From across the dregscape the word had come. To every bolt-hole and every hideout, every hidden, secret fortification, every point of light where vitals rallied against the death and the dark, the word had come. Not since the fall of Sedraxis, Vithia’s once shining jewel, had such words been uttered as were passing in whispers between the mortal holdouts. Not since forever had anyone dared whisper the word hope upon the dregscape, and yet through its vastness the word had come all the same.
Not everyone listened to it. Some knew better, that this new rumor of a land of safety was nothing more than rumor, at best a fever-dream shrieked and echoing across the dying halls then carried upon to distant climes that knew not its provenance and at worst yet another guileful trap to lure those last holdouts from their places of safety, onto the dregscape to die. Still, the word had come, the message was clear. Come home, scattered children of Grixis. Come to Vithia’s heart and its soul, somewhere you will be safe and provided for. Come out of the darkness.
Adar Hahn had forced himself to believe in the words that came on the lips of weary travelers, of the tales of a Vithian retreat where the stink of fetor and decay was warded out of every street by perfumed censers, of a place where they had banished the demons and the banewasps and the slaves of the necromancer barons that stalked around every corner and in every shadow. For his wife and his daughter, he had forced himself to believe.
The road was harsh and long. At times, it didn’t seem clear, but the longer they followed clandestine signposts and countless whispers rising together to a secretive roar, the more he was certain their path, however long and however hard, wasn’t leading onward into doom. A trap, after all, would have been kinder to itself and incidentally to its victims, ensnaring them swiftly once they were past the confines of their bolt-holes and hideouts, not after months of pilgrimage across the rotted world.
Grixis itself, though, had always had a way of refusing to be kind.
The Kathari were circling lower that day than they had for the past few, as though they knew somewhere in their rotted minds that something was going to happen. The sky, raging and acrid high above, was oddly still, rarely spitting flashes of lightning from cloud to cloud, more a dark mass than a raging, festering horror.
They struck from the earth, not from the darkness like they had before, but from the very ground beneath their feet, as though the dregscape itself was hungry for more carrion. Adar Hahn watched in horror as the bones sprung up, as his wife was impaled and the spears drank up her blood before it could be wasted and spilled upon the earth. He could do nothing but watch as foam pink with blood roiled over the lips he had kissed in stolen, tender moments, as her visage became pale and, life draining from her, she mouthed the word “Run”.
It was the encouraging he needed. He had a daughter to live for, and the only thought one could spare for the dead was to set their bodies alight so the necromancers would not take them. Adar Hahn filled his mind with a burning need to get his child to safety, and when her short legs couldn’t carry her, he took her hand to pull her along a little faster as she cried and screamed for her mother.
Grixis always knew your weaknesses. Sooner or later, Grixis always struck them. Sooner, rather than later, it came for his daughter.
Panic and exhaustion were what drew the Kathari, he was sure. They came down on their sickly black wings, and Adar Hahn raised the rusty knife he kept as a weapon in defiance. He knew they were bluffing: he was alive, and far too large to carry off as prey. The Kathari knew it too, and when he put both hands on his knife to ward them off, one swooped down behind, and bore his child into the air.
If that had been it, he would have followed, would have dared to hope to find her alive at some foul nest, but the child as well was too much for the Kathari to bear for long. She gave some final struggle, and fell from the bird-thing’s grasp, down onto the dregscape. By the time Adar Hahn crossed the terrain to where she had fallen, he had to fight off the Kathari, yelling and flailing at them to see what he dearly had not wanted to see: just another mangled corpse, somewhat smaller than most, split asunder and torn apart on the dregscape.
It was the day after that Adar Hahn found the stranger, or the stranger found him. He had lost his orientation, his way to Vithian salvation, so to see another vital was welcome relief. If the stranger, twisted as he was, was a necromancer or a servant, he told himself he would be glad. Maybe the dead didn’t remember.
The stranger had a hovel, of sorts, and invited Adar Hahn in. He brewed concoctions that smelled of something other than rot, noxious herbs relieving in their difference. They sat in silence for a time, and then the stranger spoke, his smooth, deep voice soothing most of Adar Hahn’s mind but putting the hair on the back of his neck on pricking edge.
“You have a look about you of a man treated unfairly.” He said. “Let me guess, on a wild pilgrimage for utopia?”
“You could call it that.” Adar Hahn admitted.
“And you’ve realized… it isn’t what you dreamed.”
“Say no more.” The stranger replied, giving the hints of a smile. “I know how it is. All too common. You’ve found your way to the right place. I can help.”
“I can make you forget. Piece by piece, until you’re at peace.”
“What does it cost?”
The stranger grinned, his crooked, yellow, and rotting teeth more predatory than inviting. “Nothing you will lament being rid of.”
Adar Hahn woke up in a strange place. He remembered, vaguely, entering the hovel, and remembered that it was near another one, belonging to a stranger. Why was he there alone?
He remembered his pilgrimage. He could remember the call. Come to Vithia. Come to it’s haven. Come where it’s safe and pure. He had been traveling there with his wife and his daughter. He remembered them at his side just the night before. Where were they?
“Layana!” he called, his voice echoing across the darkness. “Alya?” Neither answered, and he stepped out of the small tent, noting the larger hovel adjoining it. Had he just taken the worse set of hospitality?
No, he wouldn’t have… He couldn’t remember splitting from them, was sure he’d rather sleep on a floor with bone shards than let his wife out of his sight.
“Layana, where are you?”
A stranger came out from the hovel, his back hunched with protruding bone, his yellow, rotted smile somehow both kind and cruel. The stranger shambled forward.
“Now, now.” He said, “Don’t worry about that.”
“It’s my wife!” Adar Hahn shouted, “My wife and my daughter! How can I not worry?”
The man frowned, shook his head, and patted Adar Hahn on the shoulder. “You must be confused right now, but trust me, it will pass.”
“Where is my family?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“How can you say that?”
“I know you better than yourself, Adar Hahn.” The stranger said, smiling again.
“Let me tell you a story.” The stranger replied, “Once upon a time there was a man sitting upon the dregscape. He had no idea who he was, or why he was there. A demon appears next to him, and asks him what is his third boon. The man looks at the demon in confusion, and says he cannot recall a first or a second. The demon produces a contract with the man’s signature, and says that for his soul he was granted three boons, but that his second choice was to undo the first. The man thinks, and says he knows what his third boon shall be. He wants to know all about himself, and all about where he is and why. He wants the answers to all his questions about the world and the past. The demon grins and says it knew that would be his choice. Can you guess, Adar Hahn, why that is?”
“Because, the demon says, that was the first boon I granted you.”
“So you’re saying I’m the man on the dregscape?”
“Was it so obvious?”
“And that would make you the demon.”
The stranger laughed. “If you want to think of it that way.” He reached a hand towards Adar Hahn’s forehead. “But trust me, you wanted this. And it is for the best.”
Adar Hahn’s world went black.
His hand quivered, and he forced himself to still it. The words needed to be crisp and clear. This would be his legacy to himself, his record should the stranger come again. He had already lost so much! He was sure of that score, though how much of himself was gone he couldn’t say. The fetid earth of the dregscape burned well enough, sputtering and charring into a black mass that he crushed to power with a fragment of bone. He hoped he had enough as he put a tough, thick strip of leather between his teeth and took the razor in his left hand, pressing it to his skin. By the time he was done with his right arm, it would be in agony, and his left would look no cleaner than the right. If he started the other way, his right arm would be illegible and therefore useless. Small cuts, he told himself. Careful.
Your name is Adar Hahn, he wrote in his flesh. The razor wasn’t as sharp as he had hoped, but that was good. The words would scar well. He rubbed the black dreg soot into the wounds, then washed off the skin around the wounded words with what little water he had. The lines appeared black as night against his pale flesh. They would scar black. His future would have a past.
You have a wife named Layana, he wrote, You have a daughter named Alya. Find them. Find your family.
He could remember their names, and their faces barely, and Adar Hahn knew that he wouldn’t have left without them. He couldn’t remember why he was on the dregscape: the stranger had stolen that much from him, but Adar Hahn would make sure the stranger would take no more. Rubbings of soot over razor cuts, vague washing attempts, examining the bitter scars. Flesh was the only constant on Grixis, the only thing that was ever really yours. He put his testament in permanent, living flesh. He switched the razor to his now unsteady right hand.
Do not trust the stranger, he wrote, The man with the bone-hunched back. The man with the cruel smile. Do not trust him. Do not let him near you. He has stolen your life. Do not trust the stranger.
When his work was finished, Adar Hahn stepped out onto the Dregscape. The stranger was waiting, and looked at Adar Hahn with a frown.
“How many times?” he asked pleasantly, “How far shall I have to go? And look what you’ve done to yourself now.”
“You did this to me!” Adar Hahn yelled. “You stole my life!”
The stranger shook his head. “You sold it to me.” He said, “Just to be rid of it.”
“Where is my family?”
“I thought you might ask that.” He shuffled forward, and Adar Hahn brandished the razor.
“It’s for your own good, too.” He said, “I’ve been a generous friend to you, Adar Hahn, but you leave me no choice. I suppose it was always going to come to this.”
The man looked across the world he had no word for. Something about it was revolting, deep down in the core of his being, but he ignored that little twinge and took in the air. It smelt the same as it always had, just like the land looked like it always had. He couldn’t remember why or how it was this way, but he was sure nothing had changed.
He sat down on the hill he had woken up on, put his elbows on his knees, rested his head in his hands, and watched the roiling sky and rotting ground, so strange yet so familiar.
There were markings on his arms, he noticed, strange black lines that gave him a slight pause. He thought they might be… words? But he couldn’t decipher them, their lines and curves holding no meaning at all. He knew what words were, how to think them, and as he muddled with his mouth how to say them. But how to see them? No, there was no way. They couldn’t be words, he must have been mistaken Maybe, like the ground and the sky, those marks had always been there.
The lethemancer examined the dull, fractured crystal that contained Adar Hahn’s bartered memories. His whole life, down to learning how to read and write. It was more than the usual pay, more complete and pure than any he had harvested in a long time. Perhaps this would be a token worth something. Perhaps, he thought as he placed Adar Hahn’s memories alongside a few others, he would have enough now to buy back something of his own. He fancied his name first. It would be good to have a name again, and after seeing Adar Hahn, he worried that history might not be what he really wanted to trade for.