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The Seventeenth Stanza
by Darrell Whitney


The basements of Motavia Academy were dry and dusty, used for storing items that might be of value someday but were not desired for immediate study or display by the Academy's professors. Many books were stored in the three-level cavernous vaults; thankfully Motavia's arid environment kept them free of damp and mold. The ancient advanced civilization that had existed in Motavia prior to the "Great Collapse" of more than seven hundred years ago must have had its own methods of storing and retrieving information, but those means had been lost along with its technology. The printing press was a new, or perhaps more likely rediscovered, invention and any manuscript from the intervening centuries was a minor treasure worth keeping by the academy.

Any book revealed traces about the culture that produced it, and one of Professor Karl Hoffmann's habits was to select a new book from the archives every so often and read it, making notes as he did about the underlying cultural assumptions and how they augmented--or conflicted with--the Academy's understanding of the book's period. It was the old scholar's principal hobby.

The flame in Hoffmann's candle-lantern guttered as he strode through the stone halls in search of something new. He wanted something, this time, that would stir his imagination, something more connected to his studies than most of his choices were.

A glint of reflected light caught the professor's eye. He glanced in its direction and found a heavy, leather-bound tome, its metal fittings unrusted and untarnished, beckoning to him from a laden shelf. Curious, Hoffmann took it down. Inset in the cover was an unusual sigil made of the same metal as the fittings, likewise untarnished. Hoffmann thought at first that some colleague had polished the volume, but then realized that the metal was in fact laconia. Laconia was a mineral not native to Motavia, thought to be the most precious substance in the Algo solar system. There were said to be mystical influences over laconia, and it was believed to have an affinity for the power that was manifested through techniques.

Some of Hoffmann's colleagues believed all such stories to be no more than old wives' tales, products of the superstition and fear that had gripped the shattered remnants of Motavian society in the wake of the Collapse. Yet, there was evidence of magical legends dating back not just a few centuries but thousands of years, to the days when Parma was a planet rather than a ring of asteroids around Algo.

The sigil in laconia was an intricate arabesque of sweeping curves and sudden, sharp angles that beckoned the eye to follow along its pattern almost hypnotically. It was only with a great effort that Hoffmann tore his gaze away and opened the cover. The frontispiece was illuminated with an inch-wide border of more of the same patterns, though these did not possess the compelling qualities of the rune on the cover. The title was written in bold, even arrogant calligraphy, and read: The Testament of Xayn.

Eagerly, Hoffmann began to leaf through the pages. The handwriting was easy to read, even though the ink had faded and the sentence structure was reminiscent of six centuries ago. The content, though...superstitious cults had flourished during the past centuries, and this work appeared to be an autobiographical work by the high priest of such a cult!

For a man like the professor, a find like this was of immeasurable value. Hoffmann was a folklorist; legend and superstition were the meat and drink of his studies. Learning how the belief system set down in this book was created, and whether or not any of it had lingered on into modern culture, was a task he relished. Tucking the Testament under his arm, the scholar hurried out of the dark and musty basement.

After securing the antique volume in his study, Hoffmann checked the archival records. Motavia Academy kept careful records of where all of its finds had come from; it was vital to proper scholarship. The Testament, it turned out, had been a gift from a wealthy Kadarite forty years ago, a large number of other items of antiquarian interest belonging to her uncle. The town of Kadary and its environs were well-known in the annals of myth for being especially hag-ridden with ghosts and spirits, often of an unusually malign nature. This, of course, only piqued the professor's interest more. Could not, he asked himself, cults such as the one the mysterious Xayn had belonged to explain why so many bogey stories endured in Kadary to this day?

At some point chemical tests would have to be performed on the paper and ink, perhaps even the binding, to verify that the Testament was in fact of the era it had purported to be, but those could wait. Professor Hoffmann was too eager to wait any longer; the urge to delve into the secrets of the book was upon him in its full glory. He returned to his office, sat down in his comfortable, overstuffed chair, and opened the book.

The pages of the Testament were in remarkably good condition, flaking a bit at the edges but no more. The book was in vastly better condition than might have been expected, which might have meant that it had been stored carefully by previous owners, or might mean something less pleasant. Still, who on Motavia would use the nearly priceless material laconia, which wasn't even found on the planet, to create a forgery? Forgers worked for money, and it would surely have been easier and more legal to simply sell the laconia! Perhaps it was not a fraud, but a copy, done to preserve the knowledge of an older edition.

Then, the professor was caught by the text. He forgot all his speculations about the Testament's origins, and instead delved into its content. The book appeared to be a mix between scripture and autobiography, telling the story of how the Xayn of its title had come to experience the revelations that led him to his belief in superstitious rites and what the nature of those revelations was. Hoffmann was familiar with many occult beliefs of the past, from the transcendental to the apocalyptic, but what he read in the Testament had a strange, compelling nature to it that he had never encountered before. He read on eagerly, the words burning themselves into his brain, pausing only to light a lamp as the sun sank below the horizon.

The substance of Xayn's beliefs were ghastly. He spoke of an immensely powerful, utterly evil god or race of gods that watched and waited beyond Algo. Apparently, this dark force had been sealed away by some other deity eons ago, but when the stars were right it could reenter the dimensions of the living and strive to tear away the seal. The Dark One or Dark Ones (Xayn was disturbingly vague on this point) was, moreover, served by minions that partook both of mortal nature and its own, and while these minions were not free either, through the proper rituals a doorway could be opened to bring small numbers of them to Algo.

Most frightening of all Xayn's claims, though, was that part of the seal had been destroyed already! When next the stars turned and the darkness rose again, it would be able to shatter its damaged prison and would emerge at last to reign supreme over the universe! The great mass of all the people in Algo would be exterminated, save, or so Xayn claimed, only those who turned to the worship of the Dark Force. The time it would come was unknown; it might be decades, centuries, or millenia away, but it was coming.

Why Hoffmann found this message so chilling he could not say. End-of-the-world beliefs were common in that period; the series of disasters that marked the Great Collapse were enough to convince anyone that the final doom could be at hand. Any number of raving prophets had gathered large cult followings by preaching apocalyptic terrors that, of course, only they knew the secrets to combat. So, Xayn's message shouldn't have been notable, even though it was in his own hand rather than filtered through a historian's perspective.

Yet notable it was. The imagery of the great inhuman wizards called Le-Faw-Gans, ghoulish risen corpses, twin-headed demons, worms that writhed in the spaces between dimensions, the insectoid Gy-Laguiah and Lw-Addmer...the litany of monstrosities made his mind reel. The notion that such horrors could underlie Algo's past...

Then Hoffmann turned the page, and came to the Testament's seventeenth stanza.

TO THE UNBELIEVER

Should there be one reading this Testament who doubts the truth of these revelations, then I say unto that one, repeat ye the following chant, and let the scales of ignorance drop from thine eyes!

Hoffmann trembled as he read the words, which appeared to be in some ancient tongue not spoken by Parmanian tongues for centuries.

Did he dare?

Common sense told him no, that only a fool would probe into such dread knowledge willingly. His fear, though, drove him onwards. The professor could not get Xayn's words out of his head; he feared for his sanity if he could not find some way to expel those thoughts. The ritual could be a way--if it failed, then surely it would prove that Xayn's tales of Dark Force were no more than a lunatic's ravings.

But what if it did not fail?

Hoffmann rose from his desk and shut the door. The heavy book in his hands, he began to chant. His voice naturally fell into a sonorous rhythm as he spoke the words, which had been spelled phonetically. It was in an eerie tone that hinted at hidden things, lurking and watching from the shadows. Hoffmann could feel the mounting anticipation in his blood; he felt as if he were standing on the brink of some great revelation.

Then, the chant was done. Nothing happened. The professor's heart pounded rapidly, but slowly the tension began to ebb, the nervousness that had eaten at him from the very moment he found the book slowly leaving him. What a fool he'd been, to believe there might be reality in these crazed stories!

The flame in the lamp seemed to shrink in upon itself, nearly going out. At first Hoffmann thought it was only that the oil reservoir was empty, but then he caught sight of the shape manifesting itself in the center of the room.

It was a monstrous, hideous thing, its flesh a nauseating mauve in places and a sickly corpse-white in others. It stood on two legs, but its feet were huge and birdlike, with two splayed, taloned toes pointing forward and one behind. Its left arm ended in a two-food, sickle-shaped blade of some substance that seemed more smooth and polished than bone should be. There was no apparent head, only a ridge that ran down the center of its torse, unless its bulbous right shoulder was in reality that head, for it had no right arm. In place of that was an open maw surrounded by short, writhing tendrils. The fiend had no eyes, but it turned to face Hoffmann, sensing his presence.

The Testament of Xayn fell from the professor's nerveless fingers. He took a shaking step backwards, then another, unable to tear his eyes from the thing he had conjured. It half-turned, its tentacled "mouth" facing him, and then the lips drew back and the creature spewed a gout of caustic liquid over Hoffmann. The professor screamed as the acid ate into flesh and bone, but only once.

The creature shuffled towards the windows, unconcerned with the thing that lay on the floor. Another native of Algo was dead, another potential Protector fallen. A creature of Dark Force had been unleashed to haunt the world.

Somewhere, the spirit of Xayn laughed.

His sigil on the cover of his Testament glowed redly, but only a pair of dead eyes were there to see it.

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