The first installment in what will likely be a longer fiction piece in the War Torn world. Highly referential toward a particular work. Preemptive apologies to those who might recognize it.
“Why seven?” the old man mumbles, his voice barely audible over the campfire’s crackling. “I’m not sure there’s a reason. Some mage prob’ly has shit to say, but I don’t think the number is special. I, uh…” he trails off, lifting his face to glance at the sky. For a rare moment, his gnarled face and horrible, focused eyes are visible beneath the brim of his hat.
“I think it’s like music,” he says, pausing and lowering his gaze back to the ground. “When you strike a chord, it’s really so many notes, and until someone hears it, it’s not like any of those pieces have meaning. But then someone walks up and listens, intrudes upon that perfect silence, and suddenly the notes combine. They hear music. I’m sure that with different notes, the song would change, but there is no origin, no reason, no truth for why this all should be. The two of us plucked seven notes, and now the harmony echoes.”
“That is all it is. Cause and effect. No reason, and, yet, no coincidence either.”
Part 1 – Amir
Hate did not come naturally to Amir. He knew because he needed to remind himself why he should. The effort was not natural either, but it wasn’t difficult–the memory jumped to the forefront of his attention barely bidden, with a cruel clarity that defied its age:
He was ten years old, at market with his mother and sister. They were newcomers to the Riverlands, and they lived nearly a half-day’s journey from town, but the folk there were kind and welcoming. On that day, he remembered chasing his sister among the stalls as his mother picked out the week’s supplies from the merchants’ noisy forum. He couldn’t say why he chased her–he couldn’t remember–he only remembered it seemed important then. But it distracted him, he thought with spite and shame, even though he couldn’t be sure whether his undistracted ten-year-old self would have noticed the change in the market’s air.
It was subtle but swift. The bustle, the purpose of the square, the shouting merchants’ wall of noise, in a matter of seconds it all crumbled, replaced by…nothing. Not alarm, just a lack. And the stupid child didn’t notice a thing.
When he did notice, he heard it before he saw it. Clicking. Uncanny chittering. Soft hoofbeats, the snarl of a stallion. He froze, turning slowly to see a macabre procession at the corner of the square.
Ambulating deliberately into the crowd on bony appendages not meant to ambulate were a number of creatures. In the way they carried themselves, they resembled dogs, or perhaps giant insects, but in every other respect their anatomy churned the stomach. Exposed muscle strung about the cages of bone, shattered and irregular, that made up their thoraces and wound about the amalgamations of ribs, mandibles, and vertebrae on which they haltingly skittered. The townspeople drew back in terror where they passed, but the boy barely moved. He was frightened and confused, but he hadn’t the imagination to grasp the depth of the nightmare that approached him.
Instead, his gaze fell to the one that led them. It was a man, thin, unnaturally tall, astride a massive dark horse that seemed to glide across the ground where it stepped, with a grace that only just failed to disguise the aura of dread emanating from both mount and rider. In stark contrast to the shambling corpses at his side, the man was clean, trim, obsessively orderly. His long hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and his black armor shone in the sun. It made his gaze all the more unsettling.
The man’s right eye was calm and piercing blue, unconcerned with the folk cowering before him, content to absorb the scene. His left was a gaping socket, torn ragged, surrounded by tiny gouges and scars and blackened, as if scorched. This was a man with the bearing of a prince, but it was this small corner of his face that told his beholders what he really was, what he really wanted.
And so it was then, as the one-eyed man’s gaze fell upon the boy, that his imagination expanded, and he opened his mouth to scream. Barely a yelp escaped his lips, as the stallion crossed the square in an instant, and, in a single, fluid, practiced motion, the man reached down to the boy, pulled him by the hair across his saddle, and plunged a wicked, two-pronged knife into his mouth. The boy thrashed, blood running across his face, down his throat, but the man held him fast. As he struggled, he was dimly aware of his mother’s screams, the shouts of the townsfolk, the agitated clicking of the roach-like bone creatures, but the most striking assault to his senses, the very clearest memory of that day, was the sight of the man’s face as, one by one, he dug the boy’s teeth from his jaw: It was calm, serene even, unbothered by the boy’s attempts to escape, the streams of his blood, or the mounting chaos in the square around. The slightest smile graced his mouth, and the boy realized with a chill that stabbed his heart that this gruesome spectacle was, to the man, not a joy, not an excitement, not a whim, but a comfort. The notion that he was almost certainly about to die had not occurred yet, but this realization, that the one-eyed man was utterly in his element, utterly in control, silenced his struggle by itself.
But then a good man intervened.
The one-eyed man’s expression did not change, but leaned back abruptly as a rock flew through the air where his head had been. He turned, and the boy squirmed to get a glimpse of the assailant.
It was the town’s mayor, a man whose name Amir knew to be Matze Matsua, already hefting another rock for a shot at the one-eyed man. He had galvanized the town, and the folk behind him were readying their own projectiles, but their desperation was so far from enough.
One of the bone creatures lurched forward, impaling Matsua on a spinal column and tearing into his flesh. Once again, the square froze amidst Matsua’s screams. Then, the one-eyed man gave the slightest of nods, and the remaining bone creatures fell upon the crowd. Knife raised, he pulled the bottom of his hand over the boy’s eyes.
Before he lost consciousness, Amir remembered, he heard a whisper:
“Are you awake from your nightmare? You think you’re dying, I’m sure, and fighting death is such hard work. You think you don’t have time for fun anymore.”
There was a pause, the slaughter of the town echoing in the background.
“Silly boy. There’s always time for fun. And there’s always time for things to get worse. Your world has changed, and it will keep getting smaller.”
When the boy woke, he was in the town square alone. His mouth was bloody, and half his teeth were gone, but it seemed the one-eyed man had taken his roaches and left. One way or another, everyone else had left too. The air was rank with the scent of iron, and ground was still slick with blood, but through the whole town, not a single body–breathing or no–remained. It was just him. Just Amir.
But who the fuck was Amir? It was doubtful anyone in town had even known his name. He was just a stupid, distracted child, just an idle hobby for the one-eyed man, just the first of many to bleed that day. No one would remember him. No one ought to remember him.
Instead his mind flashed to Matze Matsua. He was a kind man, brave, beloved. He had moved to save Amir, sacrificing his life when even the boy’s mother stood aside. His was a name that ought to be remembered. But, the boy thought, confusion and fear subsiding, the one-eyed man had denied him that.
And then it all flooded his brain: Confusion became certainty, fear became anger, and sorrow–for his mother and sister, certainly dead; for the kind, welcoming townsfolk; for Matze Matsua, lost to the thoughtless gyre of history–turned to boiling hate.
He–the boy and the man he became–hated the One-Eyed Sadist, whose name he would never learn, he hated the Lord Ka who commanded him, whose face he had never seen, he hated the roaches, the cruel war they waged, the atrocities they committed, and he hated the gods that sat in their heaven, allowing these monsters to rule in their stead. For that brief moment, it was natural. It was consuming. Hate was all of him.
But through all the remaining years of his life, all of the times he forgot and remembered–forced himself to remember–this feeling, he never once realized the trick, the smiling lie: that the best man he’d ever known had taught him to hate.
Top Image: Control, by Quinn Milton, commissioned for War Torn/Rale