Sirensong

tagnone

20

20

An unreleased short story by Randolph Gowering, the time where it occurs with respect to the main series unknown, but seemingly before book 4 or 5. The segment at the end is incongruous and disconnected from any other written work he has released.


The sea-salt clung to Matho’s sallow skin as he tacked his sailboat in the rough surf, the Gulf of Wethir’s unkind waves crashing against the hull without mercy. He had been going for a long while, and the last stop in Theivesport had done little to improve his mood.

Damn Wood Elves and their tolls. It had taken him days to barter for supplies, and even then he believed their fat trade-masters shortchanged him of the root-sap so necessary for the rest of his voyage. Though they had little love for the Spire Elves that they were supposedly 'ruled by', the elves of the First Forest still held a distinct disdain for an Ashen like himself.

Yet another instance Father was right, he supposed. His father had always told him that wood-elves, if they could, would simply imprison their own kin in the woods for the sake of propriety; other elves were seen an inconvenience to them, potential detractors from their monopoly on the human slaves so integral to the ghettos of their tree-filled port-city.

The last bastion of human organisation in Cair Aisling, and it is filled with nothing but slaves. Matho spat into the sea. Humans should be better shared among the higher races.

The shadowed ruins of Bris drew nigh before him, old towered-teeth and storied halls now almost leveled by time since he had last come across them. They were all that remained of an old bastion of a human greatness now long-since shattered just like the Empire that had made it. Vague black dots circled the towers in the distance, holes in the darkened sky.

The churning seas made sure he did not dwell long on such a pitiful construction. A mariner’s task was not to bother about the meaningless past, but to press to future shores. He would sail onward.

The little boat was a handsome gift from the Matron, a craft sewn with charms and spells that had done him well thus far in his journey. It had never taken him off-course so drastically; he would have to adjust things once he found the Beach of Beginnings.

Now he would be forced to hug close to the east coast of Wethir if he was to make it in time, and all mariners of the Matron-under-Witchwood knew that which dwelt in the rocks there feasting on the corpses of sailors forgotten: the Sirens.

Even in the northern jungles of the Ashwood, rumour of the Sirens had traveled far, witch-stories of enchantresses and heathen beings dressed in the feathers of birds and the skins of seals, singing songs so beautiful they lured many a mariner both elf or man to their death in their sandy coves. There were many kinds and tribes of Sirens of course, even some he had encountered feeding in Thievesport, gossip-barons for information with little care for who they stole from. The Siren-Coves were different, though. They were organised here, groups both all-too bloodthirsty and secretive.

There were only two ways to escape their trappings, or so his Matron said: to block the ears, or to use a… supplement. His pride prevented him from using the former of course, and as such he only had the latter, an option he had already exhausted the majority of rather carelessly in his travels southward. It would have to do, though.

The sea was calm and steady, a pool of molten metal under the pale sun. Like Father’s mirror he thought, almost absently. Father had always been so obsessed with that mirror.

He knew that if he listened to his body as it was, he would grow weary and tired. He couldn't afford that any longer.

Sleep could wait, he would make his way through this for the sake of his pilgrimage. He had to, if he wished to become more than just his father’s disgraced son, an elf two-hundred years young with little to his name but a title his kin had used to mock him.

Dream-smear, Dream-smear, Dream-smear. He spat once more.

Taking out his crock-pot from that special space on deck, he filled it with sea-water. The warmroot in his pouch was still fresh, even though it had been months since his boat left its hythe under the Witchwood Tree. Only enough for three days, and it's a five day travel from here to the Beach, he noted, almost cursing the gods in anger. It wouldn’t be enough to make it past the Siren-Coves.

That did not mean he wouldn’t take it, though.

The crushed root drank in the saltwater readily, glowing the familiar red-amber of home. Careful sips, Matho. He could not get it drained too quickly lest it lose its potency. A warm rush filled him, and his eyes clouded with ecstasy as he fell under the shipwright’s root. He would row thrice-day under the plant, and then sail the rest. He smiled with mirth, for he knew then that he was always meant to be a mariner; mere water-witches could only dream to stop him.

He had barely finished his mutterings when the warmroot took him, and all reason fled under the light of soft surrender.


When he awoke from his rootful stupor, it was the dawn of the third day. The bloodied cliffs of the eastern side of the gulf loomed to his right, a deepened haze of mist obscuring the way forward. All he could see were the coves. The sea was not calm any longer, and if he wished to stay afloat, he would have to move away.

His eyes did not deceive him when he saw the black dots in the sky and on the rocks by the beaches. It wasn't like Bris, it was closer. He had to get out of here, he had to get out before they -

Sung.

A beautiful sound rang out, a wild blast so mixed with apparent voices that could only be called god-sent. It was more lovely than any elf-choir in the branches of the Witchwood Tree, or anything the Councils of the Deep Refuge could hope to summon for their ceremonies. No, it was not the quality of the chorus that so captured his mind; it was not simple attraction. It was something else, something primally intellectual that forced his hand, his ship tacking the waves eastward to the rocks.

He didn’t notice when the greasy thing had come onto his deck, not until their eyes locked. A siren.

The being was nothing like the legends describe, or any small-brained cousin he had met in his travels south: no beautiful feathers or sealskin cloaks or want for gossip or small-speakings. Salt clung to the length of it, and its feathers reeked of burnt flesh, though why it smelled as such he did not know. Its eyes were pale and globe-like, its face a botched attempt of the gods to replicate the beauty of his own race. A mockery. It was close to him now. He felt it clawing at his neck, but not out of malice… or hunger. Why was it not hungry?

The sirens he had met before were like carrion-birds, creatures that feasted on flesh to gain intelligence or some semblance of thought like the higher races they shadowed. It should have eaten him then and there, but it didn't. Its eyes grew deeper, haunted by something but with no ounce of reasoning to say anything more. Why?

It screeched and flew away, and Matho turned as his ship groaned suddenly. Quickly, he jumped just as the hull promptly smashed into the rocks of the shore, the warmroot giving him just enough to make it in time. A crescendo of screaming sirens were above him: they were anxious for new blood.

It didn’t make sense, though. It just didn’t make sense.

He still heard the sound, though now he knew the sirens weren’t the ones singing it. This attack - it was not offensive. This was defensive; they were protecting something.

He readied his sling and charged the nearest rock, sending it into the air. It flowered thrice-fall, killing three of the beasts when it caught alight. The sirens wailed as their dead kin smashed into the beach, shingled shores and sandy bottoms greeting them. Thousands circled above him, their wretched faces screaming and half-rotted wings beating like the shodden feet of orcs upon the Wethir plains.

He still felt the pull though. The sound was growing louder. He had to move.

Behind him he saw a cave, some roughly skewered hole almost like air in a sponge: it was one of many dotting the coast, but in his heart of hearts he knew it was no normal sea-cave. The Siren-Coves were not a normal coast.

As he dove into the mouth to run from the screaming gaggle of the air as fast as any Ashen-elf could, he found the passage extending and the sound… growing louder, the choir deepening in the dark. The echoes of the rabble outside grew faint and distant. It was almost like they did not wish to go into the cavern. They're afraid, he realised. Well, it serves to reason that such lower creatures would be scared enough to protect what they themselves are too afraid to confront. He would move onward.

As a Mariner… perhaps the Beach of Beginnings was too small, he reasoned. I’ll win my place under the Matron much better this way after all… where no elf has ever gone before.

The dark did not bother him anyway. He is Ash-born after-all, and could see in it well enough.

The sound grew louder, and then a light appeared. He was no longer in a passage but now a wide cavern, a massive pit near-parallel to the cliffs at the front that could only stretch for miles both north and south; it was a corridor he realised, one longer than any he had ever seen in Ashwood. The smell of burnt flesh hung in the air, and at the far side he saw it: the source of the light.

A massive tear on the far side of the cavern, its edges like the ripping of a leaf in a book, stretched out in a vast line along the entire length of the wall for however long it was. It wasn't normal, not at all. Through it he could see a grand room, piles of inked pages on some machine churning out in the background.

The view shifted suddenly as if to look through a window, and a great sea filled the room with light. This was not of Cair Aisling. It was a foreign sea, a window into another world.

A window into destiny.

His feet could only draw him closer as the chorus lifted. It was only then when he felt the crunch of a skull beneath them.

The cavern floor was not empty like he assumed, but rather filled with the corpse-bodies of thousands of sleeping and dead sirens all in various stages of decay. The fumes were insufferable, but he could not turn back. He was so close.

This was what they were defending. This is why they guard these coasts.

He could barely hear the sound anymore. The cave seemed silent, but the pull did not lessen. It only grew.

He was half across the width of the cavern when he saw it through the veil: a great ship unlike any he’d ever seen before made entirely of what seemed to be metal. It couldn’t be dwarf-made (the Salamanders forgive he ever thought of the pitiful abominations), for they had never turned their greedy paws to the sea. He stood so close, but then he heard a squawk.

A small siren was crawling slowly to the veil, so visibly starved its ribs near-stuck through the rancid feathers on its chest. It was a curiosity; it seemed wholly unconcerned with the intruder in the cavern, and solely focused on the rips and tears before it. A proboscis-like tongue extended from its mouth like a mosquito's, entering the strange portal.

He watched as the being shuddered in happiness, lightning coursing in its eyes. The feathers grew duller, but the creature more elated with every drink. It was groaning as if nearly in procreation, moaning in the shattered void.

The rift was giving it something.

It didn’t even notice that the rift could take just as much as it could give. The creature started burning, but couldn’t move. Its moans turned sour as sudden as they started. Screams, screams, screams, then nothing. Only charred flesh remained where a living thing had been only a mere moment before.

He looked again at the portal before him. Surely as an elf, he was more than these lesser beings. He would succeed where they failed.

He wanted that lightning in him, too.

“It was only a matter of time before one of you lot found it.”

He whipped around, scanning the avenue of corpses in the cavern. No one was there, he was-

“I’m fat and old, but that doesn’t mean you would ignore a hag like me, no? You elves were always so proud.”

It was a massive, bloated siren, an aged hag so fat Matho doubted she could move any longer. Clumps of feathers were charred or missing, skin peeling off her haggard face in the light of the unknown. She was smiling a wretched smile, licking her lips with a tongue that he knew could not find its way back into the mouth of its owner.

He was floored as an elf should never be. Surely like the others on this coast, they can’t speak-

“Of course I can. We who survive the Rift are given gifts of the Great Beyond. You won’t live if you go through, you know.”

“I wasn’t trying to. I was just… testing.“

“None of us could ever go through, and we’ve been feeding off this place for centuries. The other so-called sirens to the north and by Bris- they don't understand us elders in these caves. This is the heart of Cair Aisling, the heart of our reality. And what, they give it away for the old fashioned way of things, eating whatever scraps they have left from their boats. Their brains are nothing to mine. Bah!" she wheezed out, coughing feathers in the musty air. He felt his courage building again; this hag might think herself more intelligent than all her race, but he'd met her type before. More often than not, it was a farce.

He would play along, for now.

“The ones outside didn't speak. Why?”

“The hatchlings are to protect. If they were to feed, you saw what happened. It doesn’t stop most of them here, though,” she cackled, her wings gesturing to the mass of bodies around them. "One way or another, by our hand or the rifts', they surely die."

"Our hand?" He hated being without answers.

"I and only some hundred in this cavernous edge on a mere ten leagues of coast, stretched along the edge of this nothing. We are the Higher Sirens. None of the others could hope to dream, yet still we do."

“You fed on the portal first, didn’t you. It gave you knowledge.”

“If you know how to use it, it can give you the secrets of the universe. I’m one of the few in this long cavern able to survive its presence, the 'Alma Mater' as those beyond might call me. The rest simply defend it, tasting it when they can for some semblance of sentience. They are just dumb birds. You saw how she died.”

“But yet I also see how you lived. I see how you grew stronger.”

“I could show you. Come closer, little elf-child.”

He couldn't ignore that he was tempted.

“No, you would kill me. And then you would eat me to become beautiful.” He drew his hand back. Even as he said it, he knew his words didn't hold up to scrutiny, mere parrots of folklore among his kin.

“Is that what they’re saying of us, now? Nay, I would never eat the likes of you. Why consume you, when the universe is at my wing-tips?”

Anger burned in his heart. She was making sense, but he would not swallow his pride. He was a higher race. The hag has to be lying, there's no other explanation!

“I am a greater race, and I will be the greatest mariner of my people. You won’t stop me.”

She let out a wail. The bodies on the floor of the cavern started creaking, globe-like eyes glowing white in the darkness. So they aren't all dead, after all. The fumes rose up. He looked into her eyes one last time in defiance.

“You would send your pack after me? I am firstborn. My kin deserve all secrets in this land, and-”

“This is our secret to keep. This is our boon in this land, not yours.”

“I don’t care.”

“Even if he lets you through, you would be little but his pawn. There is nothing for you in the world beyond. He would use you just like he used us. Let me save you, please.”

She was babbling, lying. The surge of corpse-birds rose in a cacophony around him, the lovely sound that had drawn him here outside long-dead. He dove headfirst into the rift, the screams of the hag fading away in the light of a new world.

He felt the magic shift and fade as he passed realities, a brief feeling of peace floating him through the void. He was a higher race. He would live.

His elation was cut short as the darkness clouded his vision and his lungs ruptured, blood gushing out his mouth. His body was on fire. He knew then that he was dying, just another pitiful body lying on the doorstep of the Great Beyond.

If only the Sirens had taken him first.


«Hello? Randy? Yes, we found a body, it's not living though. Yes, the book worked. It's on the shore… a right bloody mess, it is. No, no issues. Testing… Testing? Everything is under control.»

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