Three Gifts Given Under Night

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.

The Two Guards Riddle

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.

Espereza’s Riddle

“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.

“Your riddle?”

“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?

“I am Truth,” says the first sentinel.

“I am Truth,” says the second.

And, of course, I am Truth as well.

A Smiling Man

“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

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.