His companion, a spindly ragman with a sack and a guitar on his back, shaded his red orbs. "Yeah."
They sat stiffly, squinting, hunched on the stone. About, grey trunks showed in the dark, vertiginously tall. Countless pillars of granite. Great chains hung amidst, their anchors lost beyond firelight. Bony things dangled from their hooked ends.
Dole watched them. Human-shaped, mostly. All still as stone. "Who's hung them there, Senaphor? he pointed.
He plucked and tuned til the catgut sang an open G, began to pick out a lazy toque. Strings echoed long and lonesome midst the pillars and the hanging bones. Senaphor played slow, listened for every note returned from the void.
"Good afternoon, everyone."
A halfhearted chorus of "Good afternoon, Professor Piedmont," met him.
Piedmont grinned crookedly, skipped cross the broad stage. He strode there to a sunlit desk, set his box down carefully, dropped his briefcase unceremoniously. With a sleeve, he gave the hot blackboard a perfunctory, ineffectual swipe, failed to clean it at all. He turned to the class, straightened his coat.
"Pardon my lateness," he grimaced. "I wasted a considerable time convincing our good Dean to let me back into the Conservatory archives." He gestured to the box. A chuckle met that statement.
"Now," continued Piedmont. "I understand it is a lovely day, and that the temptation of the outdoors and the West Garden is likely disabling your ability to pay attention to another lecture about Prolish daubing rituals." At this statement, a mutter went up. Many eyebrows raised at the Professor.
"Ah, don't be surprised. It was my year that started all that ilicitude in the first place." * Someone applauded. Piedmont waved it off. "So, in consideration of this disablement, I've elected to lecture on something else." He picked up his coattails, sat on the desk.
"If I could have everyone's attention, I think you'll find this a relief from the daubing rituals." He squinted up and down the isles, frowned. "'Attention' includes you, Hodgkins, Forder. Don't think I can't see you snogging." Hodgkins and Forder blushed, quit.
"Good." Piedmont shifted, leaned back til the rapidly-receding sunlight painted him only nose-up. "To begin, let's briefly forget we're studying ancient arcana; instead focus on the present day." Heads tilted at him, dull-eyed.
"These days, there's a lot of doomsaying going on, what with parousia and and the Los Lejanía epidemic. Strange times." He gestured expansively. "If we are to be doomsayers ourselves, how do we suppose civilization might end?"
Silence. Beyond the open window, a chaffinch sang briefly. Sunlight sunk further lower, left more of the desk to shadow. Students shifted awkwardly. Piedmont looked about expectantly, drummed his heels against the desk. "Come now. What do we fear?"
Finally, a hand raised. "Alphons?"
"Plague, Sir?" said Alphons, quiet.
Piedmont raised a finger. "You're right, but plague could only play a part. He nodded to Johansson. "If plague relies on us to reproduce, there's no sense in killing us all. Mice will remain, in any case. Anyone else?"
Another hand. "Quorelle?"
Quorelle adjusted her glasses, tentatively spoke. "Aggressions from the South?"
"A holy war, begun by the Southerners?"
Piedmont's face pinched politely, as if he were considering a mouthful of wine. "Destabilizing, at most. One side will most certainly remain, likely that which holds the Bay of Grey." He looked about. "Any others?"
A pause. People tittered amongst themselves. The sun had sunk further, casting their faces into backlit obscurity. Piedmont surveyed them, hopeful. "I promise we're getting somewhere, with this. Give me another."
"Manifest doom?" ** called someone in the back, abruptly.
Piedmont grinned. "Very good." He stood, began to pace into the beam of sunlight and back again.
"'Fast is the shield against night,' yes? One of our eldest cultural motifs: We must necessarily defeat the encroaching Other and return to anteinterstiction security–" *** He stepped into shadow. "Lest the world of Man fall to älves."
Piedmont waved an insistent finger. "That, according to a millenium of folklore, of tradition, of propaganda, would be the end of the world." A chorus of nods.
"Hence, by breaking the forests, and slaying the monsters, and building our cities of salt and iron, we banish the Other. And banishing the Other is good." He paused. "Right?" More nodding.
Piedmont shook his head. "Wrong."
The drowsy rows looked askance. They straightened, frowned, muttered amongst themselves. Piedmont grinned back at them, returned to sit on his desk.
He reached for the archival box, began to undo its clasps. "'Wrong? Why wrong?'" he mimed. He undid the lid, gently removed something heavy from within. In the shadow, it was indistinct, large in his hands. "Because the älves supplanted something far, far worse." He lifted the thing into light.
It was an iron helm. Near a meter long, cruelly beaked like an eyeless crow's skull. Pitted and black, it shon not a glimmer in the sunlight.
"Naussians," he said. "The most awful practitioners of sorcery since the Ancient Nôr." †
Whispers filled the hall, mingled with summer breeze whistling through parted windowpanes. Students leaned forward, no longer a hint adoze.
"Masters of the Præcantian Age. †† Not humans any longer, but sorcerers. A people so raveled in their black art, they wore their armor as skin." He flipped the helm over, revealed patterns inside like spongy bone. The front rows gasped in disgust.
"Naussia ruled all the spine of the Coast for centuries. Not a sorcerer's empire,††† but a union of equals." Piedmont grew louder, more riled. "Every Naussian was a lord among lords. They shared their secrets of power and plague; their resources; their millions of chimeras and cauldron-slaves."
"Their union was so immense, the mere empires of the age paid them tithes of flesh and steel. They practically ruled the world."
Piedmont put down the helm. "Can anyone tell me what's so odd about this story? What doesn't add up?"
A hand shot up. "Yes, Philome?"
"Professor, I think it's odd we've never heard of it before."
"Ah," said Piedmont. "That's because it's unpopular to teach. The Crown doesn't really approve, and you'll see why momentarily. Anyone else?"
Another hand. "Daud?"
Daud spoke loudly. "If Naussia was so influential, why are they gone? Where's the ruins?"
Piedmont snapped his fingers. "Daud's guessed it. Where did they go?"
He began to pace again. Only a bare strip of sun still shon above the stage and blackboard. "After centuries of domination, the Naussians hit an obstacle: Somehow, they managed to draw the wrath of the älves."
On the dim stage, Piedmont's eyes twinkled. "And for all their slaves, and their fire, and their iron, the Naussians could not beat the Other. So, they buried themselves. In the Underworld, in their fortress catacombs"
"They buried their armies, their chimeras, their secrets. They shut themselves away in black sarcophagi, and went to sleep until the älves went away." Piedmont paused. "And they still sleep today."
The hall was now quite dark. A mere orange glow shon through the ivy-clogged panes. Reflections of eyes watched the professor, uncertain. They waited.
"That would be the end of the world."
Piedmont stood, plucked up his briefcase and the archive box. He turned to face the darkened rows. Silent eyes surveyed him. "I'll give related readings on Firsday. Enjoy your weekend, everyone."
With that, he departed.
In this way, Naussia disappeared, came to rest neath the skin of Nören for ponderous millenia. It has slept, in all its strength and all its sorcery, in the silence and the dark, unto now. Unto the ripening of the world.
Somewhere, after all this time, black cauldrons are lit anew.
* The West Garden, a gated and forbidden portion of the Royal Academy grounds, plays host to
weekly meeting of students interested in more than simple explorations of arcana and occultism. There, secrets, art, and lust are traded over smuggled cups of wine. Älves are rumored to attend.
** The concept of Manifest Doom dictates that the Coast, without intervention, will be subsumed by the encroaching borders of the wilderness, and, likewise, the Otherworld. "Imperative destiny" is an accompanying philosophy. It dictates that expansion into wilderness is both necessary and inevitable.
*** "Anteinterstiction" refers to a time, some 3,000 years ago, wherein the world was reduced to a tiny scrap spliced chaotically by its neighbors: The Coast.
† The Ancient Nör were an anteinterstiction race of humanity. They were the first sorcerers, commanding arts more awful than any known after. By their hubris, they burned nearly all the world, creating the Coast and destroying their empire in the process. Their ruins and language shape much of modern society.
†† The Præcantian Age was a time of high sorcery in which many sorcerous empires rose and fell. They sprung up in the ruinous wake of the Ancient Nör, fueled by scavenged sorcery and savage times.
††† Throughout history, "sorcerous empires" or "sorcerer's empires" have prevailed as the most
awesome and terrible of all.
‡ The structure of Naussian command, what existed, is greatly unknown. From what can be gleaned by translated writing, which are sparse, as access to them comes at a price of danger, the Naussians were a near-scholarly alliance of several hundred sorcerers united by insular culture, aesthetic, and aims, each of whom shared their knowledge of the black art, thus allowing alliance-wide gains in sorcerous power.
‡‡ Naussia commanded the full extent of the gigantic Gorathian Range, a land East of the throne of the fallen Ancient Nör, whose powers they salvaged and reverse engineered. The coastal locations which surround said range, though powerful in their own right, are thought to have served tithes of slaves and materials to the Naussians.
‡‡‡ A chimera is any sorcerous hybrid created by cutting, brewing, and splicing disparate creatures into one monstrous product.
§ Naussian helms, or faces, as they may be, are oft described by archaeologists and cutters as akin to the skulls of birds. Each is distinct, despite this unifying motif.
§§ A few Naussian Tomes have been discovered my modern explorers. Each is a thing of true awe: An altar, half the size of a man, of fleshy pages bound in hinges and plates of thick, pitted iron and chain. Their contents, written in High Naussian, are apt to change, when read. They are impossible to write in, as other incunabula are. One, the Wicked Tome, is known to have been destroyed, its contents detonated atop Mount Hellebore. Another, the Vile Tome, is yet at large. It is rumored to be an item of immense hazard, as all who fall asleep in its vicinity are driven to a state of unconscious, perverse violence.