She-Lord of Ka

Content warning: Rape

The boy was raised to be clean.  His father was heir to the largest domain in the Riverlands, bastion of the Pure, and in his grandfather’s house, all chose: They would be made clean, or they would be expelled.  Grandfather taught him to vomit all but the barest taste of his food from his guts, taught him to scrub the grease from his skin until it bled. He was taught that his body was sacred, that it must not be contaminated with the grime and gluttony of lesser folk.  When he failed–and he failed often–Grandfather broke his bones and seared his back with hot iron.

The boy was raised to be resilient.  When he was ten, his mother and father departed to lead the Bloodfish’s armies in the war.  Grandfather would not hear a word otherwise. Lord Ka had brought the ways of the Pure out of a great, lost darkness, mustering the strength to force upon the wretched the cleanliness they were too weak to maintain in themselves, and Lo Markhan, the hero of the Riverlands–Grandfather–would help him realize that revolution at any cost.  The boy was alone, bereft of any shield from the marquis’ ferric discipline. He learned to hide his pain, bind his wounds invisibly, make himself seem a model of Purity, for to be expelled was to join the roaches and Lo Markhan’s other creations of mud and bile.

The boy was raised to be strong.  Grandfather had studied the fey-magics of the Feathermen in the Bloodwood, and his house was filled with death-infused creations.  Some of these were for the boy, like the dish he was made to vomit in, the gown he was given for dress, the bandages wrapped around his seared skin.  They lapped at his suffering, hungry, as if one day, finally sated, they would wake, but of course they never did. Instead that suffering flowed into the house, accumulating in foreboding presences that loomed when Grandfather was away.

Other objects, the boy was never to touch.  There were shackles in the cellar that slowly gnawed the flesh of whomever they held, spools of thread, gifts from the Dragon of the West, that wormed into any skin unfortunate enough to be nearby.  These were meant for Grandfather’s guests-of-low-regard–prisoners, perhaps, or idle, sadistic diversions–but there were still other oddities whose cruelty was not quite so direct. The boy’s favorite was a painting in the sitting room near where he slept.  It was an arid, hilly landscape, unremarkable as a work of art, but fascinating in the way its pigments and smudges danced and drifted across the surface. Birds flew in the painted sky, dust blew, and branches swayed. It confused him, even as it filled him with wonder: How could this expression of beauty be at home amidst Grandfather’s other trinkets?  The boy understood these creations to be fueled by suffering, maiming, the pursuit of Purity, but that darkness did not seem to be there in the painting.

It was a visiting emissary of the Dune Men, a tall, intense man with yellow eyes, intrigued by the child’s interest, who finally revealed the answer: The painting was a prison.  Years ago, Lo Markhan had assisted in the subdual of the Saraa Sa’een, a terrible, wandering monster responsible for centuries of destruction. This painting was possibly his greatest creation, a cage of color and fiction that would keep the demon bound forever.  That was it, the boy realized. This beauty was still of death, but death was not confined to the ugly austerity Grandfather so revered. His bewilderment was gone, but wonder remained.

As he grew into his teenage years, the boy was allowed to travel beyond the house’s boundaries, down to the villages of Grandfather’s domain.  There, the customs of the Pure were merely one of many superstitions, and the darkness that watched him always seemed to abate. He walked among the villagers, queer but unobtrusive in his gown, absent the regalia and symbols of Ka or his manor.  Among them, he found companionship, a sense of commonality in survival–even flourishing–in a world the boy felt so acutely to be immersed in death. On his days of escape from Grandfather’s house, he joined them in their goings-on, he learned their sayings, he ate their food, he even fell in love.  

One day, he and a peasant boy caught a rabbit in the woods.  The cooked it over a fire and shared it. Overcome by an affection the boy had never known under his grandfather’s roof, he kissed his companion, and the peasant boy kissed back.  The two made love into the evening until the responsibilities of reality set back in, and, flush and delighted, they parted ways. But that delight soon soured–the boy had not been attentive to the time.  He would arrive home after dark, and Grandfather would certainly notice. Suddenly welling with dread and acutely aware of the rabbit fat still flecking his lips, he made his way back to the manor. He needed to find his dish.  He needed to vomit.

But when he arrived, Grandfather was waiting.  He tore the boy’s gown from his body, struck him with knuckles like horn, raped him until he bled, and again, and again.

“Is this how you like it?” he asked, his breath hot against the boy’s ear.

The boy did not eat for days.  He did not walk for weeks, and even then, he needed a cane.  He did not return to the villages for some time, and he never saw the peasant boy again.

But he wasn’t broken.  He simply understood: He was raised to be strong.  He began to grasp at the death he felt writhing in his broken body, in the house, in Grandfather’s demented trinkets.  He found he could speak to it, and it would make things change.  Perhaps it was his startling memory of first love in the forest, perhaps it was simple coincidence, but he found it easiest with plants.  He could make them grow, flower, entangle constrict. He practiced first with the vines growing on the manor walls, snatching insects from the air, crushing them, savoring the odor of their pain.  Then he embedded those vines in the lungs of a manor worker malingering in the shade on a hot day. He watched the man claw at his throat, eyes wide, gasping as the leaves emerged from his mouth. In that moment, he understood his grandfather’s cruelty, and he understood his strength.

He was raised to be resilient.  As the war grew more fierce, Grandfather’s attentions became ever more drawn to it.  The boy began to look for a particular opportunity, a pretext for removing the marquis from his sorcerous bastion and separating him from his lieutenants.  For a single day, he slipped away, finding the commander of the Bloodfish’s enemies in a remote village. He made the man a proposal: Attack the domain of the Dragon.  Lo Markhan would marshal his forces to defend his ally, and the boy would ensure the marquis would never arrive to the battlefield.

The commander did as the boy proposed, and when Lo Markhan departed to join his troops, the boy met him in the forest at the edge of his domain and entangled him in thorny branches.  He planted a briar in his grandfather’s throat, and it grew rapidly, bursting through the skin of his face and chest. In his final moments, Grandfather could not speak, but he did not need to.  The boy knew he was meeting the old man’s expectations.

He was raised to be clean.  When the soldiers returned to the manor months later, they found a new marquis there, decadent, flamboyant, everything his grandfather had not been, save for cruel.  The new marquis had found a diversion in the torture of his subjects, and he had begun to tax the villages of his domain for meat and wine and able-bodied men to satisfy him.  Some of the soldiers rebelled against Le Markhan, the sickening She-Lord of Ka, but they were defeated, tortured and executed in the village squares by the marquis’ thorns. Those that survived left without a backward glance, but to Le Markhan, it did not matter.  He did not much care for Ka or his war.

He ruled there for many more years, leeching the despicable world and its despicable people for all they were worth.  He, himself, was despicable–he knew that. But he had been taught that cruelty somewhere.

Notes on Dying Twice

Image result for sekiro dilapidated temple

I’m now composing the ongoing Dark Souls series while playing through Sekiro (slowly), and being able to note the similarities and differences, immersed as I am, is a pretty interesting experience.  It’s also pretty plain at this point that getting at the juicy, literary meat of the game is going to be way harder for me this time around. Dark Souls and Bloodborne were riffing on philosophical frameworks (Christianity, Lovecraft, Nietzsche) that I am coincidentally familiar with.  Sekiro has structurally similar roots in Buddhism and sort-of obscure 1960’s ninja-historical-fantasy, about which I know approximately fuck all. Accordingly, the following are working notes, a surface reading of a game I still haven’t finished, an attempt to get the ideas on paper where perhaps a pith might become more visible.

Literary References

Miyazaki himself cites the manga Basilisk and the works of Futaro Yamada as an inspiration for elements of Sekiro’s world.  For those unfamiliar (myself included), these began with a novel published in 1958 called Kōga Ninpōchō, a historical fantasy about rival clans of superhuman mutant ninjas who get caught up in a Romeo-and-Juliet-style love triangle.  I was totally unaware that this style of storytelling had roots that old (contemporary with Tolkien, even though the first English translation seems to have been published in 2006).  More research is needed–discoveries like this keep me humble as to how little I really know.

Historical References

The setup of the game is that near the end of the Sengoku period, Isshin Ashina stages a coup and takes over one of Japan’s warring regions.  Twenty years later, the story begins. Neither Isshin, nor his grandson Genichiro appear to have been real people, but the Ashina clan was. Translating some historical details: The region, known also as Ashina in-game, was likely the Aizu region historically, and the aforementioned “end” of the Sengoku period is probably the first of such points recognized by historians–the conquest of Kyoto by Nobunaga Oda.  Twenty years after this point, the Ashina clan was defeated decisively by Masamune Date who then seized control of the Aizu region. Timing checks out.

It’s also likely that the family personas are based on real people.  Based on the timing and details of their life stories, it seems likely that Isshin and Genichiro are meant to parallel Moriuji and Moritaka Ashina respectively.  Moriuji’s reign was considered to be a golden age for the clan, whereas Moritaka (not Moriuji’s grandson, but not his son either) succeeded him and, proving unpopular among his retainers, was assassinated.  Spoiler: This is more than vaguely similar to Genichiro’s fate in the game.

Buddhism/Literary Motifs

I know embarrassingly little about Buddhism, and I hope to do more reading before formalizing any of this, but the narrative is clearly moist with its secretions.  The repeated theme of death and rebirth seems to be a clear expression, but it almost certainly goes deeper. The Sculptor’s obsessive drive to carve the Buddha (and its relationship to his previous life as a shinobi), the relationship between Kuro and other sources of immortality, even the significance of Sekiro using a prosthetic for a left arm–they scream meaning, and I bet much of it is tied up in philosophical traditions very different from the earlier games.

Aside, Miyazaki apparently took a backseat on writing for this game, so it probably will not have the same tone anyway.

Sources for my information include the linked interview, Wikipedia, and Samurai Wiki.

The Dark Noon

It’s been a little while since we’ve been here.  If you need, check out the previous posts in this series first.  Also, because you can never sit down and read just one thing, I linked an article in my first essay on this topic.  If you haven’t read it yet, you should now.  It was always relevant, but it connects the philosophical parts of this to our reality better than I ever could.

A little under two months ago, I started this blog, and the first substantive thing I posted was about choices in video games.  This will be about choices as well, in video games, in life, and, more deeply, in what we value.  It will be a turning point–the previous essays have been getting at the metaphors underlying Dark Souls’ setup.  Now, we get to ask the question: “Why?”

I.

I’ve talked a lot about “Truth” in the last two essays without really getting into what it means.  This is meant to be respectful. The only sense in which I am the first to say any of the things I’m saying is the sense in which they relate to Dark Souls (which is still a little surprising, but I’ve beaten that horse enough already).  Still, since this runs the risk of sounding completely insane without clarity on that concept, I want to be explicit: Truth is something that humans value–we all intrinsically want the things we believe to be true. This starts, obviously, with perceptions of reality, but then it goes and starts a bar fight with religion and science.  For those interested in the hard sciences without a background in philosophy, it may be difficult to believe, but the advances in scientific thought that propelled us from the Middle Ages to modernity were based heavily on metaphysics. This starts with the question “If I can’t trust what I see, how can I know anything?” but the high-level ends up being this: We created/reinforced gods in service of Truth.  We then ask whether we need gods and, unable to see their purpose, begin devaluing them. Then comes the best part: Some asshole asks whether we need Truth.

“Is this still about Dark Souls?”  Sure, just replace “Truth” and “gods” with “Flame” and “Lords”, and we’re hunky dory.  More pointedly, in Dark Souls, that asshole has a name: Kaathe.

Darkstalker Kaathe is a primordial serpent.  He goes way back to when the world was mist and trees and dragons, and this means A) he has a complicated relationship with the Truth and gods metaphor that I don’t really want to get into here and B) his age grants him a view on the situation that doesn’t have a good real-world analog.  Anyway, he starts a cult, they kill a lot of people, and the powers that be flood a city on top of them.  This is the advent of nihilism in Dark Souls. The details actually are pretty interesting, but the Abyss is going to get its own essay.  Kaathe is coming up here because he’s the one that offers you an alternative in your quest to save the world. Oh yes, you were on a quest–didn’t I mention that?

II.

That isn’t a gotcha at all if you actually played Dark Souls, but I know for a fact that some of you have not.  Recall from the intro:

Thus began the Age of Fire. But soon the flames will fade and only Dark will remain. Even now there are only embers, and man sees not light, but only endless nights. And amongst the living are seen, carriers of the accursed Darksign.

The plot of the game–which we’ve avoided discussing up to now–is you exploring Lordran in fulfillment of some vague prophecy that no one seems to have respect for, but then you complete the first piece, ring some bells, and a giant snake blasts out of the ground where you first showed up.  His name is Frampt, and he tells you that your purpose is to succeed Lord Gwyn and link the Fire, prolonging this golden age. He’s not terribly specific about what “linking the Fire” means, but man, becoming the successor to God? That seems pretty neat, and so this becomes your quest: You must gather the souls of the gods and use them to open the way to the Kiln of the First Flame, that you may link the Fire.

That goes about as swimmingly as things can go in Lordran until you find Kaathe at the bottom of the Abyss.  He has a counterproposal for you: Why don’t you just…not do that?  Gwyn went and linked the Fire, sure, but he was a pussy, scared of the dark or something.  It’s not like an Age of Dark would actually end the world or anything. This is when he lets you in on the piece of the creation myth that doesn’t get repeated:

If you remember the other gods from the second essay, you remember that they each represented something.  Gwyn was light, the Witch was chaos, Nito was death, but there was another, “so easily forgotten”.  The pygmy found a special soul within the Fire, the only one named without a possessive: the Dark Soul.  Gwyn is not happy about this for reasons that aren’t really clear without the metaphor, and he goes to great lengths to ensure that the descendants of the pygmy don’t flourish and the dark does not overpower the light.  On the first count, he clearly failed–you’re here after all, but you can’t say he wasn’t motivated. To stop the guttering of the Fire and the coming Age of Dark, he used his own body as fuel..

There are a number of metaphors here, let’s unpack them:

First, note the obvious parallel to Christianity, but also note the dramatically developed context.  In this version, God still sacrifices himself, but there’s an added element: fear. That he fears the dark here means he fears its impact on the metaphysical–it is not simply love for another substrate of reality.  So what danger does the Dark Soul pose?

The Fire is Truth, light emanates from fire, and that makes Gwyn a manifestation of true things.  The Dark Soul, then, is what’s left. Not-true things. Lies. “Seems bad.” Oh, really? I’m sure it does, but can you make a case for it without appealing to Truth as a value?  Lies are easy to detach from the types of harm we hold to be bad based on other values, but still, they feel wrong, it stings your character to lie to others, and for some reason, you can’t lie to yourself.  Truth is king, we’ve put everything else in service to it, and, of course, why would the Fire embrace its own death?

And so, Kaathe offers us a choice: Immolate yourself, the successor to the gods, in service of Truth, or walk away, embrace the lies, and usher in an Age of Dark.

III.

About the most famous thing Nietzsche ever said was “God is dead”.  Sounds about right. Death and Chaos are toast, you murdered them on your way here.  Light is in the process of burning, soon to be spent. All of that may seem good or bad to you, but to Nietzsche, it was an inevitable result of that initial enshrinement of Truth as our highest value.  It brought us through the Stone Ages, to antiquity, to modernity, to the point where we are capable of contending with the forces of Gaia on a nearly even playing field. Truth has brought us power even if we’ve had to sacrifice human meaning to get there, but that was a long-term decision.  Now, finally, we have the opportunity to course-correct. Truth is going out, and the sun has reached its median in the course of human history. Nietzsche called it the Great Noon, but as you might guess, the Dark Souls take is a little different.

Interpreting Nietzsche’s options from Lou Keep’s essay, you can translate them to the Dark Souls metaphor like so: The last man is letting every value burn to nothing, ceasing our advance to power, and living on in the twilight until at last we die.  Affirmation is embracing the Dark, learning how to lie, and adopting a new hierarchy of values in Truth’s place. Of course, affirmation could mean that we are affirming an ideal that does not exist (which isn’t ideal), or it could mean affirmation of the here and now.  The problem is that it’s very hard to do either if we can’t lie to ourselves.

However, Dark Souls allows for two other options, one of which isn’t well explored by Nietzsche’s framework (which we’ll save for last), and one that…well, that he was reacting to in the first place.  That one, we’ll discuss next.

Top Image: Screenshot from the launch trailer for Dark Souls 3, I do not own it

Blame

There is a story I’m planning to pair with this piece, but for reasons I will not discuss just yet, I likely won’t post it here. Instead, I wanted just to show it to you all:

Rae did a fantastic job with this one, and while the scene is in some ways powerful enough to stand on its own, it also drips context.

I’ve mentioned Spar previously, if briefly, here. The head-brandishing individual is one of its Diarchs–the Right-Hand Queen, specifically. This one, known to history as the Iron Queen (or to her contemporaries as…less savory names), ascended to the throne at a very young age alongside an older, more experienced Left-Hand King who sought to make her politically irrelevant. He arranged that she be sent to the front lines of war for over a decade while he consolidated power at home, but instead of quietly allowing her generals to direct the campaigns (or dying), she became a brutal warrior and an accomplished battlefield tactician, leading her to countless victories and a homecoming in Spar as a hero of the people. Nonetheless, the political elite, the Left-Hand King included, found her vulgar and imperious and feared she would upset the balance of power in the city.

A turning point came when she and the King attended a private demonstration at the academy. A traveling scholar had found a child, prodigious in a strange reality-bending magic practiced in the north, very different from the elemental magics espoused by the Diarchian scholars. Of the twenty or so that went into the room, only the Queen left alive, holding the head of the child in her bloodied gauntlet. She took it to the speaker for the Diarchian senate and presented it to him, with reference to the prophecy all had heard and few had taken to heart: This is what magic has done to our kingdom, I will defend us against it, and you will stand in my way no longer. But even as she holds the child’s head in her right hand, we can see something in her left: the crown of the Left-Hand King. No one knows what happened in that room, no one knows whether the child’s magic truly caused this tragedy, but it hardly matters now that there is no one left to oppose the Queen’s rule.

Top Image: Blame, by Rae Johnson, commissioned for War Torn/Rale

The Sevenfold Gyre, Part 3

This has been delayed for some time, partially for other pieces, partially for writer’s block. See the Ongoing Series page for Parts 1 and 2.

Interlude 2

Amir stands frozen as the killer approaches. He is not afraid. Judging by the carnage, the man may just as well be a friend. No, Amir is frozen simply because fatigue has made stillness very, very easy. The man has slotted a spear into his hook and slung it over his shoulder. He sneers at Amir, head cocked, perhaps to accommodate his odd martial posture, perhaps out of simple disinterest with reality. His gaze seems to blast right through the boy, but before him, nonetheless, he stops.

It still isn’t fear, but Amir feels the force of the man’s presence.  His defiance falters, he looks away, escaping to the details of the macabre slew about him.  Acutely cognizant of the man’s stare, he locks eyes instead with a girl’s severed head. That’s when it becomes fear.  The head, moving slightly but unmistakably, meets his gaze and speaks. It says:

“There was once a man who wished to hide from the truth.  He gathered his flock. He gathered his clouds. He left–”

“Never mind that thing,” the man interrupts.  Amir’s eyes snap away, tepidly refocusing on the man’s face.  The head’s jabber continues, faint. “Looks like I’ve been waiting for you.”

“What for?” Amir asks, confusion tempered by doubt that he is worth a stranger’s anticipation.  The man shrugs and turns to leave. Only once Amir has followed does he respond:

“Someone owes you, kid.  Someone’s gotta pay.”

His pace is casual, unconcerned with the stifling humidity or the fixtures of genocide dotting the landscape they cross, but he says nothing more.  Amir is numb and exhausted and does not prompt him. Soon, the sun sets, and a wisp of smoke crests the horizon before them. Amir knows it is their destination, though he cannot say how.

The two approach to find a campfire, alone and unfortified in the desolate emptiness of the twilit Riverlands.  At its other side is an old man in a wheeled, wooden chair, head bowed in sleep or meditation, eyes covered by the brim of his hat.  Around the fire are five more individuals, attentive to the newcomers’ approach. They are varied, of wildly different ages and origins, but their stare, fiery, hateful, is the same.

Realization dawns, an old story echoes in Amir’s mind.  He and Patches take their seats around the fire.

Now they are seven.

The old man looks up.

Part III – Fox

On the fifth day of his journey, Sand-Masked Fox looked to the sky.  The heavens’ portent was confused–though clouds had veiled the resolute, desert sun, there was no scent of moisture, of the rains that came with such times of darkness.  It seemed a troubling omen, but Fox could not interpret the sky like the shadowmen of the North. His was to read the sands below, and the grey-dark above could not divert him.  He sought a demon, a Saraa Sa’een, as an arbiter who enforced the justice of the Endless Dunes, as a father who saw his children slain at the demon’s hand. His quarry was fleet, its tracks well-hidden, but Fox had known the mana of the sands all his life.  He could see it billow and shift, and he understood the ways that footprints might be dusted away.

He closed his eyes and lowered the blade of his axe to the ground, pushing it gently into its coarse grains.  The opening of the earth’s skin pricked at his mind, and in the echoes of that sensation, he saw–he saw a lone outlaw striding these dunes, roiling waves into the sand behind him.  The traces were faint, perhaps two days old, but that did not matter. Fox would chase the demon for as long as it took, out of the desert, beyond the mountains, to the end of the world and the beginning of the sea.  Wherever it walked the earth, Fox would find it. But at this rate, his resolve would reach its first test soon. The demon had almost certainly fled the Dunes, hoping to elude capture in the mountains to the north. Fox had prepared for this, materially, but his imminent departure brought him at least a pang of regret.  The Dunes were his home, but now he had little to return to, and he was beginning to understand: This meant he would likely never return. Lifting his axe, he carried on.

***

On the seventh day of his journey, the clouds had not yet lifted, and Fox had arrived at a village at the end of the sands.  Once again, he split the skin of the earth, reaching out to feel its pain. There were people nearby, doubtless walking about, shuddering across the streets of their town, leaving traces to be felt clearly and painfully.  Fox did not feel them. From the earth, he felt barely a splash against his temples as his axe came down. But he knew that what was before him was not barren, because though he did not feel, he heard.  Somehow, the mana here was different.  It did not rise from the ground like dust and sand–it pulsed, first gently, sounding laughter in Fox’s ears, mellowing as he pulled his axe back in surprise.  Then, sudden, deafening, it screamed.

Fox reeled, dropping his axe and his shield and clapping his hands to his ears, trying desperately the mute the cacophony assaulting his brain.  Excruciatingly, far, far too slowly, the scream resolved to information. The demon had been here–its tracks littered this place–and though Fox could not see beyond the village for the glut of insane, screaming mana, he was relieved amidst his horror, for he was still on the demon’s trail.  Perhaps it had never left. He gathered his effects and approached the gathered houses, discomfited but not dissuaded by the mana laughing faintly in his ears.

Even upon closer inspection, though, the streets were bare, and the the dull roar he expected of the village’s goings-on was perturbingly absent.  He couldn’t tell if it was truly quiet–the laughter made it difficult to trust his ears–but it was still, and it was wrong.  He feared the worst, skulking carefully between the all-too-silent buildings, peering through windows and doorways in search of the Saraa Sa’een’s telltale carnage.  But he saw nothing, no trace of men or women, of the demon, of murder, only dust covered floorboards and empty space. Then the laughter stopped, and a voice behind him spoke.

“Now what could you be doing here?”  

Fox pivoted, alarmed, shield raised, though the speaker made no move to strike him.  It was a man, unarmed, in a green habit, and though he seemed to pose no physical threat, his appearance did little to assuage Fox’s panic.  Rather, Fox found it difficult to glean anything the man’s appearance at all. He was not hooded or obscured, but Fox could not focus, could not remember any feature or detail of the man’s visage, save one: He was smiling, grin wide as his face, somehow, paradoxically, hideously avoiding even the faintest impression of joy.  And yet, through his rictus of false delight, his voice was even and deliberate, and his words seemed to flense the air.

“I see your face in the clouds,” he said, answering himself, “but of you, in this place, in this crowd, there is no trace.”  In the periphery, Fox saw shadows darkening the doorways of the surrounding houses. “You are a lie,” the man continued, “but you are not mine.”

“I do not mean to intrude,” Fox interjected.  “I am seeking one who passed through here. I can leave at once if need be.”  He needed to be away from this place, away from this laughing mana and this smiling man.

“I know what you seek, Sand-Masked Fox,” the man said, consonants clicking like steel.  Fox inhaled sharply at his name. “You are a river, dividing the earth in your path, relentless, determined.  But now, you have encountered the deep…” The shadows stepped from the houses and began to approach rapidly. “…and the currents of sea and sky are hardly so linear.”

Fox turned to face the oncoming crowd, leaping aside as a woman with a knife lunged for him.  He swung his axe reflexively, biting into her neck as she passed, realizing with frantic horror that she, like the man, like the rest of the village approaching with ill intent, lacked any facial feature he could identify.  Except for the smile. The same, terrible, joyless smile. The laughter in Fox’s ears erupted once again.

He began to back away from the crowd, cutting down a man brandishing a shovel, a girl with a hatchet.  He wanted to turn and run, but there were too many, too close, sprinting to surround him. A man got around him, thrust a pitchfork under his shield.  The rusted prongs caught him just below his ribs, and he screamed. He swung his axe blindly, desperately, but another villager grabbed his arm and ripped the weapon from his grasp, bringing the blade back down against his own neck.  His vision rolled and rolled, but strangely, realization flowing, almost serene as the ambient laughter guttered, it did not go black. Slowly, his severed head came to a halt, and sideways, disembodied in his nightmare, Sand-Masked Fox witnessed his bloody corpse fall, as another figure stepped into his field of vision.

It was an old man in a dusty brown hat, hunched slightly, unhurried in his pace, unbothered by the rabid lynch mob before him.  In his arms was a Thagosian crossbow, an antique, certainly a deadly weapon, but Fox could not imagine it would be good for more than one shot.  And yet, the old man approached the crowd, confident, with the detached manner of a whittler carving his thousandth stave, eschewing style and banter, no less focused for their absence.  The smiling villagers seemed to find this amusing. In unison, they laughed, putting to physical sound the sickening, ephemeral ringing that had echoed in Fox’s ears since his arrival. They charged him.

The old man had already hefted his crossbow, aiming for the roof of the house above the mob.  Fox could not fathom what the interloper was planning, but, blood gurgling in his open throat, he was powerless to voice his bewilderment, let alone intervene.  But then, the first of the villagers nearly upon him, the old man pulled his trigger, and, with a chorus of screams, reality shattered.

The crowd froze, mid-stride, weapons held uncannily aloft, and from the desert, a wind began to howl.  At first it was indistinguishable from flurries of dust roused from tenuous slumber atop the arid ground, but then, steadily, the villagers began to disintegrate, their forms softening, slipping to the air in great clouds of bloody snow.  Then the material of the village joined them, the sides of the buildings, the very surface of the streets, frayed from reality, uncovering a very different truth beneath. Where the madness lifted, the dirt ran with blood, houses became ruins, splintered by some recent assault, and everywhere, everywhere, the village’s dead–truly, no longer faceless like the mannequins prowling the streets moments before–rotted in the open air.  And when nearly all the truth of this place had been revealed, a final, crystalline billow pulled away from the spot on the roof where the old man had fired. It was the man in the green habit sitting at the edge of the roof, still faceless, still grinning, holding the old man’s crossbow bolt.

“Oops,” he chuckled, dropping casually to ground level.  “I guess my trick didn’t work on you.”

“Tricks are for children, Smiling One,” his assailant replied, placing another bolt onto his crossbow.  “I am an old man.” The smiling man laughed, the peals reverberating far deeper than a single voice ought.  

“You are so many things, and not one of them is true.  In that harmony of lies, how can you claim to be above them?”

“It’s been hundreds of years,” the old man said, “and nothing has changed.  The echoes of justice continue to ring, and your descent will end the same way.”

“You are wrong,” the smiling man goaded.  “The world has changed.  Truth has shriveled, and the tide has risen.  Soon, all our lies will join truth in Heaven, and everything we have ever known, the eye of the hurricane, will fit in the palm of your hand.  And with so paltry a shelter, how is anyone to escape the storm?” The old man once again lifted his crossbow.

“Our interests are not mutual,” he said.  “And your time has run out.”

“There’s always time,” the smiling man replied, arms outstretched, jubilant.  “Time for fun. Time for it all to get so much worse.”

The old man fired, and his target exploded in a shower of green scraps, whipped into the wind and blown out of town with all the rest of the smiling nightmare.  Impassive, he turned to Fox’s severed head.

“Meet us in the clouds,” he said.  “We will come for your demon in time.”  That was all Fox heard before finally, delayed far too long, his consciousness faded.

***

When he awoke, he was whole once more, uninjured and very nearly invigorated.  Around him were the ruins where he had died, where the entire village had succumbed to the Smile.  Recalling the old man’s words, Sand-Masked Fox looked skyward. The mountains loomed above him, and above their peaks, the clouds roiled.  Within them, he could almost swear he saw something strange. A city, perhaps.

Top Image: Draft work for Hiding (work in progress), by Hector Rasgado, commissioned for War Torn/Rale. Unlike previous chapters in this series, it is not directly related, but, as the end might imply, it’s close enough.

Next Steps and First Impressions

At this point, I am pretty much done with my backlog of material to post here.  That means that my lead time per long post is probably going to be a little longer than the 2-3 day intervals I’ve been following to this point.  Sevenfold Gyre part three is about a third done, but fuck, it’s update day, so while I continue grinding that out, today you get a shitpost of a game review.

Image result for sekiro

Those who have been following my Dark Souls series are probably aware that today, From Software released Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s first game since Dark Souls 3 in a vaguely similar space (technically he also directed Déraciné, but that’s radically different enough that I’m going to ignore it for the purposes of this timeline).  As the name might imply: This is not Dark Souls. You’re playing a named character, it’s a stealth game, you don’t do damage–you just need to break the enemy’s poise–the game has a non-historical story (which I’m disappointed about, but only because Dark Souls invented the genre, and I’ve never seen anyone do it as well), the reviews go on and on.  Oh yeah, most of that isn’t true, I’m just parroting the takeaways I’ve read online, and it’s actually a double fake, because the big idea is wrong, too: This game is totally Dark Souls.

I can quantify that.  Here are the actual differences between Sekiro and Dark Souls (taken broadly, in the “Soulsborne” sense):

  1. The main character has backstory.
  2. There is a jump button.
  3. Enemies block attacks in a way that makes fighting crowds is noticeably more dangerous.
  4. The advancement systems (equipment, stats) have been replaced with the type of thing you see in Devil May Cry (or equivalent action game).

Fits on one hand.  I, for one, am thrilled.  That said, it’s very polished, combat is intricate in spite of its very fast pace, and moving around is a joy.  By far the most significant of those, though, is the first, and it’s a deceptively small change.  At a very surface level, the setting is historical. The Ashina clan was a real clan during the Sengoku period, the named characters don’t appear to have been, but whatever.  Below that surface, we’re back to–you guessed it–more Dark Souls, with all of the desolation, bleakness, and lovely, fuzzy vagueness that From Software does so well, which is why it’s so cool that simply adding a pre-existing drive to the player character alters the experience so radically.  In a lot of ways, the Souls games were framed, defined by that void, and filling it changes the basis for analysis.

Mind, I have no idea at this point what that analysis is going to look like (I’m only 15 hours in), but man, am I stoked to find out.

Top Image: Gameplay/cutscene footage from Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. I do not own it.

Fighting Death

Some of you may have noticed the minimalist titles for the art I’ve been posting for War Torn/Rale.  It’s not accidental, and it’s not a deliberate attempt at edge, rather, it’s a philosophical premise that we’ve built into our pipeline, better appreciated with some backstory:

I’ve mentioned before that War Torn is a “dying” world, and I hope my fiction has made its bleakness clear, but I’ve also been pretty vague about what exactly that means.  It “starts” (there is time before, but consider this the history’s inciting event) with a prophecy. The exact content of the prophecy varies with each retelling, and no one’s really sure who said it first, but the thrust is this: “The use of magic will destroy the world.”  Understandably, this prompts some questions. How will it do this? When? And, most popular: Is it tru, tho? And, of course, the answers don’t come clear, concise, etched into stone–they come in cacophanies, as followers and dissidents argue with words and steel over what words mean and what is true.

That’s not quite true.  At first, the prophecy garners little attention from anyone until it gets picked up by the tyrant of a city-state called Spar to cement the legitimacy of her rule during a political crisis, and from there, it becomes the basis for a system of extermination for all those gifted with impure magic.  Long story short: A blood mage slips through the cracks of this system, murders the entire establishment, and declares himself the Blood God, beginning an era of free magic. Things proceed slowly but steadily downward from there.

The timeline goes on for several thousand years past that point, until the world is a desert, and the last vestiges of humanity are fighting to the bitter, pyrrhic end over the last known source of drinkable water.  Even then, it’s not clear: Was the prophecy true? Was it causal? At a literal level, it’s not something we intend to answer, but Leland and I were set on a metaphor that should hang heavy–much like the prophecy itself on the world’s history–in both the mechanics of our system and the characterization of magic in the canon.  Perhaps you’ve noticed in the allusions from stories like The Chimera: Magic is death.

I.

Digression: I don’t think most realize the variability of what “magic” means in different fantasy worlds.  Obviously, it is underpinned by different sources of power–the gods, nature, crystals (wtf, Square Enix), the strength of one’s body, etc.–but there are practical differences as well, and if you dig into the philosophy (or at least apparent philosophy–many times this isn’t textual), those differences are pretty profound.

Consider two of the largest archetypes: magic as a scholarship (as practiced by DnD’s wizards) and magic as religion, a means of channeling the power of some elevated entity (as practiced by DnD’s clerics and warlocks).  There are others, but it’s defensible to say that almost all magical systems are a linear combination of these two ideas, and praxis, in all cases, is an argument. The difference is just whom you’re arguing with. For religion, that’s a duh, but for the hermetic, scholarly variety, the argument with Truth is a little harder to visualize.  Still, I’m not coming up with this from nothing–this line of thought is extremely old, dating back to Pythagoras, and it formed the underpinnings of alchemy as it was understood in the Middle Ages as well as the epistemological tradition that enabled modern science (1).

As it concerns War Torn, magic in our world is decidedly of the “hermetic” tradition.  There are no proper deities in our world, rather the “True Gods” were presumably human (or animal) at some point, as I describe here, and they don’t have much in the way of codified rites allowing one to channel their power.  Rather, magic is fueled by mana, ambient environmental energy that a properly trained individual can sense and draw into himself.

I put quotes around “hermetic” because this is actually fairly paradigm-neutral.  It’s just energy that you can harness (essentially) with yoga-style breathing exercises, but it only appears that way because no one really knows what it is.  Throughout history, various schools of thought uncover ways that mana may be gathered more effectively. The fire mages of the Diarchian Goetia learn that mana can be harvested from burning flames, the beast mages of the Bloodwood gather it by devouring living prey, and the Walking Winters of the Dereliction leach it directly from their hypothermic victims.  Behaviorally, there is a sort of argument with Truth happening here, and the method of argumentation seems to be: being a dick. Think about it. You’re burning down a forest, you’re eating someone, you’re sucking the life from their body. Magic can be used for good, but you can use so much more of it if you’re open to murder.

II.

As I said before, I don’t intend to make the scholarship any clearer than that.  Ostensibly, magic is not really death, but there’s a hell of a tragedy going on in the commons.  Magic is power, the acquisition of power kills, but how else are we to fight death?  This is roughly where the backstory collides with the prompt. Think back to the art titles: Hope, Embrace, Control, Names, a collection of vague ideals, certainly, but there’s a pattern: These are ways that humans fight death.

I mentioned in my intro for Flailing that the history of War Torn/Rale is not one of humanity at its worst, and I really do mean that.  Humanity is obviously capable of a tremendous amount of good (and even more obviously, the opposite), but what’s profound isn’t the capability–it’s the need.  Fighting death isn’t just a human behavior, it’s perhaps the most fundamental human behavior of them all, and if you don’t believe me, consider the way we relate to animals: It’s pretty easy to grok a spider’s (or any animal’s) fights and flights, struggles for survival that we experience in our own lives (however indirectly in the modern world), but how well do you relate to allowing your mate to devour you?  You’ll note that adulations of the male spider’s noble sacrifice are vanishingly rare (2).  Embracing death is unsettling, as a society it revolts us, though the fact that the individual has no such immunity is an important basis for the Dark Souls series.

My point muddles, I’ll clarify: In so many places, in so much literature, you’ll find indictments and benedictions of human nature.  We are inherently good, bad, tabula rasa, but that’s wrong.  We are all of the above, and we are only one or the other insofar as it serves a need, and that need is to be, if not in true life, then in memory, its simulacrum.  Look back to The Dragon’s Thesis.  The Dragon’s goal matches the setup perfectly, but look closer: so does Mefit’s.  That is the nature of redemption by memory.  Even if you die, you’re not dead to everyone else.

III.

This (the essay you’re reading, but also the theme as it appears throughout the world of War Torn/Rale) is meant artistically, as an exploration and affirmation.  It does not criticize, and it desires no particular change. Still, some may be tempted to view the singular drive of a fight against death as something selfish. It isn’t.  To that end, I’ll leave you on the same note we began. See the opening image. What, do you think, is its title?

Footnotes:

(1): For a good example of how this translates to fantasy, see Full Metal Alchemist, particularly the original.  Its brand of magic tracks very well with the mathematical tradition of alchemy as it actually existed.  By its title, you can probably tell that it wanted to be associated with alchemy, but recognize that the scholarly wizard angle in DnD et al is the same logical foundation.

(2): It can be justified with some mental gymnastics–we do, in fact, make sacrifices for those we love, but there’s a brief moment of revulsion when you think of it, right?

Top Image: Children, by Quinn Milton, commissioned for War Torn/Rale