Salty sea air and the stink of a thousand unwashed people welcomed Daron to the city of Deathsport. He and his master were next to each other going through the northern gate but by the time they were in the city proper they could barely see each other. Though the Sea of Wor’ghan lay to the west, the true sea of the Capital was the peasantry, covering people and buildings alike in a dun, sweat-scented deluge.
Daron was human, so he just about stayed afloat in the crowds; he could only wonder how goblins and gnomes managed to navigate the streets. His master was Lai’gath, a foreign spellbinder. His form was inhumanly willowy, his nose pinched and small to the point of resembling a snake’s nostrils. Beneath his flowing robes hung a long, twisted tail. As if to compensate for his naturally thin silhouette, he wore a capelet and an Ilazari nemes, both garish, zig-zagged, and red-black.
As the pair waded past the terraces of the northern district, Daron took note of what landmarks protruded from the sea of people’s surface. The architecture had a necromantic sensibility to it; straight edges whenever possible, with spookily well-curved arches.
Weathered spider engravings adorned the oldest walls, more often than not covered by ragged purple banners that depicted a black-and-white seabird in one corner and a black-and-white sword in the other. The contrast between the sterility of the buildings and the all-too-organic slurry of humanoids between them gave Daron a rash.
According to Lai’gath, this self-imposed torture was a retreat; there was a concert on that couldn’t be missed. Daron questioned him five times regarding the true purpose of the visit but received a defensive answer each time. This time, they were too close for him to lie again.
“Master, if I might ask, what are we really doing here?”
Lai’gath’s indigo eyes narrowed, and he spoke in a broad Ilazari accent. “Daron, I told you, we’re here to have fun. Do you not believe you’ve earned it?”
Daron shifted as a massive orc brushed his shoulder. “Being honest, I don’t. How exactly have I helped your pursuits so far?”
“You’re there to continue my legacy. When- no, if I die, I would prefer it if somebody carried my knowledge with them,” Lai’gath said.
“Yes, but surely there’s more to daemonology than reading your grimoires,” Daron remarked. “I was expecting some field research before my first holiday.”
Lai’gath chuckled. “Ah, so you’re still desperate to see a daemon face to face. It’s understandable. You’re a naturally hard worker.”
Daron tugged at his collar. “I can’t say that’s true. I only really put effort into things I find interesting.”
“Just as all Ilazari are,” Lai’gath said with a shrug. “If you pursue something you do not find interesting, then all you do is become a twisted underachiever. No Ilazari worth his salt would trap himself with what Arkherans call ‘hard, honest work’.”
“So in other words, to you, a good man never works a day in his life.”
“Yet puts in effort all the same,” Lai’gath concluded. “When you’re passionate about a pursuit, nothing is a chore. So what about this terrible city, Daron? Is it a chore to navigate?”
Given the tall man followed this up by nearly tripping over a gnome, Daron felt it was safe to speak his mind. “Honestly, I’d rather be studying if there’s no reason to visit here besides recreation.”
Lai’gath scoffed. “You have a lot to learn before you can negotiate with daemons, boy.”
“I know, I know, inherently chaotic, all that. Still, the musicians must be pretty good if it’s worth visiting Deathsport over.”
Lai’gath gestured towards a moss-covered sign, whose eastward arrow was just about visible. According to its directions, it led to the Royal Palace, the Senheil Brothel, the Aranael Family Estate and the Carminium Music Hall. Unfortunately stopping to observe their options caused a good five people to bump into Daron’s back, so he had no choice but to scramble behind his master.
“You didn’t answer my question. Who’s playing at the Carminium? It is at the Carminium, isn’t it?”
Lai’gath took a scented bag out of his cloak and sniffed it. “Oh, Daron, you’re very slow on the uptake. I said that this was fun, but I also said that to me, all work must be fun. What is both work-related and musical?”
Daron’s memories flitted through the dark tomes his master provided him. There were tales of the Ilazari Plague Emperor and his love of the Galdusian lyre, but he was long dead, and a dangerous tyrant besides. Could it be that Lai’gath expected a daemon attack at the concert? After all, a large concentration of distracted people would be ideal fodder for a shapeshifting, man-eating creature of discord.
The answer hit him like a writhing tentacle. “We’re going to see the Riversongs, aren’t we?”
“It took you a long time to figure that one out. Now, the eastern district will not smell as bad and the crowding is not as terrible, but we shall still be standing for a while.”
“You don’t say,” Daron remarked. “These are the Riversongs, after all.”
“I do say,” Lai’gath said in his Ilazari lilt. “Prepare for boredom.”
The daemonologist’s assessment of the eastern district wasn’t inaccurate. The salt of the sea still haunted the air from a distance, and there were fewer people bustling about. Those who were had much richer clothes than the drab rags of the northern district, purples, blacks, and blues being favoured among humans.
Daron brushed his semi-practical velvet overcoat and pulled at his collar again. “You don’t think I’m underdressed, do you?”
Lai’gath laughed. “To me, all Arkherans are underdressed. What’s wrong with robes? Headdresses, capes, shoulder decorations, if you ask me, these are not too much, nothing is too much to express oneself!”
“I can appreciate that in Ilazar, life is different, but in Arkhera, plenty of people can’t afford headdresses and capes, they just-”
“They could make their own, could they not? In Ilazar, the poor form their accoutrements from seashells and whale bones. The art of scrimshaw is a true sight to behold!”
Daron took his master’s word for it. They passed several buildings, great and small, and unlike the northern district, most of them had gardens. Intact, proud purple banners rippled in the sea breeze, and gated-off properties became a regular sighting.
The Senheil brothel and the Carminium Music Hall were neighbours of similar size and style. They shared the same straight Galdusian edges and faux-ancient marble pillars. Even the queues leading out of them were comparable in length.
Daron considered remarking upon this, but held his tongue. Lai’gath, ever sharp, brought the matter up anyway.
“You are quite focused on the brothel, I see,” Lai’gath said, joining the Carminium’s queue. “Would you like a whore after the show?”
Daron’s collar was tighter than ever. He adjusted his overcoat and cleared his throat. “I was looking at the buildings, I’m not interested in that- those sorts of things.”
“Nonsense, everybody enjoys something, even if it’s just the sensation of rubbing oneself. Denying your own enjoyment is not inherently virtuous. How about this? I’ll visit the brothel for myself, and I’ll leave you to do as you wish. Is that fair?”
“You’re the boss,” Daron said with a sigh.
“I am, aren’t I?” the spellbinder said, his eyes gleaming. “So, what do you know about the Riversongs?”
“I know they aren’t sisters like they say,” Daron began. “They’re daemons, all pretending to be from some extinct noble house, correct?”
“That’s the essence of it. What makes them unusual, however?”
Daron scratched at his crown. “Well, they’re daemons that play music as a false family. That alone is peculiar.”
“Well, there’s one aspect of them that’s a mystery even to me.”
“Something the great Lai’gath doesn’t know? Impossible,” Daron said, folding his arms.
“Quite possible. I will be a student until I breathe my last,” Lai’gath said. “The mystery is this; all indicators point to the Riversongs being produced from the same daemonic soul.”
“What? I thought they were just three daemons who agreed to play pretend with each other.”
“No, records of their activity show that Luna and Meredith Riversong performed with each other much longer than Lyra Riversong has existed. They’re capable of synchronising their speech and thoughts. It does not appear to be the work of multiple inherently chaotic beings.”
“How would they copy themselves, though? Excessive consumption of bodies?” Daron asked, then shook his head. “No, that’s not it, daemons just get bigger from that.”
Lai’gath tapped his finger on his cheek. “There lies the mystery. Why would a daemon split into three beings? It contradicts known daemonic behaviour, and though daemons are inherently unpredictable, this is unusual even by those standards.”
“How do you intend to study them? Are we going to listen to how their singing harmonises?”
The spellbinder smirked and took out two handwritten notes. “Behold, passes to the Carminium’s backstage area. We shall visit the Riversongs after their show and extract the answers from them. Are you excited?”
“It’s field research, I suppose,” Daron said. “It still feels like I’m slacking off.”
“Learn to enjoy yourself or I’ll find a more fun apprentice,” Lai’gath commanded.
“Er, of course, master, sorry.”
“And don’t apologise for your nature either. You’ll see when you meet the Riversongs. Restraint is anathema to the daemonic way of thinking.”
* * *
After such a long wait to enter the Carminium, Daron expected that Lai’gath would have at least booked decent seats. As it turned out, he hadn’t factored this into his budget between blubber-based cosmetics, tacky clothing and backstage passes, so they were trapped in the lower-cost, seat-free pit beneath the stage.
Swaying side to side were what Daron presumed from a distance were the Riversong Sisters. In the centre was a blonde woman in a sleek black dress playing a violin melody, to her left was a blue-haired woman in a skimpy pink affair tooting on a crumhorn, while on her right was a brown-haired woman in manly attire swelling chords on an accordion.
Their style was simultaneously congruous and incongruous; their rhythm was synchronised, but a purposeful dissonance gave their music an unusual edge for typical Carminium attendees. It was as close to the sea as Deathsport itself; the accordion was the sandy bed of the piece, the violin rippled like water and the crumhorn formed the necessary waves.
While the people here were richer than the average Deathsporter, they weren’t an inhibited bunch. Men and women of all statuses jigged to the music, and while Daron squinted to observe the daemonic performers in action, Lai’gath performed a sea shanty.
“Master, what in the world are you-”
“Sorry, Daron, I cannot hear you! Why don’t you join me?”
“I don’t dance.”
“Of course you do, you just haven’t tried!”
Lai’gath took his hand and dragged him into a cleared-out circle. It was said spellbinders were too tall and delicate to be physically adept; despite this, Lai’gath danced circles around Daron, pulling off several squat kicks. The eyes of fellow concert-goers caused an incessant itch on the back of his neck, and in the end he could only manage a few half-hearted jumps and kicks before retreating to the anonymity of the crowd.
In his shame, he made the mistake of listening to the Riversongs’ lyrics. Despite the lively nautical instrumentals, the vocals were curiously morbid; the one in black alternated between the Common Tongue and Chaos-speech, while the accordion player provided an undercurrent of held solitary words.
The topics covered everything from being forever lost to striving for the unattainable. Daron supposed there had to be some reason they rose beyond tavern-bard status; if there was one thing artsy frequenters of the Carminium appreciated, it was existential angst. Ennui was the natural consequence of never having to worry about one’s next meal.
When the show ended, the daemonic band bowed as if they were male, and spoke together; the blonde projected her voice, while the others echoed her in an undertone.
“Mortals of Deathsport!”
The crowd responded with a needlessly enthusiastic call. For once, Lai’gath was just as quiet as Daron; perhaps he considered it too conformist to cheer? It was impossible to tell with him.
“As we say at every concert, you’ll be glad to know we’re keeping count! This is our fifteen-thousand nine-hundred-and-eighth concert in Deathsport! Meredith, how many concerts have we had across Arkhera?”
“One hundred and forty-four thousand exactly,” the one with the pink dress said.
“Mortals appreciate numbers that are in tens, correct? This means it is cause for an arbitrary celebration! I hope you have brought helmets, for Lyra has within her body the coins of every person who bought a ticket or backstage pass here!”
The one in the manly clothing broke her humanoid form with little fanfare; her body and clothes alike opened in the middle as if they were merely buttoned shirts, and within lay an inky black goo that shimmered against the stage lighting.
What was more important to the regulars, however, were the gold and silver coins embedded in the rippling darkness. Without warning, the creature sprouted a set of purple-red tentacles and leaped onto the concert hall’s ceiling.
Lai’gath took Daron by the arm. “We must head backstage.”
“Why, what’s going on?”
“They’re going to invoke chaos in mortals, what else would a daemon do?”
Daron failed to understand entirely; he was too focused on the creature that was once Lyra. As Lai’gath dragged Daron through the crowd, the oddity crawled across the ceiling like a hideous mixture between a spider, an octopus, and a fountain pen. Then the coins started to rain down.
The crowd went wild; the wise and unambitious rushed for cover, while the foolhardy and opportunistic risked all for the prospect of free money. Lai’gath had already pulled his apprentice to the guard of the backstage area, a dark-skinned fellow with long, pointed ears.
“Sorry, you can’t hide here unless you have passes. The sisters were very specific that everyone partake in their generous giveaway.”
“I have passes,” Lai’gath said. “Let us in this instant.”
“Fine, fine, but I’ll blame you guys if the Riversongs think I’m a killjoy.”
The man lifted a velvet cordon and gestured to a door just next to the lower end of the stage. Though the sound of avarice biting down on basic decency echoed behind them, Daron was just glad he could breathe again. They climbed some stairs and headed into a lounge.
Couches of silk and velvet were strewn about the place, and portraits of an old necromantic lord from times past stared over the room. Lying on a small table were several morsel-sized cakes and a jar of sickly green mulch. Resting against a seat was a mould-eaten, likely unplayable viol and a long-since snapped bow.
There were only two people in the room, both spellbinder women. One was tall with white-gold hair and a broad constitution, the other was black-haired and the height of a child. The former smoked bhang-weed from a cherry-wood pipe, while the latter sat in silence.
“The Riversongs hardly seem like family performers,” Daron remarked. “What sort of mother takes their daughter backstage to see them?”
“Perhaps mothers that are of no relation to their children?” Lai’gath said with a laugh. “That woman is Royal Advisor Quira Abraxas. The Riversongs have always hovered about the royal court; if my records are correct, she is their current mortal supervisor.”
“Mortal supervisor? Akin to the mortal who summoned them?”
“Quite. That’s another matter that makes the Riversongs unusual; they seek out a single close mortal companion each generation despite their original summoners likely being long dead.”
“It seems you have many questions for them.”
Lai’gath put his hand on his chest. “I am a man of academia, Daron. I would never go into the field unprepared, would I?”
“I suppose not.”
The sounds of monetary mayhem continued beyond the lounge. Daron decided he may as well sit down and took a spot next to the white-haired woman. She wore a Galdusian-style kimono, simple in cut but complex in embroidery, with branches veining through an indigo background. She wore it off-shoulder, drawing attention to her not-inconsiderable bust.
“Daron! Where are your manners?” Lai’gath blurted from his other side. “You shouldn’t look down a woman’s top like that!”
The woman smirked and took a hit of her pipe, before pulling her neckline up a touch. Daron’s face was warm as the smoke she exhaled.
“My eyes simply wandered, she didn’t notice until you pointed it out!”
“I always notice,” the woman corrected. “How in the world did you two wrangle a backstage meeting with my bards?”
Lai’gath leaned over Daron to better address her. “I am an expert daemonologist. I found a disciple of the City of False Faces, and they negotiated with the Riversongs on my behalf.”
Quira took another hit. “I’ll remind those three not to get any ideas. They said they’d be loyal to me as long as I live.”
“Be sure to focus on their exact words,” Lai’gath pointed out. “Daemons are free spirits by nature, any loyalty they have is surely fleeting!”
“Ah, but you don’t know the Riversongs, they’re different, they’re…”
Daron’s concentration slipped away. Here he was, about to meet his first daemon, yet everything was the same. He wasn’t doing anything special, just getting in the way of people far more charismatic than himself. Lai’gath was practically lying on his apprentice’s lap as he and Quira’s conversation progressed. When he had the opportunity, Daron shuffled to a far corner of the sofa.
The silent, short spellbinder raised her chin in acknowledgement, but didn’t approach him. A nearby pendulum clock ticked each moment away; Daron entertained the idea that staring at it intensely enough might somehow bring the daemons closer to him.
It seemed to work, as not long after, the Riversongs entered in all their glory. Now that he wasn’t juggling survival with getting a good view, Daron could see their finer features. Meredith and the freshly-reformed Lyra were quite obviously daemonic up close; their pupils were large and their irises barely a highlight, and their hair, while passable as merely slick and dyed from a distance, were clearly composed of tentacles.
Meredith wore hers in an octopoid tangle, while Lyra styled hers in a squid-like cone, but both shared the same face. Luna, the violinist, appeared to be the basis for this; just like her sisters, she had sleepy eyes, a prominent triangular nose, and small lips that paint failed to plumpen.
She carried herself much more mortally than the others; while Meredith and Lyra wore caricatures, Luna wore a dress appropriate for a concert hall. Her golden hair was just as unusually slick as the others, and while Daron could spot a couple of sucker pads on her strands’ undersides, they were much better hidden than Meredith’s.
Words made their way to Daron’s mouth. “It’s truly as Lai’gath wrote. Daemons are alien yet familiar all at once.”
“Mortals are familiar and alien to us!” Luna Riversong said, her sisters echoing in an undertone. “You have some confusion, it seems. I am unsure if we invited you backstage. Are you with somebody else?”
Daron paused, and looked over to Lai’gath, who at this point was sharing bhang-weed with the Royal Advisor of the bloody kingdom. He withdrew himself, then gestured to his master.
“That’s the man you want to talk to. He’s a chaos-speaker and daemonologist, he bought the tickets. I’m just his apprentice.”
“Rakh’dor ge Just His Apprentice, what an odd title,” Luna said, her sisters failing to follow her this time. “Of course, I just make a jest. You are an apprentice with a name?”
Luna leaned forward and put her hands on Daron’s knees, pushing her face uncomfortably close to his. “I have met many mortals like you, Rakh’dor ge Daron. Just remember if you are struggling in socialisation that I am a daemon. I will always find it much harder.”
“That’s hardly of comfort, with all due respect.”
“Mortals always qualify their disrespect with all due respect. They are odd creatures,” Meredith remarked. “Luna, why is this?”
“Many cannot accept that they are wilfully disrespectful, so they pretend that they respect their victim.”
Lyra let out a low chuckle. “They hide their tentacles to avoid mere disapproval. What odd creatures.”
Luna pulled away from Daron and gave a technically perfect smile, before dancing over to Lai’gath. She extended a tentacle from her backless outfit and retrieved the mouldy viol. She stroked it a couple of times, then spoke.
“You are the daemonologist, Rakh’dor ge Lai’gath, correct?”
Lai’gath returned Quira’s pipe to her and adjusted his nemes. “It’s brilliant of you to accept a visit from me. I hope you know that your generosity is appreciated.”
“I see that you are enjoying the company of our mistress. She likes to engage in ‘flirtation’. I try it from time to time, but I find mortal romance is a lot easier with outcasts!”
Lai’gath grinned. “I knew the way to get information from you was to relax. Chasing you down and asking structured questions just isn’t the daemonic way. Speaking of which, why do you honour me and Daron with the daemonic honorific?”
“Rakh’dor ge is not a simple title like your sirs and your lords. It is closer to an expression of respect.”
Lai’gath rested and put his arm around Quira’s shoulder. “Like the Ilazari word for kin, Rakh?”
“The Ilazari borrowed it from chaos-speech, of course! Rakh’dor means ‘my Fellow in Chaos’. You are right in that most daemons only use it for fellow daemons, but I am not a most daemon!”
Quira chuckled. “You most certainly aren’t a most daemon. Anything but that.”
The Riversongs spoke in unison, with Luna leading. “Are we detecting sarcasm from you, Rakh’dor ge Quira?”
“I told you, I prefer Lady Abraxas-”
“You, like everyone, are our fellow in chaos,” Luna interrupted, and continued her talk to Lai’gath. “While many daemons think that the best way to induce chaos is to murder indiscriminately, they are always the short-lived ones. I have lived among mortals peacefully for five hundred years. I know well that they are just as capable of chaos as daemons with the right push. And if one of our brethren succeeded in killing all mortals, then we’d be left with an utterly boring, orderly world.”
Daron’s heart sank. “You believe that all mortals are like the people out there, who’ll trample on each other to get a temporary reward?”
“No, no, not all of them, if they were all selfish in the same way, they’d be orderly! Mortals are twisted in unique ways! I remember when I was first summoned, that mistress was truly chaotic! Truly one of us at heart,” Luna’s blithe expression took a rest. “Is that true? Possibly. I was poor at understanding mortals then.”
Lai’gath, casual as ever, snagged the opportunity. “You still remember the mortal who originally summoned you? I wasn’t sure if you three were summoned at all, being honest.”
Meredith and Lyra spoke in unison, while Luna remained silent. “We have never been summoned, we don’t bow to mortals.”
Luna nods. “They accompany me, not the mortal I attach to. Little sisters look out for big sisters. This is true in mortals, and I have made it true for myself.”
“It is convenient for the maker of that rule to also be the eldest sister, isn’t it?”
“I wasn’t always the elder sister,” Luna replied.
Daron took out a notebook from his inside pocket. “Oh, er, go on? Who was your older sister? Was she the one to be summoned first? Did you split from her? Oh, erm, speaking of which, these two, are they copies of you or-”
“Relax, Daron,” Lai’gath said. “My apologies, Luna Riversong. You said you weren’t always the eldest sister?”
“That’s right. Five hundred and thirty years ago, I had an older sister. She was a human named Layla Riversong. She’s been forgotten by mortal records, but I remember her. Do you mortals have time for a tale?”
Daron glanced at Lai’gath to make sure he was safe to speak. “Well, I imagine the city guard are going to be a while organising the mess out there.”
“They probably haven’t even arrived yet,” Lai’gath added.
Quira widened her lilac eyes in faux-shock. “How dare you two speak so ill of the hard-working men of the city guard?”
Of all people, the until-then-silent girl spoke in an unfitting contralto. “We’re all stuck here for a while thanks to your disturbance of the peace, Riversong. Regale us if you must.”
Luna let out an unnaturally warbling sigh and picked up the jar of mulch with another tentacle. “All right, I will tell you the story of my older sister, Layla Riversong. She could have been remade like me, but I think that she deserves to rest.”
“Remade like you? Do tell,” Lai’gath said.
“It all began one day in the Divine Halls. Layla Riversong had a little sister with the same name as me…”