Transcript – Visions of the End

[The Pensive Tower theme plays]

Scroll & Dagger presents
The Pensive Tower
Episode Twenty Two: Visions of the End

[A click, and the strange whirring of the venoscribe begins]

This is the memory of Thomak Athran. Orklin, aged seventy two, identified as male. Memory regards an experience in a graveyard in the border town of Fir-Ness and was donated on the fifth of the month of Baretree in the year 698. Inscribed by Paxton Ferox on the nineteenth of Highmoon, 730.

We Begin.

People think khirrocs aren’t a problem anymore. We won, we drove them out into the wilderness, never to be seen again. That’s what they say. I heard that, out west, there are some folks who don’t even believe that the khirrocs exist. Must be nice.

I’ve considered moving out there more than once but, I think I left it too late. I’m an old man now, far too old to be thinking of packing up and starting again elsewhere. Still, the urge does come back hard every time I walk past the boneyard.

I found out from one of those surveyors that come through town every once in a while that Fir-Ness boasts one of the biggest boneyards, not just in Sangland but in all the Federation. Got to be known for something, I suppose.

The Tor of Gira-Beir even carries the title “Lord of Graves,” since Fir-Ness lies on his land, though I don’t doubt he uses it to frighten and impress with stories that the graves are those of the many enemies he has slain.

Sad thing is I remember a time when the town was like any other along the border. We were a little rustic, the city folks might even have called us backward, but we were content with our lot. As a boy, I would join my father and the other workers out in the fields where we sowed in the spring, reaped in the autumn and tended the herds in between.

There were not many other children in our part of town, but what few there were banded together into a group that I joined along with my sister, Tessan. There was Namra Elssin and Keliza Belurn, a pair of tauroxen girls, Sora Windle, a human, my sister’s best friend, her little brother, Hagget, and her cousin, my best friend, Issa Wenton.

Our mixed group might have been unusual elsewhere in the Federation, I know in some of the big cities in Sangland it’s considered unseemly to let boys and girls play together. Lot of nonsense in my opinion but it’s not my place to judge other folks for their customs. All I know was that we got along together just fine during our childhood years.

There was a tall and ancient rustwood tree that stood on the bank which became a second home to us. A castle, a hiding place and, in the summer months, a swing set to send us out over the river and then crash down, screaming in delight, into the water.

And, in later years, it was beneath that tree that Namra and I shared our first kiss.

I won’t pretend it was all hot summers and happy times, there were plenty of sad times; bad harvests, new-borns and old friends lost to disease or age. And there were bad times, like when the khirrocs raided our land.

They didn’t come often, not in those days anyway. There was no way to predict when they’d come since they did not seem interested in our harvests nor what little gold we had. The only indication we ever had was that they never came when the sun was shining, only ever on dim, overcast days.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw one of those monsters.

I was still very young, maybe five or six. My sister was still two so obviously this was a long time before we had our little friend group. I was walking alone along the river path. I think I was going back home after spending some time with my father in the fields but it’s difficult to be sure, this was a long time ago.

What I have no difficulty remembering is what happened next.

I saw a fire, one of the signal fires that were kept around the village. My mother had always told me that if I ever saw one of those fires I was to run straight home. And if I couldn’t do that, I was to find somewhere else to hide. She hadn’t told me why I needed to do these things, just that it was something everyone had to do if one of the fires were lit.

So, seeing the fire, I ran.

I wasn’t far from my house so it didn’t take me long to get back and find that I wasn’t the only one who had seen the fire. It looked like everyone was running for their houses.

At the time I didn’t think much of this, it just looked to me that my mother had been right, that this was something everyone had to do when a signal was lit.

If I’d been a bit older or I’d been paying attention, I might have noticed the fear on everyone’s faces or maybe that not everyone was running for their homes but that some were carrying pitchforks out of the village, towards where the signal fire burned.

I got back to the house where I found my mother cradling my little sister who was asleep. She closed the door behind me and asked if I had been with my father. I told her he was still in the fields when I’d last seen him.

She gave a shuddering sigh as if she was holding back a sob and told me to take my sister to my room and close the door.

I looked back once as I went to my room. She was standing, looking out of the window, a pistol in her hand.

I was getting scared by this time. I’d never seen my mother act this way before. She always seemed so stern and so certain of things that seeing her nervous like that was almost scarier to me than anything that came after. Almost.

My bedroom had a small window and, after I’d laid my sister down, I peered out to see if I could figure out what was going on.

There were fewer people outside now, the last few who hadn’t yet been able to reach their homes.

Then I heard the screams. People were pointing at something I couldn’t see and sprinting away as fast as they could. And then I saw the first of them.

It has been more than sixty years since that day and I’ve seen khirrocs many more times since. But I’ve never, in all my years, been able to come up with the words to do justice to the sheer abominable nature of those things.

“Animal” isn’t even close to right. No animal could ever match their savagery. “Monster” seems trivial. “Monsters” are what we scare children with, they’re things of story books. But there’s no other word I can think of that I could use to describe them. They are monstrous things, hulking brutes of matted fur and feathers, claws, fangs, talons and burning yellow eyes. They are creatures that seem not only built to kill everything in their path but seem to enjoy it. To watch them, it is clear that there is nothing in the world that brings them more pleasure than the butchery of every living thing in their path. Evil. That’s what they are. Pure and brutal evil.

There was a woman running towards her house. I can’t remember her name, I think she was the miller’s wife. But the khirroc I’d seen chased her down like a fox pouncing on a hare. With much the same result.

By the time the thing was done, what was left of the poor woman hung limp in its jaws, a crimson puddle spreading beneath her. The monster tossed her aside carelessly. There was no more fun to be had with her so it wanted to find its next victim.

I ducked down beneath the window before it could spot me.

There were more screams now. I heard, from outside, the sound of doors being broken down, animals being butchered in their pens while their owners met similar fates in their homes.

My sister was woken up by this and began crying. I rushed to her and began trying to calm her down, terrified that the monsters I had seen would hear her and come into our house looking for us.

Later, much later, I worked out that the khirrocs who came that day were actually quite a small pack. There had only been a half-dozen of them and, while what they did was horrendous to see, there were not enough of them to take every house in the town.

Especially not when the village militia, about twenty or so men and women, came charging up the road, firing muskets and brandishing long spears.

The khirrocs were driven off but they left plenty of destruction in their wake. Some of which was done to my own family. I’m glad to say that they hadn’t come into our house, so me, my mother and my sister were spared. But they had come through the fields to approach the town. My father, as it turned out, had been one of their first victims.

And so, the boneyard got bigger.

Houses were rebuilt and we returned to our lives. We should have left, of course, but it’s not so easy as that to leave your home behind, especially when you’re just about scraping by.

The farming in the borderlands is some of the best in the Federation, so I’ve heard. Not that we see much of it. The bulk of the money made from the farming goes straight into the pocket of the Tor, what isn’t taken by the tax man.

So, sure we could have moved but what exactly would our prospects have been?

So, we stayed and tried to make the best of it. My mother took up my father’s job, leaving me and my sister in the care of our neighbours.

New people arrived in town. Apparently the Tor had advertised incentives for people to move to Fir-Ness and farm the land. They’d been promised good salaries and free housing just waiting for them. He neglected to mention that the houses were free because their previous occupants had been butchered.

That was actually when Issa and Sora’s families moved to town. I’d never seen a human before and it was very odd to see these small, soft skinned people walking around my home.

The years passed by. My mother remarried a taurox woman named Thalida. A stern woman but she had a good heart and she made my mother happy so me and Tessan did our best to get along with her.

We did have a few more khirroc raids but with each one, we got better at fighting them off. We got used to fighting together with the spears, and got more accurate with the muskets. By the time I was ten, we had a full stockade around the town and three watchtowers out in the fields that could give early warning. We did have a few more losses but less than we would have suffered without those towers.

Namra and Keliza left when they turned eighteen, called to the Tor’s harem. We knew it was coming but I won’t pretend it didn’t hurt to see Namra go, especially knowing what was going to be expected of her.

She told me that she’d understand if I met someone else, that she didn’t expect me to wait for her.

I just held her and told her I’d see her when she came back.

And then she was gone.

In the long term, as much as I missed her, I was glad she left. Because it wasn’t long after that that Fir-Ness saw its worst ever khirroc attack.

It was far beyond anything we’d seen before. This wasn’t just a random pack, this was a horde.

The town had grown over the years and with it so had the militia. Me and all my friends were part of it, even Tessan and Hagget did their part, ready with freshly loaded muskets to swap out for the fired ones. I fought with both the musket and the spear. Me, Issa and Sora were even part of the squad that pushed the khirrocs away from the gate. But even with our numbers and our palisades, we were only just about able to drive them back. And we’d taken heavy losses to do so.

Among those losses was the boneyard keeper. Which is how I fell into my new profession. I swapped my musket for a shovel and got digging. And the yard got bigger again.

I could go into more details, tell you about every attack but I fear it would get repetitive. So, suffice to say that, by the time I turned seventy, the boneyard was the biggest in the Federation, I’d been married twice, the second time to Namra, and widowed twice. And I’d buried more friends than I cared to count, including Issa, Sora and my sister.

The town hadn’t seen a new face for quite some time. And all the incentives in the world aren’t enough when the place becomes famous for repeated slaughter.

Those with the sense and the money to afford it had long left, leaving those of us too poor, too proud or too stubborn to leave.

Which brings me to the main reason I’m here.

This happened earlier this year. I was visiting Namra and Inira, my first wife, as I do about once a week, to tell them about recent events and about how I was doing and so on. Issa was further along, next to his husband and beside them was my sister, her husband and then my parents. I’d be visiting them all that day and I’d repeat the news to each of them.

I don’t know if they can hear me, maybe they’re all off having a good time in the next world but it feels good to think that I can still speak with them. Hagget was there with his wife and their kids, visiting Sora and doing pretty much the same thing I was doing. I consider that a ray of light in my life that they were able to stay safe. At least one of us should have had a long and happy life, and Hagget was always a good man.

We haven’t actually seen many khirrocs in the past few years. Maybe they got bored with us, went looking for better targets, or something out east was keeping them occupied. But we all knew that didn’t mean they wouldn’t come back.

The day might come when we’d hear a horn from the watchtowers and turn to see another horde coming over the horizon, coming to finish us all off once and for all. And its not like we’d be able to stop them. The palisade’s falling apart now, all but a few of the weapons would be in need of a good cleaning before they’d be usable and even if they were all ready to go, the people of Fir-Ness certainly aren’t.

Those thoughts have been playing on my mind a lot lately. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by it; living in near constant dread, it wears you down.

Every day I wake up thinking that this might be the last one. This might be the day it ends, the day I go and join the others in the boneyard. Though, if I’m gone, I don’t know who’d put me there.

I did my best to remain cheery as I spoke to Namra, but those thoughts were in my head, like always.

I finished what I had to say, told her I’d be back next week and turned to move along the row to where Issa and the others lay.

Behind me I could hear Hagget telling Sora about how his eldest, her namesake, was now engaged to a fine young man who was making good money as a merchant and they were moving over to Hed-Gir. Not a bad place to live, I’ve heard. Good sized city, strong walls with actual lawkeepers there, got to be a lot safer than out in the middle of nowhere like us.

I wondered, bitterly, if we’d still be there by the time young Sora and her new husband came to visit, or if the warped tide would have come back and swallowed us all.

It was the silence that made me realise something was wrong. Just seconds before I’d been hearing Hagget talking, the birds twittering, the wind rustling the branches of the trees, but suddenly it was all gone.

I turned around to look. Not only was the sound gone but so was Hagget and his family, the birds and even the trees.

I whipped around, looking in all directions. There was nothing there. The fence that surrounds the boneyard, that was gone, the wall around the town and the town itself, they were all gone. All that was left were the graves.

The boneyard is big, I think I’ve been quite clear on that. Years of raids from khirrocs will do that, not to mention those from nearby freeholdings and hamlets started bringing their dead to be buried in Fir-Ness, which I suppose makes sense, may as well have all the dead together in one place. By this point, the boneyard was easily four times the size of the town itself.

Or at least, it had been.

It was bigger now. The yard stretched out to the horizon in every direction, row after row of identical small grey headstones.

I suppose a man who hadn’t seen the life I had might have panicked then but, quite honestly there’s very little that rattles me these days. I was afraid, of course I was, I had no idea what was happening or why, but you live through enough khirroc raids and you learn to push the fear down until you’re in a position to deal with it.

I didn’t know what else to do so I started walking. I reasoned that if I just kept going then eventually I must reach an edge. And once I’d done that I could start trying to put together what was going on.

So I walked. And walked. And walked. I don’t know for how long.

As I walked, I glanced down at the headstones. None were names I recognised.

Kat Niraden, born 605, died 686. Bhladin Guren, born 592, died 653. Tor Tamal Tai-Biressa’Ilyan, born 526, died 584. That one actually came as a surprise, I would never have expected to see a Sangland Tor buried where I could see them, even if this wasn’t truly the Fir-Ness boneyard anymore.

The next one made me pause. I had to look at it again, to make sure I’d seen it right.

Szomasi Kaliit, born 662, died 727. I’m sure you’ll understand my confusion. How could I be looking at the tombstone of a person who, according to that stone, hadn’t died yet?

I kept going. The majority of the graves were of those already dead but I did find more like Szomasi Kaliit’s. Jorlin Rubek, born 643, died 722. Maylori SinGar, born 658, died 736. And then I started finding even stranger ones. Niriam Keener, born 703, died 782. Kala duLane, born 730, died 809.

A thought came into my head then that made my blood run cold. That I was looking at the world’s graveyard. That I was at the end of time where all life was done and nothing remained but the graves. The dead and the dead and the dead, lying side by side row after row, I was seeing all of them and I was the only one left.

I was running by this point. I might not be as young as I used to be but I can still pick up a decent pace when I have to. I was now trying not to look at the stones I passed by but, try as I might, I still caught the names, as if I had no choice but to look at them. And the ones I saw were, if possible, even stranger.

Kamorinex duGraata Zephrius, born 538, Ascended 775. Hermira SinJorn, born 692, reborn 734. Pax… Paxton Ferox, born 695, died TBC.

[Paxton clears his throat before continuing, clearly shaken.]

H-headstone after headstone I ran past. I wanted to get away. That thought grew to fill my head. I didn’t know what was going on and I didn’t want to know, I just wanted to get out of that place, to get away, to get back to my home.

In my haste, I tripped and fell sprawling in the soft mud. I looked up and was suddenly aware of someone who had most definitely not been there a second before.

He was a small human man who looked like he had been awake for his entire life. His skin was grey and clammy and his hair was just as colourless. And he was carrying a long pole and seemed to be using it as a walking stick.

I pushed myself up onto my feet. I asked the strange man who he was. He didn’t answer, barely seemed aware I was there. He looked at me like I was something he was trying to look through, like I was in the way.

He said, “No, no, no. That’s not right. It’s too early.” I think he was speaking to himself, not to me.

I was about to demand just what in the Depths he was talking about when he lifted his pole and jabbed me hard enough that I fell again, this time backwards, and landed heavily in the mud with my head spinning.

I lay there, staring at the sky, trying to regain my senses enough to get back up and show this lunatic just who he was messing with. But, before I could, the face of Issalin, Hagget’s youngest son, came suddenly into view, asking me if I was alright.

I lifted my head and looked around. I was back. Hagget and the others were coming over to me, looking concerned and there was no sign of the strange little man.

I didn’t tell them about what I’d seen, told them I must have just taken a turn. Not sure if they believed me but Jilly, Hagget’s wife, insisted on taking me to see a doctor. It was there I heard about this place and I thought, if there’s anywhere I could go to tell this story, it was here.

And so, that’s what I did.

Final notes; Well… quite a lot of rather upsetting stuff in that one. I’d always heard that life in the borderlands was hard but I don’t think I ever gave much thought to how hard it must be. Seeing all that death, I could certainly understand how it might unhinge a person.

But that’s not what’s going on here. This vision or whatever it was, this seemingly infinite boneyard. I think ordinarily I might disregard it as a lot of nonsense but, obviously seeing my name in there… that changes things. I’m not sure if the uncertainty of my death date is better or worse than if it had read an actual date.

I think it goes without saying that Mr. Athran and I never met. I was born just three years before he donated this memory and was raised in a suburb of Elalton. As far as I’m aware, neither of my parents ever went to Sangland, never mind the eastern border. Unfortunately, we will be unable to make any further inquiries as Mr. Athran died five years after this memory was donated and was interred in the Fir-Ness boneyard alongside his second wife, as per his will.

There are a few notes attached to this memory, it seems the Librarians of the time were interested enough to check on the accuracy of the births and deaths of the people mentioned – at least those that were checkable. Those they were able to track down match up to the births and deaths that Mr. Athran stated. Szelia and I did a bit of follow up and… all still seems correct. Szomasi Kaliit died three years ago in Szairo, Jorlin Rubek, a mercenary with the Redsteel Guild, died on assignment in 722 and, just two days ago, we heard news that the duLane family welcomed a new little girl, who the parents have named Kala.

No identity has been given to the stranger who turned up at the end, though he does seem similar to the odd little man called Isamael who appeared in the memory of Alfard Wey. I think it might bear keeping an eye out for any more sightings of him, since he seems to be attached to very distressing visions.

Inscription Complete.

[The venoscribe clicks, and the whirring stops.]

[The end theme plays and the Announcer recites the credits.]