Lords of Cinder

More prose poetry, this time on Dark Souls.  The below is a lot of things, but among them, I intend it to be an extremely succinct (and therefore not very careful) explication of my argument from the Dark Noon series. You can fill in the gaps with the actual essays, excepting those gaps in the essays which you can fill in with this. Git gud, I suppose.

***

“When the Ashes are two, a flame alighteth.  Thou’rt Ash, and fire befits thee, of course.”

-Father Ariandel, Dark Souls 3

In the beginning, there was mist, and in that mist were shapes of trees, of branches, of great, stone dragons that remained forever still, of vermin that writhed and crawled in the fog’s deepest whorls.  Nothing seemed to move. Nothing seemed to cease moving. No creature in that mist looked out and recognized any other, but even if one had, it would have troubled at a quandary: “This Everything I see–is it one, or is it many?”

***

Two.  The first prime.  A great, uncertain step forward, every bit as profound as the gulf between the mist and the void, even more important in its way.  It answers a question, a question that truly must be asked: One or many? No one, after all, disputes that there is something. Even the most charred cynic claims not that there is nothing, merely that nothing matters.  Nothing is different.  It is all the same.  A Son of God once claimed that where two gather in His name, He shall be among them.  It makes sense. He claimed to be the Truth, and Truth is what separates the first from the second.

***

A moment came within the fog–timeless until this strange happenstance–when a fire, dim within the great stasis, flickered to life, deep within the earth that clung to the trees.  Its heat drove back the mist, and the vermin, eyes at last open, could ignore it no longer.

For the Fire brought disparity: Heat and cold.  Life and death. And, of course, light and dark.  The vermin at last saw themselves amongst the trees.  They saw the dragons looming above them. They saw difference, and, within the Fire, they found a means to address the inequity.  From its burning depths, they drew forth the souls of Lords: Light, order, nobility; Chaos, change, flux; Death, decay, eternal rest.  Together, the Lords rose up and overthrew the dragons, Lords in their own right of stone and Stasis. Upon what remained, they built a great kingdom for the Humanity they championed.

But were they truly champions?  The Flame of Truth had made two of one, had separated humanity from the tree and the stone, but is Truth itself singular?  

When the Lords departed for their war against the dragons, the pygmies of the vermin, the lowest of those that writhed, considered what remained within the Fire and found in its dregs one final soul, a Dark soul of ash and lies, a stain to be feared, buried, forgotten.  Truth, after all prescribes what is true but also what is not. Is Humanity, then, above or below? Is it the second or the first?

***

A fire is not an object.  It is a process. It devours the singular, separates its fuel into two: Goats and sheep, good and ill, heat and ash.  To be fuel is to be exalted, momentarily brought forth from the mist, placed upon a hilltop to be, however briefly, a guiding light for those attempting to see.  But the fate of cinder is grim. Heat dissipates. What once appeared lordly soon crumbles, charcoal to ember to ash. The Fire gave us God, but it is the fate of gods to die.  To burn. To be separated into truth and lies, buried, leaving us to wonder whether there was ever truth in what we believed. But still deeper, quietly slithering beneath the denouement, a question remains.  It is not the question–Fire presupposed to answer it.  It is our question.  Not: One or zero?  But: One or two?

Ignition brought us new life, but the dying Fire offers a choice.  Do we wish the Fire to survive? It needs fuel, that which we elevate, which guides us, which dies and is forgotten; but not just any fable from the mist might be a Lord of Cinder.  The abyss within us is clever. It sees the dying light and asks: 

“Don’t you see?  Your Lord is dead.  Why should the next be any different?  Truth has shown its colors, revealed that Truth itself is a lie.  Hew no more Lords, set no more lies ablaze. All are hollow, and I am their final Lord.  Let us break the cycle, now and forever.”

The words of the abyss are like cold iron.  They cut and slice the specters Humanity has brought forth, those unkindled that would be cinder.  Some are defeated, others corrupted, persuaded. Some retreat to the cold land of stories, far from the Flame’s light, in search of a sweetly rotting bed where they might breathe their last.  But some remain, steadfast, flickering like embers in the dark, stronger, more meaningful to us than the abyss’ creeping truth. More meaningful, for just a brief, shining moment, than Truth itself.

These few are fit for the pyre, fit to be fuel, to become two and be forgotten, but immolation cannot be their choice.  They are mist, and mist cannot choose.  No, the choice lies with us. Do we allow the flame to gutter and die, plunging us into a new era of dark and mist?  Do we throw our Lords upon the Fire? Are we of lies or Truth? Dark or light? One or two?

And if we have abandoned our choice, retreated to our stories and our cold and our rot, do we yet pray to the shadows that remain of gods long dead?  And what of the Fire that casts them? Perhaps it only flickers, but we are ash, and Fire befits us, of course.

The Night Sky

A prose poem for an Old God.

The sun has set, twilight’s pastel aether faded to cool, thin air, and a vista like a vast sphere of ink hangs over the camp.  In daylight, the landscape had been unremarkable, hill after hill, trough after marshy trough, but the night has taken even those bland features, engulfed them in a void the campfire can only lap at.

At first you see nothing in the dark.  The fire is hot and blinding, and next to it, you surmise you must be safe, though you wonder if the light has simply made you terrified of the beyond to which you’ve been blinded.  In a moment of courage, you stand, you forsake the heat and security of your fire, and you take a small, timid step into the night. With surreal immediacy, pinprick glimmers blink into the sky overhead.  The hills, the trees, the cattails and rocks at the pond’s edge all fold into relief as the night stirs in its sleep, and, slowly, in a sense you can feel only in the space between your lungs, the Night Sky opens its eyes.  On the horizon, from shadow your fire could never reach, the moon rises.

Blight.  Aberration.  What do you dare bring here?

The words are not spoken, but nonetheless they are borne to your ears on whistling wind, the buzz of dragonflies, pond water slapping at its shore.  They are not spoken, but, somehow, you perceive a speaker anyway.

From the horizon, the moon approaches, wreathed by dead branches, clad in bark and tenebrous mist.  Atop an eyeless steed the color of coal, it regards you. You feel its presence, its vastness, its derision–for you–its hatred–for…something else–and as the pale sphere’s gaze moves beyond you, to your camp, your fire, your intrusion upon this dream so clearly not your own, you feel–deeply and certainly–unwelcome.

Children.  Gone astray.  Weak. Blasphemy.  Destroy. Devour.

The words are no longer coherent.  They still suffuse the air, spoken in that half-sense by which the Night Sky speaks, but they are not for you.  None of this is for you any longer, but the Night Sky does not lash out in violence like the creatures of day. It would have you understand your transgression, swallow it, have it writhe like worms in your blood, that you should go willingly to nothingness, for you deserve only nothing.

The moon’s steed turns to you, and its head splits into halves, equine silhouettes spreading like lepidopteran wings, baring yet more swirling constellations within their cranial span.  Then the nightmares begin. All around, you perceive the subtle, fearful shifts. At the shore of the pond, the tiny pebbles glinting in firelight reveal themselves to be teeth, erupting, bloody and irregular, from throbbing gums where ground should have rested.  Leeches wriggle at your ankles, crawling over one another for a taste of the blood you yet owe this place, and in the pitch beyond the moon’s sinister figure, the reeds and grasses flagellate the sky in ways that plants should not move.

The steed continues to approach, vaporous tongues lolling from its mangled wing-face, caressing your cheek, your eyes, the inside of your face, tasting what it is like to be you.  Its touch is icy, alien, shocking in its utter strangeness, and yet its intent cannot be misunderstood: It means to imbibe you, with the night, of the night; to extinguish your heat, your clarity, your definition; to purge from you any pretense of being.

You feel the hopelessness, the isolation of the dark, but instinctively, you rebel.  You tear your gaze from the steed’s hypnotic visage. You run headlong back to your blaze, your bulwark against the night’s advance.  Behind, you hear the steed’s hooves bearing down upon you. You shudder at its rider’s curses, carried on the whistle and rasp of the breeze.  You thrust your hands into the fire and withdraw a flaming bough, and you fling it, whirling, frantic, back at the approaching moon. The flames lick your hands, leaving charred, smoldering marks on your palms, but your aim is true enough.  The branch strikes the rider across the arm, igniting its wooden armor, but even as the blaze engulfs the rider and its steed and the grass and the sky and the nightmare that has swallowed you, the moon’s gaze remains impassive.

You open your eyes to an undisturbed camp.  Your fire has died down, the sky is clear and starlit, and even your erstwhile terror, still ringing in your skull, cannot quite disturb the serenity of this nocturnal silence.  But the moon still hangs between the clouds above, and it occurs, quietly, buried between the ripples of your relief, that the eyes of the Night Sky have still not closed.

The Blaze

There was once a warrior renowned in the northern reaches.  Renowned for his prowess, renowned for his cruelty. In the time before the Great Southern War, he led great campaigns of conquest across the Gravestones.  Fortresses fell to his armies, villages were razed, countless lives were claimed by his spear, but in his journeys, he fell ill, and a great fear overtook him.  With so much more of the world to see, so much more that he must dominate, he grew terrified that the sickness would break him before his work was finished.

He sought out the Alchemist, Exelcis, whose expertise was said to be the bane of all disease, and demanded that he be cured.  This was, though, not all he demanded. In those days, rumor had spread that the Alchemist had discovered a deeper secret, an elixir that linked the body and the soul, conferring longevity–or imperviousness, or immortality; the stories differed with each telling.  The warrior demanded as well that the Alchemist gift this elixir unto him, that he may finish his work no matter what impeded him. For reasons no one will ever know, the Alchemist acquiesced.

One cannot say whether the serum he provided the warrior was given in good faith.  Perhaps he had judged the cruel warrior unworthy, deserving of punishment. Perhaps the hell that would come with the Alchemist’s gift was merely the price of its boon.  But as the warrior imbibed it, and his blood was turned to flame and his body transformed, made an undying Blaze, a prison and a pyre, invincible even in the midst of his perpetual, burning agony, he slew the Alchemist in rage, and any understanding of what ought to have been died with him.

The warrior suffered for years, but with time, he came to find truth–a sort of manic salvation–in his torment.  He no longer desired to conquer the world. No, he would not be a tyrant, for he had been made a prophet of his own burning heaven.  He bade his soldiers scour the Alchemist’s ruined library for the means of replicating the tincture that had so exalted him, that he may create creatures in his image, elevated men who would ever burn, would ever remain, would ever–beautifully, rapturously–suffer.

Extremely Brief Update

I made life a little inconvenient for myself. I had begun writing the Crossroads pieces as a piecemeal way to describe an era in the Rale world that, so far, has very little description, but then I went and started a tabletop game in the same setting (War Torn/Rale was, after all, originally developed as a game). So that my updates didn’t become spoilers for my players, I stopped making them. They will return, as they become the players’ past instead of their future.

One Wing, One Eye

This piece was jointly written by Leland and I. He wrote the “primary sources”, I wrote the framing. The things being described are connected to recent pieces as well as one that will be coming soon. I’ll leave you to sort out how.

In my task, I found myself poring over the contents of the Great Library when I came upon a most peculiar scroll. I asked the librarian: “What do you know of this work?”

It seemed veritably ancient.  The parchment was thin, dry, the ink a charcoal black that seemed alien amidst the other works of the library, transcribed by the Mignikolai in their invariable rusty pigment.  Most curious was its language. It was neither the sacred tongue of Kol nor any of the earlier, forbidden dialects of the Diarchy. This was something completely different, making use of characters I knew not how to pronounce.

The librarian seemed surprised.  He apologized: I had evidently come upon an out of place original.  He bade me wait a moment while he fetched the translation. Upon his return he explained that this particular work was among the oldest held by the Kolai.  It had, of course, been inherited En Sacristi, though it was difficult to tell when the Goetia had acquired it. Curiously, the translation had also been inherited–the language was an archaic dialect of the Windwood that fell into disuse some time before the fall of Thago, and the librarian doubted there were any alive today that could read it.

He advised that the subject matter of the scroll was almost certainly unrelated to my research–and he was right–though I make separate mention of it here because it is curious to me.  There are, in fact, two distinct works represented in the scroll, and though, stylistically, they cannot possibly share a source, one cannot ignore the (somewhat unsettling) similarity in their themes.  Understanding the significance of folklore is difficult even with the best of context, but a certain feeling persists that these pieces refer to something of power.  Perhaps the half-creature of these stories is connected to the Gods which came before, those whose mantle the Blood God has so gloriously donned. 

I have made myself a separate copy.  See here for both:

The One-Winged Lark

The lark has dreamed another night for me.

It flapped up to my window.

Tapping the glass

Tap tap

Tapping me to open it.  Tapping to follow

It’s one winged flight

Up and down and around and around

Circles up and down and around and around

It flew up like a whirlwind

Like a pretty petaled whirlwind

Swirling

And I followed it.

And swirled upwards, flapping my wing.

My one wing.

My one sweet wing.

And it took me it took me.

It took me to the moon.

This opalescent ball of crystalline light

Swirling in front of me.

Pulling and pushing and undulating and wrapping 

Warping around itself

This icy light that poured on my skin.  Rubbed me down.

And cleansed my pores, leaving them oiled and clean. 

I was bathed.  I was bathed by the lark.  This little one winged lark.

My little one winged friend

Who flies like a whirlwind

Made of soft feathers, and moonlight.

The Fable of the One-Eyed Crow

Once upon a time, there was a big black wood.  With slim tall trees and thick black moss. And in a tiny old house, near a tiny old town, there lived the hag of the black wood.  And the tiny old town loved the old hag, more and more still. She’d take sick little children and she’d fix them up well. Broken limbs and sniffles and little snake bites all would be fixed in her cottage at night.  And the things that happened there were happy and happy, until one day, when the blue marks started.

Tiny blue peck marks, like chickens dipped in ink, appeared on children’s underarms, in their mouths, in their stink.  And then they started coughing, and then they couldn’t stand, then the people from the tiny town, went to the house for a hand.  They went to the old woman, the old hag of blackwood, and told her of the blue marks, and she just stood. They asked her to fix them.  She said no. They begged her to fix them. She said no. They threatened her to fix them. She said no. And the children started dying.  And grieving came full storm.

And the town became a thunder cloud.  Ricocheting anger. Every child dead. Little blue marks all over. 

And the Blackwood hag, who had fixed so many bug bites.  Had stood there and watched as their children laid down, coughed, and died.

And then a young boy, not ten years and twenty, yelled she must have done it.  That’s why, that’s why.

And the men and the women and those undecided, all were so sad, so angry, they bought it.  That’s why. That’s why.

And the thundercloud crashed, through the woods, with metal pots.  With torches and fire, and anger and plots. And dozens of angry fathers, and dozens of angry mothers with the faces of their children in their eyes came to find her.  The hag of blackwood. The one that watched them die. The one who must have done it. That’s why. That’s why.

And they found her.  In the wood. Near her tiny old house, near the tiny old town.  And they pulled her body open. And gave her tiny marks. Marks of red all over her body.  Marks of red, to pay her penalty. Marks of red to match those of blue. Marks of red for her to scream to. 

And they ripped off one foot.

They cut off one hand.

They gouged out one eye.

And sliced open one breast.

For the woman half there for them, and half just stood.

And they left her there to die.  That’s why. That’s why. 

Micropost: A Visitor to the Crossroads

The figure seemed to glide across the street, its thin cloak swaying in the breeze but betraying no motion beneath, as if to convince onlookers of the materiality of the cloak, with no regard for the appearance–or lack thereof–of a body within it.  Onlookers–for there were many that day–were not eager to greet it. The people of the village were well familiar with the trappings of powerful magic, and this foreboding individual stunk of it.

It approached first a housewife. She was sweeping her doorstep, aware of the thing approaching her just as she dearly hoped it would pass her on.  It did not. Instead it spoke, in saccharine, reverberating tones like song in a metal cavern: “I carry a message. Where is one with authority to hear it?”

The housewife was taken aback for a moment.  The strangeness of its voice, its curiously still visage hidden behind its hood, everything about it was alien, of course, but what stayed her tongue was simply that the figure’s question, in its echoes and vibrations, was difficult to understand.  There was a moment of silence before she pointed, suddenly, firmly, to a taller house at the end of the street.

The Crossroads

The village had always been between.  In the beginning, Old Marie’s stories said, it had been a trading post, a depot connecting the waterways of Riverlands to the woods and mountains of the north.  Merchants and enterprisers would enter, transient but somehow still fixture, carrying lumber and pelts and cloth and ore. Sometimes they would pass through, sometimes they would return the way they came.  Those that called the village home did well for themselves in those days. They made fortunes in trade–anything they could want somehow found its way there from afar. And, of course, those plagued by wanderlust had no shortage of opportunity to escape.  All they had to do was jump in with the next caravan that came to town, and they would most assuredly see the world.

The War was not kind to the place, but even that was mitigated by its betweenness.  The village was far enough south that it saw the horrors of the roaches but still northerly enough that its people, broadly speaking, survived.  Its young men and women proudly aided the Harmony resistance in the Battle of the Ouroboros, and then they returned to a peaceful existence at their crossroads.  For a short time, things were as they were before. But soon, new wares began to make their way through the village, and with those wares came news.

It seemed Lord Ka had kept a secret from the world.  It was a stone, rough, heavy to hold, unimpressive to the eye.  But the power.  To the mystics, the magically inclined–no matter their inexperience–it was a sun.  At the fall of Bloodhull, soldiers of Harmony who had never once in their lives channeled mana held this stone–the Hellstone, as it came to be known–and felt that power, that gruesome possibility thrumming in their hands.  They said that Harmony destroyed the Hellstone, that its power might never be unleashed upon the world again. Some did not believe that story, but they missed the point. The Hellstone’s legacy was not its power–rather it was a realization: Such objects could exist, objects that would make gods even of petty fools like Lord Ka.  

The art of putting magic into inert things was not new–hedge mages had been quietly crafting oddities for centuries.  None had possessed such power as the Hellstone, but after its discovery, that hardly mattered. A plain man with ten or twenty weak but useful magical artifacts could play at the same superhumanity.  A new order was materializing then about a delicate but ruthless balance between mankind’s lust for power and a fear among the powerful that they may at any moment be devoured by those seeking their possessions.  In this order, the village, which had always been a crossroads, became a hub of a different kind of resource.

At first, the artifacts were simply commodities.  Merchants who previously sold spice or textiles would arrive at the village, carts laden with curios and magical knickknacks they had bought at a pittance from looters and refugees.  Most of them were useless: stones that would chirp birdsong when thrown to the ground, a silver fish sculpture that bled an endless stream of effervescent crimson from its eyes; but the ones that weren’t found purpose with alacrity, after one villager–Sam, the cooper’s son–was murdered in broad daylight by one of the merchants’ customers. The killer had used a pair of gloves that rendered his hands–and their activities–unnoticeable, and when he escaped the guards following this grim test of his new purchase, the proper merchants saw the signs.  Most left the trade. Many left the region entirely. Either way, the village saw little of them from then on.

Of course, lust for power and the knowledge that enabled it would never fade away simply for lack of sellers.  Even then there were those hovering at the fringes of civilization with fearsome arsenals and stores of wealth, willing to make very rich the one who brought them a means of surpassing their rivals.  But they were murderers. For all their wealth and power, everyone knew they were cutthroats, and no trinkets, no magical elevation could change that. It was no secret they would just as soon save their money and kill for what they wanted if it was an option.  What was missing was a class of trader capable of persuading them toward the latter.

It was Marko who solved this problem for the village.  He had always been a scoundrel, well connected in spite of his sclerosed reputation, surviving on his ability to find buyers for the occasional item the merchant overclass knew it should not have.  His arrival had been timely. In another era, Mayor Bergen would have had him jailed for one of his violent altercations, his lewd demeanor, any of his all-too-public vices; but with the village’s mercantile lifeblood all but vanished, Marko’s ability to sell the artifacts–which, for a time, looters were still attempting to offload in the village’s streets–saved the livelihood of everyone there.

The village remained between, even as the world had changed, between the abandoned manors and shrines of mages long dead, the looters that trawled them in hopes of a windfall that would raise them from squalor, and the elusive buyers that Marko sold to, petty thieves and killers made greater than they ever ought be by the panoply of lies they carried.  They called themselves gods, but that wasn’t precisely true.