Ballad of the Daemon Piper (Revised)

I used to like you. Well, perhaps not like you exactly, but I used to be a man, talented and beautiful. Since birth I’ve had an amazing ability with music, to immediately pick up and master any instrument with sheer elegance. Some have said my abilities were a gift from the gods, some say from demons, however my true gifts weren’t given to me until much later in life.

I was born alone in this world, an orphaned street urchin in the great city of Ulthar. A shady metropolis of magic and secrets. A land plagued by numerous wars with both man and beast alike. The constant battles made orphans and urchins rather commonplace, yet brought many technological and arcane advancements to the wealthy mages of Ulthar. The contrast between the shady slums and the luxurious and well-lit mage districts was palpable.

My earliest memories are of running in small packs of children along the filthy derelict streets. Picking pockets, eating rats, fighting off imps for shelter, doing whatever it took to make it to the next day. I was more animal than child, and yet there was a certain alluring simplicity to it all. Life was as simple as finding food and a place to sleep.

Things never last however, and the common folk eventually grew tired of the ever-growing packs of criminal children. The Yellow Mages organized a program to take in children from the streets and condition them for adoption. They offered them food, shelter and clean clothes courtesy of the deep pockets of The Yellow Guild. They also received basic education and social skills. Orphanages popped up all across Ulthar and men roamed the streets trapping children like stray dogs.

Life in the orphanage wasn’t so bad. It indeed brought all the humble luxuries that were promised. Children never went hungry and there was almost always firewood for the hearth and clean beds. The headmistress of our facility was an angel of a woman named Miss Dolor, who always found the time to beat any child who got out of line and stare down her hook of a nose with icy judgment. She ran a tight ship, yet she would’ve been overpowered easily had she been anything less.

It was decided the orphanage would hold classes to give the children some culture, and that was the day my life changed forever. Miss Dolor held a choir class in the yard. I remember the moment perfectly, we all lined up and sang an old nursery rhyme called Row, Row, Row Your Boat. The first line would sing half the verse, and then the next line would start, repeating until it created a rich overlapping harmony. As a unit we sounded terrible at first, many of us were sick or simply tone-deaf, however I was immediately smitten with the wonder of music.

From that moment on music was all i could think of. I practiced in my personal time and bugged Miss Dolor constantly for new lessons. I began to notice I picked up certain things much quicker than the others. When the day came that we received some used instruments to practice, my immediate skill with them impressed even the stone-faced Miss Dolor.

A couple of years passed and children came and went. Some even went with members of the Mages Guilds to become apprentices. Some, especially those of the Yellow, returned multiple times to adopt, muttering of strange “accidents” in their facilities. As long as the money kept coming in from The Guild, Miss Dolor dared not ask questions. I had little desire to learn the mystical arts and even less to suffer whatever fate befell the children they replaced, so I made myself sparce whenever a mage came prospecting our orphanage.

After several years of practice Miss Dolor had put together a decent children’s choir. There was a Winter Solstice festival held in the Mages District, and she decided it would be an excellent opportunity to show off the choirs skill and perhaps get some adoption interests and maybe even an increase in Guild funding. We spent months preparing for the festival, everyone had a stake in our success, yet I was simply content to make sweet music.

I was in awe when the day finally arrived. I had never been in the mages district before, orphans and bums and other “undesirables” weren’t welcome and were usually escorted out with excessive force by the law-enforcing Blue Mages. Snow fell from the winter sky and dusted the neatly cobbled streets. Lumaspheres floated around the city like insects, filling the crowded streets with an eerie yet beautiful light. The central plaza had an enormous glowing silvery statue of an Ulthari Cat made entirely of Underglass. Some of the most powerful mages from all schools were there, their masked Grimalkin bodyguards skulking close on their heels, ever vigilant with their hands on their weapons and their glowing eyes scanning the area.

The time came for our group to perform. Many of the other children were horribly nervous, some even soiled themselves or sobbed quietly. I was surprised to find that the onlooking crowd was making me more excited. We finally played, and my now familiar love for music now intermingled with this newfound love for perfomance. I sang all my verses perfectly, and felt as though I were wrapped in an aura that rose and fell with my voice, with hundreds of admirers witnessing my splendor.

The ecstasy of my performance lingered with me days after it had passed, and I knew I had to do it again as soon as possible. Luckily, several days after the festival, a man came to look for me for adoption. His name was Yugene Robette, a retired Red Mage veteran. In his old age he had become obsessed with art and music. He went on with Miss Dolor on how I stood out among the children and how he wanted me under his wing. He stated that he wanted to adopt me not as an apprentice for Red Magic, but to hone my skills as a musician.

I was reluctant at first, as I decided long ago to have little to do with mages. However, Robette seemed to truly appreciate music. He was a fat, wealthy man with bushy moustaches waxed to fine points and a somewhat kindly look about him. He wore fine matching silk garments embroidered delicately with red laquered metals to represent his Guild. In the end I went with him, though I really had little choice in the matter once Miss Dolor pulled me out of hiding.

Lord Robettes estates were quite lavish. I ate food that i had once thought pure fantasy. Any and all instruments or music books I needed were provided almost immediately and without question. He held massive parties more often than not and had me entertain his drunken friends with my music. My performances were always well received, sometimes a little too well by the lords and ladies who were too deep into their drink. However I was too drunk on my own talent to really let these things bother me.

I spent the remainder of my youth with Robette. Perfecting my talents and gaining influence among the wealthy nobles and artists of Ulthar. I came to be an event to behold at every major holiday celebration and was even requested at certain mages and nobles personal ceremonies. Life was good.

As always, things must eventually change. Lord Robettes lavish lifestyle of fatty meats and expensive liquor took their tole on him in his old age. When I was a young man he died of a heart attack, leaving me to inherit his estates and accounts as his singular adopted eir. I regretted the loss of Robette, yet eagerly looked to the future of my career in music.

I began using my influence and fame among the upper class to assemble a team of musicians. I had a vision, to put together the greatest orchestral movement in Ulthar, with me at the center of it all. I had even taken on a few apprentices, yet few ever lasted very long. None could match my skill and I’ll even admit that my natural talent made me a poor teacher, and yet i had to be strict. I could settle for nothing less than the best to be a part of my symphonic dream.

Every second we practiced was pure ecstacy. Music made me feel complete, it was my purpose. The group I put together was the largest group of musicians Ulthar had ever seen, and when we performed the booming sound and harmony was something to rival even the gods themselves. Though I had to act humble for ceremonial purposes, it came as no real surprise to me when I received my most ambitious job yet.

A courier came to me with a letter from the Prismatic Council; a group of seven elected Arch-Mages that governed the city of Ulthar. It was a request to have my orchestra play for them at the Hollows Eve Festival, the single most extravagant holiday celebration in Ulthar. It was my big break. My blood seemed to boil with enthusiasm simply contemplating such a feat.

The day finally arrived, and I radiated with creative energy. We were set up in the Prismatic Sanctum; the capital building of Ulthar. It was also one of the largest structures in the city, made even more extravagant by countless floating arcane decorations and the most skilled artisans preparing exquisite dishes from distant lands. No expense was spared on this occasion.

We finally performed our numbers for the night. Naturally, my performance was flawless. I was slightly irked to see the Arch-Mages of the Council ignoring my splendor, distracted by food, drink, or serving wenches. Yet there was one noble who stood out to me. A lone man in dark clothing seemed to truly appreciate the performance and watch with intense concentration. After the show was finished, he approached me.

He was clearly a noble, if not quite a mage, he wore all black, giving no hint of loyalty to any Ulthari Guild what-so-ever. His skin was quite pale, making his lips seem unnaturally red by comparison. His long raven hair was tied neatly behind him by a red ribbon. He shook my hand and introduced himself as Lord Neer from a land far beyond Ulthar. His hand was neither hot nor cold, he smiled at me with ridiculously white teeth.

He told me he was an admirer of my work and a big investor in the world of music. He said he may have a job opportunity for me. I was invited to come to his manor to talk it over and perhaps talk of music and composition as well. I will admit, I was fascinated by this stranger, and wanted to know more about this opportunity. I eagerly accepted his offer and we left the party swiftly.

We arrived at his lavish manor later that evening. It was a simple enough thing on the outside, but the inside was decorated with strange objects and alien artifacts from cultures I didn’t recognized. His shelves were lined with books covered in an odd angular writing I had never seen before. The whole place had a strange acrid smell mixed with a rich aroma of incense that I can only assume was used in a vain attempt to cover the other odor. As I followed him up countless flights of steps, the objects we passed grew stranger and stranger.

He sat me down in the most unusual parlor I had ever seen. I saw no sign of servants on the way up yet when we arrived a teapot was prepared with two cups at a small round table for two. A large lit fireplace and rather sloppily dripping candles offered a dim light. Odd skulls and tarnished jewelry littered the shelves of the room. Every wall had at least a dozen clocks, each labeled in that strange writing. The collective ticking gave the room a rather uncomfortable droning noise.

He sat down and took a long, contemplative sip from his teacup. “So” he said, smiling over his tea. “I see you have quite a talent with music.” I told him about my passion for performing and my natural talent to pick up and master any instrument, his eyes almost seemed to glow when I told him that. “I have a job for you, probably the biggest job you’ve ever taken, I understand you’ve pretty much peaked in a place like Ulthar.” He said. It was true, it hadn’t really sunk in yet but I realized performing for the Prismatic Council was as big of a show as I could play in this city, where to go from here?

He took another sip of tea and smiled. “I can tell I have your attention, I will warn you however, this job will require you to travel quite a bit… are you interested?” I stared down at my reflection in my tea. I had never left Ulthar. I had no real love for the city yet leaving was something that never occurred to me. But an opportunity to be a part of a performance that would put even the Council itself to shame? Could I turn something like that down?

Right then and there, I made my decision. “I’ll do it.” I said. Lord Neer’s shark-like red and white smile almost seemed to split his head in two, a smile that never seemed to touch his bright eyes. “Wonderful!” He said ” We’ll shake on it!” He stretched out a pale waxy hand across the round table in my direction. I took it and gave it two short shakes.”We’ll leave immediately” he said. And then, before I had time to object, he was surrounded in a strange ethereal energy and floating up and somehow through the ceiling of his manor, dragging me upward by the hand. I looked down and saw that i was now surrounded by the same strange aura as well. I stifled a scream as we shot upward into the cool night sky.

I finally gave into my fear when we began to pick up speed. We had completely left Earth behind and were shooting through space like a comet. Stars and other celestial bodies became whitish streaks in my peripheral vision. The faster we moved the more we seemed to break through time itself.

My mind felt flooded with images. Our surroundings began to defy logic. We were somehow outside the flow of time, and all seemed to be a crude branching map of cause and effect. I saw countless alternatives to my life and the life of many others. Other worlds, entirely different forms of life. I watched as civilizations rose and fell like the breath of a dying beast. A large number of worlds lacked any lifeforms at all, beautiful works of celestial art untouched by life. My mind felt as if it were overflowing. At some point my screaming had become nervous laughter.

I was at my psychological limit. I closed my eyes and tried to find a happy place. I thought back on the day I first discovered my musical gift. That bleary day in a life so meager now. When we all lined up behind the orphanage to sing that old song;

Row, Row, Row your boat,
Gently down the stream
Merrily Merrily Merrily Merrily
Life is but a dream

It managed to calm me down, though I noticed I was muttering the words under my breath. Neer seemed to notice as well, a hateful grin stretched onto his face.

I began to feel as if we were somehow spiraling inward and upward, homing on a central target. It seemed to be getting closer. I felt a strange kind combination of fear and anticipation. “We’re approaching” Said Lord Neer, our astral journey seemed to be commonplace to him. The strange cosmic branches all seemed to converge on a dark negative space. There was a pulse as we passed into it and the overwhelming images came to an abrupt stop. This central area seemed to be a vast ocean of nothingness. Yet I could barely make out a shape in the distance, we began to make our way toward it.

As we moved closer I noticed i still heard the old nursery rhyme from before, yet I couldn’t identify where it came from. It seemed to grow louder as we approached, overlapping in the same fashion used in our children’s choir group. Except it didn’t end at three or four overlaps, but continued on and on until the song was an indistinguishable roar. The object in the distance began to take shape, with no point of reference it was hard to judge its size but I instinctually knew this thing was impossibly enormous. Worse yet, it seemed to be alive.

The thing was all tongue-like arms and dripping mouths, no two features were exactly the same. Some of the mouths were like serrated beaks of great birds. Some of the arms were disturbingly human-like. It had not a single eye to speak of. It was revolting. The whole thing gave the impression of an enormous tumorsome starfish, constantly writhing and twisting and biting at nothing. As we got closer I saw small legless creatures floating around the great beast, some played a curious tune on strange flute-like proboscis with their lanky alien arms. Others floated around like odd fish producing a deep drumming base by rapping knobby fins against their wide bodies.

It was all too much. The alien music mixed with the now overwhelming screech of the nursery rhyme in my head. It was sweet mercy when I finally went deaf. Followed by horror as I felt my eyes burst and run warmly down my cheeks. Lord Neers voice came to me inside my mind. “Terribly sorry about that, the frailties of your kind often escape me, only a little further.”

Some time passed with me in a senseless stupor. I was taken by an odd chilling sensation. Then I began to hear again, but differently. “Open your eyes” I heard Neer say, and I did. New eyes. A new body. I recognized my old one slumped before me. All orificices dripping with blood, destroyed. Lord Neer stood behind it, facing me. We were surrounded by the musical creatures on a crystalline palace that seemed to be on top of the impossibly huge creature. Looking beyond the crystal pillars I saw an ocean of foul flesh, with tentacles and toothy maws rising and falling like living mountains.

At this point It occurred to me that I had a completely new body. One made like those legless floating creatures. I tried to speak but only produced a clumsy wind music from my flute-like mouth. Naturally I picked up the dialect almost immediately, and asked Neer about my situation. He grinned again upon hearing my new voice. In one hand he held a filthy crystal goblet, the other he had raised with a small ball of energy floating lazily around it.

He walked back toward the edge of the strange palace. Several tentacles slithered up onto the crystal floor and twisted into the shape of a fleshy throne. He sat upon it lazily, with his legs hanging over one of the “arms” of his makeshift chair. He lifted the goblet and a new smaller tentacle rose toward it and haphazardly spewed a milky yellow substance into the glass. He sipped at it contemplatively while staring at the floating ball of energy in his other hand. He finally answered me.

“All of creation has to come from somewhere. This creature we stand on has no real name. Perhaps, it did once, before the dream, but naturally we have no way of knowing it. You see, this creature, whom I have taken to calling Azathoth, lives in an eternal slumber.” Neer chuckled over his glass. “Well, I suppose ‘eternal’ would be a relative term. You see, Azathoth is a powerful dreamer, so much so that he has created the very fabric of our existence by accident. As long as he stays asleep he unknowingly keeps countless worlds intacts.”

He used his glass of foul liquid to make a broad sweeping gesture toward the surrounding instrumental creatures. “That is where these humble servants come into play. Azathoth has a great appreciation for music it seems, even in slumber. The Pipers continually play their music to keep him lulled to sleep and thus keeping the multiverse flowing. It truly is a great honor.”

” These creatures bodies live forever, and have adapted to the negative space that Azathoth inhabits.” He looked at the ball of energy. “Unfortunately, even the soul itself is finite it seems, and must eventually be retired to the void. This was the soul of the creature you now control” He let the ball float off wistfully into the surrounding nothingness. “New recruits are occasionally required. Your natural ability with song made you an obvious candidate.” He took a slow sip and smiled at me over the glass. “So tell me, Piper, how do you feel?”

I didnt have the words. Floating in my new monstrous body in this supposed apex of reality, in this logic defying palace on the dreaming monstrosity that was, for all intents and purposes, the father of all creation. I felt as if I had gone mad. Perhaps I had, after the things I had experienced in this day alone. My mind was completely aflutter, yet one thing held me in place.

Music. I listened to the pipes and drums around me. Had their sounds been as sweet before? To my human ears it was easy to dismiss it as tuneless nonsense. Yet now, I listened. Their song was that which preserved reality itself. Played endlessly for a singular being that controlled it all. Neer was right, he had been from the start. To play here was the greatest achievement a musician could ask for. I began to weep tears of joy.

Neer seemed to pick up on my newfound enthusiasm and put on a smile that put all his former ones to shame. He drained his goblet, tossing it in a dramatic gesture and swung his legs off the arm of his throne. “Excellent! We’ll celebrate with a feast!” The circle of creatures began to close in. They surrounded my discarded body and began spitting gastric juices onto it, melting clothing, flesh and bone alike into a gelatinous substance. They drank the strange fluid greedily with their long trunk-like mouths, following the instincts of my new body, I swiftly joined them. It was delectable.

When we were finished I looked back to see that Neer had gone. And we all went back to our posts. Playing our cosmic orchestra to sustain all of creation. My work humbles me. I live forever in the abysmal glow of the daemon sultan, singing the song of my ascension to please him.