I’ve been quiet the past month, but work is continuing on a number of projects. Rale is ongoing of course (currently chewing away at Sevenfold Gyre Part 6), but I’m also working on a fairly beefy analytical article. A not-so-subtle hint as to its content:
On Doki Doki Literature Club, science fiction, and self-awareness. An incredible volume of spoilers below, so if you have any intention of playing DDLC, play it before reading.
The standard (and pretty moldy) introduction to this topic, I’m told, is Star Trek, but fuck that, there’s tradition to uphold! As always, we can’t just talk about philosophy–we have to insult someone, and, here, “someone” is a distorted amalgamation of John Kessel and Orson Scott Card.
The background, which is in no way current, is as follows: Sixteen years ago, Kessel wrote an essay criticizing the moral thesis of Ender’s Game (published 35 years ago, for reference). As disclaimer, the essay is good, and, frankly, Ender’s Game is good. Moreover, discussion has almost certainly taken place on this topic since the essay’s initial publication (if the “2009 postscript” is any indication), and in Wittgensteinian fashion, I intend to interact with none of it. My concern here is not whether Kessel or Card are habitually wrong nor even whether they are prone to sloppy thinking. Rather, I want to talk about this one particular morass of sloppy thinking because it makes for a lovely journey through something completely different. We aren’t there yet. Patience.
So Kessel writes this essay, tearing into Card’s vision of morality (“moral and immoral standing is determined by intent rather than action”), provides citation after citation of evidence that Card’s setup is hopelessly contrived, and closes with “in the real world genocide is not committed by accident.” Heh. You gotta admit it’s funny to watch a guy shoot himself in the foot, even if you feel bad for him afterward. In case you missed it, the previously glossed-over Star Trek factoid is this: The advantage of the science fiction genre–arguably its primary literary purpose–is that it allows you to consider problems (moral, ethical, experiential) that may well exist but, cordoned off by safeguards in reality that technology has not yet stripped away, just don’t come up in normal, everyday life. So yeah, duh, genocide doesn’t happen by accident in the real world, but did you forget you were a sci-fi author or something?
The real criticism of Card’s setup, the one it looks like Kessel was trying to make, is that he didn’t let the setup breathe. You can’t just wave it all away–the ansible, the genius-breeding programs, the complete and utter control the establishment has over Ender’s life, the layers and layers of vicious abstraction needed to make interstellar war look like a computer game–with an “it don’t be like that.” You have to engage with the argument on its own terms. Here’s Ender, charged with genocide and two counts of manslaughter that the system literally built him for. By virtue of the facts that the system used him for this purpose, that he never intended to kill anyone, that he did not, in fact, know that he killed anyone, does he get to be “innocent”? The answer that Kessel does not dare provide (but which I think is correct, nonetheless): Yeah, I guess.
There’s a second question, of course, and I admit it’s a little suspicious Kessel doesn’t ask it: Ender’s innocent–we’ll even take it as a given. So, uh, what does it mean?
Some years ago, I wrote a novel. I never published it, it was sloppy, whatever, but my setup was similar. It was this: One man has been given credible information that the world is about to end in a magnified Malthusian crisis as human population continues to increase. The event horizon for this apocalypse is one year out. What do?
He considers his options. His evidence is convincing to him but subtle enough that anyone who hasn’t seen it firsthand won’t believe him–thus, convincing any major government (let alone all of them) in a year that there is even a threat is a non-starter. And, of course, this is to say nothing of getting them all to agree on a solution without any defection, tragedy of the commons, etc. That about kills the top-down approach, so what’s left? He settles reluctantly on a cull via mass-murder. He convinces a small set of colleagues to help him build a doomsday device that will wipe out 90% of human life on the planet, and with the effort nearly complete, he (Johnathan [sic], in the below quote) fulfills his obligation as a sci-fi protagonist and ruminates on the morality of it all:
“The problem, Doctor Romanov,” he said, “is that you want me to justify mass murder, and I can’t do that. You can’t justify mass murder.” I stared at him.
“Wait,” I said. “What?”
“The greater good necessitates mass murder, but it doesn’t justify it,” he replied, sitting back up in his chair. “You’re looking at the wrong costs.” I didn’t move, but I began glancing around the room, trying to make sense of the phrase.
“What do you mean by ‘wrong costs?’” I asked, finally.
“You’ve identified mass murder as the cost of the greater good,” Johnathan said. “But that’s not a cost and it can’t be justified. The cost is the part of your identity that mass murder will swallow up. The cost of the greater good, for you, is becoming evil.” I thought about it. I probably thought about it for much longer than an acceptable pause in conversation. Eventually I looked back to Johnathan.
“Becoming evil,” I said quietly. “Complete with punishment, I suppose?”
“Of course,” Mishibezeyu said, leaping onto the table. “Just imagine, you could do what most good people do and commit blazing suicide out of shame for the horrible things you’ve done.” The cat smiled. “When the time comes, you could give everything.”
“Or,” Johnathan said, tapping the table. He was obviously annoyed. “Or you could not do that. A better solution: You could live through it, shoulder the responsibility, bear the pain of guilt–”
“And give more than everything,” I said, still mulling over the notion.
-The Torment and Misery of Samuel Delacroix, Chapter 41
First, yes, my thesis is not Card’s. I’m gonna throw out there that if you commit genocide, you deserve social censure no matter how justified it was. Fittingly, Johnathan’s collaborators attempt to murder him when this is all said and done. But be that as it may, I’ll still take a joyride in Card’s boat because that’s what the setup deserves.
Is Card’s setup contrived? Hell yes, and so is mine (the contrivance is a plot point–we aren’t there yet). But the proper response to a question is not to deny its pretext. “It doesn’t work that way.” Yeah, but what if it did? What if you could be manipulated into committing genocide through no fault of your own? What does that imply? I’ll quickly jump back to Kessel’s side to agree that it certainly does NOT mean that people in general are good and bad independent of their actions, but I think the hangup might be on the question itself. I’ll substitute it with a different one, less direct but perhaps more illuminating: What happens next?
For Ender, this is vague penance by way of attempting to reseed the Formic race as well as lifelong devotion to the construction of a philosophical/religious framework meant to validate that what he did was Not Evil. Meanwhile, he peaces out to another solar system and disavows his identity as, predictably, people turn sour at the fact that he committed genocide. We can probably give Card a break here–this is well within the realm of reasonable consequence for what went down–but does it exonerate Ender? Haha, no. The Nazis who made it to Argentina are, of course, free to live out their lives in the haze of whatever cognitive framework helps them sleep at night, but should they ever reveal themselves, it seems fair for the system to scrub them, right? So too with Ender.
“So what does that imply?”
Can a person commit genocide and still be good? Kessel shoots back a categorical “no”; Card tries for a “yes”, and I see why. Whether Jesus of Nazareth might be responsible for the millions killed in his name–and all the other similar questions–demand answer in this age of increasing hostility to religion, but Card’s thought experiment, his overwrought and careful setup to make the sequence of events possible, offers no relief. Ender’s Game simply doesn’t answer the question.
Yes’s and no’s are rough, so let’s move onto something completely different. As the title might suggest, I’ve been playing Doki Doki Literature Club. In case the title did not suggest that to you and/or you have no idea what the fuck I’m talking about, Doki Doki Literature Club (DDLC) is, nominally, a visual novel. Since the setup here plays on your expectations, the expectations you “should” have are these: This is a narrative-focused game that will place the player in the shoes of a high school student attending an after-school literature club. Through limited and gimmicky mechanics for player input, you will be able to romantically pursue one or more of the other (female) characters in this literature club. The characters are tropey, and the aesthetic is clearly for people who like anime/manga/cutesy Japanese things.
“Sounds like trash.” An aggressive opinion, to be sure, but I won’t really disagree. The twist is that those are just the assumptions presumably intended by the branding. The setup is actually this: One of the four characters, Monika, is aware that she is in a dating simulation, is aware that there is no plotline in this game that gives her a happy ending, has access to the game files/source code, and is altogether not pleased with the whole affair. This, of course, is playing a little fast and loose with the fine line between being a deconstruction of the genre and a Bitch You Thought prank, but it’s very well written, and once you peel away the slough of what the game is pretending to be, it cuts pretty deep. The topics include fairly honest discussion of some of the heavier issues high schoolers go through (depression, self-harm, parental abuse, everybody’sgotbaggage, etc.), but the meat of it all isn’t a high-school slice-of-life quandary–it’s a sci-fi one, one that our rapidly increasing proximity to functional AI is making more apt every day: What happens when an artificial intelligence discovers its circumstances?
This is a broad question, so I’ll here clarify that this is not the [killer robot/singularity/end of human civilization as we know it] angle. That has its own questions, but they’re all pretty irrelevant here. Rather, this game is posing a more benign, much more individual question: What is it like to be a simulated being who knows they are a simulation?
Oh wait, I wrote this too:
“But what will happen to you when we actually open the second chamber?” Christophe asked. Benjamin raised an eyebrow, evidently confused.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“If all of this is virtual, like Espereza said it is,” Christophe said, “then you’re part of the program. Won’t you disappear when all of this ends?”
“I’m…part of the program?” Benjamin asked. The concept was obviously disturbing to him. “I..um. I don’t know. This is a program?” He looked around the circle. “Are you saying that I’m not real?”
-The Torment and Misery of Samuel Delacroix, Chapter 21
The obvious first sub-question is whether the simulated entity is a simulacrum or a “person”. In my own work, it’s solidly the latter, as the distinction between real and virtual space is vanishingly ill-defined and the simulations wind up escaping into the real world. DDLC has a rough time with this one, though, and it relies on goodwill from the player to interpret it kindly.
A lot of this is the game’s length: It’s very short, and while the questions it explores are good and the methods of exploration (glitching, psycho-horror, fucking with game files as a play mechanic) are innovative, the lack of weight makes it easy not to get invested. If you aren’t invested, you are more tempted to look at the overall work as a prank rather than a deconstruction, and you won’t pay as much attention to Monika’s dilemma–she isn’t a person; she’s an image of a person, pretending to be a broken simulation.
While this is “true”, it’s a little heartless, and besides, when was the last time you read a novel where the characters weren’t literally simulacra? “Why are we even discussing Jean Valjean? He isn’t a person, he’s just symbols on paper pretending to be a person.” Yeah, well you’re not invited to dinner anymore. This is the setup. You can’t walk away from the Ender’s Game argument yelling “it’s just a book, man!” You need to engage with the setup on its terms, which for DDLC means taking as given that Monika is a person.
DDLC does take the extra risk of having Monika address–indeed attempt to court–the player directly, but the wall is one-way. She can speak to you, but you can’t communicate with her, except via the options the game provides, which become meaningless as she dismantles the plot they were meant to support. Still, as we consider her dilemma, it becomes an interesting exercise to pick out the pieces that are her character and those that are artifice, which is to say, part of the setup implied by the deeply flawed simulation in which she is trapped.
For example, she is absolutely smitten with you, despite absolutely no knowledge or experience of who you are–is this part of the simulation? Is it inherent in her identity that she should be in love with this presence that she can just barely detect behind the player character? Or is she just a teenage girl who has caught a glimpse of a world far grander than her own limited horizons, who has latched onto the only identity with which she can associate that alternative? Frankly, both possibilities are pretty cursed, but this is a good jumping-off point. We have our setup–what happens next?
Well, first she drives the player character’s best friend to suicide to stop them from falling in love. Then she does the same to another potential love interest (albeit in a much more horrifying fashion) and finally just says “fuck it” and deletes all the rest of the game’s supporting infrastructure. All that’s left is her, staring into your eyes from a room suspended in space:
Her plan is apparently to “date” you, which seems to entail her staring out of the screen and you staring back in forever, except for the times when you really need to get up, in which case you can bring her along in a flash drive or something. Yeah, you can say it: That’s whacked. But is it killer-robot whacked or just depressed-teenage-girl whacked? I’m sure Baudrillard would like a word, but I’m gonna err toward the latter. Fucked up programming is only so interesting of a motivation–let’s look at it through a slightly different lens.
Monika admits in her “confession” that she wasn’t just motivated by jealousy (though it seems a pretty hard part to ignore). She had begun to see her world as grey and two-dimensional, had become hyper-aware of its shortcomings and limitations. Her friends weren’t “people”; they were just semi-reactive collections of dialogue meant to support the game’s plot, and, feeling completely and utterly alone, she was just about ready to kill herself before she realized the player character was a window to the outside. Remember, a priori, she’s a person. What does that mean?
Well, first, the friend thing, even by the logic of the game, is hogwash. Though Monika seems to be able to fuck with their memories and cognition, the other characters do, in fact, react to non-plot events. After the second character commits suicide, the last remaining member of the club walks in after 72 (in-game) hours to find you standing over her rotting body and, in a very human fashion, freaks the fuck out. Likewise, as Monika begins tweaking their personalities, the other girls certainly notice. They take note of the changes in their perception, they feel that something is wrong. Consider the numerous historical examples of how easy it is for a person under stress to discount the humanity of another human. I don’t feel like it’s a stretch to assume that they’re as real as she is. Likewise, “grey” and “two-dimensional” could be reference to the medium, but they fit “anhedonia associated with major depression” even better.
Before this gets too bizarre, no, I’m not saying we should look at this medically. I’m saying if you’re looking at a person’s behavior, put yourself in their shoes. Let’s say you, in some freak epiphany, get absolute, unequivocal confirmation that there is an outer world, and someone is looking in, watching you. “Sounds like schizophrenia.” Sounds like you need to go back and read the Ender’s Game section again. It doesn’t matter whether accidental genocide happens in the real world; it doesn’t matter whether you would actually be convinced that the world was going to end in a year; it doesn’t matter whether the nature and quantity of proof necessary to make you believe you live in a video game is implausible–that’s the setup. Should you become convinced of this, what might you feel?
Could it be depressing? Could the sudden smallness of your world affect what it means to you? What if you could access pieces of the code that governed your world, such that you could see bits and pieces, you could see the plan the simulation has for you? What if that plan was just that you should just be a set-piece, a spectator on the sidelines of life–except you’re not even there to see anything. It’s even worse than that. You’re just there to be seen. It isn’t entirely without upside: You can change the code, but no matter what you try, you can’t create with it. You can only make things worse. All in all, I think two outcomes are clear: I would expect you to be upset, and I would expect you to be very interested in the watcher.
I dearly wish DDLC had gone there more readily. Make no mistake: It went there, but the sheer brevity of the game prevented it from diving in, and dear god, there is a lot to dive into. As it was, it hinted at that depth, but mostly it was just sad. All of the characters are, ultimately, compelling examples of humanity that you get to engage with only barely. There is no resolution, there is no reparation; even with a lot of fiddling, the best you can really maneuver it all to is a vague impression of bittersweet. And for Monika, even the best ending involves near erasure from existence (you have to delete her character file from the game directory). Frankly, it fucked me up for days.
And after all of it, I have to wonder if I don’t already feel the same sort of hopelessness, living in a tiny corner of a vast reality as the Powers That Be watch with disinterest from above. I can see how the gears turn, driving the system forward, but I can’t really bend them to my will. I can chuck a wrench in, maybe fuck someone’s life up. I can certainly hurt myself, but I’m mostly just a spectator, and it’s not clear that it matters whether I watch.
“What’s the point when none of it is even real?” Monika asks, having destroyed her reality so that she can stare you down on the most equal terms her circumstances allow.
Through the whirring, root-lined passages of the workshop, a diminutive figure shuffles along. Where there is open space, she observes the goings on, the maintenance of her domain, with muted interest. At the periphery, tiny, metal spiders clink and clatter on about their thousand little tasks, sweeping away dust, digging, polishing, sometimes even melting themselves down, embedding themselves in the tunnels as struts and beams, retaining enough function, though, to click and whir and watch. Her workshop was alive, the figure mused with a smile, so unlike the houses of men.
Where the ceilings were high enough to permit them, her other servants labored in studious silence. Men–and women, she supposed, though it hardly mattered anymore–made of ticking metal transcribed and translated her library, organized the tables at the center of her workspace, banished her abandoned projects to the corners of the room, and, when so requested, retrieved them. Their tasks were not difficult, but they were not easily programmable or required more heft than the spiders offered readily. Either way, the metal men did them gladly–they were grateful for the life she had given them.
Pensively, she scaled a stool, producing a host of spindly appendages from within her black robes which carried her into the seat with the undulating grace of a centipede. She had been traveling–not physically, of course, but through a proxy–and the effort of the conscious projection invariably wore on her. Still, she was disinclined to display any affect outwardly, though it was doubtful her servants would have noticed or cared. She had notes yet to make, and fatigue–even the magical variety–was an enemy to which she refused to succumb.
From a stack on the table, she drew a leaf of thin, papery material and licked her finger, secreting a drop of oily, black ink from the reservoirs in her salivary glands. Splitting her finger into eight much finer-tipped instruments, she lowered them to the page, where their twitching, seemingly random and erratic in the air, began, precisely and rapidly, to inscribe her thoughts:
On this 1237th year of the Exsanguine Era, it has come to pass that open practice of the Way of the Green has been all but eradicated here in the Riverlands. The popularity of anti-magical “Harmony” movements in the wake of the Incident has evidently left it little room to grow, and what texts remain of its rites all seem to have disappeared into the Papacy’s vaults, likely to be burned or twisted beyond reasonable recognition. Thus, it has fallen to me to generate a more trustworthy record of the institution. This is necessary, I would submit, both for the value of the knowledge in itself as well as for a speculative angle of analysis. After all, the diaspora of the Greencircle, in more than a single sense, can be held responsible for the Riverlands’ worrying modernity.
To begin, the Way of the Green, distinct from the Greencircle as day to the sun, was a movement, and like any popular movement, it was fragmented in its purpose. Its intentions and praxis varied wildly among its constituencies, and any anthropocentric account of its history is sure to be flawed for this reason. This is fitting, of course, as its origin had little to do with humanity. The Greencircle did not congregate there in the Bloodwood to found a movement, and they were certainly uninterested in teaching a way of life. Rather, the Greencircle was a reaction, itself, to an external threat.
Some 500 years ago, by my best estimate, the folk hero known popularly as the Hunter of Beasts raised a call to arms among the aspiring heroes and scholars of the Riverlands. He sought an alliance meant to destroy a monster deep within the Bloodwood, a ravenous, devouring mass he called the Hunger, though it was a subsequent name–the Chimera–that found its way into the local lore of the time. A great number answered his call, for the Hunter was well-known at the time, and he soon led a host of glory-seekers on an ill-fated quest to slay the beast. Nearly all of them perished. Most among the company were inexperienced, blessed by talent or ambition but no art, and vanishingly few had cunning or strength to match the Hunter’s. So bereft, they made of themselves easy food for the Chimera. Far more notable than the casualties, though, were those that survived. The organization they formed thereafter, though it had no formal title, became known as the Greencircle.
Chief among its members were the Wolf–also called the Masked Alpha–a powerful hermit mage and self-styled “protector” of the forest; a pair of scholars, a Botanist and an Arborist whose names were not recorded but who are noteworthy nonetheless for their success in translating the Chimera’s ability to manipulate flora into a teachable magical art; and, of course, the Strange Bird, ostensibly just a talented, one-eyed hedge witch, though her enduring influence–and the macabre nature thereof–raises serious questions as to the innocuousness of her identity.
Now, for a period of some twenty years–an average of the retellings I’ve gathered–this organization–which is to say the Hunter, those four, and their closest followers and aspirants–were an open and public institution, well-known among the villages in and around the outer Bloodwood. Following their disastrous confluence, they tempered their aim of destroying the Chimera, instead focusing on containment: repelling the beast from woodland villages and–to a reasonable extent–keeping it confined to the wood’s heart, where it posed little threat to the “civilization” outside. In so doing–for all the Greencircle were learned mages–they uncovered and codified magical knowledge to rival that of the ancient universities, including the bases for what I would now classify as three distinct schools of magic. The organization was loved and respected as protectors of the people, and soon, the discoveries and philosophies of its members began to spread beyond the Bloodwood and throughout the Riverlands.
The words I have chosen, however, are very particular: The Greencircle had little in the way of a unified worldview, save, perhaps, for the agreement that the Chimera was dangerous. Regardless, what proceeded to spread among the people, known collectively and indiscriminately as the “Way of the Green” were the ideas of the Greencircle’s individuals.
What this meant, of course, differed by both origin and adherent. The Wolf, for instance, inspired a tradition of copycats, practitioners of his shapeshifting and cannibalism, albeit with only a fraction of his zeal for the defense of the wood. Meanwhile, devotees to the Arborist and Botanist practiced their plant magic and maintained a calendar of rituals to honor the flora of the world, within their spheres of experience and without. Alone among them, the Strange Bird’s followers formed a longer-lived organization, but I will return to that discussion separately.
Despite the spread of the Way of the Green, the Greencircle itself remained focused throughout this process on the danger of the Chimera, and to judiciously interpret various accounts of the Hunter’s temperament at the time, that focus was not bearing fruit. While the creature voraciously consumed–or, perhaps more accurately, assimilated–all flesh in its path, it seemed to matter little whether that flesh was human or even faunal. The Greencircle’s work in deterring the Chimera from human settlements had thus been admirable but futile: While the humans remained, the once-small region where the beast dwelled had increased tenfold in size, and with countless new mouths, its rate of expansion had multiplied accordingly.
Nearing a point at which he surmised they would be hopelessly outmassed, the Hunter brought the Greencircle’s considerable magical expertise to bear in an effort that was, while clearly significant, ill-documented and historically unclear. From the accounts and scraps I have amassed, I am to ascertain that it incorporated a ritual employing numerous mages; that it was successful, insofar as the Chimera is not mentioned in any record thereafter; and that it was quite costly. Notably, it is clear that neither the Botanist nor the Arborist survived the ordeal. How many others might have died alongside them is, of course, unclear, but it is well-recorded that the Hunter of Beasts at that point ceased his engagement with the Greencircle, effectively dissolving the organization.
While the Way of the Green flourished for centuries thereafter amidst the Riverlands’ long-harbored thirst for a magical and cultural identity distinct from that of the eastern domains, the more interesting epilogue to this story is with regards to the Strange Bird. Her followers, known as the Feathermen in the years after the Greencircle dispersed, remained in their secluded corner of the Bloodwood until just a decade before the Incident. It is difficult to say what purpose they labored toward, but a few points are clear: First, for a time, the feathermen were known among the villages closer to their domain for their “exports”: trinkets, imbued with Mana, able to perform magic with little input or expertise required from their bearer. It seems doubtful that any of these creations had much use, even at the time, but taken against the veritable–and not altogether benign–economy that thrives for such goods today, one can almost see the Strange Bird’s influence in the here and now, hundreds of years since she was last seen. My suspicion on this point is only deepened by the list of individuals to whom I can draw affiliation with her club.
Le Marquains of the Southern Reaches, for example, made no secret of his training with the Feathermen, and his arrival in the South to quell the Saraa Sa’een well outside the monster’s known territory certainly merits comment. Likewise, witness accounts of the individual known as the Hawk, who assumed control of the Feathermen in the last decade of their existence, bear more than passing resemblance to those of the one-eyed man who led Ka’s armies during the Incident. And, of course, I need rely on no hearsay to recall the tufts of feathers that still clung to the Dragon’s hide the day he arrived in my village. That all of these men became generals of the Bloodfish seems both deliberate and in poor accordance with their ideals–the Dragon, in particular, had little apparent interest in Ka’s ravings. I do not doubt, at this point, that this was strategy on the Strange Bird’s part, though now with her pieces–her manipulable Greencircle and Bloodfish–dead and buried, it is not clear for what she aimed or whether some plan of hers might still be unfolding.
I have compiled (and lightly edited) ~170 pages of stories from the War Torn/Rale project into a reasonably coherent anthology. Many of the stories have appeared in some form previously on this blog. Several have not. It is by no means a finished product, but I am looking for feedback from beta readers. If you are at all interested, drop me an email.
Image: Hacked-together cover by me. Background image is Lies, by Hector Rasgado.
“Alms, ma’am,” Karilet replied, voice rising nearly an octave. She sounded almost chipper. “Or scraps, bones. Anything helps, really!”
“Huhrm,” the lady at the door coughed. “Not today.” The door slammed. Karilet half-nodded, half-sighed, and moved to the next door on the row. She didn’t begrudge the refusals–these people weren’t much better off anyway. She knocked at the new door.
“Alms!” she called. “Anything helps!” The door opened, and an old man, nearly skinny as an urchin himself, emptied a pot of refuse at her feet. “Thank you, sir!” she exclaimed with an enthusiasm that her actual gratitude failed to match. The man merely grunted and shut his door.
Dropping her wide-eyed expression, Karilet began to pick through the trash. A few half-rotted apple cores, a surprising volume of moldy bread crust, and–oh!–a rat carcass. This wasn’t bad at all. She hastily gathered as much of the pile as would fit in her threadbare satchel and ran off, up the Gutterway, to meet her companions in the Lower Market.
It was not a long way. For the burgeoning size of Spar’s urchin underclass, their range of motion was uncomfortably tight. Karilet and her companions could roam the Condemned District and the Gutterway with little fear, and the Lower Market was busy and disorganized enough to provide good cover, but the Upper Market? The Old City? Anywhere outside their not-so-carefully isolated den of squalor, they would be too noticeable. The guards would catch them, ask them for their Signia Citizia, jail them for vagrancy because they had no Signia Citizia, because they had never completed the Skolastikar, because they had fallen out of Goetia’s system. And it wasn’t as if the guards would have any sympathy for their circumstances: The Diarchy was at war, and any lowlife hanging about the city could just as easily be a shadowman. It seemed needlessly cruel to Karilet that the guards would subject children to this logic, but Sarchus swore up and down that he saw the Goetia arrest a kid in the Lower Market that tried to escape by turning a whole alley dark. If Khet was sending kids, it made sense that the guards would be cagey.
For many of the urchins, imprisonment for the duration of the war–ruinous and harrowing though it would be–was all they had to fear. For Karilet, Andrew, Theo, and others in the District, the threat was far more grave. Before abandoning her to the streets, Karilet’s mother told her of the danger: In Spar, it was the law that all children in their tenth year be brought before the Goetia–the Diarchy’s magical police–to be tested. If the tests revealed no magical aptitude, the child would be sent onto the Skolastikar. But if they had the talent, a further division was made. Those able to channel the pure energies of Nature–fire, water, the elements–were trained to join the Goetia. Those from whom flowed impure or distorted magic–magic of shadows or flesh–would be put to death.
Karilet learned later from the other urchins that the law was issued generations ago, when the University discovered that distorted magic was slowly destroying the world. This provoked thoughts she tried to keep from her mind: If her magical instincts–the way dripping blood whispered to her, the causal strings of her companions’ cuts and bruises she couldn’t help but pull–were destined to bring ruin, were the Goetia not right to hunt her? And what about her parents? Their intervention was callous, reticent. It kept them safer than her, but still they intervened so she could live. Why? If she was a threat, how could they want to save her? And, having done so, why would they then just toss her aside?
It left her confused in a way that, mercifully, her companions were not. They saw no deeper meaning to the war, and they hated the Goetia, the guards, the Diarchs, anyone they could blame for their poverty. They were, in fact, very poor, and with no visible path to citizenship, they likely would be their entire lives. The train of thought was vicious and unhelpful, but Karilet welcomed the distraction from her ambivalence. At least the rage carried with it a fantasy of revolution, a happy ending, however imaginary. In truth, the happiest ending Karilet could see was an early and painless death.
Karilet sighed, feeling mired and sluggish in spite of the quick time she’d made up the Gutterway’s north end. This was going to be a Thinking Day, she realized, and Thinking Days were never pleasant. Doing her best to sideline the troubling inquiries into her existence, she plunged into the grubby crowds of the Lower Market, where the Diarchy’s poor citizens collided in force with the wagoners, farmers, traveling merchants, grifters, fences, and, very occasionally, mercenaries of the Outer Circle, to exchange coin, food, lumber, trinkets, shouts–of prices, offers, incredulous combinations of both or neither–and, very frequently, thrown fists. She darted between these boisterous exchanges, finding the plaza’s western wall and hugging it, out of sight to the guards, as she made her way to the particular lumber cart her companions used as a meeting place. There, she found Andrew, lounging against the wall with a parcel, no-doubt serendipitously obtained, behind the cart’s owner, who looked, as always, wary but unconcerned.
“Ay, Kar,” he piped up as she approached. “Whatcha got there?” Then, noticing her expression: “It go rough?”
“Nah,” she said, glancing away and forcing a smile. She opened her satchel for his perusal. “Got scraps, as ‘spected. And meat.” Andrew’s nostrils flared with mixed hunger and disgust, and he nodded several times in affirmation. He opened his own parcel and showed Karilet three apples, bruised but otherwise intact.
“Traveler dropped ‘em right near the exit,” he added. “I had ‘em ‘fore she knew they were gone.” Karilet nodded in turn. The urchins had a code for procuring things from the Market. The carts themselves were strictly off limits, and stealing from citizens, guards, and regulars was forbidden as well. The children weren’t obvious here, but they certainly weren’t invisible. If the merchants bothered to report their loitering, their entire existence would grow more perilous, so they made sure to respect the boundaries of anyone who might see them twice. But, of course, this left plenty of marks who would soon leave the city and never see them again.
“Where are the others?” Karilet asked, glancing out into the crowd.
“Sarc and Bea are duoing on the east side. Theo went back early–he wanted a nap, and Sarc said it was fine since he scored first thing.”
“They need help?”
“Nah,” Andrew wheezed, picking his nose. “Checked on ‘em fifteen minutes back. Think they’re wrappin’ up. Should be round and second now.”
Karilet grunted her acknowledgment. Sarchus was the oldest in their house, their de facto leader, even as neared his Crossing–the age at which, according to the gangs of the Condemned District, he was an adult and needed to join up or die. As Karilet understood it, many urchins chose “neither” and jumped the first Traveler caravan they could find to work for slave-wages in the Circle, but Sarchus was a legacy: Both his parents had been Moccasins before they died in the purge ten years back, so when the time came, he refused to report to the Skolastikar, renouncing his citizenship. He pledged to join the Moccasins like his parents when he was sixteen, and he encouraged the rest of the house to do the same, reassuring them that his “cousins” would welcome them with open arms. Karilet was unconvinced. She took the Gutterway shifts more often than the rest–they gave her time to think, or “mope,” as Sarchus called it–and she saw what the gangs did to the people there. They would beat families in the street, extort them for “protection” money, threaten or maim their children. To Karilet, it seemed even more brutal and senseless than the tyranny of the Goetia Sarchus so vocally despised. But he and his makeshift family were kind to her, in her time of need and still. She doubted she would join the Moccasins, but she kept her mouth shut. She didn’t have to make the choice yet.
Andrew’s estimate was accurate. He’d only barely finished speaking when Karilet spotted Sarchus’ characteristically hunched frame shouldering through the crowd, tall and bulky enough at his age to eschew the careful weaving the other children relied upon. Behind him, as if to compensate, Bea flitted like a blown leaf through the gap he cut in the masses.
“You made it,” he said in Karilet’s general direction, drawing half a glance from the lumberman. “Any luck?” She offered her satchel as answer, to which Sarchus gave an approving chuckle. “Alright, then,” he said. “We’d best be heading back.”
Amid the dusty streets of the Condemned District, silence clung like a torn and weathered blanket to the ill-maintained architecture, committed to its efforts but, in fact, hiding very little. According to the Diarchs, the District was abandoned and had been since the purge. In reality, it was home to a wide variety of undesirables, urchins, indigents, gangs, and others who simply didn’t want to be found, living out a busy–if not lively–existence in the old Cultural District’s rotting corpse. The tepid hush no doubt meant nothing to the Goetia–they knew as well as anyone what bubbled in the District’s muck, even if they were not as yet motivated to do anything about it–but it perhaps served as a reminder to the denizens: Anything too loud can always be silenced.
So it was across the district, and so it was in the cavernous, second-story apartment Karilet’s companions called home. Physically, it was by no means isolating: There were five of them on that floor alone and ten more between the floor above and the next-door apartment to which they’d built a scrapwood bridge over the alleyway. Below them were a couple of fences–married, it seemed–who in turn received their fair share of messengers from the gangs. But in spite of the proximity, the movement, coming and going, whether of courteous deference or existential dread, Karilet found every interaction she witnessed in the place to have that same cautious quiet.
“Oh wow!” Bea exclaimed reservedly when it was Karilet’s turn to share her haul. Karilet didn’t feel very excited, looking at the bread and maggoty rodent alongside Andrew’s fresh fruit, but she understood the sentiment. Meat, on their resources, was a rare treat, and the carcass would certainly be more appealing once it was prepared.
“Can you clean it, Theo?” Sarchus asked. The question was a formality. No one else was going to.
“‘Course,” Theo belched, heaving his bulk into a seated position. He grabbed the rat by the tail and dangled it in front of his face. Karilet and the others stared with mounting discomfort at what they knew was about to happen.
“Theo…” Sarchus interjected with a beleaguered sigh.
“Do you mind?” Theo’s gaze shot back to Sarchus.
“Hm. Oh,” he grunted. He climbed to his feet and trudged to the storeroom, twirling the rat in his pudgy fingers. The rest of the room exhaled in unison.
“I just…hate watching it, you know?” Bea whispered. The others nodded in agreement–that many maggots wasn’t easy on the stomach. “But anyway, Karilet, you did a great job!”
Karilet’s shy smile was as gracious an acceptance as she could give the compliment. Bea was Sarchus’ favorite, and while, for Sarchus, it was merely a mark of affection, for Bea, it was a mark of status that she guarded with offputting fervor. It had been bad when Karilet first joined. For months, Bea would steal her food, spit on her when she thought no one was watching, slip rotting things into her bedroll. It did little to aggravate Karilet at the time–she was almost too numb from her mother’s betrayal to even notice then–but it still meant they would probably never be friends. Even after those months, when Bea realized that Karilet would not leave, when Sarchus’ attentions had not shifted, when her hissing and spitting turned to these sudden bursts of effusive praise, slight, timid, ultimately false smiles were still the only reaction to Bea that Karilet could manage.
“Yeah, Kar!” Andrew added, snapping her out of her trance. “Dunno how you do it. I only get the crusts on my Gutterway runs.”
“Agreed,” Sarchus said. “Well done, Karilet. You as well, Andrew–been awhile since we’ve had anything fresh around here. Now, listen. I have to go talk to Lud. While I’m gone, I want you to–” His instructions cut off sharply, interrupted by a loud thud from the floor below. Gripping his large, rusty dagger, one of the very few weapons they had between them, he crept over to the entryway.
“You alright down there, Den?” he called through the door. No response came. Karilet felt her hair stand on end. “Den?” he called once more before frantically motioning the others to hide. That’s when Karilet heard the heavy footsteps echoing up the stairwell.
“What’s all this–” Theo whispered, emerging from the storeroom with a freshly de-wormed rat, as Bea hurriedly shushed him. She shoved him back through the doorway, and Andrew and Karilet piled in after her, remaining, for then, just close enough to the threshold to see the spot near the entryway where Sarchus lurked. For a moment, everything seemed to freeze, then, echoing through the apartment–perhaps even down the street for its volume–there came a loud, steady knock at the door.
None of them made a sound. No one they knew would ever approach them this way, and it was far too early for the gang messengers to be paying visits. Nonetheless, a few seconds later, the knocking came again.
“Fuck off!” Sarchus shouted, feigning annoyance in an admirable attempt to mask his alarm.
“You had best open the door,” said a smooth, unfamiliar, female voice. The sound of several more footsteps, framed by the telltale clink of chainmail, echoed up the stairwell. “You have three seconds.”
Sarchus, now clearly panicked, looked back to the storeroom, waving for the others to stay out of sight. Realizing his meaning only after a second, Karilet ducked back only just in time for the entryway door to blast through the apartment, past the opening to the storeroom, with a deafening BOOM that shook dust from the walls around them. Her ears ringing, she saw the door clatter against the wall, seemingly without sound. She heard Sarchus’ muted shouts and the faint ring of metal falling against stone. Then she heard him scream.
Whether out of caution or outright terror–Karilet couldn’t be sure which–she and the boys remained frozen there, out of sight, but for Bea, the sound was too much. She leapt to her feet and tore out of the storeroom with an anguished shout. Immediately, a man in armor with a black hood sewn over his helm–the uniform of the Goetia–scooped her up and pinned her to the floor. He looked up, unconcerned with Bea’s thrashing, and peered into the storeroom, meeting Karilet’s terrified gaze.
“A long time ago, before I was born, before my mother’s mother was born–”
“Before I was born?” A soft laugh rang around the hearth.
“Yes, sweetie, of course. Before you were born. A long time ago, the gods would walk among us. You could talk to them or go up and touch them. They were as real as you or me. Sometimes, they would give us gifts, and the greatest of them gave us the greatest of gifts.”
“What did he give us, Mommy?”
“He gave us a place to live, sweetie. A place where we would be safe.”
“How many are there?” asked the female voice, still out of view.
“Three more,” the officer replied, gaze fixed on Karilet.
“That’s one extra. Check the rest of the floor. See if there are any more.” The officer didn’t move, but several more clinking footsteps seemed to obey the command. “Children,” the voice continued. “Please come out slowly. Do not try to run.”
Glancing between Andrew and Theo, neither of whom seemed to have registered the words, Karilet climbed, shaky, to her feet. She felt dazed, her ears still ringing, her mind trying–but suddenly unable–to process the reality of the situation. Slow, numb, she stepped toward the opening of the storeroom, toward the officer whose hand still weighed between Bea’s shoulderblades as she scrabbled against the floor. His eyes, still but wary, remained locked on Karilet, as if this girl, ragged, half-starved, barely thirteen years old, could somehow threaten a soldier. She crossed the threshold, and the details of her circumstances came into view.
The officer holding Bea down beside her was one of four now scouring the apartment, blood hoods and cloaks obscuring their faces and clinking armor as they moved through what Karilet realized was a haze of smoke from the smoldering door–and not merely a trick of her own anxiety-addled mind. Standing in the doorway, holding Sarchus with one hand under his shoulder, was an unarmored, unmarked woman in a traveler’s cloak. Like the officer, her face was grave and wary, and though she wore the garb of a Circler, she had a soldier’s build and bearing.
Sarchus, meanwhile, did not appear to be standing of his own accord. The woman’s grip seemed quite firm, but his legs looked half-limp, ready to give way should she let go. His face was twisted with pain, and he was clutching his forearm, just failing to hide a band of scorched and blackened skin. That’s when Karilet noticed the orange glow about the woman’s other hand.
Fire. The purest magic, pride of the Diarchian military. She had seen pyrotechnic displays in city parades, years ago, but she had never seen it up close, never seen it scorch or kill or maim, and now, very confusingly, she realized with creeping horror that she felt cheated. She wished she’d seen the Goetia kill before, wished she could see them continue. The energies of the flame about the woman’s fingers, the violent traces hanging about the smoke, even–perhaps especially–the blistering wound on Sarchus’ arm: They tantalized her, reached out to her on cloying breezes, wrapped about her wrists, and, with faint, ecstatic tugs, pulled her hands at those loci of violence, bidding her reciprocate.
“Very good,” the woman said, still aloof to Karilet’s growing terror at the desire resonating in her fingertips. “The rest of you, now. Come out, please.” Behind her, Karilet heard Theo’s heavy wheezing as he and Andrew shuffled to her side. The woman’s expression turned, for just a moment, to a faint sneer. She continued:
“The testimony was reliable. I’m surprised. Five here, and this was very easy to find. “I’d say this constitutes a security risk. Would you agree?”
“A violation of the Decree, too,” added the officer holding Bea.
“Oh, I’d bet on it,” the woman replied. Sarchus, finding some shred of willpower, shuddered, trying to squirm free of her grasp, but she held fast, barely acknowledging the struggle.
“Kommandet,” one of the other officers interjected. The woman looked to face him. “Found something. They’ve got a bridge to the building next door.”
“Are there more?”
“Not anymore. They could be gone, or they could’ve run by now.” The Kommandet grunted, turning her gaze down to Sarchus.
“How many?” she asked.
“…what?” he coughed. A gout of flame erupted from her hand, sending tingles down Karilet’s spine and evoking an immediate whimper from Sarchus.
“How many undocumented children live next door?” she clarified, unfiltered menace creeping into her voice. “How many in the District?”
“Fuck off,” Sarchus rasped. The Kommandet, expression unchanged, simply brought her burning hand up to Sarchus’ face. Stifling a guttural scream, he began to thrash uselessly in her grip as his skin blistered.
“Sir,” the officer holding Bea said. The Kommandet looked up from her work. “Perhaps we should take them back.” Slowly, she nodded, and the flame went out.
“Very well,” she said. “We’ll–” She paused, reaching up to her own face and wiping a rivulet of blood from the corner of her mouth. “What?” she muttered. The she flinched, as if struck, and hacked blood onto both Sarchus and the floor, doubling over as red streamed from her face.
Karilet followed little of what happened next, amidst the officers’ panicked shouts, the jets of bright, searing flame, the crimson tendrils that lanced through the fire like spears borne on some surreal, violent tide. She was shoved at one point–she didn’t register by whom–but it was just another sensation in the flood that roiled in her skull. Some of it was the light and the screams, certainly enough to overwhelm a child under normal circumstances, but what coursed through Karilet, writhing, radiating pleasure, what dizzied and numbed her to everything else, to the particularities of the chaos around her, to–for just a moment–even her own name, was the death. The violence, suffusing her reality, blooming crimson in her mind, in the room, everywhere. She felt encircled by it, pulled into a newer, more thrilling struggle to survive, where suddenly that struggle was a comfort, a meaning where her existence had been, for some time, without.
She couldn’t say how long it lasted, but eventually, the chaos quelled, her giddy daze faded, and the aftermath began to coalesce. The officers and the Kommandet were strewn in pieces about the room. Next to Karilet, Bea was shivering, her eyes glued to a severed arm lying inches from where she sat. The others were just as shaken: Andrew, Theo, and Sarchus had all backed up against the walls of the apartment, shrinking from the spreading pools of blood Karilet, in her stupor, had allowed to lap at her feet. But they weren’t staring at the bodies. They were staring at the one who had made them.
Striding into the room slowly, evenly, barely rippling the blood beneath his feet, was a young man, a teenager, likely no older than Sarchus. He wore no shirt, and while his physique seemed unimpaired by malnutrition–crafted even, if the term applied to one so young–he was hardly beautiful. He was entirely hairless, lacking even eyebrows, and from head to waist, he was covered in sores and lacerations. Blood dripped from these wounds but did not fall, instead hanging about him in droplets and tendrils, suspended in air, glistening with macabre potential. As with the bloodbath before, Karilet of course sensed him conventionally. She saw his scarred face, grimacing with either pain or determination, she heard the soft, trickling slap of his footfalls on the pooled blood, but more than either, she felt him. In her mind, her heart, wherever it was that her gift whispered, she felt his presence thrum.
“Are you glad to be rid of them?” the stranger asked. His face was impassive, but the whole room seemed to reverberate as he spoke.
Karilet did not move. It seemed a given to her that she ought be glad to be safe, but the boy’s words seemed deeper, contractual, even, as if her expression of gratitude over these events she had truly yet to process would have real and immediate consequences. Her companions clearly did not feel this subtext: In the periphery, she saw Andrew, Theo, and even Bea nodding shakily.
“Yes,” Sarchus said outright. The stranger made no movement to acknowledge the response; he merely spoke again:
“Good. They will send more to find their missing dogs. Seek safety, and I will hide your trail.” Though his body remained still, Karilet saw his eyes sweep the room, lingering on her. The others made their way past the stranger, to the doorway, but she hesitated. The blood beneath her was beginning to move, to surge in swells and currents toward the boy, carrying the Goetia and their dismembered pieces with it. “Go,” he said, this time to Karilet alone. “We will meet again.”
She returned the slightest nod and hurried through the door, down the stairs, out into the street. Behind her, she could hear a wet, elongated crunch echo from the second floor, but as she ran after Sarchus and the others, it simply faded into the District’s hush.
“So what did they look like?”
“They were hard to look at, sweeti.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, my mother told me it was because the gods were what they needed to be. When you spoke to them, they would seem just like people.”
“So the gods were just special people?” A sigh passed over the warm room.
“No, sweetie. Sometimes they looked like people. They were other things when they needed to be. When they watched over us, they watched from the forest, from the eyes of foxes or birds. And when the Darkness was about to swallow us, they became horrible monsters, so they could fight it and keep us safe.”
“But Mommy, if they looked like different things, what were they really?”
“Fuck!” Sarchus swore, teeth grit, as the burned skin on his arm began to bubble and split. Karilet was starting to see grey. The blood running from her arm was taking its toll, but she redoubled her concentration, aligning the wispy energy of her self-inflicted wound with the rhythmic crackle and buzz she could feel emanating from Sarchus’ burn. Rudimentary healing, first aid in exchange for let blood, was something her gift allowed her, though it brought with it none of the ecstasy of the day’s earlier slaughter, as if the magic were somehow displeased that its harm was being undone.
“That’s pretty uncanny, Missy,” Lud remarked from the corner. He’d given up his chairs for Sarchus and Karilet, opting to stand as the others collapsed against the walls.
“Her name is Karilet!” Bea whined, her appreciation on Sarchus’ behalf surging briefly over her fatigue.
“Yeh,” Lud grunted. “Still freaky. Whoa!” He lunged forward, catching Karilet by the shoulder as she slumped sideways, nearly falling from the chair. Through the sunspots clouding her vision, she saw Sarchus pull the sloughed skin from his arm and wince. It was still badly blistered, covered in pus and flecks of Karilet’s blood, but it would heal the rest of the way on its own. Burned as it had been, it might not have.
“Uh, Karilet,” Andrew chirped, timid and clearly uncomfortable. “That guy…was he like you?”
“Dunno,” Karilet muttered, fighting the sudden, overpowering urge to sleep. “Never…seen that before.”
“Sarc, can you catch me up?” Lud asked, pulling Karilet upright. He straightened to his full, considerable height. “Goetia raided you, and I get that was pretty scary. But you got away, right? They get one of the others or somethin’?” Sarchus blinked, shaking his head.
“They’re dead, Lud.” He looked up, vaguely at Lud, though his eyes were still a little glassy.
“What?! They killed kids?”
“The Goetia, Lud,” Sarchus said, slapping himself awake. “The Goetia are dead.”
“Cuz, look, I’m trying to help–”
“No, I’m serious,” Sarchus snapped, anger pulling him from the last traces of his daze. “They had us, then this guy showed up an ripped them to fucking pieces.”
“What guy?” Lud asked, bewildered.
“I don’t fucking know!” Sarchus shouted. Karilet winced. The whole street would have heard it. Sarchus seemed to realize and undertoned his next words accordingly: “He was some weird-lookin’ kid.”
“He was a mage,” Andrew added. “A really strong one.” Lud blinked. Albeit late, he seemed to have pieced it together.
“Shit,” he spat. “He just attacked them? In the middle of a raid? Asshole’s gonna get us all killed.” He grabbed a knife in a leather sheath from the windowsill, embossed, Karilet could see, with the spidery sigil of the Moccasins, and made for the door.
“Wait, Lud, where ya goin’?” Sarchus sputtered.
“Foxglove’s gotta hear about this. Fuckin’ yesterday. If the Goetia don’t get the message that we’re helpin’ ‘em find this maniac, there’s gonna be another purge tomorrow.” Lud paused in the doorway. “You can stay here tonight. Plan to find a new spot tomorrow. I’ll be back.” With that, he ducked through the door and left. The whole room was silent for a moment. Perhaps more than a moment–Karilet was finding it difficult to track the passage of time.
“You okay, Kar?” Sarchus asked. She realized she had been staring at his wound. Shaking herself awake, she wiped a line of drool from her mouth.
“Yeah, uh…” She paused. “No. No, the blood, uh…” She stopped herself and took a deep breath. “It was close, Andrew.”
“The boy. I could feel what he was doing. I don’t know if he’s the same as me, but he’s close.”
“Don’t let it get in your head, Kar,” Theo said. Karilet sighed.
“I know he saved us, Karilet,” Sarchus cut in, “but I agree with Theo. We can’t be worrying about it, and we can’t have anything more to do with him, unless we wanna die. Lud’s gonna talk to Foxglove, and the gangs are gonna handle it.” Karilet nodded weakly and dropped her gaze to the floor. After a moment, Andrew piped up:
“You heard from the neighbors, Sarc? They make it out alright?” As he spoke, Lud’s door creaked open.
“They are well,” said the figure who walked in. The entire room jolted upright, whirling to face the newcomer. “I saw to it.” It was the boy, the mage, ethereality diminished in the absence of his tides and tendrils. His cuts and sores had scabbed over, granting his appearance an aura more leprous than ghastly, and his voice had lost its cavernous echo, but he was undeniably the same person who had saved them. He continued: “I bring ill portent for the aims of your departed ally.”
“What? Who are you?” Sarchus hissed, brow furrowed at the boy’s absurdly formal manner of speech. Then, not waiting for a response: “What did you do to Lud?” The boy peered sidelong at Sarchus, confused, it seemed, at his surge of emotion.”
“The one you call Lud is safe upon his errand,” he said. “I bear him no ill will. It is not as if the river should think less of one drowning–I merely wish to warn you that his efforts will fail. There will be another purge, and no syndicate in this district will save you from it.”
“Because of you!” Sarchus fired back. The boy’s lips curled.
“Did I not ask you when we met: ‘Are you glad to be rid of them?’ Did you not affirm that you were? Did you not think then, or are you not thinking now?” Sarchus scowled, but did not reply.
“Who are you?” Karilet repeated, winded, into the silence. The boy turned his stare to her. She could see blood welling like tears at the corners of his eyes.
“I am that which will win you this war the Goetia have declared,” he said. “It is not my name, but if you would call me, you may call me ‘Kol.’” Karilet blinked, too tired to even signal affirmation.
“You’re…gonna fight them?” Theo asked, neither tired nor afraid, simply bewildered.
“I will destroy them, utterly and absolutely, that nothing shall remain of them but dust upon this city’s streets.” Kol’s eyes swept the room, taking in the range of horror and incredulity. “First, though,” he continued, “you must truly believe that I can.” Another silence. After a moment, Theo broke it again:
“So, uh…how’s that gonna work?” At this, Kol frowned.
“You have seen a fraction of my abilities,” he said. “How it ‘works’ should be no mystery. But perhaps…” he paused, turning back to Sarchus. “Perhaps your estimate of the enemy is realistic, and, for that, I cannot find fault in you. I shall leave you to contemplate the implication of my intent. When we next meet, maybe you will have more fully ingested the essence of the true believer.” He turned to leave but lingered at the door, offering one final, quiet declaration:
“Should you seek me, do so in the temple ruins at the southern end.” With that, he exited, leaving the door open behind him.
Bea rushed to close the door, but otherwise, no one said anything for several minutes. Karilet was, more than anything, confused. What had the boy even wanted from them? Why had he come? That he wanted them to “believe” he could “win a war” against the Goetia was nonsensical. That he would depart abruptly at Theo’s question, that he would look upon their “realistic” estimation of the Goetia as an impediment seemed obstinate and, moreso, simply insane. She doubted there was anyone in the room who had a mind to seek him out in the temple ruins, who would have even half an idea of what to say to him if they did, but even so, Sarchus cautioned them:
“Leave it alone,” he said.
The next few days were quiet for the companions. Per Lud’s instructions, they found a new hideout, and the dusty sub basement on which they settled was not nearly as comfortable as their last home. It was darker, smaller, and–though Karilet recognized the value of the twisting alleyways surrounding it on all sides, though Sarchus insisted its proximity to Lud and Moccasins’ territory would prove helpful–it still didn’t feel safe. A brief wave of excitement came with whispers around the District that the Goetia had raided the temple ruins at the southern end, but, near as anyone could tell, nothing came of it. For her part, Karilet could imagine which conversations might have taken place outside her company, but she thought better of mentioning it to Sarchus.
For a week or so, life returned to normal. They got their scraps from the Gutterway like always, their forays into the Market seemed unaffected, and, save for their change of at-rest scenery, it felt almost like the Goetia’s brief incursion into their lives was over and done with. But then, one evening, Sarchus returned from one of his errands and broke the trance.
“Fuck!” he half-screamed, hurling a bread crust at the wall so hard it broke, showering Andrew and Karilet in crumbs.
“Sarchus, what is it?” Bea asked, running to him, grasping his hand, trying to make eye contact, as his gaze remained fixed on the wall he’d just ineffectually assaulted.
“They got Lud.” His exhalation was shaky, uncertain. “They just took him.”
“But…” Bea fumbled, “don’t the Moccasins have connections? Can’t Foxglove do something about it?”
“Talked to him,” Sarchus muttered, pacing over to the slit in the upper wall that served as their window. “Bilf took me. Said they weren’t gonna do shit. Said it was the cost of doing business.”
“But why would they even–”
“I DON’T FUCKING KNOW!” The violence of the reaction seemed to catch Bea off-guard. She staggered back in dull shock. “Maybe he got followed like us! Maybe someone reported him; maybe those hooded pigs were just strollin’ down these streets we borrowed from them and thought it might be fun to take some guy, rip him away from everything he knows and loves, and throw him in a pit to rot! Maybe torture him too, ‘cause why not–they fucking can!”
He slammed his fist into the wall, bloodying his knuckles against the coarse stone. He was almost sobbing, but none of them seemed willing to approach him. Karilet understood the feeling, the loss, the sense of betrayal from a family one thought they could trust, but she knew that nothing she could say would make it better. And she couldn’t quite silence the part of her that found it appropriate: The Moccasins weren’t her family, and she couldn’t see them as worthy of trust, though that wasn’t a feeling she could share with Sarchus.
“He’s in a cell somewhere,” Sarchus continued after a moment. “He might not get out. Not ever. And the people who should care ain’t gonna do shit. ‘Cause they can’t do shit.” He scanned the room, passing over his companions’ solemn attempts at sympathy, and turned to the door. “Fuck,” he muttered, any trace of vigor falling from his face. “I need to think.”
Karilet just stared on, as he walked through the door. The barb wasn’t lost on her–Sarchus had given her plenty of flak in the past for her own periods of introspection–but she wondered what the word meant to him. Considering his turmoil from the outside, she realized, lent her own episodes a certain unsettling clarity. All of her contemplation, all of her circles and examinations were truly about a single, simple question: Would it be better if she were dead? In her gut she knew she couldn’t face the choice, couldn’t give it a “yes” or a “no” because those answers demanded action, and that action terrified her. But Sarchus had no magic, no Decree branding him a blight upon the world. His question was not whether he was doing harm but rather–his malformed ambition unraveling–whether he should even bother.
She hoped he would find that he should, though she was also at a loss for a reason. Her own was fear, and she had never thought of Sarchus as afraid. Except…except she might have had a better reason. Thoughts of the boy, Kol, stirred, and she remembered how she felt when he slaughtered the Goetia around her, the tactile pleasure of the blood washing over her feet, the surging joy in her chest as violence met violence all around her, the exhalation, the release as the gore and viscera fell, wet, to the ground, and death settled over her like gauze. The rush, the shame that she could feel happy at the harm being done, even to those that would harm her, the fact that she still felt it, ringing in her abdomen like some disgusting echo–it horrified her, left her shivering against the wall of their cramped apartment with her companions too distracted to notice. But what horrified her even more was that she had not stopped wanting it. The sliver of realization she’d felt at the time had not faded, and the promise of violence, perversely, had become a reason to carry on.
Sarchus eventually returned, silent and ashen, later that evening. He was quiet, save for some small pleasantries with Bea, which seemed to put her at ease. Karilet could not fathom what he had concluded, but she didn’t ask. Her own shuddering, existential guilt was distraction enough for the night.
“Why can’t we see them anymore?”
“It’s a sad story, sweetie. Don’t you want to hear about something else?”
“No! I want to know what happened!” There is a sound of another heavy sigh.
“Well, we forgot about them. Then they forgot about us.”
“How did we forget, Mommy? We’re talking about them right now.”
“They were with us for a long time, sweetie. They kept us safe for a long time. To thank them, we would leave little gifts. Food. Or things that were precious to us. But as more and more people were born and grew up without ever having been without them, they forgot what they were thankful for, and they stopped leaving gifts. The gods stayed for a little while longer, but with nothing to tell them what they meant to us, they eventually forgot too. That’s when they left.”
“Are they still out there?”
“Maybe, sweetie, but they might not even remember that they’re gods.”
“How can we make them remember?”
The next day, Sarchus excused himself from the normal supply shifts in the Market and the Gutterway. He did so again the day after, and the day after that as well. Speculation–tepid, since he was still with them in the evenings–began to swirl among the others. Theo had heard from other urchin households that he’d been going door to door in the District spreading warnings that an insurrection against the Goetia was coming, and while the District’s residents had a better appetite for sedition than most, talk like that was still dangerous. Meanwhile, Andrew had caught sight of him about some business in the Lower Market on multiple occasions, though he was always empty-handed when he returned home. And Bea…fretted. Her attention was not on where Sarchus spent his time but simply on the fact that his time was spent not with them. She missed him, Karilet supposed, though how that fell with regard to her insecurities and her status with their group was less immediately obvious.
Karilet had her own ideas about Sarchus’ activities, but whether out of uncertainty or a more brazen hope that they were off the mark, she didn’t mention them.
Either way, whatever seeds Sarchus had planted–intentionally or not–began to sprout a few days later. The Goetia–absent from the District’s affairs for nearly a decade–began to raid there on a daily basis. They hit another urchin house, a rival gang’s meeting spot–each time taking their share of hapless arrestees with them. Karilet and the others even returned home one day to find their alleyway scorched and filled with debris, the site, apparently, of a skirmish between the Goetia and the Moccasins.
And, of course, the Goetia weren’t the only ones disrupting the District’s fragile peace. Every major gang was out in force, patrolling the streets in broad daylight, well outside their normal, nocturnal hours, risking all of the deadly backlash such flares of activity invited. They would say they were checking houses, making sure the kids in their territory were safe in this rough patch, but of course they weren’t safe: The storm of activity had made it virtually impossible for them to leave the District and gather food, and none of them had any illusions that the gangs would intervene on their behalf should the Goetia actually arrive at their door. The gangs weren’t really checking for any of this either. They were looking for something, and while her companions still seemed oblivious, Karilet had figured out the score. So, one night, as Sarchus left on another of his ill-explained errands, she swallowed her doubts and slipped out after him.
It wasn’t long before he noticed he’d been followed, though, and as she rounded a corner onto a sidestreet, not two hundred yards from their basement, she found him waiting for her, leaning against a wall with an uncharacteristically melancholy grimace.
“I figure you wanna talk, then?” he asked. The torchlight flickering over his face made his manner hard to read, but the question didn’t seem spiteful, the way the Sarchus she knew might have asked it. It just seemed sad, resigned.
Karilet wasn’t sure how to answer, so she just said what she had come to say:
“You’ve been to see him.” Her words were not uncertain, but Sarchus seemed to sense the query in them anyway. He looked away, down the darkened street where he’d been headed, and exhaled.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s…” He trailed off.
“You said to leave it alone.” Karilet realized the phrase was accusatory, though she hoped Sarchus would take it for the confusion she was trying to convey. He nodded, and his face softened.
“Yeah, uh, after Lud,” he began, hesitating. “After Lud got taken, I was angry, and for the last week, I’ve been worrying I did the wrong thing because of it. But.” He met her gaze. “But I actually don’t think I did.” Karilet looked down at the cobblestones, then back at the alley she’d come from, then again to Sarchus with a sudden shiver.
“You want the war, then?” she asked.
“Look,” he said, glancing over his shoulder again. “It isn’t really safe. Come with me.” Bewildered, Karilet followed him down the street, toward the southern end of the District. As he walked, he whispered:
“I don’t think you and I are the same. Like, I think you’ve always felt the difference between us and them. The citizens, the Goetia. The real people. At least since you joined us. And I didn’t get it. I thought they were bastards, sure, with all of the nice things we could never have, but we could survive, and they couldn’t do anything about that.
“That wasn’t true,” he said, pausing for a moment, checking both sides of a cross street. “We aren’t faster than them. We aren’t cleverer than them. We sure as fuck aren’t stronger than them, and our ‘friends’ won’t do a fucking thing if they come for us. I used to think the old purge happened because the gangs got too bold or something, but know I’m pretty sure it was just because the Goetia found an open spot on their schedule.
“I thought about it, and I realized that even if this all passes, the Goetia track Kol down and piss off, there’s nothing here for me. I’ll join the Moccasins, I’ll fuck around for a few years, then I’ll die in the next purge, or maybe in a gang war, fighting over fuck-all. They’ll still be better than me, and there’ll still be nothing I can do about it.”
“But he’s better than them,” Karilet mumbled. Sarchus turned briefly to look at her.
“Yeah. And because of him, I can be better than them too. For just a minute, anyway.” Karilet grabbed him by the shoulder, pulling him to a halt.
“So what happens after?” she asked, mustering the force she wanted to have come from him. “He wins the war, and lots of people die, and what’s left is people like him…” She looked down, inner fire guttering. “People like me. Who are destroying the world.”
“Heh,” he spat, snarling a murk of emotion she couldn’t quite identify. “I’ve got my answer. Dunno if it works for you, but–” he gestured over his shoulder at the old temple, half crumbled, still grand in its way, looming over the street’s wavering shadows. “He may understand you better than I do.”
Again, he led, and she followed, up the dusty, rock-strewn stairs, through the once-breathtaking entry arch, down a winding walkway through the vestibule that opened to an enormous, circular chamber. At the perimeter where they entered were rows and rows of concentric benches, dilapidated, rotting, nigh-unusable, but still enough to hint at the vast audiences this space once held. The benches encircled an area that might once have been raised on platforms of hardwood or marble, no doubt looted and pillaged over and again since the purge, reduced to the ring of bare earth that remained before them. At the center of that ring was a spike of glittering crimson, plunged into the earth, from which hung a bound, gagged, and thrashing man. Before the spike, Kol sat, cross-legged, perfectly still, his back to them. As they approached, he stood and, without turning, spoke:
“Here is the result of your handiwork, Sarchus. Do you see now that you are free?” Karilet stopped. She recognized the man on the spike. She had only seen him once before, but he was one to leave an impression: Foxglove, leader of the Moccasins, maybe the most powerful man in the District, here flailing, impotent, on a makeshift gibbet. Sarchus continued forward, eyes locked on Foxglove’s face. He drew his knife.
“Stay your hand,” Kol said. “Know: It is by your will that he is ended. But his exsanguination is a lesson meant for another.” Sarchus stopped, slowly sheathing his knife. He looked back at Karilet, his solemn grimace tinged with confusion, but after a moment, he bowed his head with a slight smile.
“The others will be expecting me,” he said, turning and stepping away from the spike. “Stay safe,” he whispered, as he passed Karilet. Then he was gone, and she was alone in the circle with Foxglove and the stranger who had, in a sense that sprang, unbidden, to the front of her mind, answered Sarchus’ prayers.
Kol said nothing at first, and Karilet didn’t dare fracture the silence. It persisted for what felt like minutes, punctuated only by the crackle of torches and Foxglove’s ineffectual grunts. Finally, her curiosity bubbled up.
“Why do you care if we believe in you?” she asked. Kol turned to face her, his scars oozing and eyes bloody and wild, just as they were when she’d met him.
“Belief is for the blind, Karilet,” he said. “They must believe. I would ask something different of you.”
“I would have you witness.”
“The crumbling of a city,” he said, his face still stony, eerily impassive. “Not, of course, this city where your body dwells, but that which hosts your mind: a city, built painstakingly of the Goetia’s lies.” Karilet twisted her face in the closest impression she had of a sneer.
“What lies?” she asked. “They’re real, and they’re stronger than us.”
“How would you know?” Kol replied. “They have sharpened their blades, honed their bodies. They have learned to drink deep of death and throw it in conflagrations from their palms. Why have you not done the same?”
“You do not have weapons because you cannot buy them. You have no training because your society has neither trained you nor afforded you the freedom to train yourself, and they have thus denied you for the same reason they swept you to the very edge of their little world, for the same reason they meant for you to die as soon as you had reached ten years.” Karilet paused, her thoughts settling.
“Were they…wrong to?” she asked.
“They gave you a reason,” he said flatly. “Do you imagine they told you the truth?” She took a breath, but it caught in her chest. She wasn’t sure how to respond, but Kol didn’t wait for her. Instead, he turned and pointed up, past Foxglove, at a silhouette in the eaves of the chamber. “Do you recognize this creature?” he asked. Karilet peered into the rafters. She hadn’t realized anything was up there, but as she squinted, a familiar, pointy-eared shape resolved among a decayed statuary, arranged on a mantle just below the ceiling.
“The Fox of the Forest’s Edge,” she replied, remembering her mother’s stories. “The one the dune people call the Barabadoon. He’s the god they say created Spar.”
“They say this,” Kol mused emotionlessly. “But who remains thankful? After the Iron Queen issued her decrees, declared every family, every child, every magical impulse a tool of the state, a sacrifice in the name of safety, worship of the Old Gods fell out of public favor. Do you think this is because they all preferred her hierarchy, the might of the Citizia, garrisoned nobly against the threat of an ever-present shadow? Or, perhaps, did they accept it as an unfortunate truth, that the Fox’s gifted security was no longer sufficient? Or,” his lips parted, baring his teeth in an expression Karilet had no name for, “perhaps it truly was a statement of their gratitude. They had none left. The gift, the ‘safety’ he had granted was no longer a boon. For all they cared, it could rot.” Karilet stared at him, confused.
“Which do you think it is?” she asked. The corners of his mouth turned upward in a furious mockery of a smile.
“I think we will never know.” He strode forward, raising a hand, and the spike holding Foxglove aloft liquefied, spilling to the ground with a sudden, overpowering scent of iron and a cacophony of drips and sloshes that just failed to mask the crunch–and subsequent anguished moan–of Foxglove’s knees slamming into the ground. Kol paused before the broken, prone man. “I have no special insight to the world’s plots and machinations, Karilet. I merely know something that means more than all of them. Come.”
Karilet approached, stepping hesitantly into the pooled blood–spent, this time, bereft of the violent reverberations the Goetia’s blood had thrummed against her feet–and came to Kol’s side, peering down at Foxglove as he writhed in pain.
“I know you feel the echoes of death, Karilet,” he said. “The energy, the life in violence done unto flesh. But I want you to feel it as I do. Kill this man.” Karilet felt her fingertips go numb. She swallowed and stepped back.
“What?” she said, mouth dry, more an uncomfortable acknowledgment than a question. She knew what Kol was getting at. He thought she wanted blood, that she wouldn’t be able to resist, and he was at least half right: She did want to kill Foxglove. She wanted to pick up the sharp, blood-slick rock at her feet and smash it through his skull, feel the electric warmth of his wound flowing out through her fingers, not for anything he did–who he was didn’t seem relevant to her–but for the rush, the narcotic joy she knew it would bring.
But the threat of the Decree hung in her mind, tempered her desire. The Goetia said that distorted magic would destroy everything, but this truth, this bloody, awful truth Kol had shown her–didn’t it just prove them right? She wanted to kill, to destroy, to spread death, and if she wasn’t strong enough to resist, what was to stop her after this first kill? She wanted to be better than that, better than the role the Goetia had designed to kill her.
“You sense the second edge of the blade, don’t you?” Kol asked, scrambling her resolve. “You wonder if we would become tyrants. Who do you think this man is?”
“Why does it matter who he is?”
“Because his words have caged you, just like the Goetia’s. Karilet looked to Kol, confused. He continued: “He has ruled over you since you came to this place, feeding Sarchus’ ambitions–and many more besides–with lies, so that, in time, you would serve him with your life. You might have thought it acceptable, that he was an ally, supporting you against a greater foe, but his loyalty was always to your oppressors. They kept safe his control over you. It seems he had explicit agreements as well, since has sold off a number of his thralls now, attempting to capture me. But I believe his allegiance could always have been inferred.”
“So he deserves it,” Karilet concluded. “Why does that have anything to do with…with our magic? With what you’re trying to show me?” Kol nodded, vague approval emanating from his otherwise impassive gaze.
“You understand that destruction is a delight,” he replied, “but you fear becoming a monster. I want to show you that violence has purpose worthy of the joy that comes with it.”
“It is truth.” Kol reached down and grabbed Foxglove by the neck, lifting the much larger man effortlessly, as if presenting him to Karilet. “Truth is a scissor which cuts right from the wrong it destroys, but truth, as you know it, is just a word, with power only over words, and with words that cage–uncertainties, lies, perhaps–the Goetia have denied it to you.” Maintaining his grip on Foxglove, he handed Karilet the rock. She blinked. She had not seen him pick it up.
“But they have not yet denied you your body,” he continued. “Violence is also a scissor. And in this place where words no longer have meaning, it is the only one we have. Why should you feel remorse for cutting away the bars of your cage or”–his grip tightened with a gurgle around Foxglove’s neck–“the insects who built them?”
With that, Karilet’s resolve snapped, and she buried the rock in Foxglove’s neck, just below his jaw. The sensation of the strike flooded every corner of her body, and she collapsed, shaking, to her knees. Above her, she could just barely hear Foxglove’s burbling rasps and Kol’s voice over them:
“Come now. He still lives. It is not suffering for which we care.”
His words rang in her head over the following days. Before she left that night, he had made a declaration: Kol–for “Kol” was, as he’d said, not a name but an ideal of what Spar might become–would be brought forth from Spar’s husk when those given no other recourse ripped it free by sacrifice to their god. Dazed by what she’d done, she didn’t think much on the strange farewell at first. She thought it unlikely the gods would return, the boy’s vague prophecy notwithstanding. If they even existed, if they even still lived, they had been gone for too long, and Karilet doubted a sacrifice would reach them–or be made, for that matter.
Even so, he had not asked that she believe anything, only that she witness. So she watched, and, somehow, the world began to change anyway.
For weeks after Foxglove’s body was found on the temple steps, the Moccasins waged war across the District at night, in daylight, against themselves, other gangs, the increasingly frequent patrols of guards and Goetia–the particulars didn’t matter. In fact, it didn’t seem as if there really were particulars. The District was flailing, lashing out in hopes that whatever it hit would grant it some control, some ability to reorient to a new status quo. But, of course, the Goetia couldn’t allow one: The boy who had attacked them, overpowered them, stymied all attempts to hunt him down–for the whole city to see–could not be let go. They might have lied, Karilet thought, issued a statement that the one responsible had been caught and executed, out of sight in a dark prison, if not for the rumors running through the urchin community.
It turned out that the chaos, perilous as it was for the gangs and guards, was especially harrowing for the urchins caught in between, but in spite of this, stories began to spread of a strange young mage who would, time and again, intercede on the orphans’ behalf, dispatching their assailants with sudden and overwhelming force. Karilet and her companions–together, at least–did not see the boy again for some time, but as each new story reached their ears, she watched how they reacted, how, at first, they were terrified to even set foot outside their door, how that fear faded to hope, in turn solidifying to a tepid confidence that they were safe, that they were stronger together than the violence outside. She watched as Sarchus flashed her knowing glances, agreeing with Bea and the others as if he hadn’t seen the wheels turning behind it all. Maybe, Karilet realized, it didn’t matter what he’d seen. Maybe he needed that sense of confidence the same as the rest of them.
She watched as the violence escalated, and she watched as they remained unafraid, even as a drunken gang war spilled into their apartment, killing Theo and leaving Sarchus with a broken arm. She watched as a message spread among the children: “At dawn, on the last day of summer, gather before the Goetcia. Fear not those who would punish your trespass, for they will not matter.”
When the day came, Karilet marched with her companions and many, many others–hundreds, perhaps every orphan in the District–up the Gutterway, through the Market, into the Old City where the Goetcia, the palace of the Goetia, waited, ignoring onlookers’ open-mouthed stares, heedless to the guards’ vain attempts to apprehend the children at the fringes. She saw the solemnity and force in her companions’ eyes, taken aback, almost, by the alien determination bound there and yet absent from her, and she noticed, though no spoken agreement had ordained it–that every child there carried a knife, a rock, a whittled bone–something sharp.
At the Old City gates, the boy joined them–striding innocuously from a sidestreet, unobtrusive save for the wide berth the others gave him–and helped them to force the heavy doors open. They slowed as they approached the Goetcia steps and stood defiant before the line of black-cloaked soldiers upon them. The Goetia were ready for a confrontation, it seemed. They had intercepted the message, perhaps, or maybe the uncanny and unsubtle procession of children from the Condemned District had given them warning enough on its own. Every one of them had a weapon in hand, and burning pitch had been spread across the steps, doubtless meant to serve as magical ammunition against the bizarre mob.
For a moment, no one moved. A breeze blew, the fire crackled, and neither group advanced, both, it seemed to Karilet, still clinging to the order they knew, afraid to shatter what remained, even as they were poised to strike. Then the crowd of urchins parted, and the nameless boy called Kol stepped forward, wounds open, blood congealing in tendrils and spikes about his arms. The Goetia raised their weapons at his approach. Some pulled fire from the pitch and took aim, but before either could lash out, there was another break in the crowd, and a lone figure charged from it, up the steps, knife in hand. Karilet’s breath caught in her throat: It was Sarchus.
“Mommy, if the gods kept us safe, isn’t it bad that they’re gone?”
“Maybe, sweetie. It’s late, and I’m tired.”
“No! We aren’t safe! How can we find them again?”
A single Goetia officer broke from formation, sword ready to cut Sarchus down, but before he could make it, Sarchus turned the blade on himself, slicing his neck open to a curtain of crimson. He still stood for a moment before the suddenly terrified officer, his knife fallen from his fingers, clattering down the steps. Then he fell, and his blood pooled, and the crowd, letting out a deafening roar, brought their own blades to their throats.
Karilet convulsed, crashing to the ground at the sudden assault to her senses. She righted herself to see her companions’ lifeblood roil, rise up, converge upon the nameless boy in a cloak of death, and she watched as he rode waves of red up those steps, the children’s sacrifice transformed into a storm of blades that cut down the Goetia that still stood their ground; into a curtain of iron that shielded the boy from the fire they threw back. She watched as the officers’ bodies exploded in fractal stars of bone and gore, as the boy stretched out a hand and shattered the stone facade of the palace. She watched as he became a screaming, radiant sun, bathed in the death of Spar’s rotting cage, and when hundreds more had died, when the palace was empty save for the boy who hung above it, robed in the blood of many, she looked out at the fallen bodies of her companions and saw among them a small few, shattered but alive, chosen–as she had been–to witness the birth of their god.
Bottom image: God, by Quinn Milton, pictured here before
Edit 5/3/2020: I gave this heads-up, and then the length of the story increased by like 50%. It’s done now. Transcription/minor editing is in progress, and I should have it posted here within the week.
Apologies for the brief lapse in activity–there is a very long story incoming. Stay tuned. Have an inspirational Chimera doodle, courtesy of Rae.
A very long time ago, when the world was still a place where one could get lost, entangled in the manifold everything of whose destruction none had yet dreamed–indeed, when there were yet no men to dream of such things–a shadow wandered peacefully across the earth. Some say this shadow was Nature, some say Magic, but I tell you it was the Night, progenitor of both. In the quiet of his passing, flora grew, birds fluttered, insects chirped. There was life and death, of a dreamlike sort, but the only dreamer to perceive it was Night himself. He wondered: What if there were others to share the dream? All the Night had ever known was solitude, but perhaps he wanted more.
His dream changed. In those hazy shadows, he envisioned great trees, twisting and contorting boughs to form houses arranged in whimsical spirals, a dreamlike village for his would-be dreamers. And then they emerged as well, fully formed, with histories and origins and thoughts. When the Night walked among them, they would dream together, living, however briefly, a greater existence in their communal unconscious. When he left, and the haze of his presence faded, they would rest and prepare for his return.
One dream, as the Night approached the village from the east, he was met by a fox emerging from its burrow.
“Greetings, Great Darkness,” it said.
“Greetings, lively one,” the Night replied. “What business have you with me?”
“I awoke as you dreamed me, Great Darkness,” the fox said. “I have seen what you have created, and I wish to help you?” The Night paused and pondered this.
“How would you help me? What is it you would see improved?”
“Great Darkness,” the fox began, “these humans you have created are soft and ephemeral. When you arrive, they breathe and animate and partake of borrowed life, but when you depart, they collapse to mere image. They shift and waver, and I fear a strong wind may wipe them away. If you so permit, I would protect them, give them a place where they might bring to your dream things you have never considered.”
The Night thought on the fox’s proposal. It was a step into the unknown, and even he could not say what might become of it. But it might yet better the dream, and after all, what had the Night to fear of the unknown?
“Very well, lively one,” he acquiesced. “You may help me.”
Excited, the fox scampered ahead, eager to fulfill his promise. When the Night arrived at the village, he found the fox to have been as good as its word. The creature had given of its liveliness, inspired the humans with physicality and space, and, sure enough, their dreams were rich with silty experience. It was good, the Night decided, and he resolved to make the fox a guardian of his creation.
The very next dream, at the edge of the forest where the humans dwelled, a flutter of wings greeted the Night’s arrival. He gazed into the boughs to see a lark, perched at the edge of a nest of twigs and dead grass.
“Greetings, Father Sky,” the lark sang.
“Greetings,” the Night replied, curiosity aroused. Though he had seen the larks of the forest flitting and nesting upon the forest floor in dreams past, he had never seen one venture up into the trees. “Tell me,” he said, “doesn’t your kind nest upon the earth? Why have you abandoned your place?” The lark furled its wings and cocked its head.
“Did you not know, Father Sky? My kind did indeed nest below, but beasts and terrors roam these wilds. My brothers and sisters became their food, but I survived. I used these trees and twigs to change my place.”
“Very well, resourceful one,” the Night admitted, moving to pass onto the village.
“Wait, Father Sky!” the lark exclaimed. “I yet have a worry to bring before you.” The Night stopped to listen, and so the lark continued: “The humans are awake now in this world, and when you depart, they fear the beasts just as my kind does. They cower in the houses you gave them, but they know not how to change their place. Would you permit me to teach them what I have learned of tools and resources, lest their terror spoil their dreams?”
The Night took a moment to think, though he had already warmed to the lark’s proposal.
“I think I may permit this,” he acquiesced. “I do not desire that the humans should be imprisoned by fear. Go, then, resourceful one. Let us see what their autonomy might bring to the dream.” Without another word, the lark fluttered off to the village to share its wisdom, and the Night continued on his way.
As dreams passed, the Night watched the lark’s efforts bear fruit. At first, it was simply as the creature promised: The humans grew beyond their fear. They began to venture outside their shelter, made formidable by crude weapons constructed by the lark’s guidance. But they didn’t stop there. Soon, they began to change their houses, their idyllic village sculpted of the Night’s dream. They chopped down the trees, built dwellings–rougher, of their substance rather than the Night’s–close to the ground, allaying any fear of falling.
The Night found it bittersweet that his gift should be discarded this way, but the humans’ autonomy yet had purpose. They had become something separate from the Night, and their dreams, accordingly, had become something novel, exciting, beyond any horizon the Night had, within himself, perceived. Ultimately, he decided, the lark had earned its place as a guardian of his creation.
Many dreams passed from that point, but finally, in one of them, the Night found himself on the bank of the river to the west of the humans’ village. As he lingered there, he saw one of them–an old man, one of those the Night had created in the very beginning–approach the water’s edge. The man paused there, searching the ripples for a moment until, wordlessly, he stepped in. At first it seemed the current would pull him under, but then he grabbed hold of something beneath the surface and steadied himself. From his vantage on the shore, the Night watched the man drift, slowly but purposefully, into the mist shrouding the other bank. Then he saw it: Beneath the river’s glass, a shadow returned from the mists and, with the same lilting purpose of the man’s departure, approached the Night in utter silence. The shadow surfaced, and a turtle’s shell breached the water.
“Hello, Moonlight,” the turtle intoned, soft, into the air.
“Hello, traveler,” the Night replied, cold concern plain in his otherwise polite salutation. “What is it you have done with my creation?”
“I have given a gift, Moonlight. I have given the humans time.”
“Interloper,” the Night breathed, and ire washed over the land. Chill wind swept through the grass, silencing the owls and cicadas, and dark clouds roiled past the moon above, but beneath the river’s surface, the turtle remained calm and still.
“Do you think yourself beyond cycles, Moonlight?” the turtle asked, curious, without a hint of malice. “I would not have expected it, for I see your brilliance waver between fullness and shadow. You wish the humans to dream as you do, but you would deny them the wheel by which you yourself experience? You would deny them experience itself?” The dark silence around the riverbank persisted, but the cold winds stilled. The moon shone down, casting the turtle in an eerie pallor. At last, the Night whispered:
“What have you done with this one?”
“I have given him an end,” the turtle said. “Does not every journey require one?”
“You have destroyed my creation, then.”
“No, Moonlight,” the turtle replied, calm as ever. “You have created life. Life begets life, and of such fecundity, death is an unavoidable consequence. It is a gift I bring gladly, but by my will or another’s, welcome or no, it will be brought.”
The Night did not respond, and the moon’s pale gaze slowly passed on. He turned and left, and though no more was spoken between them, both understood their accord.
Thus, by three gifts given under the veil of Night, humanity was born.
This keeps coming up in my writing for some reason. The first piece is an excerpt from a novel I wrote some time ago. The second is a story I wrote more recently, featuring the Smile.
“Let’s get to know each other, Samuel.”
“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?” Samuel yelled. Espereza grabbed him by the shoulder and slammed him into the rock.
“Tell me, Samuel,” he whispered, the syllables rolling out wet and reptilian. “Have you thought about my riddle?” Samuel scowled.
“Yes. A labyrinth. Two doors. Two guards. Do you recall?” Samuel sighed with disgust.
“Sure,” Samuel said. “You ask each guard which door the other would recommend to get you out alive. Their answers will be the same. You take the other door.”
“Really?” Espereza asked, his grip on Samuel’s shoulder still firm. “I think a fair amount of the time, their answers will be different.”
“No,” Samuel said, annoyance seeping in over his fear for his life. “You said one always tells the truth, the other always lies–”
“I didn’t say that.”
“What?” Samuel asked.
“I didn’t say that the other always lies.” Samuel stared into the man’s black eyes for about ten seconds.
“You can’t solve the riddle if one of them only sometimes lies!” he said, finally.
“I know,” Espereza replied. “Isn’t life just awful that way?”
The Smile’s Riddle
Care to join me in a game of riddles, my dear?
Suppose you find yourself in a passage you must escape. Before you are two sentinels. One tells only truth, the other only lies.
“I am Truth,” says the first.
“I am Truth,” says the second.
Behind them are two doors.
“This first door leads to terrible agony,” says the first sentinel.
“This second door leads to terrible agony,” says the second.
Your companion, thinking he has seen past the riddle, enters the first door. You, under the same impression, enter the second. Some time later, your companion exits the passage with memories of torture, violation, and such atrocities visited upon him that he would sooner drown in an ocean of drink than recall. In the same time, you exit with those same memories.
So who lies? Is it the first sentinel? Is it the second? Or is it me?
What, for that matter, is a lie? In my homeland, it was a mismatch, words or images set against a reality that rejects them. Our dead queen, immortal in the dark of her ziggurat, bade us–myself, your precious Rom, all of her shadowmen–bade us go and tell lies of fear and unrest to her people, our enemies, anyone who would listen, really. It was all such a waste. Right there, all the potential in the world, squandered for a bad lie told by a bad liar.
The thing about a trick of the light is that it makes the trickster apparent. Back to the riddle: There is no trick, no obvious mismatch of words to reality, but that’s because you have no knowledge of reality. No, all you have is memories, and they lie more fluently than any sentinel. If you believe them, in fact, there is no lie. Thus spoke the Man of the Clouds, the greatest leader I ever knew.
He proved it, too. You see, all we ever needed to do to throw off the queen’s claim–that she was immortal, that she was Death, whom we all must serve–was to stop believing the lie. He led us from that pit, into the sky, and the eternality of Khet just fell from reality, as dew from shuddering grass. It is not even that his City in the Clouds was any different–just images and sensations and words and dreams, sculpted of vapor and bequeathed to any who would believe his lie instead. And of course we believed it. It was idyllic paradise over dronehood before unending Death. No, the turning point was what came next.
One day, the travails of my past life well and truly recovered from, I stood at the edge of that City in the Clouds and looked down at the great sea we appeared to pass over, and a single, ruinous thought thrust into my brain: I didn’t believe it. Do you know why? Do you know what I saw, down there in those depths? It was nothing. Nothing below, in those waves; nothing in sight, save for our city; nothing real beside peace, goodwill, and the serene ephemerality of clouds. It was a pretty, elegant lie, but elegance is only of use against a particular problem, and my problem was not particular. It was everything. All of reality–the grim, beautiful, violent reality the Man of the Clouds had omitted from his paradise–I knew to be down there in that roiling Deep.
So I descended–and those who knew as I did followed–to go and imbibe the horrors and agonies of life, to create a new lie, a grand story of this whole, glorious, accursed world. With what we learned, we would build a new stairway to the sky, a stairway of earth and blood, and we would prove the primacy of our lie, just as the Man of the Clouds proved his.
Which brings us, as ever, back to the riddle. Did your memories lie? Did the sentinels speak falsehood? Or within those passages was there merely life, just as without, with its rocks and thorns and fears and pains? And if everything was true, am I the liar for posing the question?
“Do you see what you’ve made, my dear? Parity. As above, so below. The Deep has always been a mirror, but even I can admit it is a dark one. But you! You have darkened the heavens, made one great blackness of the whole affair! As below, so above, and tell me now: Are black sea and black sky one and the same?
“It depends, you say. They are alike as voids to shout into, but throw yourself along with your voice, and you shall know the difference. One will accept you, begrudgingly, perhaps, in its cold, airy breath. The other will pour into you, unrelenting to your separateness, ceasing only when you, too, are darkness.
“But I’ll let you in on a little secret: That will, that relentless, violent churn, that everything that will suffer no scissor, no duality, no self amidst others–it is nothing but a lie! Darkness is darkness, nothing is nothing, a mirror is but a trick of the devoured light.
“Ah, but another secret: Lies are to be cherished.”
Top Image: The Smile, concept by Rae Johnson, commissioned for War Torn/Rale