* * * *
Yarmaz Yln-Tapal. A khine of great strength. Resolve like the heat of the midday sun, pride powerful enough to shatter the salted dunes a hundred times and again. His memory, faded, conceals his form, leaving nothing more before you than a spectre, a trace of sandalwood and charred jasmine. A shadow, hoarse, ever-present on the edges of your memory like the scraping of tanned leather on a hunter’s knife.
He looks nothing like you. Nor do you look like Mother.
“Tell me the tale of the Almuftari again, please?” you say, in Khinazhi. Excited, young, not yet cognizant enough to realize what you are asking.
Yarmaz peers down at you, the scowl writ plain upon his featureless visage. You remember this annoyance well, despite the six long decades dividing you from its last occurrence.
“If I must, Muswah’tif.”
Ah, yes. You remember what he used to call you. The twisted child. Grotesque. Disfigured. A descriptor you would soon take advantage of, as fate grows darker. Yet now, you think nothing of it. The other khine tif would point and laugh at you when they said those words. He never did. For better or for worse. Though he was the originator, your hate was not yet directed at him.
With a sigh, Yarmaz sat upon the rock, opposite you from the glow of a warm and gentle fire. His eyes, cowled deep within the depths of time and the hooded dulband he always wore.
“The Almuftari,” he begins. “Existed in the age before sand, in a time when the sea and the land were one place beneath the pale moon. The Alkawnum was not yet safe to live upon, as all the earth and fire and water roiled together within a chaotic storm. The khine who lived within the chaos found shelter upon islands of stone that floated upon the deep, and they huddled together for warmth, naked, fearful, for there was no comfort to be found in the world.
The Almuftari was born among them. From the moment he departed his mother’s womb, he was a marked being. Different from the khine of his village, in mind, in temperament. Of them, but not. Few descriptions of him remain, save for a single deta-”
“His horns, right? Abu?” You say, cutting him off.
“Yes, his horns,” Yarmaz states. “Don’t interrupt, Muswah’tif.”
“Asuf,” you whisper timidly in apology.
“His true name has been lost to history,” your father continues after a deep cough. “Though if it could be remembered, all faithful sons and daughters of the Seleph’en—the Forefathers—would do well to erase any trace of it that could be found. For when the Almuftari came of age, his people realized that what made him different was not merely his slow steps, nor his rambling, mumbling speech. Whatever he desired, he could command the elements to grant him, and they would answer his request without hesitation. His mother and father, his brothers and sisters, scraped algae from the bark of rotting juniper to calm the pain in their bellies, and struggled to weave the barest threads of the luna moth to clothe themselves.
Not so for the Almuftari.
Upon a whim, he reached out to the nether, and upon his shoulders rested the finest garments of magic-woven gold and inle cotton. When he grew hungry, the very aether afforded him a veritable feast of the finest and most delicious victuals one could imagine. At first, he shared with the others the gifts the intractable Alkawnum granted him. But he soon grew fat, selfish, insistent that he alone deserved what the chaos provided, for none of his family or his friends had such command upon the elements. He alone could form from formlessness, so he alone would benefit.
Foolish and cruel, the Almuftari used his power to enslave his people. Though he had the ability to create food, raise the earth, and even conjure constructs and shelter, he fed only himself, clothed and housed only himself. He claimed the very island upon which his family subsisted and demanded they build for him a temple in which they would worship him. When the people told him they had no stones to build such a thing, with a wave of his hand, massive stones appeared with but a gesture. He demanded their labor, and they gave it, when he might have simply manifested such an edifice with but a single thought.
And so the Seleph’en suffered and toiled beneath the heel of the Almuftari. Every square inch of their island was soon covered by the temple stones he summoned from the aether beneath them. They, and their children, worked unto death, even as the corpulent Almuftari grew bloated, gluttened upon the endless feasts that appeared before him whenever he wished. An untold number of years passed until at last the temple was completed. A beautiful and horrific monument to greed and avarice, every glyph and design that adorned the primal rock venerating the Almuftari. So large was the structure that it could not be admired from the outside, for there was no earth beyond the island upon which one could view it. Never once did the Seleph’en rebel against the mad tyrant, even as they buried their children and their fathers beneath the cornerstones of that wicked place.
At last, the Almuftari gathered the remaining Seleph’en together, demanding that each of them kneel before him in obeisance. Each and every one of them did so.
“Azana,” you whisper.
“Yes, Muswah’tif,” Yarmaz continues, only a hint of irritation in his voice. “Only the child Azana stood, even as her kin knelt before the Almuftari. As the Almuftari had been marked from the womb, so Azana was also, her shining skin bescaled like the Basilisk of Mudradrih. At birth, her mother had hidden her in the crevice of the temple’s first lain stone; the Almuftari had grown so fat, he could no longer move from his great chamber-bed at the centerpoint of the temple, and so he never learned of her existence. Though not more than four winters of age, when she first laid her eyes upon the tyrant and heard the Almuftari’s demands, she was filled with a righteous yet quiet anger.
At the sight of the child, the Almuftari did not speak for a time. He did not know what to say, as he had never once been disobeyed by anyone or any thing. A second time, he demanded the little khine girl kneel before him.
‘No,’ she answered him.
Again, the Almuftari did not speak. He could not even be angry, as something as simple as refusal did not make sense to him.
Out of instinct, the Almuftari set aside words and drew instead upon his eldrich powers of control. To his horror, not only could Azana refuse his supernatural command, her very essence did more than deny his reach. The more his will stretched out to force the child to kneel, the more he felt the mass of his own body drag him down, until at last he managed only to topple forwards and fall upon his belly before her.
The Almuftari, so engorged from the endless years of eating and devouring, and so weakened by an era of motionless sloth, could not so much as roll over to recover himself. He had forgotten one simple truth: despite his boundless powers of creation and enslavement, he was a khine still, a creature bound to the laws of nature. And khine cannot live without air. Suffocating beneath his own girth, he could only ask Azana a single question, with the last of his life’s breath.
Azana did not answer him. She did not owe him the kindness.
The Seleph’en survivors did not bury the Almuftari, choosing instead to roll the putrid remains of the tyrant off the edge of the island and into the swirling and twisting elements that he had once so easily commanded. Had they known the consequences of such an action, they may have given this a second thought and simply buried the corse beneath the stones of his own temple. For where the khine horde wealth and sustenance from those in need, there the Almuftari’s essence remains.”
“But what of Azana?” you ask your father, breathless, although you know the answer by heart. “What happened to the Seleph’en after that?”
“The details are few,” Yarmaz says with a simple shrug. “With Azana leading her people, the stones the Almuftari created served as stepping-stones that the Seleph’en then used to cross the boundless deep, where they discovered untouched islands of stone, of wood, and iron. When the eons passed and the chaos of the elements grew calm, Azana led the children of her people to the edge of the distant sea. Separate from the waters, she gifted the khine the endless sands, and all the jewels of the mountains, in restitution for their suffering. Some say she even taught the children of the Seleph how to tame the first great titan lizards upon which they traverse the wastes to this day.
Satisfied that her people were safe from both chaos and fear, Azana departed into the wilderness alone to fade into the sands of time and reason. But before she did so, she granted one last gift to the children of the Selaph. Do you remember what it was?”
“The stars!” you exclaim, pointing to the sky.
“Yes,” Yarmaz then says, gruffly, pointing upwards as well. “But which stars?”
You pause, peering up into the night above you. You are unsure. He has never mentioned this detail before.
“I don’t know,” you answer honestly, your gaze connecting with his. “All of them?”
“Stupid boy,” Yarmaz then says, sharply. “Look.”
You do so, following the direction of his finger directly into the heavenly sea. All at once, you are no longer a boy who is blind. You are a man, a tired, elderly man, a khine who had seen far more winters than your father ever did, whose eyes had become attuned to the celestial array now set before you.
Rige. Bellafon. Alni-Alnan-Mintan, the triplet sisters, your mind reels at the sheer depth of the scene before you, desperate to remember the names of the constellations being set in front of your new eyes. The horizon dips before you, the shadow threatening to overtake your vision, but the view recovers as if propelled by the wings of Lendys Himself.
Saiphis. Wix. And finally, Arneb and Nihal. As the distant siblings pass, you are greeted by a familiar view: a massive stone in the shape of a paladin’s hammer. Beyond it, rushing as fast as the winds of Leshal, numberless mountains and valleys open wide to reveal a distant shoreline, an infinite expanse of sparkling water as far as your eyes can see, reflecting the star-filled sea above as flawlessly as a gilded mirror. And before the ocean, just before the stone meets the unblemished reflection, a single vertical sliver of white intersects the boundary between the finite and the plane above.
The sliver stands leagues above a metropolis of sandstone. The parapets of silver and porcelain, while glorious and glistening in the starlight, are as matchsticks in a child’s sandcastle by comparison. The sliver, to your surprise, is cold, painfully to the touch, an unnatural monument in the midst of a flat, unbroken skyline.
And then, all at once, you are, once again, a twisted child, sitting across from your father as the heat of a gentle campfire warms your tattered robes.
Yarmaz stands. Kneels before you. Takes you by the shoulders and leans in close, in a way he never did, not once.
“Your Selaph’i is there, Muswah’tif,” he whispers. “Best not make him wait.”
* * * *
Jin woke with a start. Blinking, the elderly sorcerer sat up, groaning, confused. Despite the sharp detail of the shadows that surrounded him, they were paired only with dull shades of featureless gray. He shut his eyes for a moment, comforted by the blindness of his eyelids, before returning his gaze to the world. While he could see his companions quite clearly in the pitch-black night, sleeping peacefully beside him, he was not yet accustomed to the gift Tamara had bestowed upon him. It was strange, almost distracting, compared to the blissful distortion of his natural sight.
So distracting, in fact, that he failed to hear a very distinct sound calling very softly just behind him. He turned, and beside his pillow was his father’s astrolabe. In stark contrast to his twilight vision, the device was softly glowing a pale blue light, each of the stars inscribed in the brass plate within sparkling in rhythm to the celestial cadence above. The brass plate spun slowly within the antique iron frame, squeaking with every rotation.
As he reached for the palm-sized device, Jin stared up at the sky; he had never seen such beauty displayed in the heavens before, especially with own imperfect, physical eyes.
Still quite tired, Jin rested back down. As his head laid upon his pillow, he watched as the spinning plate of the astrolabe began to slow of its own accord. The light of the metal-inscribed stars fading, until the device at last fell silent and still, the color vanishing into the monochromatic shadow.
“Your Selaph’i is there,” his father had said. Your forefather.
He pondered the thought for a long moment, wondered at its meaning. But then, like the distraction of Tamara’s gift, his father’s parting message had distracted Jin from something much more puzzling. Yarmaz had indeed told Jin the tale of the Almuftari. Many times, in fact, when Jin was yet young. But the way he and all his fellow khine used to tell it, the tale had ended very differently. He had never said a word of Azana. Indeed, Yarmaz had died long before he could have ever known the Sieve or their god.
And as Jin returned to sleep, he wondered, bemused, at which detail was more important.