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The times were most rank. For the Old Geister brooded alone and disconsolate far away in the bowels of his cloud-shrouded citadel, taking scant heed of the affairs of men. Meanwhile eons passed, millennium upon millennium, and the world fell into corruption. Skepticism and unreason swept across the land, even as the wench's oestrus inflames the pubert's loins. Yet the Old Geister acted not, for his rancor was overcome by melancholia.
Worse than the damage to human morals was the damage to human minds. Men began to doubt, then question, then snigger at, then openly scorn, the once revered mysteries of old. Soon it was apparent that humanity preferred natural acts to unnatural lore. Thus, as generation followed upon generation, the candle of the old knowledge flickered out, and expired in the common memory of mankind.
Yet, as we approach the time of our tale, there remained abroad in the world a few score scholars devoted to the retrieval of lost arts and philosophies. They could be found scratching among the rubble of ruined libraries and ancient temples, hoping thereby to unearth fragments of old writ. Each believed that there was to be discovered by the perusal of old scrolls and tablets, and the cunning exegesis thereof, the deepest secrets of the powers of the universe.
Their lot was hard. As a result, their numbers, never great, declined steadily as the time of our tale draws near. Many factors contributed to this end. Some were martyrs to their own experiments, falling victim to spells ill-cast, demons misconjured, potions botched, talismans malwrought. Others were undone by the perils of the itinerant life attendant upon their pursuit of wisdom: the cholers of nature, the intemperance of wild beasts, the deprivations of disease, and the like. Still others, and these the most numerous of all, fell prey to the brutish acts of their fellow humans-for these latter are, as is well known, an unruly lot, given to sudden tempers and disputes. Hence the popular aphorism: "He who lives by reason, dies by the sword."
The survivor of these happenstances would yearn at length for a sanctum, some refuge wherein to contemplate the mysteries of Truth, unhampered by the pogroms of man and nature. Perforce they would forego, for a time, the peripatetic life and repair to some town or city, therein to peruse at leisure whatever ancient pearl of wisdom might have been acquired in their travels.
To support a domicile for these scholarly pursuits, the sorcerer would typically apply his or her learning as a scrivener, teacher, lecturer, tutor, or healer of incurable maladies. Of these, of the mere handful of wizards populating the earth now at the time when our tale is ripe for the telling, we note that the least notable was a certain Zulkeh of Goimr, physician.
* * *
The ancient city of Goimr is located on the underbelly of the great sub-continent of Grotum, at the place where the river Moyle joins the sea. Here, in a vast old abandoned death house, replete with many strange vaulted chambers connected by dark and crumbling passageways winding convolutedly like so many intestines deep into the bowels of the earth, down ever downward, into small niche-pocked vaults filled with damp worm-eaten caskets, many askew and half-opened crypts of the long dead, urns of dust, and the scattered bones of dogs and man, here, chose Zulkeh to rest and ponder his wealth of artifacts and relics, his scrolls and tablets, his talismans and tomes, the fruit gathered of his many journeys.
A personage of such marked cerebral bent as the thaumaturge of Goimr could not, of course, afford to be troubled by the vulgar exigencies of attending his own person. Accordingly, Zulkeh had taken for the purpose an apprentice. This individual, one Shelyid, was evidently an orphan, for he had been discovered one evening by the wizard in a crude basket placed before the door to the death house. Zulkeh had at once taken in the wretch, not, it must be admitted, as an act of kindness, but rather in the pursuit of science. For the unfortunate Shelyid had been cursed with a most disgusting physiognomy. The victim of dwarfdom, the wretched Shelyid's runtish body was ill served and thus doubly cursed by bad nerves, the slightest agitation of which would produce the most indecorous results: pox, palsy, jitters, quivers, tremors, convulsions, paroxysms, fevers, the staggers, the jerks, shortness of breath, frequent and uncontrolled excretion, irregularities of the pulse, lock-jaw, ague, fidgets, timorousness, and a general feeling of social inferiority. These, of course, the classic symptoms of that most dread of nervous conditions, hysteria follicularia, the uncontrolled growth and spread of hair upon the body.
The sorcerer had taken in the much-afflicted Shelyid in the belief that the dwarf was unnaturally wrought, the creature of some puissant though unknown power in the universe. For many years did the wizard peruse his scrolls and tomes, searching for some clue to the dwarf's provenance. Finding nothing, he turned to a consideration of events in the world at large which might be relevant to Shelyid's origin. But in truth the year of the gnome's discovery was a remarkably quiescent year, at least by the standards of the modern turmoil. Only two events of general historic interest had occurred: the publication-much to the outrage of the Ecclesiarchs-of Father Cosmo Sfondrati-Piccolomini's infamous letter from the Sssuj, and the mysterious disappearance of the Colossus of Ozarae. As both these events occurred in lands far distant from Goimr, and as no connection with Shelyid's arrival was discernible, the wizard dismissed these coincidences from his mind.
The time came when Zulkeh drew his conclusions and summoned the dwarf to his chambers.
"Shelyid," spoke the mage, "I have determined the source of your squalidness."
"Oh, master!" cried Shelyid, fairly fainting from joy and expectation. "You are the wisest and most powerful of wizards!"
"Indeed," concurred Zulkeh. "The truth was most trickily hidden from my powers, most cunningly disguised from my perceptions."
"Yes, yes!" quivered the dwarf.
"I perceive now that my error lay in my too great wisdom, for it was natural that I should assume that your affliction lay in some supernatural source, whereas it is in fact purely commonplace. Thus I tell you that you are in truth not an occult but a genetic specimen. And though the world in its ignorance perceives in you nothing but an odious eyesore-scrofulous, repulsive and loathsome-that behind this veneer my genius has penetrated to the truth. To wit, that you are in fact nothing but an odious eyesore-scrofulous, repulsive and loathsome."
The wizard continued in this vein, opening up to Shelyid's understanding the wondrous and tortured path of logic whereby Zulkeh had arrived at the essence beneath the appearance. But it must be admitted that his labor was in vain, for the dwarf had long since fainted dead away, whether in awe of such deep and profound thoughts or in horror at the now-revealed permanence of his fate, it is difficult to say. Fortunately for the dwarf, his years of service to the wizard had reconciled this latter to Shelyid's limitations, and Zulkeh concluded that he would retain the runt as his apprentice, despite Shelyid's now-demonstrated lack of worth.
Thus, at this the beginning of our tale, do we find our principal dramatis personae ensconced at Goimr, the sorcerer earning an irregular income by his knowledge of physic, or, on those all too frequent occasions when none sought his services, by dispatching Shelyid into the tombs to scratch over the possessions of the long dead, extract the occasional gold tooth, and whatnot.
* * *
And now it is time to introduce myself, for I am your narrator; and, though I subscribe to the ancient wisdom that a tale's narrator should be as unobtrusive as possible, yet it is mete that the gentle reader should know somewhat of the provenance of this tale, lest he become afflicted with false doubts concerning its veracity and authenticity.
"Your narrator," I named myself, yet this term must at once be qualified. In truth, it would be more proper to call myself the compiler of this narration, rather than the narrator himself. The principal source of our tale, the central thread around which I have been forced to weave other annals and accounts, is the Chronicle of the Great Calamity scribed by my illustrious forefathers, the Alfredae. I say, "around which I have been forced to weave other annals and accounts," for among the hazards and adventures of my ancestors' flight from the Great Calamity many portions of their manuscript were, alas, lost forever. Nor, in the nature of things, was it always possible for my ancestors to directly observe various events and incidents of great moment to our history.
Thus did it fall to my unworthy self, Alfred CCLXXIX, despite my frailties and paltry skills in comparison to my incomparable forebears, to attempt to fill the lacunae in their chronicle with other sources. As for these latter, I will vouch for their authenticity but not their veracity, as they are all of them the product of human hands and thus inherently suspect, due to the well-known mendacious proclivities of that malign race.
No better example to illustrate this last point could be found than the very same Autobiography of Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini which I chose as the prelude to our tale. A strange choice for an introduction to scrupulous history! For the autobiography of this artist is, of course, notorious for its unreliability, inexactitude, and preposterous self-aggrandizement. Yet, it seemed to me that any chronicle seeking to clarify the events and inner forces leading to the Great Calamity must, of necessity, include within its compass the tale told by Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini. This, for two reasons.
Imprimis, Benvenuti himself played no small part in the ruination of civilization which we know by the name of the Great Calamity. At each and every critical juncture of that tangled skein of events and episodes which led to the Great Calamity, does his presence and influence make itself felt. And not his alone, nay, but those of the maleficent characters which he attracted about him like flies to honey, as well. Name all the individuals prominent in the destruction of our lost heritage, beginning with the Rebel himself, and you will find, in four instances out of five, this lowest common denominator-an association with the scoundrel Benvenuti Sfondrati-Piccolomini.
Secundus, the wizard Zulkeh himself, blamed by all gentility for the Great Calamity, insisted to his dying day that a proper analysis of Benvenuti's Autobiography made clear the truth of the matter. Of this thesis, I myself remain dubious. Yet, in fairness to the historical personage of the sorcerer, I felt it both judicious and proper to incorporate into this chronicle the Autobiography of the infamous artist.
With those portions of our tale directly transcribed from my ancestors' account, the matter is naturally otherwise. These may be regarded as unblemished truth, and this for two reasons. Imprimis, my peerless forefathers accompanied Zulkeh and Shelyid throughout their famous odyssey, in the course of which the hidden meaning of the Great Calamity was revealed. They were present at every juncture, there to observe and record both the event and its inner purport. Secundus, my ancestors' chronicle was not compiled by witless humans but by members of that infinitely superior race to which my ancestors and I belong. I speak, of course, of pediculus humanus.
* * *
"A louse!" you exclaim.
Yes, I say proudly, a louse. And typical 'tis that even you, gentle reader, will automatically respond with the genocidal impulse of your bestial race, so evident even in ancient times and now, since the Great Calamity, grown systematic and ruthless in its horror. I am a louse, and my ancestors were lice before me. And not just any lice!-but lice whose devotion to science was of such all-consuming passion that they readily resided upon the none-too-well-fed Shelyid, taking advantage of the latter's hirsute plenitude to record a history of our modern times which is nonpareil. Would humans have done as much? To ask the question is to answer it.
I urge you thus, gentle reader, to suppress your barbarous instincts and heed attentively the tale which follows. For though you despise us, consider this patent truth-that while you squat here in wretched exile, dreaming with bitter regret of your lost wealth and luxuries, we squat here upon you and regret much less, for by your squalid existence you assure our sustenance.
Cease then your fruitless scratching! say I, and attend rather to my tale. For though the Great Calamity has cast us into ruination, yet it is said that History moves in its cycles. The time may come again when we-or rather, our descendants-regain that high estate to which our breeds are entitled. Such latter Restoration, however, depends in no small part upon the diligence with which you and your ilk absorb the lessons of the past. Thus I say again: attend to my tale, putting aside all useless antipathies. For we are companions in misfortune. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Forward the Mage by Eric Flint Richard Roach Excerpted by permission.
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