The First Golett

rated T for occult elements and character death.

The humans had begun acting differently once they’d started laying their stones and building their wall, so Shah had urged Melichi to be careful. Melichi was not careful, of course, so the humans had captured him, and Shah was quite sure he would never see his warbrother again.

It had not always been like this. Not so long ago, before they had gathered their stones, the humans had been fierce but valiant creatures. They took plenty of prisoners, but the ones with the smaller crests—the ones lower on the scrafty hierarchy—were usually left in virtually unguarded cages, easy to recover. The scrafty had paid them this same kindness. It was part of their unspoken agreement, born of mutual respect. Rather than slaughtering each other’s people, their turf wars came in the form of honorable duels, always stopping short of lethality. Prisoners were taken, yes, but war was for glory, not senseless killing. Land need not be paid for in blood.

Melichi’s crest was not particularly large, and so the humans had never cared to guard him. Shah had rescued him many times and could count on one hand the number of times that had led to a confrontation. It had never been serious.

But things were not so simple anymore. Once they had erected that wall, scrafty that passed behind it rarely left it again. Ones who were sent to rescue their captured warsiblings rarely returned either, unless they were cowards, and a scrafty who showed cowardice was skinless—as good as dead anyway.

Earlier that day, they had taken Melichi away, and this time Shah feared it was for good. It had been a perfectly fair duel, and Melichi usually won those unless he was careless. . . yet carelessness was his wont. They had dragged him away by his skins, and he had dug his heels into the dirt and bucked in a way he had never done when they’d captured him in the past. They had both known then what Shah knew now: though the rescue missions had been trivial in the past, this one would be a death sentence for them both. Yet Shah still had to do this thing, for his warbrother and his honor. He was to do it tonight.

It was a half-moon, and Shah wondered morbidly if it was the last moon he would ever see. He’d managed to scale the wall without being noticed, and the moon painted the vast structure with its silver light, giving it an ethereal sheen. He was fortunate that no guards had been posted outside the wall tonight, but scaling it was one thing—crossing to the others side was another entirely. Once reaching its top, Shah was careful to hide behind one of its battlements, peeking on the village below with just one eye and keeping his head angled so his crest didn’t poke out and reveal his position.

The whole village was bathed in the moonlight too, and he could see it all from up here. The wall encircled the area and was in various states of completion; the nearest segment was complete, but in other places, the wall was still only a few bricks high. He would have preferred to climb one of the shorter segments instead, but the humans had been sure to build the segment of the wall facing Shah's gang up to its full height before starting on the rest, of course. In order to get to the unfinished segments, he’d have to run past stretches with no wall at all and risk exposing himself.

A smattering of hide tents dotted the enclosed area, but they had raised some stone buildings as well—the result was a strange hodgepodge of the old and the new, the familiar and the alien. Piles of brick were scattered here and there, ready to be incorporated into a building or the wall.

Shah had heard once long ago that the people across the East Sea built large structures of stone and wood like this. He wondered if these humans had learned it from their cousins over there. Whatever the case, things were changing, and not in favor of the scrafty. How could they think to conquer back this land when all the humans had to do was sit inside and let their walls do the defending? And Melichi was in there somewhere, in one of the tents or buildings probably— there were no cages to be found. Shah wasn’t sure why he’d dared to hope for this to be that easy. If they’d bothered to bring Melichi inside their walls, they wouldn’t just leave him laying about to be snatched up.

He had no idea how he could even begin to search for his warbrother short of investigating every last building and tent, and he had no chance of doing that without exposing himself. He’d known this had been doomed to fail from the start, but now the cold reality was truly setting in for the first time. No amount of willpower or ingenuity would save Melichi, or Shah himself. Perhaps it was best to make himself known and get his capture good and over with. The alternative was turning around, and to return home having abandoned his warbrother. . . No. It was better to die a glorious death. Besides, Melichi would do this for him without thinking twice. He deserved the same respect.

He made to slide down the wall into the village when he saw movement in the village below. His heart leaped and he scampered back behind the battlement, straining his eyes against the dark and focusing on where he’d seen the motion below. To his amazement, he saw a scrafty being forced out of one of the tents, their hands bound behind their back.

Too fearful to hope for the best, Shah squinted his eyes at the scrafty anyway, and he was sure that the crest had all the right notches and chips. That had to be Melichi. He was alive. A squat human followed him, one with large arms and a spear in hand. Last of all came a woman in a long tapered dress, and—ouch. Shah’s brain prickled unpleasantly, feeling as if it had pins and needles. He shook his head a little, screwing his eyes shut, and thought he had felt this strange sensation once before. Stealing another glance, he realized it wasn’t a human woman at all but a gothitelle. What was one of those doing with the humans?

The man shoved Melichi forward with the butt of his spear, forcing him to hobble forward awkwardly. Melichi turned to glare at the human. The human made an aggressive gesture and Melichi continued walking forward. One scrafty probably couldn’t take down a human and a gothitelle alone, Shah thought, especially not with their hands bound, but perhaps if he came down to help. . .

His train of thought was cut short when the gothitelle raised their hand abruptly. He heard their voice as clearly as if they were standing right next to him: “Stop.” That was a male’s voice, Shah determined.

A chill ran down his spine as the gothitelle turned and looked directly at him. It was dark, and he was mostly hidden behind the battlement, so there was no way he saw him. . . right? Still, the pins and needles sensation in his brain intensified. He grasped at his forehead but didn’t break his gaze with the gothitelle, even as his heart began to hammer so hard in his chest he was sure the gothitelle would be able to hear it. Finally, the gothitelle looked away, and Shah heard him say, “Never mind. Let’s go.”

Even though there was no way the gothitelle had spotted him—scrafty were immune to the strange mind tricks of the psychics—he still found himself blessing his skins for his luck. He watched as the three of them continued to one of the stone buildings, and then were swallowed up by it, out of sight. The strange prickling sensation in his brain subsided, and Shah returned to himself from the trance state he’d entered watching those three. Melichi was alive, and Shah knew where he was. The two of them could take on the human and the gothitelle comfortably. The scene played out clearly in his mind. He’d take the human first, then use his spear to undo Melichi’s bindings, and they’d take the gothitelle down together. It should only take a few good kicks to topple it—they were weak of body. Yes, they could do this. He and Melichi would live to fight another day.

He skidded down the wall without a second thought, the smooth stones cool on his feet even through the thick protective layer of his skins. When he hit the ground, hard enough for his ankles to twinge with pain, he bunched up his skins and ran to the building they’d taken Melichi to, careful to leave the softest footfalls he could manage. He gave a silent thanks to the Earth Father that he made it there without being spotted. Perhaps the rest of the village was asleep by now. He slid below the building’s rear window, making perfectly sure his crest was safely out of view, and heard them speaking.

“. . . growing impatient,” a rough, unfamiliar voice said. Probably the human. “Each day you fail is a day we waste some of our hunters to lay these bricks. You promised it would not be this long, and our food reserves are dwindling.”

“You would do well not to make commands of me,” the gothitelle sneered in reply. “Half-measures are worse than no measures in this work. Trust me, human. I am working as fast as I know how.” The human grumbled something inaudible, but the gothitelle evidently didn’t find it worthy of a response, for he remained silent. Instead, he heard the sound of stone scraping on stone.

“W-What are you going to do to me?” he heard Melichi sputter. “What did you do with the others?”

Shah’s gut became ice. Melichi was careless and sometimes foolish, but by the Earth Father’s own skins, he was brave. Yet each word Shah heard him speak was saturated with pure terror.

“Silence,” the gothitelle said. “Stars pity you, but it is better that you do not know. Your cooperation will serve us both. You will not like what happens if you struggle. Now, human—bind him to the table.”

Shah heard the shuffling of rope, then suddenly the sound of skin passing over stone—the sound of frantic scuffling—then a sickening crack.

Stars!” the gothitelle swore, and Shah heard him fall to the ground. His heart thumped so hard he felt it in his head. Melichi was fighting. Now was the moment. He would rush in and fight side by side with his warbrother, and they would escape together. They were going to make it out. Yet he couldn’t force himself to move. Every piece of him was crying out for him to move, but at the same time denied him that motion. All he could do was peek through the window.

The gothitelle was sprawled out on the floor as expected, clutching at his ribs. The human had his back to the window, his spear extended at Melichi. Melichi craned his neck and brandished his crest at the human, hands still bound behind his back. There was a table between them. A strange stone with a bluish color sat atop it, a huge gash in its side.

“Immobilize it, human! Now!” the gothitelle wheezed. “You must not kill it, or I will—”

He didn’t have time to finish his sentence before the human rushed over the table, swinging his spear wildly at Melichi. The scrafty ducked out of the way, then rushed forward to bash his head into the human. The human tumbled off the table just in time, and Melichi stopped his headbutt halfway through, but inertia carried him another stumbling step forward. The human seized the opportunity to smash the butt of his spear into the side of Melichi’s head. Melichi tumbled to the side, head smacking the stone, and didn’t stir.

Shah shook violently and slumped back below the window, the scene sliding out of sight. I could have done something, Shah thought, feeling breathless. I should have saved him.

Why didn’t I?

The gothitelle was injured now, but so was Melichi. To escape at this point, Shah would have to take the human on by himself, then carry his warbrother out and back home without being spotted. He’d as good as failed, whether Melichi was still technically alive or not. Dread beset him.

He had been foolish to hope for a better outcome, and. . . he had been a coward not to intervene. A skinless coward. Melichi would pay with his life. Perhaps Shah could still escape with his life, but. . . no. If he returned without Melichi, they would see him for the coward he was, and it would be all over him. Besides. . . did he deserve to escape with his life after freezing up like that? Indirectly or not, he had killed Melichi. His warbrother. A swift death would be a merciful end for Shah at this point. He felt more useless than a molted skin, fouler than an oran left to decay.

“Quite the spirited one,” the gothitelle said, sounding amused of all things. “He is perfect. It is rare that a mon is able to resist my powers and attempt to free, let alone fight. I have great faith that the stars have blessed this trial.” He heard the gothitelle rise to his feet, wheezing slightly. “Now he sleeps. Place him on the table and bind him, just in case, though I do not think he will resist anymore.”

The table. The stone. Shah thought of the fear that had pervaded the last words Melichi had spoken. They were going to do something horrible to him now. Perhaps it would be a respect to Melichi to flee, so as not to witness it. Yet still, Shah felt frozen in place. It was too late for him to turn around now. And although he hated himself thoroughly for it, some part of him was curious what would happen next, wanted to know what strange things the humans were doing and what had driven them to consort with a gothitelle.

So instead of fleeing, Shah found himself lifting his head and peeking through the window again.

The gothitelle and the human worked silently and seemed well-practiced. Shah blessed his skins that their backs were to him. The stone was still on the table. It looked heavier than Melichi. The gothitelle was already at work before the human had finished binding Melichi to the table. He was whispering dark words, horrible words, as he ran his hand across Melichi’s body, stopping at certain points—his forehead, his heart, his gut, his groin. When the human was done with his task, he moved to the corner of the room and collected his spear from against the wall, then returned to the gothitelle’s side.

Shah shuddered. The spear. He wanted to look away, but couldn’t.

“Wait,” the gothitelle said. “Move the stone closer. We must be careful not to waste any.” The human obliged, pushing the stone closer to Melichi. It moved between his legs, spreading them apart and pushing his skins up further than they ought to go, until the stone was practically resting against his crotch. The sound it made as it scraped along the table’s stone surface was horrible.

The gothitelle placed one hand on Melichi’s forehead and one on the stone. Then he said some more words, louder and darker and more horrible than the ones he had said before. Melichi stirred fitfully, almost as if he were having a nightmare. Then the gothitelle fell silent. He turned his head and looked to the human, then nodded.

The human raised his spear, then plunged it into Melichi’s chest.

It was everything Shah had not to scream. He couldn’t stop watching either, even though he thought he might be sick at any moment. The human removed his spear with an awful squelching sound, trailing arcs of blood that spilled onto Melichi’s body and the table. But that wasn’t the only thing that came from the rupture in Melichi’s chest.

A strange, silver vapor rose from his chest, wispy and translucent like the last plumes of smoke from an extinguished flame. It billowed upward idly for a fraction of a second before gliding into the crevice in the stone as if sucked. The strange, shimmering tendril moved from Melichi’s chest for several seconds—evidently, there was a lot of it, whatever it was. Melichi’s cadaver seized grotesquely and crumpled around the spot where he had been stabbed, like a leaf curling in a flame.

Shah looked on in mute horror. Whatever this was. . . it was profoundly wrong. Somehow, he knew that this silver vapor that this gothitelle and this human had drawn from Melichi’s wound was not something meant to be looked upon by mortal eyes. He was watching something undoubtedly evil and forbidden.

Then the stuff stopped flowing. “That is all,” the gothitelle said quickly. “It is done. Seal it now. Quickly, before it leaks.” The human got right to work stuffing the rock’s crevice with cloth, pressing it down, stuffing in even more cloth, then covering the whole thing with another cloth and wrapping it up in twine.

And then it was done.

Finally, Shah was able to close his eyes. He slumped down again, then fell to the floor, the grass cool on his side. He pressed his eyes shut as tightly as he could, and hoped he would never have to open them again. His cowardice had killed his friend, debased his memory. They had done something unspeakable to him, and it was Shah’s fault. If only he weren’t a skinless coward, if only he’d had the strength to get up and fight. If it had been him that was captured instead, he knew that Melichi wouldn’t have hesitated for a moment to throw himself into the fray to rescue him. Yet Shah had been paralyzed in place, and Melichi had been horrifically violated.

“We are finished,” he distantly heard the gothitelle say. “Remove the body.”

He heard the undoing of the twine, the movement of the body, the footfalls on the stone and then on the grass. Getting closer. No doubt the human would find Shah here, clutching his arms desperately and crying like a fool in the grass. No doubt he would seize him and throw him into the building, and they would bind him to the table and stab him into the chest and take his life. And Shah would let them. Melichi hadn’t deserved it, but Shah had let it happen to him, so now he deserved it himself.

The human came into view, carrying Melichi’s body by his skins in one hand as if he were some sort of object to be thrown about. He came so close Shah was sure he would be able to smell the fear and despair radiating off him, yet he didn’t. He simply threw Melichi’s body onto the ground, then returned to the hut.

He’d intended to leave Melichi’s body for the mandibuzz, perhaps, but he’d left it for Shah instead. Perhaps Shah could return him home and give him a proper burial. Yet the possibility of escape seemed so distant, even though it was technically in his power to get up and leave. It just seemed impossible. All he could do was crawl over to the body that had been Melich and cradle it and weep over it silently. He didn’t weep silently for fear of being discovered—his body simply couldn’t produce the wails that he felt in his heart. Melichi’s body was totally mangled, crumpled like a dead spider around the point where the spear had ruined him, his ribcage warped and deformed. His limbs felt bony and emaciated as if he’d been starved, but he’d been here less than a day. Whatever they had done to him. . . it was not of this world. Shah wept and wept, for his friend who had deserved a glorious warrior’s death and had instead been desecrated.

Melichi, who fought to the end. Melichi, who fought beside me. Melichi, who laughed in the sun. Melichi, who shared all he had with me. With whom I shared everything. May the Earth Father return your body to His. May you become a beautiful tree who gives life. May you rest well, Melichi. I loved you.

His cries came out choked and quiet, and his chest ached. Then a voice came from the hut, and Shah returned to himself somewhat.

“It is in pain,” the gothitelle said gravely. “Oh, stars above. It is in so much pain. We have failed again. Human, you must destroy it. Destroy it now.”

Shah heard the human grunt as he lifted the stone and then heard it smack against the table, over and over. He heard pieces of it chip off and fall to the ground, and the human continued cracking it against the table horribly until finally it seemingly shattered. Shah swore he felt Melichi’s body relax somewhat, and he clutched it tighter and sobbed against him.

“We have failed again,” the gothitelle said. “I am sorry. We will try again. You did well.”

“Damn it,” the human growled. “This is taking too long. And. . . it is wrong. We have wasted so many souls.”

“Wrong?” the gothitelle repeated. “If you were worried about right and wrong, human, you would lay your own stones. You chose a different path, and there is a price to pay for that. You knew this when you asked for my help in this. I would not—wait.” He fell silent, and Shah’s brain began to prickle. “There is another.”

Shah felt like his skins were vibrating in terror. His blood was ice and his stomach was stone. He had to go, right now. He didn’t care if it made him a skinless coward. He dropped Melichi’s body, crying for his friend as he. . . failed to get up. He couldn’t force himself to move, no matter how much he strained against his inaction. This. . . this was not cowardice, this was not lethargy. This was something else.

“Outside,” the gothitelle said. “Behind this building.” He poked his head out the window and made eye contact with Shah as he sat there in the grass, Melichi’s body dumped unceremoniously in front of him. He felt a jolt run down his spine.

Oh skins of my fathers, oh Maker of the Earth, oh—

The human seized him before he could react, kicking Melichi’s body out of the way as he went back to the building. He carried Shah by his skins, and he felt them ripping from his hide, felt warm blood trickle down his side. It hurt like the wrath of the Storm Twins, yet he was wholly unable to resist. Once they made it inside, the human dumped Shah onto the stone floor, and he was unable to get up or fight or do anything but lay prostrated there before the gothitelle, body racked by silent sobs. His brain prickled so furiously he felt it in his neck.

“Did you come here to rescue your friend? So noble,” he said. “I am sorry you had to bear witness to what we did. It was not pleasant. It will not be pleasant for you either, I’m afraid. The stars have cursed you to lead you to this place of undeath, where my Shadow Tag precludes your escape. But they have blessed me.” He looked at the human. “Bind this one, human. I have great faith that the stars have blessed this trial. . .”

It appears the stone must be broken for a soul to inhabit it—the golett and spiritomb constructed by the ancients have this in common. This may be related somehow to the structural imperfections which exist in all viable mega stones, as observed by my colleague Dr. Sycamore. The reason for this remains a mystery, although—forgive me for waxing poetic—it is oddly fitting that the souls of the departed can only take up residence in a broken vessel. . .​

– Dr. C. Juniper, The Golett of Dragonspiral Tower