No Virtue Alone

In the days when the great Li Midya was only a village, before the hateful colonists touched the world, the old chief Negenkhe owned nine loyal warriors. You will be asking, not the great Negenkhe who laid waste to the armies of the Shaking Valleys? The same Negenkhe who scorned the omji and roved wide with a band of killers and fiends?

Fires no. That Negenkhe is the subject of too many stories. I speak of Negenkhe the Wise, not Negenkhe the Dreadful. Some of you will be asking now, who is this Wise one that shares a name with that villain of old time? Bend your ear to me and I will be telling you.

Negenkhe the Wise never aspired to great riches or power. She did not craft nor overthrow a chiefdom; it grew around her as a simple but dedicated village. Her quick-as-fire mind led her to many insights. In time she became a master Slinger and healer, teaching lifeways of peace and happiness. Long before the visioners, she perceived the forms of pain from a person’s crooked posture or the tremor in their voice. And with this knowledge, she conquered the hearts of her people.

By the time our story begins, Negenkhe had begun to decline with age. She had trained many in her arts and understanding. There were stirrings among the people as the malcontents debated who should replace her. At this time, her warrior-vassals defended her from increasing assassination efforts. These nine and most others remained loyal, knowing that every weakness was a wisdom.

The course of the future swerved when a sharquake rolled through the region where Negenkhe’s people were grounded. Many were swallowed up, lost, or broken by the disturbance. Others suffered from the blazing fire that rampaged through their midst. Most good water turned bright and flew up into the sky. What water they kept in gourds and skins became dangerous, so they were forced to release these stores to the sky as well. The sharquake forced a collapse, opening a pathway through the layers of shar and subshar below. In the coming days, fire burst from the ground time after another. It defied the commands of Negenkhe and her Slingers, killing and scarring bodies and spirits where it would.

Negenkhe and her people set about healing and repairing the damage. With all the injuries and the destruction, they had no means to migrate away from the danger.

Upon this scene of destitution, out of the depths of the subshar, came a subtle creature called Chizuh. Negenkhe’s fame had spread even to that foul region, and Chizuh had long wished to demand her skill. The monster stole through Negenkhe’s village one night and dragged the chief down to its lair.

This creature Chizuh was a ghastly thing. From the outside anyone could see it was wrong, somehow, but no one guessed the full truth. I’ll be diverting the story for a moment to explain how Chizuh came to be.

In a family of netherworld frogs there was born a fat clutch of eggs in a quiet canyon pool of magma. These hatched one by one until the last one came out tiny and weak, a poor swimmer. While the other froglets chased and played, growing strong legs, the youngest froglet was left alone to wriggle and think his thoughts. He wasn’t quick enough to feed on more than scraps, so he learned how to persuade the bigger and stronger to give up a morsel here and there. And as he grew, this littlest one became the cleverest of all.

When the river nearby flooded its banks and washed out the pool, the fastest froglets escaped while the little froglet was swallowed by the first fish to chance upon it. But the froglet stopped in the fish’s throat. The fish choked and thrashed, but it couldn’t knock the froglet loose. The froglet, after mastering its fear, chided the fish. “You shouldn’t give your prey access to your vulnerable parts,” said the froglet. “I have a sharp rock and I’ll cut your throat.” This was a lie, but the fish couldn’t know that. The froglet convinced the fish that they could be partners: the froglet would live in the fish’s throat, protecting its stomachs from danger, and in return for this generous service the froglet would take a small part of anything the fish swallowed.

The arrangement worked fine until the froglet grew fatter and the fish died. The semi-mature frog was happy yet more stuck than ever, afraid of starving or worse. Something you polite folk wouldn’t know about that shadowy world, no subshar creature strays near the dead: so the frog could have no hope of another predator snatching up the frog-in-the-fish. Unless he could convince the outside world that the fish was lively ripe.

In desperation, he learned to kick his stumpy legs and prod his stubby elbows into the fish’s brain and make it twitch. Eventually a raptor swooped down and scooped the fish into its gullet, but because the fish bulged with the fat frog inside, the frog-in-the-fish stuck fast in the raptor’s throat. And the frog said, “Hey! You’ll regret snatching me. I’m a fish who keep rocks in my belly, growing sharper with everything I eat. It’s an easy thing to cough them up and slice you open.”

Afraid, the raptor agreed to the terms of the frog-in-the-fish. They came to the arrangement that the raptor would feed its companion stuck in the throat in exchange for its life. And in time, as the frog-in-the-fish got fatter, this predator died.

The frog kicked and prodded again to get the fish twitching. He made the fish writhe until it triggered motion in the outer body. At last, another predator noticed the movements and gulped down the frog-in-the-fish-in-the-raptor.

Twice more the frog outwitted death and gained two more layers of flesh, always earning more food, craving more with everything he tasted. He became Chizuh, the frog-in-the-fish-in-the-raptor-in-the-predator-in-the-bigger-predator.

And you see, the clever frog was just a smidge too clever. With every catch, he became buried deeper in monstrosity until there would never be hope of escape again. And that is how the gorger gained five layers, starting and ending with the frog. For nothing else in that creature is alive. All is twisted to the purpose of the frog at its center. None of the others will approach it, for no matter how lively Chizuh may appear, the stench of death on him is thick enough to drive away all life for miles around.

Chizuh imagined that Negenkhe would have the power to expunge this curse of isolation. With an expert remedy, thought Chizuh the schemer, Negenkhe could revive the four layers that enclosed the obese little frog. But cleverness and wisdom are not always agreed. Although Negenkhe pitied Chizuh, she refused the demands of the great monster because she’d been taken from her people in their moment of greatest need.

Negenkhe waited for her time to escape. She excelled in Slinging every kind of fire—oh yes, even the darkest—yet more for healing than harm. Whatever your persuasions, the story begs that you favor Negenkhe. In the subshar, all fire was like shadow, absorbing energy as it pooled in the living or leaked from them. Had she a bone vessel, she might bind the beast into it. Had she four willing souls to fill Chizuh’s bodies, she might comply with his wishes and be gone. Neither was available yet, and she refrained from explaining for fear that Chizuh would seize more victims.

Layers above, the nine vassals awoke to discover the chief missing. They wanted to rush out to rouse the people for searching, but the skeptic among them feared an insurrection in the chief’s absence. Worse, the skeptic supposed that the factions against Negenkhe might have stolen her away or killed her. So the nine decided to perform an investigation, and perhaps a rescue, before sharing the dread news with all the tribe.

These nine were warriors, but between them they had many skills and traits beyond the craft of war. They were trained to avert conflict if possible and shorten it when necessary. Together, the nine represented all virtue.

Mil, most mannerly of the nine, proposed they feign sickness to earn time. Courtesy demanded that no one disturb the chief in such a state, except with the utmost emergency. The others proclaimed the deceit, covered the sleeping place, and burned pleasant vapors at the door to convince everyone that the chief was safe and resting within. For a day the plot deterred all visitors. But the next morning, a runner brought an urgent message as Mil lay coughing and moaning as if she were Negenkhe. Mil felt compelled to honor the runner’s errand. So she turned her face to the wall and received the villager, who said that Negenkhe’s mother had died in a tragic accident. Custom required the family of a newlydead to strike, then kiss, the one who delivered such news, but Mil did not move. She had no right to act on Negenkhe’s behalf. After the messenger left, untouched, rumors spread that Negenkhe was delirious, perhaps dying.

Saa, the curious of the nine, noticed the tracks of a strange creature leading from the hut. He followed these to the edge of the village before turning back. The others agreed to send Saa and two others on that trail. When these tracks brought them to the edge of the rupture, Saa persuaded his companions to go down. He was excited to explore the unknown regions and their strange wonders. They wandered ever deeper through wastes left desolate as fires raged, waters flew, and native creatures fled the quake. The emptiness bored Saa. He’d almost lost all interest when a sweet music brushed his ears, and he turned away from the tracks to follow it.

Pu restrained him from the diversion, once and many times again as the music continued to beckon. Only by Pu’s relentless resolve were the wandering three able to arrive at long last at the gate of a small fortress in ruins. Somewhere through the jagged pillars and coiling mists, Negenkhe argued with a hissing, gurgling monster. Pu insisted they watch the entrances. So they hunkered in the twilit domain during several creeping days. Eventually Chizuh emerged. He lurched and dragged his body with surprising agility. Saa was chafing to explore the ruins, but Pu and Xi imagined all kinds of creatures and traps lurking there. Pu devoted all her energies to the reconnaissance, sketching maps of the perimeter and speculative maps of the inside. She noted every noise and movement. After a time, Pu’s sleepless vigil left her exhausted and twitching.

Xi had given her companions fair opportunity to direct the expedition, with positive results. Yet by her assessment, they were now stalled. While Pu slept, Xi entered the ruins with Saa. They found Chizuh berating the captive Negenkhe. No other threat materialized, but each remained on their guard.

“Creature, you have done wrong,” Xi said, “but we are willing to negotiate.”

Seeing them, Chizuh laughed. “Such loyal thralls you keep, Negenkhe,” he said.

Xi offered a ransom for Negenkhe, of anything Chizuh could ask within reason. He demanded spices that only humans could harvest to soothe the aches of his throats and bellies, and Xi haggled until the price seemed almost reasonable. Expecting treachery, she hoped to counter with her own strategy. She would lace the spices with a drug, and they would free the chief as Chizuh slept. Yet Chizuh, who sensed her false intent, seized her and Saa as hostages to prevent deceit. The monster went out to meet Pu and sent him overshar with the conditions of ransom.

As the days passed and the chief remained invisible, the village had grown more restless. The six warriors who remained were looking for some way to revitalize the people when Pu arrived with Chizuh’s demand for ransom. After some debate, they all agreed to obtain the spices for Chizuh, although they would need an excuse to offer the people. Rav, known for his passion and vigor, suggested a feast. On this all agreed. The community was just beginning to recover from the quake even as they questioned whether Negenkhe was still fit to lead. The display of generosity would remind the people how they loved Negenkhe. The revelry would also brighten spirits in a time of wailing. So preparations began. Some of the required spices were taken from existing stores, others gained through trade, and still others gathered, sorted, sifted, crushed, and settled.

Two days of feasts and dancing did truly liven the village after a season of soberness. Rav led the celebrations with tireless gusto; four of the warrior-vassals packed their delivery for Chizuh. Yet tensions in the village would not so easily disperse. When enemies of Negenkhe boasted of their plan to replace her, Rav snapped at them and a brawl broke out. The whole festivity turned to rioting. Meanwhile Pu led her three comrades away on their mission to reclaim Negenkhe, Saa, and Xi.

The ransom party arrived at their destination without mishap. Yet when they laid down the ransom, a trap fell around them. Stone and fog closed on them like jaws, impervious to the warriors’ weapons. Pu was lost. The others narrowly escaped.

You’ll be wondering, and I can tell you that truly Chizuh intended at first to release Negenkhe and the others. But now they toiled for Chizuh, and still more came to his domain to surrender themselves. The beast realized in his several dead hearts that he would rather keep these human thralls as well as their rich offerings. Such naive fools could never conquer him in his subshar stronghold. Furthermore, Negenkhe would not be persuaded to cure Chizuh’s deadness except through great personal cost.

Safe outside the fortress, La tapped her boundless imagination for ideas. They might undermine the place, fly or tunnel in, lure Chizuh away, or some combination. At last La concocted a strategy adapted to their skills and limits both. They would goad the monster with illusions, then vanish away. La was a performancer. She prepared several large puppets to mirror the movements of herself and her two companions. Each human-puppet group split off in a different direction. Ibh’s group made the first assault. When Chizuh returned the attack, they started a retreat. Another group moved in behind, the puppets dressed to match Negenkhe and the three other captives. Chizuh caught sight of this group and turned aside to chase them, thinking they had escaped. Meanwhile La came in to rescue the real captives. But Chizuh discovered the trick and summoned the stone and mist to form his own decoys. La came upon Chizuh’s set of fake prisoners and released them in great haste, yet of course the dupes melted away when La reached the rendezvous with her companions. They realized the beast had outsmarted them.

Ibh, she of greatest courage, now believed the only solution was direct confrontation. If they could battle Chizuh rather than his emanations, they could beat the monster. So Ibh strode into the ruins ablaze with confidence, trailed by La and Na. Fearing another deception, Chizuh did not strike down Ibh from afar. They dueled, fist against claw, until the monster was cornered and gasping for breath. As he yawned wide, the layers of dead flesh were exposed to Ibh’s sight. Deep down, the pitiful frog, no more than Ibh could smash underfoot, squirmed inside. Ibh laughed to see the true weakness of her opponent. She reached down into the maw to pluck the frog out—but then the jaws snapped shut around her arm, tearing it from the joint and tossing her to one side. She struck her head and died. Chizuh had never been so vulnerable from the time he first slipped into the throat of the fish. He was shocked, furious. In his rage, he tore apart the other captives, stopping just shy of destroying Negenkhe as well.

Na witnessed the onslaught from hiding, too overcome with horror to intervene. Negenkhe remained stonelike, unwilling to betray her anguish, but she could not keep her eyes from leaking the truth. Her silent grief sparked Na’s will to avenge his fallen friends. A Slinger, he leapt from the shadows and lashed Chizuh with whips of fire, indulging every cruelty he could contrive, flinching against the grating howls of the creature. Through the fangs and blood and rot, Na saw what Ibh had seen: a wretched frog at the center of the tortured mass. And then empathy stayed Na’s attack. He fell to his knees. Chizuh lay bleeding and oozing in a miasma of pain.

“Noble Negenkhe,” said Na, “why has this creature brought you here?”

“He is four parts dead and one alive,” said Negenkhe. “I refused to heal him because he stole me from my people.”

“Can you feel no compassion?” said Na.

With a deep sigh, Negenkhe said, “You think he deserves to live?”

“As much as they,” said Na, gesturing to the bodies of his comrades.

Although it offended her sense of justice, Negenkhe agreed. Her vassal warriors may still live through Chizuh if she caught their vital essence before it dribbled away. So the three survivors, La, Na, and Negenkhe, imbued each of Chizuh’s bodies with the essence of four slain warriors. The beast quaked at every touch of fire, as if he would tear asunder. The corpses shriveled to ashen forms.

Overshar, the village had become a hotbed of confusion. By now most of the people doubted whether Negenkhe was alive. They accused Mil, Rav, and At of conspiracy and asked where the other six had gone. Two challengers had each named themselves successors to Negenkhe, splitting the populace diverse ways. At, who was most introspective of the nine, suggested that Negenkhe must make a public appearance. “I will go into the hill,” said At, “as if I were Negenkhe. From afar they shan’t know the difference.” Mil and Rav agreed to prevent anyone from coming close as she meditated. At climbed onto the flowering stone at the hilltop where her master often visited seeking peace. All day she was seen there, and people in the village said it was Negenkhe. Factions ceased to bicker, hate and despair turned to calm, and throughout the village, everyone gave themselves to meditation.

Far below, Chizuh burned. Pain lanced through him from every direction—but also vigor and vitality. He, all of him, leapt for joy and shouted unending thanks to the ones who revived him.

“As the price for those you killed,” said Negenkhe, “you will always carry their souls intertwined with yours, and they will ensure you never do more evil.”

Chizuh did not object, nor detain his former captives any longer. “Go rescue your people,” he said.

Village affairs were growing dire as Negenkhe began her return journey. Despite the calm that first prevailed, some villagers would not believe At’s performance. They pretended to feel the same joy as the rest, and they said, “Let’s go see Negenkhe, who’s returned to health!” A crowd gathered and started to the foot of the hill, where Mil halted them. She said they must not disturb Negenkhe. With cries of fraud, the detractors roused the mob to rush past Mil and see Negenkhe for themselves.

At sensed them coming, but she was deep in her trance and loath to break it. So she remained in Negenkhe’s place while they came in eager haste. Every moment she delayed, they drew closer.

Until the truth became plain. “Where is Negenkhe?” cried the detractors. “Her nine have made fools of us!” They swarmed around At and dragged her to her feet, breaking her trance.

Mil, Rav, and At were powerless to stall the tide of anger and hurt. To the end, they would not betray Negenkhe’s absence nor where the six had gone, yet all the village suspected treachery. Their punishment was assured by a trial cobbled together from the mob and its several factions. At the crown of the hill where At had assumed the guise of her master, where Negenkhe once searched for insight, the people prepared to execute the loyal traitors. A question cut them short: “What is this?”

They all turned to find Negenkhe at the base of the hill. She, La, and Na climbed to meet the mob. Negenkhe was weary from the journey out of subshar, but she stood firm as she rebuked the false leaders. These slunk away and the three were rescued from execution.

In time peace was restored to the village. Negenkhe was able to mourn her mother. The last effects of the sharquake dissolved back into the shar. Fire and water both were tamed again.

Here where our story ends, Negenkhe declared her warriors the next leaders of her people for their bold efforts in the crisis. She trained them in all the craft of chiefdom, and deferred more every day to their choices: not because they were younger and stronger, but rather for the trust between them. So the rule by council came to be in that part of Om-dshar. Later some would mutter about the chief’s new habit of meeting with strange beasts from below, but they dared not rebel again as long as she lived. 

The wise chief grew more feeble in body. No longer able to work wonders, she instead advised and crafted the ethic by which she is remembered as Wise and not Dreadful.

Do you know the Ethic of Negenkhe? It is this: Milravat saapu xila ibhna—or in your language, No virtue is sufficient alone. The nine embodied this Ethic and reigned by it. These nine are the same which, in another story, came to Li Midya and built it up to be the great city we have known in our days. You will be asking, how am I to speak of nine when four are fallen? But I will not be setting loose all my stories today.