Av, Second Rotation, 5099
rating: +10+x

Chronicle of Ulak the Drifter

Annotated by Shahrazad Keret

Av, Second Rotation, 5099

This is my written portrait of Aníbal the necromancer. He is gaunt, his skin a cold, pale surface that clings tightly to his prominent cheekbones and reminds me of the underbelly of serpents. A firm, bony nose stands above a set of full lips, his sharp and angular jaw ending in a strong chin. Dark circles surround his eyes like the orbits of dead planets, half-moons of a night unknown; I cannot tell whether they are the fruit of weariness or the brand of one who has seen too much. His eyes are as polished orbs of obsidian, their blackness rivaling the expanse of the interstellar space through which our spaceship now soars— a seemingly empty void that conceals one million points of light, glints of Aníbal's true prowess.

Aníbal's voice betrays nothing but focus, his words bearing a gravitas that clashes against his diminutive human frame. But his is not the voice of a leader or a commander, and his words are not spoken with authority. Instead, I notice in his speech an edge of brutal determination, a drive to fulfill his mission at any and all costs, disregarding anything but the dictates of his will: Aníbal dreams not of a crown on his head, but of a knife between his hands. Everything else is but a distraction, a small fun he allows himself in-between schemes.

Such is the truth I first encountered in the Archives below the Sacred Library of Idhai, the truth of a young prodigy of the occult arts, of a silent master of subterfuge, of a procurer of razor-fine retribution to those who oppose his Lord's will. Men like Aníbal are both makers and destroyers, agents of change who herald strange eons. For this, I find him unnerving, his every expression an eerie shift in a mask tempered by years of service. A fearful chill strikes my spine like frigid lightning when I remember the magical array carved upon his back, proof of his single-minded pursuit of knowledge and power. What secrets he holds — what horrors he has witnessed and imparted upon others — I know not. I know, however, that my dread is rarely unwarranted, and that there is always far more lurking under the surface of a person than they care to reveal.

Admittedly, what I have seen so far beneath Aníbal's harsh exterior tells me little about the countless layers of his psyche, or about his life and experiences. Though I intend to learn and record more about my unexpected companion as we march further into our journey, I would not be surprised if the necromancer refuses to divulge anything that does not amount to pleasantries. Still, I believe that we are off to a good start considering the circumstances that originated our partnership. That a secretive creature has made himself affable and cordial in conversation — even though he is not here of his own volition — is not to be taken lightly: I am to confide in Aníbal while on a very dangerous adventure, so it is of paramount importance that we get along. I hope that the trust we build will not be eclipsed by his master's designs— or by his own.

"Do you like space?" Aníbal asked as we sped through the blackness. Idhai and its sun grew more and more distant until they were nothing but specks amidst an endless backcloth of stars. It had been only a few hours since we had boarded the spaceship and set the coordinates for Maruel, the closest warp gate in the solar system. Our vessel — built for speed and stealth — was rather small, capable of housing no more than five people, and what few rooms it possessed were rather utilitarian and nondescript. The only features worth noticing beyond its powerful engine and (according to Aníbal) nigh-impenetrable hull were the great portholes that dominated either side of the common room, windows into the great darkness outside. It was there that my companion had sat silently for hours, gazing into the void as if this gave him clarity. When I finally dared to approach him, he did not turn to address me; he formulated his question as if we had been speaking for a long time.

"I do," I said with caution, for I was unsure what to make of his sudden inquiry.

"Why?" he asked in response, his eyes lost somewhere beyond the porthole.

The closest points of light seemed impossibly distant. All around us, dead stars sang a necrotic melody of unhearable noise, the echoes of their last throes. The inhospitable nothingness outside was absolute, separated from us by a few layers of metal and crystal. We were intruders in its vastness, tresspassers of the abyss.

"I find it calming," I answered after a few moments. "It is a serene place, devoid of everything except for oneself. Here — amidst the stars — the silence is unlike anywhere else: it allows me respite from the noises of the living, from the countless experiences I chronicle every waking day. The stories the asters tell are not made of words, but of sights that must be witnessed, a myriad of pieces that seem discordant but are in truth a great harmony, a colossal mosaic of cosmic phenomena. In joining the silence, my eyes are opened to the truth of the cosmos: emptiness is an illusion, for this dark ocean is full of secret whispers, sown with worlds uncountable, ripe with mysteries that might never be answered. Space gives me peace, for I know that every light in its dark mantle is a wonder yet to be known."

Aníbal was quiet for what seemed like an eternity, savoring my answer. His lips curved upwards in a faint smile, but still his gaze remained fixed on the stars.

"I think it's lonesome," he said at last. "That is what I like about space. I agree with you: out here there is nothing and no one to be found for light-years, only what you bring along for the journey. A man can find himself in the silence— or be forever lost."

The necromancer paused and stood from his seat, placing a hand on the glass as if he were trying to touch the dark matter on the other side.

"My parents used to tell me stories about the great darkness, about the cold indifference of the stars," Aníbal continued. "They said that here — amidst the cosmic stillness, within this silent night that stretches into infinity — only the strong survive. Back then, I thought they spoke about those creatures whose bodies can endure the waves of stellar radiation and the frigid embrace of nothingness. Now I know that the same can be said of civilizations: empires lay claim to swaths of vacant territory, defending every light-year with force and diplomacy, hoping that what worlds they can grasp will not slip between their fingers. The further they reach, the more they are stretched thin— the more they risk collapse. It takes much strength to build an empire, and it takes far more to keep it. In the end, only the chosen few remain."

"And you think the same is true of people?" I dared to ask. "Do you think only the strongest of us can survive among the stars?"

"Out here you can either learn great truths about yourself, or float aimlessly forever. Amongst my species, space is merely a place of transition," he mused. "It is either the path between us and our destination, or an obstacle that we must overcome. That is why we built the warp gates and the hyperspace lanes— we've bent the cosmos to our will, shaped it to suit our needs."

"But not everyone can truly spend their entire life amongst the stars," I said. "We all must eventually find safe harbor, pause and rest before heading again into the cosmos."

"And that is why space is so lonesome," Aníbal said. "Few can claim absolute dominion of space— and even fewer can truly call it home.

He paused.

"Have you heard about Leviathans, Ulak?"1

"Of course," I responded. "And not only that: I have witnessed them as they roam through the intersellar abyss. The existence of beings as large as continents, yet as discreet as shadows, never ceases to amaze me. What magnificent creatures they are!"

Aníbal finally turned to look at me. The faint smile on his face had grown into a wide grin.

"Lucky you! I have always wanted to see a Leviathan: then I would be the one telling stories to my parents."

He sighed as if regaining his composure, almost as if he had overshared in a rare moment of unbridled emotion.

"I admire them, Ulak. Not just because of their power and size, but because they thrive. Here, in the most inhospitable of places, the Leviathans prosper and fulfill their purpose: to seed planets with the life they carry within. Through their deaths — the ultimate hardship — they herald the passing of ages and the beginning of entire worlds. I can think of few purposes as noble as theirs."

I chuckled. "It sounds like you wish to be as they are, a seeder of worlds, a harbinger of change!"

There was something reassuring in the necromancer's blooming openness— perhaps the beginnings of trust that we would so desperately need when on Amvat. I felt inclined to encourage him.

"No, no," Aníbal laughed. "My goals are much more humble, though I too must be tested against great odds: I merely want to help Lord Mortis preserve the Immortal Empire, to keep my people safe from danger."

"And the odds you face?"

The necromancer sat back down on a chair, inviting me to do the same. From his robe he took out a small but thick book, its leather covers tinged fiery red: it was The Book of Idolaters, its pages copied from the original text into a pristine replica.

"Archmage Mortis spent ages searching for this tome, and made many sacrifices to acquire it," Aníbal said. "This book will be my— our guide. Ancient nightmares are recorded here, from the fall of Tevak to the agonies of recent times."

He flipped the book open on the first page and pointed at some carefully written marginalia.

"Here," he said. "Lord Mortis and I made some notes on what we should look for and— shit, I haven't even told you what I'm actually looking for, have I?"

"The ancient ruins of Tevak," I recalled.

"Well, yes, but it's not just about the ruins!" He tore through the tome, delicate but furious, searching. "It's more about the reason why the city was destroyed. See, The Book of Idolaters is nothing but a compilation — an anthology if you fancy — of stories. These are stories about people and civilizations following a path of destruction and doom, egged on by a force come into their minds, into their dreams."

"I thought you meant 'nightmares' in a metaphorical sense."

"I wish!" Aníbal snickered morbidly. "Mad artists and cursed poets, villages and empires, fools and kings— they all fell prey to the thing waiting for them in their slumber, the force or entity they call The One in Moonlight."

Now he pointed at an illustration of a great orb of light beaming over a shadowed figure of indeterminate shape and features, little more than a diffuse blot amidst the aster's terrible luminescence. An eerie feeling came about me, as if my mind was instinctively trying to attribute a face to that nameless, alien thing. The more I stared at it, the more the feeling crawled its way into my chest, clutching my hearts with weird coils. The One in Moonlight, whatever it was, seemed to gaze back at me with no eyes, its presence felt even through those pages, beckoning.

Aníbal changed the page, breaking the spell instantly.

"Sorry about that," he said. "It's easy to get mesmerized by it if you look for too long. My apologies. I really should know better; cursed books and I go a long way back."

"How do you plan on stopping such a thing?" I gasped. My lungs burned like I had not breathed in minutes, and I gulped greedily and warily, disturbed by the effect the book — a mere replica — had wreaked in my mind.

"I don't need to," Aníbal replied. "My mission is merely to find the missing pieces of these stories, the nexus of the curse. Once I've identified the root of evil, I will report back. Then my Lord and I will come up with the solution together."

"Do you think you can take this on your own?" I said, recalling our unfortunate experience with the Maya Death Gods. Back then, the necromancer's seemingly indomitable will and prowess had faltered, risking dire consequences upon our minds and souls. "On Idhai I thought you might not be—"

"What you saw back on the Obsidian Cathedral, what happened there— it was only a slip-up, a small mistake. Nothing more, nothing less. Am I clear?"

"Of course," I ventured. I had touched a nerve in Aníbal's pride. I too should know better. "I apologize; I did not mean to offend you."

"It's nothing," he exhaled. Some part of him seemed to recognize that my concern was valid. "Though I might ask the same of you. Are you sure you can withstand the horrors we will undoubtedly find?"

"Do not worry. It is not my first time dealing with dark magic either."

Aníbal raised his eyebrows.

"Ulak, how is there anything left for you to see in Midgard? You make it sound like you've already seen this story unfold before."

"Not at all," I laughed. "I have spent millions of your human years traversing the Multiverse, witnessed countless events and met more people than I could name, yet this is my first time travelling with someone. Make no mistake, I have yet to see it all."

"Well, gods willing, this story plays out nice and tight: no detours, no injuries, no major crisis of faith. You get another fascinating journey for your Chronicle, I fulfill my mission, and we both live to tell the tale."

"To that I could toast."

"Agreed. Shame I did not bring any alcohol," the necromancer said.

"How about some water?" I said while reaching for our magic flask. "This might be the last time we drink for pleasure instead of need in a long time. We should enjoy it while it lasts."

The necromancer smiled, and I poured us each a glass of crystalline life. I felt confident, Amvat's dangers still distant and foreign to us.

"To a successful and safe voyage!" I said.

"And to budding friendships," Aníbal raised his glass. "We are strangers, you and I, but we need not be."

A note from the Editor

Ulak and Aníbal crash-landed on Amvat some time after this entry was written, not long after their spaceship entered Maruel and exited through Tannhäuser Gate, a few clicks outside of the Galactic Triumvirate buffer zone. Their craft, equipped with military-grade shields and hull, managed to retain enough integrity to keep them from being ejected into the vacuum of space. As per Aníbal Žalost's wishes, the reasons behind the incident will not be fully explored here, and it suffices to say that both he and Ulak survived, though they sustained serious injury and lost a significant amount of their supplies and equipment.

The following entries were written by Ulak the Drifter on the days following the crash, and depict both his struggle and first contact with the inhabitants of Amvat.

– Shahrazad Keret.

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