What follows is an excerpt from “The Sooth Mother” a story that I’ve been fiddling around with for the last year or so. This is first draft, no editing, so forgive any grammatical mistakes or lack of polish. Enjoy some free reading. lol
The Soot Mother – Excerpt (First Chapter)
We are the mothers of soot-
We called it a birth, but the word on everyone’s mind was death.
We sing our mournful song-
We were only children; the seven of us, and at sixteen rotations, I was the oldest.
For we have lost our eggs-
Mohri Ibenmihl turned fifteen today.
And now our future’s gone-
The small, fair-haired girl could hardly walk under the strain of the globe of her stomach, and we six Nethenil did what we could to bear her towards the surface.
Cover your ears as we pass-
Our voices reverberated deep within the depths of the cavern, ringing out in haunting melody.
Turn your eyes to the ground-
Sweat beaded the young Mohri’s naked skin, and she gasped as she lost her footing, collapsing onto her knees. Nethenil Jaeli, the second eldest of the group, helped me to lift her from the stone, and together we bore her frail weight across our narrow shoulders.
She was dying.
We travel through the deeper Delves-
With the exception of Nethenil Jaeli, the other girls were too young to contribute, and instead, walked ahead of us, lending their nervous voices to our song. They were afraid—we all were.
To burn beneath the Suns.
The dark stone of the tunnel gleamed beneath our feet like a great black mirror, and as we neared the Genirbehr, the temperature climbed as quickly as our small sisterhood. It was the last bit of shelter before we hit daylight and a welcome respite along our journey.
We’d traveled for what seemed like days through the dark of the Delves, always heading up. There was no time to spare for rest; Mohri Ibenmihl wouldn’t survive much longer, and we had to reach the surface before she breathed her last.
“Sister,” I turned towards Nethenil Jaeli, peering around Mohri Ibenmihl’s limp head. “Help me set her on that rock over there—we have little time to prepare.” I nodded towards a large flat stone near the wall of the cavernous room.
Mohri Ibenmihl said nothing as we lifted her onto the warm rock, and left her there to address the anxious group of children. I watched her for a moment, though she did not acknowledge my gaze. We weren’t far from the surface, and already the radiation had begun to eat away at her skin. Blisters marred the delicate skin around her eyes and lips. We couldn’t afford to delay much longer.
This would be the first time many of the girls had left the Delves, and like Mohri Ibenmihl, many of them would not make a second.
My gaze fell over the small group as Nethenil Jaeli went around to each girl, making last minute adjustments to each where needed. Their hair, once a thick and lustrous black, had been shorn off with a crude blade—as close to their scalps as we dare. Already intricate silver patterns had been painted on the bare skin of their heads, and each wore only a short mesh skirt the color of the stone at our feet.
This is how I would remember many of them; frightened children sheared and painted for slaughter. Few would make it to the next Walk, and even fewer to the one after that.
I’d long ago lost track of how many Walks I’d attended, but this would be my first leading one. Our sisterhood had always been small, just a group of two or three at a time. Nethenil Kora had mothered us for as long as I could remember, but at the age of fifty rotations, she’d walked her last. Her ash now dusted the sun-baked surface, along with countless other Nethenil before her.
Millennia ago, the single sun of Jiha’Glohir had fractured into four separate burning balls in the sky. We had once orbited the great blue giant, but now, it orbited us. It had happened so long ago, there wasn’t a person alive who remembered how it had occurred, or the life we’d once had before it. We had only ancient folk stories told over cooking fires in the depths of the Delves to remind us of better days.
To say we’d survived the extinction of our planet would be overstating the matter. We’d endured. Survival was too pretty a word for it. Unlike our time before the Breaking, every one of my people knew the story of what came after.
When the Suns broke, the planet’s surface was bathed in radiation and heat—a great wave of destruction that turned everything it touched to ash. A few of my people, the Grigowyn, fled into the darkness of the Delves—great underground caverns deep within the core of Jiha’Glohir—and within their depths, they found the Astym.
The Astym were a race of dark-dwelling beings that once, had barely been able to stand the weak sunlight of our temperate planet. After the Suns broke, however, like us, they could no longer near the surface. Cast together in darkness, the two species made a pact.
Though the Astym were a frail species—they were also curious, and clever. Unlike the Grigowyn, whose children must be taught by the generation before it, the Astym had a race memory. Each Astym was born with the all the knowledge and memories of those before it, and it was the Astym that authored the written pact between our peoples.
In exchange for shelter from the unbearable surface of the planet, the Grigowyn signed themselves away to an eternity of rule under the Houses of the Mohri, and in only a generation, we had come to revere the child-like savants as living Gods. They were ancient, forgotten beings, hidden away in the dark depths of Jiha’Glohir. They were here before the first of the Grigowyn had been born to our world, and had survived many destructive events before the Breaking. We saw them as our one hope to survive.
For all their inherent strengths, however, a single, fatal, design flaw plagued the Astym.
Though we referred to them as female, the Astym had no gender. They resembled small children, and at 15 rotations, each began to wither and die. The Astym lifespan was short, and their bodies, pone to premature failure.
The Astym reproduced only once in their lifetimes, and that reproduction could only occur at the time of death—and only under the intense heat of our suns. In essence, each Astym replaced itself within the collective with an exact genetic clone, and if the cycle did not complete for any reason, the loss of that life could not be recovered.
For this reason, the greatest crime in our world was to cause the premature death of an Astym. It was this crime that had made us Nethenil.
At the conception of the Avelion Pact—the contract that bound all Grigowyn to a Mohri House—a caste system had been put into place. At the top of the castes sat the Mohri: the Astym. Below that, were the Gohri: their Grigowyn caretakers. Each was hand-chosen by the head of each Mohri House, and they were indulged much like coddled pets. Then, there were the Ihptorin: the male Grigowyn. The Ihptorin were the labor class of the houses—working as ore miners, hunters, and artisans. They were traded for breeding stock to ensure Gohri bloodlines, and used as a status symbol between the houses.
At the bottom of the castes were the Nethenil: the casteless. We were the unfortunate caretakers of dead Mohri. Somehow, our intended charges had been lost—killed, or had simply never been born. By Astym law, we were considered filth, and according to their dark god, be it accident, or intended harm, any Gohri that lacked a Mohri charge, was a murderer.
Many of us were caste as Nethenil from birth. Our mothers had provided too many daughters, or a Nethenil had failed a Walk, and an egg was lost—and so from the moment of our conception, we were slated for death.
The other castes were not permitted acknowledge us. We were but ghosts—ash floating in the wind—Soot Mothers. We were no longer seen or heard. If a house needed a body dumped, or a Mohri was sent to Walk, a note, smudged with ash would be dropped in the tunnels, and we Nethenil would respond without word.
We were a caste of desperate, starving nomads. We paced the Delves from House to House, caring for the dead—for death, was our only trade.
The Mohri need not put the casteless to death—the Delves were a dangerous place outside the Houses. There were rarely more than a handful of Nethenil per Mohri House. Most of us starved, succumbed to disease, fell to cave-ins, or burned.
For all our despair, however, we Nethenil were charged with a single task – the most sacred to our people – that no others were permitted to do. We Walked. The Astym could not bear the radiation or heat of our suns, and because even we Grigowyn often succumbed to it, the Gohri and the Ihptorin could not be risked to this task.
Unfortunately, it was a necessity. If we did not Walk, the Astym would die without progeny, and it was blasphemous to even consider the possibility. They were our Gods, our saviors in the dark of the Delves. It was our burden, and without our sacrifice, the whole system would fall apart.
The irony was that, until the Avelion Pact, the Astym had been a race slated for extinction. Without it, the Grigowyn would only have had to wait, and the Astym would have died off in a single generation. Fifteen years, and we’d have been free – but the Grigowyn were a compassionate race at heart. We’d been pulled in by the Astym’s child-like demeanor, and signed away the future of our species without hesitation.
It was hard to know how long ago the changes to Jiha’Glohir had taken place. My people had no written language, and with no day or night cycle, time was a concept few of us observed. We counted our time in rotations; at the end of each, the greater sun of the four would pass before the Genirbehr—the entrance to our cave system—and we’d know that a new cycle had begun. However, the count from the time of the many, to now, was vast, and long ago forgotten. We only knew that the Breaking had happened long ago—long enough, that the Grigowyn had begun to adapt to the surface heat and radiation.
We weren’t immune, but we’d found that we could stave off the effects for short periods.
“Nethenil, gather.” I motioned for the children to gather around me, and I sat on the warm stone beneath my feet at the center of the cavern. A few moments passed while the children huddled in around me in a great circle.
“I know you’re frightened—we all are. You may pass this day. I have walked more times than can be remembered, and I have seen few Nethenil return from their first Walk.” I said, and reached out to touch the clasped hands of one of the girls. “Ease your hearts. The dark will come; you need not fret over it. If you cannot stay calm, it will leave you. Do not allow fear to rule your hearts, and you will return safely.”
I nodded towards Nethenil Jaeli, at the rear of the group, and quietly, she stood to rummage around in the small pack she carried on her belt.
“In a moment Nethenil Jaeli will hand each of you an Iiviib Root. It will help to stave off the pain of the scarring. Though it is only a momentary pain, it will be intense, and if you are unprepared, you will lose the dark to it.” I turned my head to the side to show the girls the intricate pattern of scars that covered my scalp, and one of the smaller girls reached out to trace the patterns with her small fingertips.
“Hair burns off on the surface, as does any material you may take with you. That is why we wear the Raii-Enibra.” I explained as I pointed to the delicate latticework of metal mesh I wore that served as a skirt. “The Syn Ore the off-worlders come here to trade for does not melt in our environment like other materials. It burns with an intense heat, and it will cause pain, but it will not harm you as long as the dark is with you. “
I reached down to the small metal trinket hooked onto the belt of my skirt, and removed it, holding it up for the group to see.
“Stay aware of the markers you wear at your hip. They are your warning. When it falls from your body, you must return to the Genirbehr.” I cautioned. “The dark makes us immune to the heat and radiation of the surface, but it is only for a short while. When the marker falls, your time is up. If you fail to heed this warning, you will burn with the Mohri.”
I glanced around the small group for a moment.
“May the dark keep you.”
“Darkness keep us.” The girls chorused.
I rose to my feet as Nethenil Jaeli handed out the last of the roots, and I strode to her side.
“Did you finish checking them?”
“Yes, they should be fine.” She replied. The metallic paint used to pattern their skin was not truly paint, but a volatile mix of ores that would ignite and burn in a flash under the heat of our suns. We used it to inscribe the marks of our shame onto our scalps, branding us as Nethenil. It was this scarring that made our first Walks so deadly. The momentary torment of the scarring often broke the concentration of the girls, and if they could not stay calm, they would lose their only protection.
“Good. I must attend to Mohri Ibenmihl. Please, keep them calm until I am finished.”
Nethenil Jaeli nodded, and I turned to the Mohri, waiting quietly at the edge of the room. I strode forward to kneel at her feet, and pressed my forehead to the stone beneath them.
“Let the dark gods hear my prayer, and return the dead to your sight.” I recited, and then sat back on my heels, coming face to face with Mohri Ibenmihl for the first time.
Slowly, her gaze rose to meet mine, and for the brief moment, I was acknowledged into existence.
“I see ash before my view, and ask of it what it requires.” Mohri Ibenmihl responded in the custom of the ritual. The strain on her face was evident, and though she looked at me, she could no longer see. Already the radiation had taken her eyes. They were sunken and clouded, boiled in her skull.
“I ask the name of your descendent, so that I may whisper it to the ash, and all may know her.”
“Mohri Senlehl.” She turned her gaze back to the stone, and the acknowledgement was gone, the ritual complete.
I rose to my feet as Nethenil Jaeli approached, and with little hesitation, we took up our burden for the last time.
“It is time.” I called to the girls as we passed their huddled mass, and one by one, they fell into step behind us, a procession born of death and anxious with hope for the next generation of Mohri.
A thin veil—a small, protective shimmer in the sweltering air—masked the entrance to the cavern. It was a testament to long ago forgotten forces the Grigowyn had once mastered. Little remained of these old ways, and what little I knew had been passed down to me by Nethenil Kora. It was knowledge I had been entrusted with, along with a single task; one I would trade my soul for in order to accomplish. Today, I would do the unthinkable.
The barrier gave a bit of resistance as I passed through it and out into the open ash fields of Jiha’Glohir, and as I stepped into the light, the darkness overcame me.
In reaction to the radiation of our broken suns, my skin shot black—the color of burned stone—and a dark film rose to protect my eyes from the light. The scars of my scalp and the metal of my skirt burned bright as coals against the dark of my skin. The heat was intense, a searing pain that engulfed every inch of my body, but I `was used to the pain, and grit my teeth as I helped Nethenil Jaeli haul Mohri Ibenmihl beyond the veil.
Her scream was brief – a short punctuation to the end of her life as her body burned, and turned to dust in the blink of an eye. I brushed the ash from my shoulders, and hefted the large blackened egg she’d left in her wake into my arms. It’s surface bubbled like tar as the ash of her mother burned from the hard shell.
It would be several more minutes before the heat would work its course and trigger the gestation of Mohri Senlehl. I stood to the side, and watched the procession of Nethenil as they took their first steps onto the surface of their home planet.
The first stepped through uneventfully—a flash of fire, and the glow of ore—and she glanced around with wide eyes at the barren plain around us. Forgotten cities, burned black and hollow, sat on the horizon, and seemed to writhe in the waves of heat.
The next three didn’t make it as far. They’d stepped out cautiously into the heat, and panicked when the pain hit them. The darkness fled from their skin, and limbs beyond the veil withered and baked in mere seconds. Nethenil Jaeli, set with her task, pulled the remainder of the convulsing bodies into the sun, and watched them turn to ash with little compassion. A Nethenil who could not Walk, was of no use to us.
Of the six Nethenil that stepped beyond the veil that day, three survived.
“Sister.” I called out to Nethenil Jaeli, and hefted the heavy egg higher in my arms. She turned in my direction, our younger sister at her side. “Show Nethenil Ahven how to check the supply orders, I’m going to run a visual on the landing site.”
“Are you sure? It’s a ways out.” Nethenil Jaeli responded, concern in her expression.
“I’ll be alright. I think an ash storm may be on its way, and you’ve got your hands full already. Keep an eye on our sister, and I’ll return quickly.” I nodded towards Nethenil Ahven, and turned to stride farther out into the ash plain.
The ground beneath my feet was soft with a millennia of ash coating its surface, and my feet sunk easily into the searing gray. Traversing the surface any length of distance was a struggle, and made more difficult by the heavy burden in my arms. I searched the horizon, and saw the telltale blurry haze that signaled an ash storm was imminent. I hadn’t been lying about the danger. I was counting on it.
Ash storms were deadly. A searing cloud of ash, brought up from the surface by the solar winds could blind and suffocate in seconds.
I glanced down at the egg in my arms. It was almost time. Tiny specks of molten ore flecked the shell of the egg, and began to glow with heat—a sign that Mohri Senlehl had finally begun her short life.
I dragged my feet through the ash as I walked, encountering little resistance from the fine particles until at last, my toes hit upon something buried beneath the surface. I stopped, and set down the egg, nesting it between my feet, and turned to glance towards the Genirbehr. Some hundred feet away, my sisters were huddled around a group of stones set along the edge of the veil. Both were intent upon the placement and counting of the stones, marking the orders of off-worlders who would be returning to trade for ore.
Off-worlders were not permitted to enter the Delves, and with no written language of our own, taking orders had become somewhat of a challenge. Off-worlders could only visit the surface of Jiha’Glohir for a short time, even with their protective suits, so the timing of meet-and-greets had to be timed carefully.
The first off-worlders to reach our planet nearly a hundred years ago had strived to teach us their language, and with a bit of trial and error, a method was found in the placing of small stones to help us communicate. Unfortunately, with the high fatality rate of the Nethenil, it was difficult for us to learn a spoken or written language between our species.
After a while, most traders picked up the basics of our speech, and in return, we’d done our best to pass on their counting system between our sisterhoods. Only the oldest of the Nethenil, such as Nethenil Kora, had picked up enough of the alien speech to be able to communicate fluently. She’d taught me all she’d known, but even that was only the basics.
The ash storm raged in the distance, drawing nearer by the minute. I turned my back to my sisters and knelt over the egg at my feet to lift the corner of the object hidden in the ash. A few more seconds.
This moment had been planned for nearly three decades—waiting for the right conditions—the perfect opportunity. Born in secret, deep within the Delves, my mother, Nethenil Kora, had raised me outside the Houses of the Mohri. I was a true casteless—the only Grigowyn born and raised outside the Avelion Pact since its conception—and all for this moment.
The ash storm hit with silent force, and I ripped the hidden off-worlder helmet from beneath the layers of ash at my feet, and pulled it over my head. As the seals locked, I gasped for breath, and opened my eyes. A massive swirl of gray blanketed everything around me. I couldn’t even see the egg at my feet, but I felt its searing surface against my calves.
I took a deep breath, and then with words and movements older than the Breaking, I called on the ancient forces long lost to the Grigowyn, and prayed for an answer. The marker fell from my hip, I felt it drop, and knew I was running out of time.
“Noen.” As I spoke the first word of the ritual, I traced around the top of the egg, and the shell lit up like a trail of burning embers beneath my fingertips. I inscribed the ancient pattern along the surface of the egg until it burned like a beacon in the gray ash of the storm. The egg was a catalyst in a ritual passed down for hundreds of generations, since the time of the Breaking—it was an exchange—a borrowing of life. The words were of a language long since forgotten to our kind, used here to summon up lost magics.
Break. Take. Transfer. Burn the eldest bloodline back to its beginning, and sacrifice the embers for the place and time of its conception. Old Ones hear my plea, and undo all that has been written.
I spoke the final word, and clutching the egg to my chest, I crushed it, just as the burning took me.