Part 1 here.
Amir sleeps on a kitchen table to separate himself from the clotting blood that soaks the house’s floors. He wakes while the sky is still pitch, choking on rot, and stumbles into the street, where the miasma is not much improved. His struggle to breathe holding him fast in the slender fingers of his ongoing nightmare, he runs, half sprint, half shamble, out of town.
He wanders for days, sustained by water from the rivers, desperately searching for someone to warn, to save from the massacre that has taken everything from him, but the One-Eyed Sadist is faster and very thorough. Amir finds no one and nothing but town after village after town, soaked in blood and overwhelmed by stench.
Time is peculiar in the way it recontextualizes suffering. In the moment, it is simply pain, but in memory it transforms. It gilds the weeping of a stupid child, weaving glamour and filigreed shroud until meaningless days spent sick and wandering become fuel, drive, aspiration. It turns weeks–or months?–of grief into thirst, desolation into a perverse reason to exist. So it is that Amir remembers his trek across the Riverlands, drenched in the afterbirth of a nascent Vengeance. Of specifics, he remembers very little until his arrival at the death camp.
The place is horribly silent, all the more so amidst the whorl of fish-like decay pulsing from it. Before the slime-covered buildings Amir can barely see in the distance, there is an impeccably clean, shining silver gate in the vague shape of a catfish’s jaws. In wrought lettering above the gate, words read:
“Feel the gaze of Ka, the First Leader”
And beneath the gate, bodies litter the ground like wild shrubs, shockingly varied in dress and the visible evidence of their final moments. Some are clearly townsfolk, hapless, dead of festering injuries or starvation finally taken hold beneath these gates to despair. Others are armed and armored in the regalia of the Bloodfish, lacerated and dismembered by some unknown blade. Still others are the remains of roaches, barely describable as bodies in their twisted state, but it is these cadavers, riddled each with an impossible number of jagged shortspears that shout the loudest: Something very unexpected has happened here.
Amir cannot guess what sort of hero could have struck this blow against Ka, but he does not need to: In the shadow of the fetid camp, a man leans against the gate, sharpening a strange pick-like implement against a rock.
Part II – Patches
Daniel Patch had long ago given up being good. It wasn’t particularly difficult. People didn’t like him, and after nominal experimentation regarding the substances he drank and the fights he picked, he concluded the reason was simply that he didn’t like them first. He picked up and practically skipped out town–the third in recent memory he’d haphazardly tried to call home–and took up a semi-professional life of wandering.
In so doing, he found that his misanthropy, hobbling within his erstwhile close-knit communities, elevated him effortlessly in the network of mercenaries that thrived in the Windwood’s negative space. He became a killer–one of the best, in fact–and somewhere between a steady, buzzing inebriation and the vaguely-justified violence of his profession, he found a kind of peace. One day, he was arrogant enough to frame that thought explicitly, and he knew, just as soon, it was a mistake. By what could not have been coincidence, that was the day he met Rom.
Rom approached Daniel Patch, as those who were inclined knew how, at his cabin in the wilderness, days’ travel from anywhere of consequence, suitably unpleasant to reach for anyone without silver set aside for a mercenary’s fee. The man was an odd bug, and the young lady he traveled with–whose name Daniel never picked up–wasn’t much better. He figured them for clergy of some sort: Though their moldering green-brown habits didn’t resemble any Kol-priest regalia he’d ever seen, their wild-eyed gazes and bizarre, chain-wrapped armaments smacked of ideology. Still, their request didn’t seem ideological at all. It seemed…petty.
There was a village, they said, which had harassed them in their travels. They desired the village’s militia be made an example of their wrath. Under cover of night, Daniel would–they hoped–take these vicious warriors’ lives and arrange their bodies at the center of town.
A man with more principles might have had questions, but Daniel had only one: Could these two finance their vindictive inclinations? And oh, yes, they could. They showed him his fee–twice his fee–in gold, not silver; half upfront, half on completion, and they had no more need to explain themselves.
So the three of them departed for this doomed place, and through the seven days of travel to the very northern edge of the Windwood, Daniel Patch’s clients did nothing of note. Against his professional intuitions, he began to wonder about them. Who the fuck were they? How could they have run afoul of this village’s tolerance while simultaneously carrying enough cash to fund its extermination? Daniel could think of a number of endings to that setup, and none of them involved these two making it to him in possession of their money. For one reason or another, the scenario just shouldn’t have happened, and he was beginning to question whether he shouldn’t have refused Rom and his gold. And all the while, Rom and his companion did nothing, said nothing to allay his bewilderment. They just stared and stared at him with that crazed, wondrous, vaguely disgusted expression, as if they were watching a spider shed its chitinous skin.
For better or for worse, Daniel never finished his train of thought. They reached their destination, and leaving his unsettling companions behind, Daniel went to inspect his targets.
The village itself was starkly quiet, tense, so much that Daniel, strolling in his best impression of peaceful nonchalance, received no more interaction than a few fearful glances from women in doorways. Which was odd on its own: There did not seem to be a single man in this place. But then he came upon the militia itself, and the pieces–enough of them, anyway–fell into place.
In the approximation of a square at the village’s center were five children fastened by their wrists to stakes in the ground, and behind those children was a man in armor efficiently and brutally driving a scourge into the exposed skin of their backs. Another ten or twenty armored men stood in an arc about them, keeping a crowd–again, women and children–at bay. The scene was not quiet. The crowd whimpered and sobbed, the children screamed, the whip lashed, its wielder grunted, and Daniel could swear he heard flecks of blood strike the dirt with each swing.
Daniel had few sensibilities and no context for the culture of these parts, but in this place he was…uncomfortable. It was violent, it was strangely gendered, and it was completely alien to his notions of how…people…should work. At that moment, he forgot his lingering revulsion for his employers, and though he was perhaps not enthusiastic about his impending murder spree, he was strangely okay with it.
He briefly noted the barracks-like structure at the edge of the square and left without a third glance to prepare for the night’s ugly business well away from this place. He didn’t bother to find Rom–the man and his companion could clearly fend for themselves, and, being honest, he was quite content to speak with them as little as possible before they settled accounts. The space was immediately noticeable, and the irritation that had fogged Daniel’s thoughts for the previous week faded to a level that allowed him to consider the specifics of his situation.
If he wanted to complete this job, there were two things that needed not happen: First, the militia members–brawny, fighting men they appeared to be–could not have time to prepare. Daniel was dangerous, and he knew it, but there were almost thirty of these fuckers. The killing would take place predominantly with his quarry panicked and unarmed, or it would not take place at all. Second, he would need to minimize time spent at close quarters. His skillset revolved predominantly around his spear-thrower, well-suited to stalking folk through the trees or waylaying travelers. All but useless in the building where these men would be sleeping, and besides, they were probably stronger than him. If one got hold of him, it could end the night early.
He wanted to burn the place down. Board up the windows, bar the door, there wouldn’t be a damn thing they could do, but alas, Rom had wanted them arranged in some kind of circle. Daniel needed them out of the wreckage and, if possible, minimally crispy. He would improvise, then: Board up all but one exit and kill them as they stumbled out. It would be a lot more difficult, but they would be dead and unscorched, and if one died in the building and couldn’t be dragged into Rom’s effigy mound, well, fuck Rom. Settled, he sharpened his spears and the pick blades on his atlatl and waited.
The sun went down, and it got dark, moonless, air like ink between the trees. Daniel got up, gathered his things and made his way back to the village, navigating by feel as much as sight, confident in casual defiance of the arboreal void before him. He reached his destination and found it just as dark as the forest around and, oddly, unguarded. But, he wasn’t going to complain. He soaked one of his torches in oil from a flask at his hip, lit it, and slowly, dramatically, lobbed it onto the barracks’ thatched roof. The building suddenly ablaze, he notched a spear into his atlatl and waited for his first victim to emerge.
Emerge, he did, half-clothed, grotesquely muscled, but with none of the anger one would expect of a seasoned warrior in a surprising situation. No, it was just panicked, mindless fear. Daniel didn’t linger on it. He whipped his atlatl in the man’s direction, and the spear caught him in the mouth, impaling his head and freezing that panicked, mindless, fearful expression in his eyes for posterity.
A short time later, the last militia man dropped to the ground, a pair of thin holes punched into the side of his head where Daniel had struck him, and Daniel whistled, vaguely relieved and more than winded. He was spattered in blood and ash, quite glad to be rid of these people and his need to be among them. He glanced about the square, now gently lit by the barracks’ roaring blaze, and counted the bodies. Twenty-three, not counting whoever didn’t make it out alive. Good enough. Noting with discomfort the faces beginning to poke out of buildings in the distant shadows, he hurried to drag his victims into place, to a messy circle at the center of the square. He did so quickly and turned to leave with the same haste when a voice stopped him.
“There is something yet for you to see, Mr. Patch.” It was Rom. Daniel reluctantly turned his head, directing a sidelong glare at its source to see the man and his companion standing, hooded and still, at the doorway of a nearby house. Rom gestured at the circle of corpses with an airy smile. Daniel dearly wanted to tell him to go fuck himself, but something, curiosity, perhaps, or unwillingness to jeopardize his payment pulled his attention back to the square. He was immediately unhappy with the decision.
As soon as his eyes fell upon the circle, it was as if the world plunged underwater. The glare of the burning building dimmed, grew cooler, and the pitch darkness of the night beyond thickened and grew viscous as it encroached on the scene. And from that oozing gloam, the rest of the village shambled into the light.
Their eyes were glass, their jaws slack. They approached the bodies and knelt beside them in the dirt and thrust their hands into their wounds, tearing handfuls of flesh from their fallen guardians and lifting them tremulously to their open mouths. Daniel was very resolved at this point: He did not want to watch any longer. But now, with his eyes locked on the circle, the scene, Rom’s–he realized–revolting display, there was something telling his body that he couldn’t look away now. The externality of that thought was very literal: That something was not part of him, and Daniel had the distinct impression that whatever it was that held him, petrified in the dark before this sickening array of phagia, was laughing. No, not laughing. More peaceful. Smiling.
“He was right,” Rom said, eyes wide in awe, as Daniel began to notice a sensation of angularity. The circle and everything in it was still before his eyes, but in his mind it spun, and with its turning, it began to change.
“We have grown dull living on the surface. Every truth we have ever known has simply bubbled up from the deep.”
The villagers’ bodies morphed and bent. Their skin, their size, their sex, shifted, and before Daniel’s eyes each of them became a another person and then another and another as the gyre spun. Their grim meal was no different, the dead militia men became other men, skinned beasts, and men again, and with each turn, both the villagers and the slain grew more and more monstrous, bristling with fur and eyes and tendrils and slime.
“The Man of the Clouds showed us to sculpt the deep’s effusions,” Rom said. “To remake reality. Many followed, only one understood, and he was right: There was never any truth. Only an ocean of realities that we never dared imbibe.”
The bodies in the circle had begun to degrade, no longer distinct individuals, rather mounds of rats and maggots and insects where they had been, and the component beings of those mounds continued to change, to get smaller, until the entire circle was tiny, winged, black flies. And they flew, all at once, buzzing, a great verminous whirlwind flowing into the darkness above. What they left was very nearly the circle as it had started. The villagers knelt by corpses, hungrily devouring them, but there were two differences, and Daniel noticed them immediately: The militia men had become children, and the fort-like barracks behind them was not fort-like at all. Perhaps it was a flaw in Rom’s attempt at exegesis, perhaps it was simply Daniel’s distrust for the man, but Daniel knew immediately: This was not a vision. This was the truth. He had just murdered twenty-three children, and he had been under Rom’s influence far longer than he’d thought.
“Truth is useless to us, Daniel Patch,” Rom continued. “Abandon it and follow. There is so much waiting for us, and the Smile shall plunge us to its depths.”
Daniel wasn’t listening. He had poured the entirety of his will into wrenching free whatever force held his mind hostage, and he had succeeded. As Rom, beatifically ignorant, finished his sentence, Daniel’s arm was already in motion, hurling a spear at the bastard who had manipulated him. But Rom was not quite so ignorant as Daniel hoped, and he was faster than Daniel believed possible. He noticed the spear as it entered the air, and with a sudden, twitching motion, he dashed out of its path, into the square. His companion received his fate instead. The spear hit her in the chest, slamming her backward into the wall of the house and killing her instantly.
Daniel did not have time to throw another. Faster, almost, than he could turn his head, Rom’s chain whipped across the distance between them and wrapped about his neck, crushing his throat as it pulled tight. Daniel dropped his atlatl and struggled to free himself, but he had no illusions, as Rom ran to him with the knife on the other end of the chain, that he was actually going to escape.
“I blame myself,” Rom said, plunging his knife into Daniel’s temple.
Patches blamed himself too, but he resolved to make the injustice right, no matter how many times it took.
When the old man woke him up, he found it strangely easy to acclimate. He had seen the deep, he had seen the Smile’s grand lie. He understood his multiplicity. Perhaps he was unique among the seven for understanding it truly. But there was an accord in his bond to the old dog. Vengeance. He understood it too, at the core of his being. His name, well, it became an affectation. One Patch was not enough to sew up the truth, to hold back the lies, but he had been given another life, a multitude of lives, and revenge, by little revenge, he sought to repair the everything that he’d done his part to destroy.
Top Image: Draft work for Names (work in progress), by Rae Johnson, commissioned for War Torn/Rale