Excerpts from a Coward's Journal
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Szigo’s Journal

We were deep into geyserland when figures peaked over a ridge, a white plume erupting behind their blackened silhouettes. They were the Tallanners, come marched from an encampment a day behind the thermal fissure. They were no doubt fed and clothed with the loot from a week prior. The village three days behind them was their reaping ground, and what could not be worn on their person was already wrapped and shipped via caravan to Broukern. Then from those ports, they would reach their backwater island of Tallan. Not one person survived to spread word of the ruin. By the time our company had arrived, the village was swept away, carried on the shoulders and shorelines of Tallanner colonists.

An ex-local and merchant led our militia through these eastern geyserlands, not even a week’s journey from my home. The merchant recalled with intense sobriety how her mother had been buried in the village three days to the north. She was returning from commercial negotiations in Lilinea when ashes began to flutter along her route. She recounted how, with the thought of her mother’s grave, the trees bowed to hold their branches out like beggars.

The shapes on the hill braced the ridge of a wide crater, the geysers all around us spewing heat and boiling water into the sky. When I was young, these were the lands said to birth clouds, where rainwater traveled when the ground swallowed it down. All flowers were said to retire here after they wilted, their life force expelled through pinholes in the earth.

The merchant was named something like Amnang, though she would have likely scoffed at the spelling I’ve chosen. She spoke in pinches of words, with little to connect them grammatically, and likely suffered some kind of breathing problem, though I am not sure as of writing this. The first volley caught her in the breast.

The Tallanners were clever to use the plumes to hide it, and must have spent a day and night studying the rhythm of the geysers. The frothing steam vaporized high above our heads, and from the bleary mist came the fiery starrocks. The shapes on the hill wriggled in ritual, pulling from the Great Ring the holy asteroids, propelling them towards us.

Terrestrial dirt erupted from around our feet as one hundred starrocks rained down. Blood could not even spill fast enough, as open ventricles were sealed by shear force and heat. All around was the smell of hot iron. I only had enough wherewithal to dive behind a crest, as though it were sightlines we need avoid. It would be that seven of our party were slaughtered by heavenly bodies, and those of us left were able to cast dispersion humors aimed at the sky. The starrocks blasted themselves into rubble across the repulsive field, and a few of us retreated.

This business of descending the Bodies for weaponry… it disturbs my natural instincts to think how lowly these barbarians reach just to end lives. It’s as if this is their purpose, as if they were merely humors made to resemble people, but were tasked with an inhumane mission. Much like humors, they carried out the task at once and with great efficiency, sparing little excess in achieving their goal. I have never been convinced of Evil, no matter the reprimand I received in my education, but we have been bombarded by fragments of the Ring before my company had the notion to protect ourselves. It was a horrible trick, and I am certain it was for the purpose of worsening the slaughter, that we were perhaps lured there by that merchant woman in order to spring a trap on us all. It was just as the poetry said— beguiling eyes for a scoundrel.

I returned on my belly to the site of the strike, naked of my gear so as to collect the pedals from my dead brothers. I was able to reveal a script on the dead merchant woman, though I could not read the Farmouth language. Accompanying the slip of papyrus were her own pedals. Hers were carved with haste and short attention to the circuitry, clearly the copywork of a thief. The pedal which stood out the most was one she still held firm in a death grip, which read like a formula for a personal dispersion humor. To my investigation, I believe that this Amnang woman was participant to treachery, as a personal defense spell shows me that she had some foreknowledge of the attack. She must not have expected the trick with the geysers.

I woke up in sweat, and made for the bathroom. Thank goodness I did not disturb my host, as I was not noisily ill. I threw myself towards the potter, and heaved, but no sick came. It did not occur for a time on the cool tile floor that I was repulsed from sleep not in illness but in fright; the merchant woman Amnang visited me. The vision had vanished upon waking, but in advantage of my host’s décor, I witnessed the bloodless hue of my skin in a ceiling-bound mirror, and I remembered her face.

I am wracked in wickedness for having seen the slump of a lifeless body, the eyes of a dead Lheszid. I could not document it at once after seeing her, but Lhesz irises are as beautiful as the poetry says. I’m working up the nerve to ask my host how I can spell her name so I can pay respect to her memory, lest she visit me again in my retirement. I am fixed on writing for now, as I could not stomach another visit.

The moonlight is shear tonight, casting hollow strips of paleness across my room. I’m able to write this in a sliver of white, and it has stayed strong while I write. To think I am housed, clothed, and fed when so many are still in those craters— my host is kinder to me than I deserve. After I finish writing this, I am collecting my gear that is here, and in the morning I will fetch the rest from whichever closet it is inside. I might risk the hallway, but the windows are far enough down the hall that no light reaches my doorstep, and I dare not venture into the dark without a path back to my room. I feel sleep drooling from me as the ink does from my stylus, so I will retire for now in absence of alternatives.

My host set upon me as I was leaving. I made for the door, but I was ambushed at the mezzanine and ushered back to my room. I’m writing this now after letting a plate of breakfast cool on my nightstand. I cannot eat.

My host is named Reunsil Quanh Alamhudu, and I am not well acquainted with these foreign noblemen, but I am impressed by the house enough to recognize his position. Why have I come into these circumstances, and why does my host request I linger?

Thoughts are coming to me quickly, so I will sort them here— I was on my belly in the craters, in the Niblung Geyserlands. I still have the pedals I collected then, twelve in total; better I carry them than it falls to the hands of the Tallanners, but it registers to the instincts like parading around the teeth of fallen comrades. I have to find a proper place to burn them in their memory. The fireplace will do, but they deserve better.

From the apex of a crater, I commenced a dispersion humor between my stomach and the earth, and rode down the hill like a boy sledding. With a propulsion humor casted towards my heels, I traveled in that fashion for as long as I could withstand the velocity. I had gone so far that the weeds changed species, and nothing grew for flowers among them. The earth was dry, and I knew from the trailing dust that I must have come quite a way away from the wet spouts.

I only had to turn my head to find the unmistakable façade of a palace, though its appearance could not have been more impossible. It was as if the Giants finally resurrected only to thrust a mansion into the base of a red clay pillar. But the sloping path to the front entrance assumed my passage, and I found myself rapping on the entrance. Maybe I overestimate my host, as I recall now his countenance being one of delight when he opened the door.

“Good and godly,” he gasped, and I recognized it as the Daghaca tongue. His affluent voice catered to a lifetime of southern wealth, though his features distracted me for a reason I will recite momentarily. I cannot imagine what shade of dismay I must have colored myself in with so much time spent scraping over the landscape, but he recognized my native tongue with suspect ease.

He asked with no hint of mockery, “What bludgeoning have you seen, my friend?” To this, I am not sure that I responded at all, as I may have been too shaken by my survival to think of injury, or too stunned at the extension of friendship to recount the bombardment. I was moved inside, which startled me into yelling something about curses, and that should have been the end of our relations.

I am too ashamed, in honesty, to write what I had said, but in fairness my host is the first man I’ve seen cursed by magic. His altered form must be the compliment of his environment, though I am too nervous now to inquire on its history. His dragging my arm revealed hands of green leather and soft membrane, and at once his foreign features were clarified; he’d been cursed into the form of a sunflower, hair parted into great, goldenrod scales and eyes wide and black as new moons. His physical strength remained with him, and maybe some constitution, as the remark on his form was ignored.

His is a good and godly heart, as I’ve heard southerners like himself exclaim. He fed and sheltered my pitiful character into health, and it has been three days since I began to feel myself again. By now I am overstayed, but I have nowhere to return. The suprendors would refuse me at the gate without my party in tow, and I missed their departure in the bombardment. All of us were scattered, I am certain I last saw Oszamurgn scrambling back the way we arrived. I look a coward, but I could not do better than I did. No one in my place could think of better, even Pedjet would have agreed in his usual snide and offhanded manner. Anyone who would accuse me of abandonment would be a fool speaking without knowing. I am relieved of this shame, and I will not spend a moment groveling for forgiveness.

Reunsil and I burned the pedals last night. It’s pastring by the time I’m writing this, as we finished a stock of wine by his fireplace. My head is being crushed. There are humors in my ears, ringing a horrible pitch. I can see well enough to write.

We spilled our guts all night, and from some corner, the good and godly wife of my host blessed us with her company. The curse, as they explained, was an accident, but entirely uncurable. A transcription exists of the account, and Reunsil fetched it for recitation. He and a colleague were working behind closed doors on a decryption humor. A stenographer humor captured the incident. Here is a snippet I best recall;

GHEMNI: Innocence is a poor excuse when she has a history of cruelty.
REUNSIL: What— poor excuse— what she did as a child—
GHEMNI: As a child, she was ending the lives of birds, you must ex—
GHEMNI looks up from his work.
GHEMNI carves an error.
GHEMNI suffers alchemical burns.
REUNSIL suffers alchemical burns.
EGXAM suffers alchemical burns.

He explained who these people were in terms of foreign nobility, expensive titles and ponderously vague responsibilities. His wife, named Gammon, clarified with some wry wit that all they were now was a peculiar garden project. I could not read Reunsil beneath a coating of alcohol, though I suppose he took it in jest. This is my best recollection of last night, but his animated retelling allowed me to place myself in the laboratory the flower folk were packed inside. Three ammoists crowded around an island table fixed with a chip-resistant layer of basilisk polymer, or as Reunsil has taught me, irlicharca. He taught me to spell a few things, the most important one being Ammogn, meaning wisened one. I told him about the bombardment, about the merchant woman and the way she said her name. Gammon knew I had a guilt with me, and her sober hand found mine drunken and clasped in sweat. She wrought it free, and palmed the calloused flesh. I have thought so little on my hands until she rescued my attention.

Reunsil tutted at the Tallanners’ use for asteroid strikes. Gammon watched him carefully. I feel as though my host does not share in my spiritual outrage with the incident, and I did wonder what he made of the Ring. He grounded the Ring in natural phenomena, claimed it was gleamed from passing meteors breaking apart in orbit. I understand he is a man of science, but his formula to distract from the radiance of the holy bodies does little to assuage my faith. It seemed to me, in what I would now call a fit of zealotry, Gammon glimmered. I feel the poetry is with me this morning, or it was at least with me last night.

Reunsil told me that I am forgiven. Gammon had stormed off in grief, a comment I missed having sent her to some chamber of the mansion. I told Reunsil that the Ring watched me abandon the battle, and he said the Ring spared me. He said that he forgives me, and that no one but myself has the final say. I want to write it into being, to write that I forgive myself, but I am no more distant from Ammogn now than I was when we were bombarded.

Through a thick pane of alcohol, the distorted, glassy spirit visited me last night, and I knew it could be no one else. When I am better, I will ask Reunsil who else occupies this mansion, so I might be able to deny their entry at night when the spirit is with me. If I am visited again after this, the only remedy is to retrieve and bury the unsettled phantasm.

Reunsil had an expensive night with his health. The drink had tarnished his cursed physiognomy into a dour sight. Along his arms were bruises like evergreens, and his eyes seemed crusted with pollen. In truth, he was too poor an image to behold, and Gammon requested my company as an unforeseen suite of caretakers rallied around his bedside. The corridor became busy with their commotion, as spiced teas and petite pastries were whirled by hand into his wing.

They had trayed items I questioned the edibility of. Sincere puffballs with fruit-colored glazes, humid aromatics condensed into lavender liquids, gray stones wrung of their bite and sprinkled over sugarcane; odd hybrids of antidotes and sweeteners which may have contributed to a cough he’s developed since writing this.

Gammon and I had to occupy ourselves with idle games of cards and beacon. It was a sorry distraction, but there was enough distance in the mansion and warmth in our game to merit good company. In our card games, she showcased mastery of the acorn suit, outmaneuvering me with the Traikhan of Acorns twice. Then I taught her Dog Ear, and we laughed as she grew to understand the nuance. She just couldn’t hold a straight face.

In beacon, things had taken a turn. Gammon offered me a globule of something like a sapphire. At first, I hadn’t understood, as her only instruction was, “This is the theologer’s will, the effleurage, ca ydisgn. Sztuiln! Eat!” She had to repeat herself before I understood.

Chewing did little to separate impossible fibers, so I muscled it down whole. In beacon, the board was as foreign to me as when I was a child. Nine figures on either side: the four mirrors, the four glasses, and the beacon. My fingers were a strange new continent, and I beheld them with rabid curiosity. I am not certain how we were meant to carry on, but we had some excellent games of some variation of traditional beacon.

We took a stroll around the great expanse of the mansion, with so much more room than the façade gave clue to, just imbedded within the clay pillar. The most intriguing artifacts littered the halls, again lending to a mesmerizing experience within these walls. Gammon waded through the space with ease, towing me along and pointing to direct her historical accounts. They had framed pages of the Treaty for Peace between East Daghacagn and the County of Wawannah, notably signed by the Daghan king known for failing to quash the founding of the Wardau Worker’s Party. Suspended from the ceiling were homunculi skeletons from the Breeding Wars, labelled with ranks and accolades from their lively time in service. The floor tiles were woven of Habermon wool and depicted the Age of Giants and their legendary fables, affixed out-of-order and with poor accuracy. All of this with indigo and sea blue trim for walling, and vaulted ceilings which ascended into the abdomen of the great clay pillar.

It is a mystery how she managed to urge me through these halls. I must revisit them tomorrow. It is late as I write this, and Reunsil is walking the halls again, though he does sputter hoarsely enough. I am to join Gammon, Reunsil, and his caretakers in dinner tonight, in ritual of a quick recovery. I wanted to mark the occasion as a highlight, and I feel as though I will keep the spirit of the day alive in tonight’s merriment.

I am ill, maybe sick in the mind and heart. I have betrayed Reunsil, and do not have the gall to notify him to this. A horrible sickness writhes in my gut at the thought, but I am glad I have not revealed my journal to anyone. I will dictate the recounted events.

I have no memory of this, but I met Gammon in her chambers. I do not believe Reunsil detected this. Gammon is a fine woman, but I have no recollection of our affair. It was the drink! And her adult demeanor! I cannot let Reunsil stop my departure again. Not a day has passed since I last wrote, and I woke up in her sheets. However, I am certain now that I must make it known that I will bring the merchant woman to her final resting place. I believe my host will understand well enough, and I am not sure I can return to this scene of debauchery. My stomach and belongings are well-packed now, and I plot my departure for the dawn.

It has been a fortnight since my last entry. Today is Djubilh-Ceca, the fifth day of the fiftieth week, and it is late. As for where I left off I am not certain. My handwriting is too hurried for myself to make out.

Reunsil has relieved himself of his estate, and joined me in my mission. I have not told him of Gammon. We found and buried Ammogn, swaddled her in linen. My comrades were all but naked after scavengers pried the sleeved armor from them. The earthbound asteroids have gone into her grave, and I have finished shoveling dirt. There was little but cloth left on her corpse, the meat broken away and dry. Her chest was a grizzly crater itself, much bigger than the pebbles which once rained down on us. I remembered them being three sizes larger than my fist, but holding them now fits three in my palm. They traveled at such a speed as to lodge themselves firmly into the earth, creating pock marks among seven dead.

I am tired. I will sleep now, comfortable with a duty completed. Thankfully, in case of a disturbance in the night, Gammon has shared with me her formula for a stenographer humor. I will transcribe it now and set it for dawn, though it brings little comfort. The night is wild and our covers are thin. The merchant woman may visit, despite our efforts. Only one way to find out.


Formula for Stenographer Humor

SZIGO finishes transcription, then remarks aloud on the accuracy of the humor.
REUNSIL pauses his cooking to hear better.
SZIGO: Reunsil, hold up a number of fingers, don’t tell me how many.
REUNSIL ponders between four and five, but settles on five.
SZIGO: Five!
REUNSIL: Enjoying my wife’s good humor?
SZIGO looks away from his journal.
SZIGO: Y-yes.
REUNSIL: I’ve played the same trick on her before…
REUNSIL smiles, revealing his weak, stem-like teeth.
SZIGO smiles in relief, laughing back into his journal.
REUNSIL repositions himself around the campfire, back to back with SZIGO.
REUNSIL grabs a pedal.
SZIGO bolts out of transcription radius.
REUNSIL casts artillery humors towards SZIGO’s route of departure.
REUNSIL breathes, unsure of where to look.
REUNSIL turns back to the grave and shrugs.

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