Welcome to the world of Varlid, a sprawling epic fantasy about power, loyalty, betrayal, and the courage to change.
A great power struggle is poised to erupt across Varlid. A meek creature inherits power beyond her comprehension. A giant succumbs to a curse which will either liberate or defeat his kind. Tiny wizards practice the dark arts to save their race. The old order stews in bitterness and vows revenge. The rich sit on their thrones convinced they are invincible.
Join the Crowning Fantasy as the inhabitants of Varlid struggle to find refuge, freedom and peace.
Some see the turning point in the history of Varlid through the lens of intercourse or lack of. - Mikachiari scholar
I lay in a puddle of bodies and twitching tails. The warm, living mass moved, stretched, yawned. It was almost morning and time for work. Blunt claws, no longer good for hunting, raked the short, fuzzy fur on my back, arms, and legs. Someone leaned over my head and began combing there, tickling my ears. I purred with delight. This was the best time of each day.
“Mina,” my best friend said. “You’re always the last one to get up.” Kazi’s sharp teeth nipped at my ear.
“I’m up,” I grumbled. With my eyes still closed, I propped myself up on one elbow and leaned over a Mikachiari lying next to me. I raked my claws along the closest body part. The slap of a hand stopped my feeble attempts at grooming.
“Not there,” a voice spat.
“Sorry,” I said, finally opening my eyes. Kazi giggled behind me and pulled me up and away from the dissolving puddle of Mikachiari. All females—our bodies were barely covered with bits of cloth, more for the sake of the Esarotarahis family we worked for in our adopted land of Dohla than any sense of propriety on our part.
I let myself be half-pulled, half-dragged to the large washing room where stalls fit two of us at a time. The younger ones splashed water and snapped towels, their voices rising in volume until an elder Mikachiari hissed for quiet. Kazi and I hushed. Respect of our elders was ingrained in us from the time we were old enough to understand. If an elder Mikachiari said to do something, you did it. They did not even have to be close kin.
Kazi gasped and slapped her hand over her mouth. I looked at her, then shifted my eyes back and forth, searching for what had startled her so.
“What?” I mouthed.
A trembling finger pointed at my hands. They were holding a washing cloth. Bright red dots stood out on the light-colored cloth. Blood.
I froze, my eyes widening in disbelief. I had always known this day would come. The day all young Mikachiari feared. I fell to my knees before Kazi and pleaded, “Don’t tell. Please, don’t tell anyone.”
Gumus Ay waded into the mine as he had for the past one-hundred years. Stoic, solid, a wall of flesh surrounded by his brother Kertenkele. They broke rock, removed precious minerals and stones, the wealth of Dohla, and deposited it at the feet of the rulers of Dohla, the Elyun. The Kertenkele also broke up Padda nests. Any Padda unlucky enough to cross their path within the mines were exterminated. His elders did it with relish. Gumus Ay thought they were reliving the invasion of their homeland. The one they couldn’t prevent. The one that destroyed their race. He had been too young to remember any of the mothers, wives, sisters lost forever, even his own. He had grown up working in the mines alongside only Kertenkele brothers.
The stone shattered as he brought his hammer down, exposing the minerals, which he picked out of the debris. Gumus Ay felt… off. For a month now, a small fire burned underneath his skin, sending heat radiating through his large body. Working in the mines sixteen hours a day, almost nonstop, had not smothered the feeling. When he collapsed into his small stone cell, the smoldering sensation only let him sleep for a short time.
Hours into his repetitive job, the heat from within lurched up a notch. Kertenkele didn’t sweat. Not that Gumus Ay had ever seen, but beads of moisture now formed on his upper lip. His thick purple tongue slid out and wiped them away before anyone noticed. Toward the end of his shift, Gumus Ay’s large hammer froze in mid-stroke. He remembered Onyx Ay’s teaching and what this inner fire meant. It marked him for death.
My body trembled; I just stared at Kazi, unable to think of what to do next. Kazi grabbed the stained washcloth and ran to hide it. This was the sign all young Mikachiari dreaded. Soon after confirmation of their first blood, Priestess Tado would declare them ready for the ritual, Nodoshiku. All Mikachiari in Dohla who reached this age entered the ritual with Priestess Tado, no exceptions. At the beginning of the ritual, Nodoshiku, Priestess Tado would repeat the history of the Mikachiari.
Priestess Tado would speak in hushed tones about how the Mikachiari had once lived in a lush, tropical paradise called Nokashikatekiariku. How the Asistan Ti invaded during the Varlid War and captured the capital city, Mikanokichikata. Instead of following any rules of war or logic, the Asistan Ti were barbarians who used their magic to systematically hunt down and kill all Mikachiari males. The females they enslaved and experimented on to improve their magical strength.
After the fall of the Mikachiari homeland, Nokashikatekiariku, the survivors escaped to Dohla and other areas of Varlid. The High Priestess Rikijiri Noshikikuarichiari said Goddess Jimotekuari commanded all females to surrender to the new ritual, Nodoshiku, to prevent their race from being exploited by the Asistan Ti. Goddess Jimotekuari would rather see all Mikachiari return to her in the spirit world than remain on Varlid, their race forever polluted by the Asistan Ti. It was said that after High Priestess Rikijiri Noshikikuarichiari conveyed the goddess’s wishes, she was called directly to the spirit world by Goddess Jimotekuari, leaving the ritual in place until there were no more Mikachiari left in Varlid.
During this ritual, Priestess Tado used only their language, Takatojidokajiku. Their language consisted of two-letter syllables that transmitted the shared history of all Mikachiari. Special scholars, Arimirimotakashiari, recorded the language and were in charge of making any changes. This scholar listed the name of the young Mikachiari who was about to undergo the ritual, Nodoshiku, in her ledger with a solemn look. At the end of the speech, Priestess Tado called upon all Mikachiari to preserve their language and culture through the last commandment of Goddess Jimotekuari and the ritual, Nodoshiku.
When the speech was over, a group of ten Mikachiari carried the young one away. When the young Mikachiari returned to the group, there were wild cries of joy and a feast to celebrate. But they returned changed after the ritual. Their eyes dark with a secret they never shared, no matter how often they were asked.
Kazi and I had listened to the hushed conversations and speculations about the ritual. As the years dragged on, resistance to the ritual had grown as fewer and fewer young Mikachiari were left. It wasn’t until I was close to my time for the ritual that I noticed older Mikachiari questioning, although in whispers, the Priestess Tado’s insistence on the ritual until there were no Mikachiari able to bear a cub. The Mikachiari had lived peacefully under the Elyun’s care and protection all these years. The Asistan Ti had not been seen or heard from in all this time.
Kazi and I stayed up at night discussing what we’d overheard as our time grew near. It resulted in a pact: We would stall the inevitable for as long as we could.
It was easy enough the first few months; the blood was light and the ache only annoying. The hardest part was hiding the rags until we’d found a system of washing and hiding the evidence. Six months passed, and the pain now radiated down my legs, and my stomach clenched in cramps. Kazi rubbed circles on my lower back when we were able to sneak a moment alone after serving lunch.
“I don’t know how much longer we can keep this up,” I whispered to Kazi.
“I’ll find something for the pain; surely the Ashiha has something.”
“I’m sure she does, but with what excuse? Ashiha’s not going to just give it to us. Asking will raise suspicion.”
Kazi bared her teeth in agitation. “I’ve been thinking. I’m bound to start soon. What will we do then?”
I reached back and squeezed Kazi’s hand. “I don’t know. But I’ve been thinking maybe it’s time to ask an elder sister for help. Whatever is done during the ceremony, it can’t be that bad.”
Kazi pulled her hand back and patted me on the head. “I’m not willing to give up yet. I’ll keep alert for something or someone to help us.”
Ashiha Esarotarahis entered the large courtyard of the Mikachiari servants. The usual constant purr of conversation fell silent, waiting for her announcement. “I need a Mikachiari to run an errand for me.” Many ears pricked up at the chance of leaving the servant’s area, until the Ashiha explained. “It’s in the Kertenkele Market.” At this, ears flattened and eyes wandered elsewhere. The Kertenkele Market wasn’t a bad place. It was boring and dull. The huge beings lived in the mines most of the day, and when they were seen walking about, they never looked at or acknowledged anyone.
Kazi and I exchanged a glance. It would be a short trip, but buying some time was better than none. We both shot forward. We bowed before Ashiha, and I replied, “We’ll go.”
The Ashiha’s eyebrows raised for a moment before handing over a medium-sized package with the name of the merchant to look for in the market. She spoke the words I needed to hear, “Take your time.”
Kazi turned to follow, but Ashiha Esarotarahis motioned her back. “I just need one of you to go.”
I hung back, hugging the package against my stomach.
“Go,” Kazi mouthed and forced a smile.
I tilted my head in apology to Kazi and slipped through the door and out into the streets of Rasima, the capital of Dohla.
The tunnels of Dohla felt natural to the Kertenkele. Their homeland, Buyuk Col, was a vast network of underground caverns and tunnels in the desert, El Kebida. They were invaded by the Bocek, who infested their tunnels and laid their eggs in the wombs of female Kertenkele. Their mothers, sisters, and daughters were eventually wiped out by the Bocek. Although the Kertenkele vowed to fight to the bitter end, Onyx Ay and others chose to lead the few male survivors to find refuge in Dohla across the desert El Kebida. Onyx Ay called, Sabah Yuruyusu, the March of Mourning. Once in Rasima, Onyx Ay pledged the remainder of their lives to the Elyun to be used as they saw fit.
Their race would eventually die out, even though they lived hundreds of years. Onyx Ay taught acceptance of this, but there was one problem: the Cinsel Iliski, or rite of passage where a female Kertenkele chooses a mate. Without any females to complete the rite of passage, a curse befell the male Kertenkele. Golo was the first Kertenkele to suffer the curse, Cinsel Iliski, which led to the brutal rampage in Rasima called Ofkelenmek. After the Ofkelenmek was stopped with the death of Golo, Emperor Rehis Abja threatened to banish the Kertenkele from Dohla. Onyx Ay trained all Kertenkele to master their bodies and curb desire in order to suppress the curse, Cinsel Iliski. Onyx Ay warned repeatedly of the dire consequences facing all his brothers if the curse, Cinsel Iliski, was left to fester and the Ofkelenmek was allowed to be unleashed upon Rasima again.
This could be the only explanation for the change in Gumus Ay’s condition. It meant death or, if allowed to continue, worse than death. Since the day in the mine when Gumus Ay realized what the uncontrollable fire flowing through him meant, he had redoubled his efforts to bring himself under control. With a heavy heart, he slowly lowered his hammer. He was losing the battle over his own body.
Should he turn himself over to Onyx Ay? Maybe he hadn’t studied hard enough, used Onyx Ay’s meditations long enough, wasn’t strong enough. Gumus knew a death sentence hung over his head at this display of weakness. Shame made him sag forward. Gumus was from the same clan as Onyx.
“Gumus?” Buclu Okuz asked. The question was hesitant since Kertenkele never sickened or weakened or tired. They marched on for hundreds of years.
Gumus looked up.
“Are you… sweating?”
Gumus wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. He lied and shook his head “no.” He opened his mouth to speak when the Klaxon bell for break rang out through the mines.
“Drink,” Gumus muttered and stalked out of the mine. He continued past the others, where they stopped to eat. He ignored Buclu’s calls. Soon every Kertenkele was watching as he left the mines and headed toward the Kertenkele Market.
Gumus was the only Kertenkele walking around the market at this time of day. He felt the eyes of the Sudawa, the Elyun guards, on him as he passed. Gumus was as conspicuous as a hill covered with wildflowers as he strolled down the street. He weaved through the back alleys to avoid the Sudawa. On the way to his small, single room a hot, rolling wave surged through him. He stumbled against the stone wall, sweat rolling down his face and plunking on the pavement in large droplets at his feet.
Not here, not now.
Gumus Ay had to barricade himself in his room until he could bring himself under control. Each step sent another wave of heat crashing through him. No exact explanation of the Cinsel Iliski was given except that the last stage resulted in a rampage of such destruction, death was the only way to stop it. This was supposed to be a phase only possible in those Kertenkele who did not mate. The females were the key, but the Kertenkele were a dead race, their females eaten up from the inside out by the Bocek. His giant chest heaved, and he stumbled into a pile of stacked crates.
A high-pitched yelp shot out from behind one of the crates that had tumbled down. Gumus recoiled at the thought of being caught during this fatal weakness. He flicked the crate away and revealed a Mikachiari crouching in the darkness.
His mind registered this much right before an opaque veil dropped in front of his eyes. He reached a massive arm down and clamped his hand across her entire face. Her terrified eyes peeped through the cracks between his fingers.
A rumble rose from his chest as he picked her up and hugged her to his chest.
Squeezed against him, she resembled a furry package with a dangling, ribbon of a tail. Tension eased out of his body just enough for him to move his legs forward, weaving around the deserted back alleys until he reached his room.
A kick sent the wooden door of his room clanging against the stone wall. Kertenkele were too massive for beds. Woven mats were on one side of the room and a small kitchen on the other. He dumped the Mikachiari on the mats and closed the door. There was no way she could escape with one tiny window at the back and Gumus filling the rest of the living space.
Gumus was safe here. There were no other Kertenkele around at this time and no reason any Elyun would wander into the living spaces of their willing slaves. The Kertenkele had no vices and could offer no entertainment to the Elyun. Kertenkele lived as monks, the perfect working machines, the perfect guests in a foreign land.
The Mikachiari stared at him with wide eyes. Kertenkele and Mikachiari did not mix. She looked young, so this could very well be the first time she’d ever seen one up close. Mikachiari barely spoke the language of the Elyun, Loha. She had backed into the corner and made herself as small as possible. The veil that had fallen across Gumus’s eyes lightened, and his mind reeled in horror at what he’d done. The Kertenkele were to harm no one, according to Onyx Ay’s teachings. Ever. Such was the penance for the loss of their females. His knees buckled, and he fell on them with a thud.
Gumus flattened one palm against the wall. The burning so strong he thought he would burst into flames. His thick fingers pulled out his coarse shirt from leather shorts. A glow like embers from a fire fanned up from his belly to just under his neck.
“Help me,” Gumus said, bewildered at the pleading in his voice.
The Mikachiari’s mouth dropped open, revealing tiny, pointed teeth. She hiccupped but did not speak.
There were no other creatures in Varlid, save Bocek and Padda, as massive as Kertenkele. But the female Kertenkele were gone. Only males survived the invasion of the Bocek. Gumus was too young to remember when his brothers made the March of Mourning, Sabah Yuruyusu, and placed themselves upon the mercy of the Elyun.
Curiosity skittered across the Mikachiari’s face. “Wha—What wrong?” she stammered.
Gumus’s shoulders powered up and down. The sensation of flames pouring out through his skin made him double over and moan. He rocked back on his heels as his eyes glazed over, and the opaque veil dropped again.
Gumus had no idea how much time had passed. The stones beneath him were slick with sweat. His body twitched, and heat waves as hot as the desert, El Kebida, passed over him. Just like the desert, El Kebida, there was no rain, no relief. He pounded the wall in frustration. A scuttling sound reminded him the Mikachiari was still in the room. Why had he brought her here?
Breath, it always starts with the breath, Onyx Ay had instructed.
Do no harm. Do no harm. Do no harm.
Gumus vowed he would take his own life before he harmed this creature. Taking in a great lungful of air, he sat up, grabbed the Mikachiari, and hugged her to his chest. There was a pinpoint of sensation that sparked between warm and scalding hot, like a current.
Do no harm. Do no harm. Do no harm.
Gumus slumped back and drifted away into unconsciousness.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid!
I took too much time to clean up. It felt so good to be out from under the watchful eyes of the elder Mikachiari. Besides, all the Kertenkele were supposed to be in the mines this time of day.
For the tenth time, I gathered myself together and pushed. The dead weight of the Kertenkele’s arms didn’t budge. I shifted a knee close to my chest to make some space so I could breathe easier.
The Kertenkele’s skin was smooth as river rock and cool to the touch now. It had been as hot as a smoldering fire when he’d first picked me up. I’d never seen a Kertenkele up close. They lived in a separate area of Rasima, and other than their similar sad history, we had no use for one another. I certainly never heard of one glowing before. I lifted my head and snarled at the Kertenkele. All I could see was his chin. My nails raked against the smooth skin. I tried to dig into it, to scratch it. Nothing. I snagged a bit of skin with my fangs and bit down as hard as I could. Again, nothing, not even marks.
I took a deep breath and blew out my cheeks. At least I would have an interesting story for Kazi when I got back. The heaving of the Kertenkele’s chest lulled me to sleep like the rocking motion of a boat. Even though Mikachiari hated water, they braved crossing the Bred Hav Sea to the nation of Dohla and the Elyun. The Mikachiari were servants, some said even more like slaves, but I had never wanted for anything in Ashiha’s house.
My lips curled into a grimace at the reason we were here: the Asistan Ti. The magic users raided my homeland, slaughtered our fathers and brothers, and reduced our ally, the Faglar, to paupers clinging to the corners of our homeland. The elders recounted battles fought valiantly against the Asistan Ti. How the stench of their magic filled the air. How we escaped to Dohla and the precious sanctuary offered by the Elyun.
The Kertenkele spoke the language of the Elyun, Loha, fluently. Priestess Tado discouraged us from learning or using Loha other than to perform our duties. I hadn’t understood what he cried out, other than the tone implied he was desperate. For what? And even if I knew, how could I help this huge thing?
Oh! Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!
A pounding at the door startled me. I twisted in panic, trying to break free from the Kertenkele. I hissed and spat in frustration. This huge brute had no idea how much trouble I would be in if found here. The pressure from the Kertenkele’s arm lessened, and with a gentle touch, I was lifted and set down across from the floor from him.
“What’s your name?” the Kertenkele asked.
His deep voice vibrated in my ears. He seemed himself again. I understood the word, name, so pointing to my chest, I said, “Mina.” After a pause, I thought it only polite to ask, “You?”
“Gumus Ay.” The pounding on the door became insistent. “I’m sorry. I’ll do my best to see that no harm comes to you.”
I rattled off in my native tongue, “You should be sorry! You… you kidnapped me. You held me here for Goddess knows how long against my will.”
He tilted his head and looked at me, puzzled for a moment, then repeated, “I’m sorry.”
I stood up and stamped my foot to show him I wasn’t impressed. I motioned for him to open the door. If I had known what would happen to me after that door opened, I would have told him to keep it shut.
Three Kertenkele in the shape of a triangle filled the doorway, Onyx Ay at the head. Kertenkele faces weren’t as expressive as the Elyun or Mikachiari, but Onyx Ay’s face was etched with sorrow. He looked down at the dull glow on Gumus Ay’s chest. He reached out and rested his hands on Gumus’s shoulders. “I have failed you.”
Shame fell around Gumus like a shroud. “It is I who have failed you.” He reached up and ripped his shirt in two. The curse of the Cinsel Iliski clearly marking his body.
A ruckus outside the room made Gumus look over Onyx’s shoulder. Priestess Tado had climbed the backs of the two Kertenkele behind Onyx. She was screaming in the Mikachiari language, Takatojidokajiku. Few understood more than a couple of words of their language, since one word often encompassed an entire subject. Whatever Priestess Tado was saying made Mina whimper.
“Onyx, do with me what you will—may my sacrifices be remembered—but don’t let anything happen to this Mikachiari. This is entirely my fault. I… I don’t know why I brought her here.”
Onyx looked skeptically at Gumus and shrugged.
Priestess Tado, still screaming atop the shoulders of the Kertenkele, switched to Loha, the language of the Elyun. “What happened? Why my daughter? Do no harm, Kertenkele!” When she saw Gumus’s glowing body, she froze for a moment and then shrieked in earnest, incomprehensible in any language.
Onyx motioned with his head to start backing out of the room. When they moved into the hall outside, Priestess Tado was able to squirm between the legs of the Kertenkele and grab Mina. Gumus moved to interfere, but Onyx encircled his neck while the other two grabbed his arms.
“Onyx, no! I gave her my word.”
Behind him, Onyx answered, “The Kertenkele and Mikachiari handle their own. If we don’t take care of this, the Elyun will seek revenge on your brothers. You must help me end this quickly.”
Now that Priestess Tado had a hold of the cowering Mina, she signaled several other Mikachiari, who had been waiting farther down the alley, to take her.
“No!” A spark of the madness touched Gumus, and the glow running up his chest flamed brighter. In the small alley, more massive hands encased his arms and legs to hold him back. Gumus kept his eyes glued to Mina until she disappeared from view.
Outside of Rasima, the landscape changed. He was no longer near his dwelling in the Kertenkele Market. Dirt and dust formed a cloud, blurring the features of the others straining to contain him.
Gumus finally relaxed and let himself be led up a winding path on Dil Hill, marked as sacred and exclusively used by the Kertenkele for rituals. An alcove had been carved out of solid rock on the back side of the hill, facing away from the area used by the Kertenkele for their rituals. Gumus didn’t resist being stuffed into the cramped space and drew his feet up as Onyx latched the iron gate shut.
“Rest as best you can. Use the meditations I gave you to calm yourself. We’ll find respite for you soon.” Onyx turned and left.
Gumus hoped Mina was all right. She had done nothing wrong. It would have cost nothing for Onyx to say this.
I was enveloped in a swirling mix of tails, claws, and flashing teeth. All the Mikachiari who surrounded me were elders, having been through the ritual, Nodoshiku. Their faces were engorged with rage. My eyes shifted around, trying to find a friendly face.
Blows and kicks rained down, driving me to the ground.
I cowered in a ball. Why were they doing this? Just because I was late telling them about my first blood? Had Kazi told on me, after all, or had she been betrayed while seeking help?
Priestess Tado’s hoarse voice rose above the clamor, “How, sisters? How are we going to placate Goddess Jimotekuari? The goddess who has asked nothing less of us than our purity!”
No response was uttered, nor one expected. The beating went on. I felt clumps of hair being pulled out by its roots. I collapsed inside myself, my mind numb, receding in incomprehension. After an eternity, the assault stopped, and I felt myself being moved to another place. A metal door clanged shut. Grateful my body was not communicating with my mind, I let myself slip away into nothingness.