This is the second part of the series exploring the origin of Nehnaxiir; the first part is HERE.
5: Now, Never, Always
Bleary-eyed and sore-backed, Nehnaxiir started awake.
He had passed out while reading a particularly dry tome on the nature of rank-and-file military formations. It was distasteful to him…but knowledge was knowledge. And all knowledge needed to be consumed.
He rubbed arthritic hands over his sunken eyes, willing away the fatigue. Taking a drink from his waterskin, he recited a minor incantation of sleep delay. The rumbling in his stomach told him he needed nourishment.
The old mage pushed himself back from the table, and trundled to the large chest of magically-preserved foodstuffs occupying the corner of his study.
The lid creaked as he used a minor spell to open it. He had slowed his aging, true- but he had not reversed it. Reaching in, he picked out a cut of meat and some sourdough bread. Setting the items on a tray, Nehnaxiir walked back to his desk. In passing thought, he glanced at his dimensional clock.
You see, Nehnaxiir had created a complex lever and pulley system of hourglasses of varying sizes and volumes to predict the passage of time outside of Hannur. It was based on esoteric math, the basis of which was a culmination of centuries of work by a thousand different scholars. He simply took their work to its logical conclusion.
Powered by a small amount of the same reagent that kept the portal to Nehekhara open, it told him how much time had passed in the real world.
And now, he saw that the grains were all settled. The machine was dormant.
As I mentioned, the old mage was not immune to the ravages of time. He forgot things on occasion.
And he had forgotten to change out the reagent charge. The machine was meant to reset – and chime as it did – to notify him of the passing of years outside.
He had slept for an indeterminate length of time. And the machine had gone silent.
A cold fear gripped Nehnaxiir. He stumbled to his desk, knocking over his waterskin and grasping for his staff. Totem in hand, the man walked unsteadily to the shimmering portal.
He took an apprehensive breath and stepped through.
What lay on the other side did not unsettle him at first. Gradually, though, certain things became apparent. The library on the other side smelled dank, as if no one had passed for centuries. Many of his shuttered and armored windows had been damaged or blown out by something. Large sand drifts rose and swelled throughout the massive room.
Some, he noticed, reached to nearly the top of nearby shelves. Others had what appeared to be bones strewn throughout.
One thing became clear to him – nothing lived here any longer. He climbed the stairs from the library to his former study.
He had not spent much time in his old lab since moving the Hannur gate apparatus to the library. As he entered, he was relieved to see that the sands had not reached that part of his tower yet.
Nehnaxiir unlocked the door with a heavy bronze key, and walked in. He moved to the window, the highest vantage point on his property. Peering out, he felt shock and a creeping numbness.
The city of Lybaras, visible from his point of view, was wrong. The towers and pyramids had taken on a more grotesque architecture. And the light…it was mid day, but the sun felt dimmer. An angry violet haze seemed to hang over the horizon.
That was when he saw them.
A column of soldiers marched a few miles away. Each bore the armor of Lybaras, and the men were trailed by war machines of a silhouette utterly unfamiliar to the mage. Some things were off about these fighters.
First, the armor of the Lybaran hoplites, normally polished to gleaming, was tarnished with verdigris. This was clear even from his considerable distance.
Nehnaxiir strained to hear something. Anything at all. He couldn’t – and that was also wrong. The fighting men of Lybraras were renowned for their songs of war…yet the column in the desert before him marched in silence. And they were thin, to the point of appearing malnourished from where he stood. Reaching for a scrying orb, he peered through.
What he saw nearly made him drop the expensive tool.
The men were not thin, they were not malnourished.
They were dead.
Almost all of them were nothing but skeletal remains. Yet here they were, marching in disciplined ranks. Worse, somehow, were the war machines which moved behind them. They were constructs of what appeared to be sinew and bone, arranged into catapults.
A sense of anguish came over Nehnaxiir. The Aether spoke to him. Somehow he knew he was the last living Nehekharan.
He desired immortality, but not in the hideous form his countrymen were reduced to.
Still in shock, he made his way back to the portal, taking time to check the status of his gate reagents and the warding spells.
On the other side, Nehnaxiir recharged the reagent in the hourglass machine. Hastily grabbing his reference notes for the time dilation between Hannur and Nehekhara, he reasoned out how long had passed since his machine went dormant. The answer came slowly, and when it did, he checked and re-checked his work. His mouth felt dry as he looked at the figure on the page.
More than a thousand years.
Hoping for an end to the nightmare beyond, he set the mechanism to warn him when a further four thousand years had passed. He needed a new source of knowledge, and didn’t think books would be terribly common amongst his now-undead kinfolk. He would await whoever came after.
Slumping into his chair, Nehnaxiir realized that he had no desire to learn at the moment. He set his head down on the desk.
For the first time in centuries, Nehnaxiir wept openly.
His next excursion, unbeknownst to him, would cause him more than mere tears.
6: Cut the Root, Spare the Stem
The ink was drying rapidly on his latest treatise.
Nehnaxiir sat back in his chair, its ironwood structure barely registering his paltry frame. Already somewhat frail, he had lost more weight in the previous months. Not for lack of supplies, but for lack of attention to his physical needs.
The shock of emerging from Hannur to witness a dead husk where mighty Nehekhara once stood had prompted the old mage to write his own work down.
For posterity or for his ego, he could not say.
He was unbearably thirsty. Knees creaking, Nehnaxiir sauntered over to the supply chest and pulled out another magically-purified waterskin.
He drained it in a single gulp, water spilling down his ragged and once-regal robes. He then belched. Once, it would have been unthinkably passé for a noble scholar of Lybaras to do such a thing.
Now, there was only dust, tattered tomes, and the gently-humming portal before him to care.
He was yanked from his reverie by a deep tolling.
Looking to the far wall, his blood ran cold with anticipation. Months after setting it, his complex time-dilation tracker was informing him that, if his math was right, the desired amount of time outside Hannur had passed.
Four thousand years.
He had allowed for four millennia to pass. He hoped that in that time, the kingdom of undeath that permeated the corpse of Nehekhara after the fall would have either crumbled to dust or been cleansed. That new civilizations would spring up.
His heart raced at what he might find on the other side. He would travel far and wide. He would discover the new research that would have taken place. The wonders of invention. New technologies and theorems.
He would learn it all.
And the mage had just the tool to do it. On his desk, the latest revision of a potent mixture sat, teal and slightly luminous in its ampule. It was the culmination of the last four millennia of time research. Scant months to him while he was safe in Hannur. That didn’t matter, though.
If he was right in his formulae, time wouldn’t matter anymore. Not in a conventional sense to him, at least.
Using the reagent that kept the gate to Hannur active, Nehnaxiir had created a potable fluid. This would suspend his body in a state of stasis, in an air-thin sheet of Hannur. He would be fully able and ambulatory, and as long as he kept his supply of the stuff adequate, he would age at the same rate he was aging in the pocket dimension.
While being in the real world.
He gathered his effects, unable to delay any longer, and walked briskly to the portal to Nehekhara.
Unstopping the bottle, he drank his potion. It warmed his insides, and a moment later, he felt the air about him change. It was working.
With hope in his mind and fire in his belly for the first time in months, he moved between dimensions.
On the other side, Nehnaxiir immediately felt wrong.
His tower was gone. Instead, the desert stretched before him, as it always had – but Lybaras was rubble before him. The once-great city was levelled. Bones were strewn about the ground.
What was more, the ground was littered with the corpses of what looked like Barbarians…though they wore darksome armor, and each had a strange, eight-pointed symbol on their plate.
A great battle had been fought here.
And the sky.
The sky was blood-red and looked to be afire.
On the horizon, a great storm front was milling, like the eyewall of a great hurricane. He turned to face the far mountains, relieved to see they were still present.
Tapping the magical winds, Nehnaxiir began to hear whispers. The dead were speaking. They were lamenting. They were screaming.
The dead were terrified here. They were singing to him. He strained to listen.
No. They were not singing.
They were chanting. And it was not a song.
It was a warning.
Puzzled, and befuddled to near-inaction, he tried to piece together the chorus of dissonant voices. He heard snippets of a thousand conversations. He heard names he was utterly unaware of.
Sigmar? Tzeentch? Khorne? Grimnir? Eltharion?
Who were these names? And why were the spirits screaming about them?
Suddenly, Nehnaxiir felt a tug on the edges of his perception. A minor thing at first, but growing steadily. At once, the voices in the aether grew unified and a single, near-deafening word bloomed in his mind.
Still dumbfounded, the mage noticed that he smelled sulfur and other, unknowable smells. As the voices of the dead faded, they were drowned out by a roar not unlike the ocean, but louder than anything Nehnaxiir had ever experienced.
He turned around, and knew fear. He had made an error.
The storm front was no storm at all. Not of a normal sort, at least.
It was a wall of raw energy, coming closer by the second. It shook the ground. Where it touched, the earth, sky and air were ripped apart – reduced to raw mana.
It was seconds away from him.
He sprinted to the Hannur gate -in the direction of the incoming wave of death – with every ounce of his energy. The front moved closer. He could see unfettered emergies about it. Despair. Anger. Rage. Confusion.
He was only meters away from the gate now. His legs ached as he thudded on the sand, bounding over corpses as he went.
The wave was closing in. He began to feel himself being pulled apart.
At the threshold of Hannur, he lept.
As he did so, the wave engulfed him. He fell, but not into the wave, nor into Hannur.
He simply fell. It was dark.
He was neither alive nor dead, as he drifted down into…
Where? He could not say. But he was still thinking.
He could no longer feel his body, or the weight of his age. He could not see.
But he was. And that was enough for him. He had much to think upon now. Not the least of which was the cataclysm which had just overtaken his world.
But he was so tired. Oh, so tired.
Nehnaxiir shut his mind off for a while, to recuperate. He reasoned that, he now had all the time in the world to think.
And so he closed the eyes of his soul.
While he drifted in silent meditation, the blackness of the space between worlds gave way to the gentle starlight of the aether.
Behind him, the molten core of a world destroyed was sent hurtling off into creation, blazing, with a figure desperately clinging to the side.
But he knew this not, as he drifted in soul sleep.
Awaiting his new beginning.
7: On Confounding Tides
For aeons he slept.
The exhaustion of a lifetime – several by mortal standards, in fact – had finally caught up to him. He had cheated death for longer than he had a right to. He’d been kept in motion by his ambition, by his drive.
By his thirst.
But now….now, he had truly cheated death. He had fallen, through the grasp of a dying world, into the space between stars. A place where the energies of madness and power swirled in a heady mix of emotion and raw creation. Where time meant nothing.
In the eerie silence of the Aether, the sleeper floated. Distantly, worlds and civilizations innumerable formed, lived and died, facing their own cataclysms. Suns were born and burst in a myriad of color, bathing him in the majesty of gently glowing starlight.
The grand opera before him told the tales of time itself.
But Nehnaxiir knew none of this. Alone, cold and tired, he listed across this stage. A bit actor, an extra in a masquerade.
But he was far from unnoticed.
A changer of ways, a lord of lies and riddles, was probing the stars. He was seeking something. Something he had detected as he and his brothers ended a world. A small voice he heard over the death screams of billions.
A question…a conundrum that had escaped. And so, he searched. Many worlds did the changer scour, during countless plots and schemes, through all the conquered lands and realities. He never ceased.
And now, Tzeentch had found his quarry. There, isolated and unconscious, not alive, not deceased.
Sleeping. Dreaming. Waiting.
This particular soul was a clever one, inquisitive in the extreme, and intelligent to a fault. He would make an excellent candidate for one of the dark God’s eldritch lieutenants.
But, as the universe is wont to do, it served him another dilemma.
Although this soul, Nehnaxiir, floated openly and nakedly through the Aether – practically the front portico of the realms of Chaos -Tzeentch could not reach him. He could not touch or influence or speak to him. Not directly, at least.
Something about the old mage was locking away his influence, denying the Lord of Lies what was rightfully his. This angered the god greatly.
He supposed, then, he’d need to send an emissary to wake Nehnaxiir and… parley?
Was that the word?
It felt odd to him. A god was accustomed to demanding and manipulating…not bargaining.
But, there was something unique about this one. He couldn’t resist.
And so, on a crystalline throne surrounded by lies and half-certainties, Tzeentch summoned one of his trusted Lords of Change.
Annios the Orator appeared before him, and asked his bidding. The demon’s feathers ruffled in curiosity and anticipation.
The Lord of Lies smiled with ten thousand mouths.
8: A Riddle and an Answer
From time to time, Nehnaxiir would blearily open his eyes. Through crystalized moisture, he could make out the distant forms of stars, nebulae and planets. It was silent, and riotous with color. The mage wondered idly if he could drift forever.
He was bathed in this gentle light every other time he came to. Peaceful. Solitary.
But not presently
This time, a shape with many eyes and more voices coalesced before him. It shimmered with a light that was antithetical to the pure, natural starlight around them.
It would have been nauseating, if the old mage’s body was still functioning.
Abruptly, Nehnaxiir’s cloudy, fractured cognition came flooding back. As it coalesced, the music of the spheres began to fade, the gentle thrum replaced by a harsh, tinny static.
The figure before him spoke in riddles. It asked him and prodded him, prompted him and interrogated him. For all the strangeness of the situation, Nehnaxiir was able to answer each question accurately – the knowledge of several lifetimes remembered as easily as if he’d read it immediately prior to speaking.
The questions covered everything from the politics of his own world to minutiae from worlds unvisited and lives unlived. Conundrums of physics, philosophy, mathematics, alchemy and even magic were posed.
Nehnaxiir could tell that the being before him was becoming increasingly belligerent and less sure of itself with every correct answer.
Simultaneously, the old mage was utterly unaware of why he knew the answer to some of the creature’s inquiries.
After what may have been minutes or years, the riddles ended. The thing before him looked at his frail, frost-rimed and dessicated form with a gaze of cold consideration and more than a little contempt.
Finally, it broke the silence. It offered him a bargain – a return to free agency. A rebirth of sorts, the gift of a physical form more able to weather the mysteries of the universe and a memory the equal of no other. And the ability to walk the stars as a Traveller and not as driftwood.
Which was Nehnaxiir’s present situation, the monster pointed out.
For a moment, Nehnaxiir considered the offer. While he had been perfectly content to rest and bathe in gentle starlight for the last epoch, the mage had grown listless.
He had experienced moments of lucid panic during his slumber. As if he feared that he was slowly drifting into smaller and smaller selves, who were then drowning in a cosmic ocean.
He almost said yes. But he did not.
Instead, a wellspring of anger rose unbidden up through him. He was wise enough to know that there was always a catch. He inquired as much.
The thing before him, rather than answering, attempted to misdirect the conversation. And that is when Nehnaxiir knew he had won. With a rumbling laugh – the first mirth he’d felt in a long time – the mage declined the offer.
Somewhere, in a place beyond the stars, between logic and reason, and outside of both entirely, something screamed.
It began as a distant hiss, and rose to a keening wail. Soon it was intolerably loud, and given that the Aether had no air to transfer sound, it had to be inside the old mage’s head, much like the voice of the thing before him. His head felt like it would burst, and if his muscles were more than ice-crusted strands, he would have grabbed his temples in pain.
The thing before him, he noticed, was discorporating and shaking its head in derision.
It informed Nehnaxiir that he had made a grave miscalculation. That its master was displeased. But, since he had beat every riddle and question, he would not leave without bestowing a boon.
Though, the creature warned him, this boon would also be as much a curse as a benefit. And this time, there would be no choice.
With this, the thing disappeared, fading back into whatever foul magic birthed it.
Silence returned to the aether. The withered mage, his inner fire fading and his complacency already returning, made to rest once more.
And that is when he became aware that he was suddenly very, very warm. And then hot. And then burning. Nerves that hadn’t felt anything for aeons fired. Muscles thawed and worked, he was moving. He swallowed with a sore throat, and blinked rheumy eyes.
And then, the pain began. He screamed a wordless cry into the silence of the aether.
He felt bloated. And it started small at first, but before long he realized he was expanding. His flesh tore. Bone stretched. His eyes became two, then six. His mouth fused and the stubble of his beard grew long and became fleshy. His arms and legs were sheared away by the foul energies enveloping him. In their place, vestigial fins sprouted. His robes fell away and he began to grow and stretch, foot by painful foot.
It became too much to bear. He broke.
His mind was changing. Fear and paralysis gave way to curiosity once more. Lethargy died and a driving ambition rose from the corpse. And the fear of death, the unfairness of it, the dread cloud that had followed him in his life in Nehekhara…died. It parted like a veil. He knew, instinctively, he was now free of time’s shackles.
Mortal worries began to wink and fade out…all but thirst.
And thirst, he found, was now a requirement for knowledge. Stronger even than what he remembered of his mortal life. Burning, insatiable. He felt parched, but not in the throat. In the soul.
He needed to learn. Information was life. It was existence. It was creation and devastation, and all things between.
Flexing arcane fins, and shuddering with glyphs and runes which pulsed with witch-light, Nehnaxiir began to dive the stellar currents, on his first trek to other realities as something more than human.
He would visit the gently glowing stars and the worlds that surrounded them. He would know their secrets and their stories, and would take them into himself.
As he swam away through the void, a tattered robe drifted aimlessly away. The pockets, once full of his magical reagent, were now empty.