneers, which described an ancient race known as the TzHaar; inherently martial, yet insular and non-aggressive, with a unique trait of hereditary memory. As Fulmin's body had become frail and elderly, the prospect of obtaining a resilient, long-lived body of stone with the inborn memories of a whole civilisation had grown in his mind from an amusing conceit to an irresistible opportunity, and he had hired the mercenaries Kolm and Rodrig to escort him on the journey, paying them a sum up front and promising more on his safe delivery.
Now, they were meeting to settle the account. Fulmin sat with Kolm and Rodrig in their impromptu hostel, which Kolm had begrudgingly located when his bullish approach to diplomacy was met with indifference by the city's artisan caste - the TzHaar-Hur. Fulmin had wandered the cavernous expanse of the city and had spoken with the TzHaar-Mej, who, he had determined, were the nearest things to administrators here. He had discovered that TzHaar memories were indeed passed on from generation to generation, and that life went on much as it had for millennia. The isolation of the volcano meant that little changed, and, when it did, it was the task of the TzHaar-Mej to ensure that the TzHaar way of life was preserved.
"Far's I can see," - Kolm's face was flushed, and he spoke through mouthfuls of what looked like the haunch of a giant mole - "They're ants. Big, bloody ants made of rock and fire."
Rodrig’s face contorted and he spat a half-masticated wad of gristly meat onto the ground. Any vestige of dandyism from his privileged upbringing in Varrock had been hammered out of him by 30 years on the road, and he was now a cruel, bitter man with a face like a weather-beaten cliff.
"Stunning insight, Kolm," he sneered. "Took you all day to come up with that?"
"Stow yer jibes, Rodrig. Who was securin' the meat while you flounced around talkin'? I stopped by to watch the Fight Pits for a spell s’well. Those - whaddaya call 'em - TzHaar-Ket; they look tough, right enough, but I reckon a few blows from me hammer'd see 'em right."
Rodrig sighed, pushed aside his plate and lounged back.
"Well, I see no real prospects here - they've no interest in trade, and all they have are deposits of onyx and unwieldly weapons anyway. Worse, the only currency they are interested in are these."
Rodrig tossed two small, round discs of obsidian onto the table. They clattered across the plinth that served as the group's table, and one of the discs touched Fulmin's hand. He yelped and leapt up out of his seat. Rodrig's brow raised in vague interest, and his mouth curled slightly at the edges.
"They say these TokKul are made from the vanquished forebears of the TzHaar." He leaned closer, chuckling. "What's wrong, old man? See a ghost?"
Fulmin clutched his hand and ground his teeth. His hand had only brushed against the TokKul for an instant, but he felt sick and shaken to his very core. From the TokKul came a sense of compression to an infinitesimal point, and of falling into a void. He had felt fear and disorientation before - upon the passing of his victims, or while conversing with spirits - but never anything like this. He tried to move, but stumbled, steadying himself on the table with trembling hands. Kolm brayed with laughter. "Rodrig, the old sod don't look so good. Good job we got an advance on what he owes us, eh?"
Rodrig snorted. "The pittance wasn't worth that journey. He said there'd be a fortune to be made on a new frontier, and, yet, here we are in the rock garden of the Abyss." He sneered, his malice spurred on by fatigue and the heat. "Do us a favour, Fulmin - head down to the Fight Pits after you pay us and die with some pride."
Fulmin’s stomach churned, and it was all he could do not to vomit. He glared across the table: "It's always the same... Those who deal out death are the ones with the least idea of what it means."
"Sent plenty a man to his end, mage," grinned Kolm, before tearing off another hunk of charred flesh with his teeth. "It's simple enough to me."
Fulmin pulled himself up on his staff. He detached a heavy pouch of gold from his belt, tossed it onto the table and turned to make his way, slowly, to the chamber's exit.
Fulmin staggered through the labyrinthine streets of the TzHaar City. He nursed a sore head and he was finding it hard to breathe. A passing TzHaar-Ket slowly turned his head toward Fulmin, before thrumming in a voice like millstones grinding together:
"Begone from streets of TzHaar City, JalYt-Mej, if you are too weak to stand."
Fulmin waved his hand dismissively and grunted. The guard paused, the glowing magma that wreathed the stone segments of his head and shoulders pulsing with plumes of flame, before turning his head forward and continuing in his slow, loping gait.
Fulmin continued past some TzHaar-Mej whispering in their strange, guttural, clicking tongue, exchanging TokKul for floating orbs, which he had discovered were, effectively, books.
He reached the Birthing Pools, where the stalagmites grew upwards and bloomed, nestling the TzHaar eggs in geothermal funnels. He knew that each being emerging from the eggs would remember everything that their forebears knew - everything, except the experience of death; the end of their lives would be the only experience completely new to them.
The pounding in Fulmin's head became impossible to ignore. His limbs were too heavy to continue onwards. He felt more tired than he could ever remember feeling, and the edges of his vision darkened even as his knees were still buckling and his head was bowing toward the ground.
When Fulmin awoke, he found himself in a small chamber, lit by a few dim, luminescent stones. They were fragmented and piled in clumps, as if they had been scavenged from elsewhere. He tried to stand, and winced as he hit his head on the ceiling. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he looked more closely at what he had thought to be a rocky outcropping, and saw that it was watching him. "Who’s that?" he called, "Is someone there?"
"I am here, JalYt-Mej." The voice sounded like the slow, clattering descent of scree, and spoke the common tongue haltingly. "Do you have knowing of how you are here?"
Fulmin moved stiffly onto his knees and strained to see into the shadows. In the corner of the small chamber stood what looked very much like a TzHaar, but smaller than even the least imposing TzHaar-Hur, and with a pale, lucent shimmer where a TzHaar’s eyes usually burned. Its size, as well as its lack of illumination from any lava core, meant that the creature was able to make itself near-invisible.
"No... I do not. Do you have a name? What is your caste?"
"No name. No caste. "
"No caste? How do you not have a caste?"
"First knowing was coming from egg. Before, there was... nothing - no before. No knowing of caste – no knowing of how to be TzHaar."
Fulmin shook his head to clear it, and attempted to process this information. If what this creature said was true - that it had no memory - it represented a fundamental shift in the TzHaar civilisation.
"The TzHaar – what do they say about you?"
"TzHaar-Mej say that my egg too cold. Not know why it happen – never happen before in knowing of ancestors. The one who made egg... Great, powerful TzHaar-Ket... He say it great shame to wear shape of TzHaar but be empty, hollow. He call me "Ga’al-Rek" and leave me."
"And now you live here?"
"Yes. TzHaar-Mej say it best for me to return to stone."
"They say you should die?"
"Yes – through Fight Pits or Caves, maybe - say it only way Ga'al can be as TzHaar. But I not wish to. I become stone; stay still and be as rocks, hide in tunnels, watch. Watch TzHaar; watch JalYt, when they come from above. Collect knowing, same as collect food or light stones."
"When I see you – great JalYt-Mej – and I see you cracked, almost returning to stone, I help. I bring you here. Bring cave fish. Bring water. Keep cold. Help."
"Why help me?"
"JalYt-Mej great collector of knowing. Collect knowing from here and from...above. JalYt-Mej might share some knowing."
Fulmin laughed until tears streamed from his eyes. Ga'al-Rek watched, with an expression of what could only have been concern.
"I’m sorry, my fine little fellow. It’s just that of all the humans – JalYt – that you could have asked, I am probably the most like the TzHaar."
"I do not understand..."
"The problem with this city is that they see everything with old eyes. Everything that can happen here, they’ve seen before, or can remember seeing long before. They see no value in new things, or in seeing old things in new ways. When they have no choice but to do either, they destroy. It is much the same with me."
Ga'al-Rek said nothing and simply stood, expectantly.
"What I mean is that I’m not the one to teach you anything. I’m a coward and a fool, and an old one at that, but it’s too late for me to be anything else. Knowledge passed on is all well and good, but knowledge gained for oneself is a precious thing. If what the TzHaar-Mej say is true, you are the only one of your people in the privileged position of innocence – in possession of a mind free for the shaping through your own experience alone. You must leave this place and journey to the world above."
The beads of light that were the Ga’al’s eyes pulsed brighter for a second.
"I leave? See the surface? But...how? I do not know the way..."
"I can show you. Follow me."
"You come to surface too?"
Fulmin smiled. "Would that I could. As I said, it’s too late for me."
Fulmin crawled his way out of the tunnel and out through one of the many porous holes in the rock surrounding the Birthing Pools, with the Ga’al close behind. For the first time that he could remember, there was a spring in his step and he felt excited and purposeful. He would lead the Ga’al to the exit – the skeletons and scorpions in the tunnels and jungle above would be no threat to a being of stone – and send him on his way. For good or ill, this creature was bound to be a force for change. Perhaps one day the Ga’al would return and shake the foundations of this city.
Fulmin decided that he would stay. He would await one of the TzHaar-Xil on the way out to a hunting trip, or one of the TzHaar-Hur on a maintenance task, before ambushing them and claiming the body for his own, beginning the cycle anew. He would stay here - perhaps for good. It wasn't quite the perdition he knew he deserved, but it was the closest thing that he could face.
Keeping to the shadows, Ga'al-Rek managed to remain unseen, while Fulmin kept a steady pace, using his staff as a walking stick. It was upon arrival at the archway leading to the surface tunnel that they heard a loud voice resonating through the tunnels. "Ullo there – what’s this, then?"
Fulmin froze. Ga'al-Rek had emerged from the shadows to seek further guidance,and stood in the open with him.
Kolm stood with one clenched fist resting on his hip, and the other hand on the grip of his heavy, iron maul, which rested behind his head, across his broad shoulders. Rodrig sauntered up beside him, grinning humourlessly.
"A little old to be getting your first pet, aren’t you, Fulmin?"
"What do you want, Rodrig?"
"The TzHaar-Mej’ve put out a bounty on what they’re calling a Ga’al – a little TzHaar without memories, or some such rot. Anyway, turns out the city has the odd gold deposit, and the Mej are more than willing to part with it if we can flush the slippery wretch out of his hole and bring him to them discreetly. Seems like our venture might not be a total loss after all." Kolm, hefted his maul in both hands, "I say the wizard has an accident during the capture. Keep things tidy, like."
"Indeed." Rodrig wound the drawing mechanism of his crossbow.
Fulmin laughed hoarsely, his staff clattering to the floor. "Gentlemen – thank you."
Kolm’s brow furrowed. "Eh?"
The veins on Fulmin’s temples pulsed and swelled alarmingly; his skin became near translucent and clung unnaturally closely to his gaunt face, and his pupils dilated before turning bright crimson. He smiled blissfully, and flexed his joints with a crackling cacophony, as arcs of dark energy played around his frame. Kolm was already rushing forwards, bellowing and raising his maul to strike, and Rodrig was levelling his crossbow with shaking hands. The Ga'al backed away, crouching among the nearby rocks.
"Thank you for giving me no choice," said Fulmin.
For a time, after the sounds of battle fell silent, Ga'al-Rek did not move. When he opened his eyes, he saw that Kolm lay slumped against the nearby rock-face; he had been crushed against the hard surface with great force, and his neck was broken. Rodrig lay with his knees brought up to his chest and his hands clamped firmly to his ears; his eyes bulging and his skin pale. It was clear from his face that he had died screaming.
Fulmin stood still among the bodies. A crossbow bolt that had been embedded in his shoulder clattered to the ground, and the flesh surrounding the wound knitted itself together languorously. He seemed imposingly tall, and Ga’al-Rek found that he dared not look directly at the mage.
"Ga’al-Rek..." Fulmin spoke quietly, but his voice echoed sonorously in Ga’al-Rek’s ears. "I know you’re there."
Ga’al-Rek did not emerge from his hiding place, and said nothing.
"You are free, Ga’al-Rek. Go from this place, and leave these people who want you dead for their own convenience. There is much to see on the surface."
Ga’al-Rek shook. He called out to Fulmin, his voice trembling:
"You are wrong, JalYt-Mej. That is not TzHaar way. Yes, they wish me to enter Fight Pits - to live life as true TzHaar in only way that Ga'al can. They wish only to preserve TzHaar way, as it has been throughout their knowing. If this is JalYt way – deceit, betrayal, no honour – then I wish not to know."
"I – I wish to stay. I wish to be as stone – to watch, and to collect knowing of the city. When there is no more knowing to be had, I will enter the Fight Pits...as TzHaar."
"Ingrate and fool," Fulmin hissed, "I bleed for your freedom, and this is what you do with it." He turned, the crimson pits of his eyes scouring the clutch of rubble in which Ga’al-Rek had obscured himself. The darkness surrounding Fulmin crept out along the ground as tendrils of shadow. "Very well, Ga’al-Rek. We will both remain here...and you will know such things."
Ga’al-Rek was frozen to the spot and could not look away as Fulmin slowly approached. Then, Fulmin stopped. His brow creased, and his mouth opened as if in shock. He fell forward, and it was only when he hit the ground that Ga’al-Rek saw the toktz-xil-ul embedded in Fulmin’s back.
The TzHaar-Xil leapt from the ledge on which he had been perched and landed gracefully, crouching on all six limbs, his jagged tail lashing. He surveyed the area as he rose to his hind legs, and the lava of his core ignited, briefly shrouding his form in flame.
"Foul JalYt sorcery..." he growled as he retrieved his weapon. He peered, for a moment, at the mound of broken stone before the mage’s body, before slipping away, confident that no threat to the city remained. Ga’al-Rek knew that he could not remain where he was. Soon, the TzHaar-Mej would be informed of the incident, and the TzHaar-Hur would arrive to clear the bodies and repair the damage, and then he would have nowhere to hide. He turned, and made his way back to the infernal maw of the TzHaar City, where lava still crashed into great reservoirs; where heat still rose in ethereal currents; and where he was as stone.
A Return to Stone
|Lores and Histories||