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

The Way the World Has Died

Working on a couple of larger pieces right now, but posting is going to be dead for the next few days due to travel. The following was originally written as an introduction to the War Torn/Rale rulebook. That is unlikely to be its final use, but I want to share it here as good perspective on that world, looking to the beginning from the end. Overall the history on which Mefit is commenting is not really a story of humanity at its worst, but it is nonetheless deeply pessimistic. Death here is inexorable, and if humanity at its highly variable average cannot stop it, then hope certainly is difficult to hold.

To whomever reads this: I pray dearly that your hope is not lost.  My own fled me long ago, but perhaps you may yet find a use for these pages.  You see, I paid for them, with the years of my life, my blood, my sweat, even the integrity of my mind; everything I’ve ever built, indeed everything I’ve ever been, I’ve scrawled onto this parchment and bound in this leather in hope that it might serve as a lens through which one might see the way to save us.

I see no such way.  I have found no such map to salvation in what you hold in your hands.  I have found only a grim chronicle of the way the world has died. And how is that?  Even now I cannot be sure whether it was our arrogance or our cowardice; our strength or our weakness, but I know one thing without a doubt: We are to blame.  It was man and woman, just like you or I–indeed you and I–who tore the essence of life from our kin and used it to grind to dust every last thing that was good.  Some of us were as dark gods; others simple murderers, rapists, and thieves; still others called themselves heroes.  Some called themselves nothing at all. Not one of them–not one of us–was innocent.

Now the ground we stand on is torn asunder, and there is no lot left us but to fall.  Grow wings if you can. Else, read on and abandon hope.

-Mefit Il-Hazeen

Note: Mefit Il-Hazeen–though perhaps he did not use that name then–is also the narrator of The Dragon’s Thesis. You’re welcome to sort out the chronology yourselves.

Top Image: Mefit Il-Hazeen, concept sketches by Rae Johnson

Spring Cleaning

Not a substantive post, but I’ve made a few organizational changes to the blog. Notably the Archives are much more up-to-date, and I’ve added a few links to our War Torn artists’ websites on the About page. I’ve also added an Ongoing Series page to help folks read through the Dark Souls and Sevenfold Gyre posts in order (since I’m not really posting them at a readable cadence).

Also, I’m once again approaching a week of travel, so there will be a gap in my posts next week that I’ll try to mitigate as best I can.

The Sevenfold Gyre, Part 2

Part 1 here.

Interlude I

Amir sleeps on a kitchen table to separate himself from the clotting blood that soaks the house’s floors.  He wakes while the sky is still pitch, choking on rot, and stumbles into the street, where the miasma is not much improved.  His struggle to breathe holding him fast in the slender fingers of his ongoing nightmare, he runs, half sprint, half shamble, out of town.

He wanders for days, sustained by water from the rivers, desperately searching for someone to warn, to save from the massacre that has taken everything from him, but the One-Eyed Sadist is faster and very thorough.  Amir finds no one and nothing but town after village after town, soaked in blood and overwhelmed by stench.

Time is peculiar in the way it recontextualizes suffering.  In the moment, it is simply pain, but in memory it transforms.  It gilds the weeping of a stupid child, weaving glamour and filigreed shroud until meaningless days spent sick and wandering become fuel, drive, aspiration.  It turns weeks–or months?–of grief into thirst, desolation into a perverse reason to exist. So it is that Amir remembers his trek across the Riverlands, drenched in the afterbirth of a nascent Vengeance.  Of specifics, he remembers very little until his arrival at the death camp.

The place is horribly silent, all the more so amidst the whorl of fish-like decay pulsing from it.  Before the slime-covered buildings Amir can barely see in the distance, there is an impeccably clean, shining silver gate in the vague shape of a catfish’s jaws.  In wrought lettering above the gate, words read:

“Feel the gaze of Ka, the First Leader”

And beneath the gate, bodies litter the ground like wild shrubs, shockingly varied in dress and the visible evidence of their final moments.  Some are clearly townsfolk, hapless, dead of festering injuries or starvation finally taken hold beneath these gates to despair. Others are armed and armored in the regalia of the Bloodfish, lacerated and dismembered by some unknown blade.  Still others are the remains of roaches, barely describable as bodies in their twisted state, but it is these cadavers, riddled each with an impossible number of jagged shortspears that shout the loudest: Something very unexpected has happened here.

Amir cannot guess what sort of hero could have struck this blow against Ka, but he does not need to: In the shadow of the fetid camp, a man leans against the gate, sharpening a strange pick-like implement against a rock.

Part II – Patches

Daniel Patch had long ago given up being good.  It wasn’t particularly difficult. People didn’t like him, and after nominal experimentation regarding the substances he drank and the fights he picked, he concluded the reason was simply that he didn’t like them first.  He picked up and practically skipped out town–the third in recent memory he’d haphazardly tried to call home–and took up a semi-professional life of wandering.

In so doing, he found that his misanthropy, hobbling within his erstwhile close-knit communities, elevated him effortlessly in the network of mercenaries that thrived in the Windwood’s negative space.  He became a killer–one of the best, in fact–and somewhere between a steady, buzzing inebriation and the vaguely-justified violence of his profession, he found a kind of peace. One day, he was arrogant enough to frame that thought explicitly, and he knew, just as soon, it was a mistake.  By what could not have been coincidence, that was the day he met Rom.

Rom approached Daniel Patch, as those who were inclined knew how, at his cabin in the wilderness, days’ travel from anywhere of consequence, suitably unpleasant to reach for anyone without silver set aside for a mercenary’s fee.  The man was an odd bug, and the young lady he traveled with–whose name Daniel never picked up–wasn’t much better. He figured them for clergy of some sort: Though their moldering green-brown habits didn’t resemble any Kol-priest regalia he’d ever seen, their wild-eyed gazes and bizarre, chain-wrapped armaments smacked of ideology.  Still, their request didn’t seem ideological at all. It seemed…petty.

There was a village, they said, which had harassed them in their travels.  They desired the village’s militia be made an example of their wrath. Under cover of night, Daniel would–they hoped–take these vicious warriors’ lives and arrange their bodies at the center of town.

A man with more principles might have had questions, but Daniel had only one: Could these two finance their vindictive inclinations?  And oh, yes, they could. They showed him his fee–twice his fee–in gold, not silver; half upfront, half on completion, and they had no more need to explain themselves.

So the three of them departed for this doomed place, and through the seven days of travel to the very northern edge of the Windwood, Daniel Patch’s clients did nothing of note.  Against his professional intuitions, he began to wonder about them. Who the fuck were they? How could they have run afoul of this village’s tolerance while simultaneously carrying enough cash to fund its extermination?  Daniel could think of a number of endings to that setup, and none of them involved these two making it to him in possession of their money. For one reason or another, the scenario just shouldn’t have happened, and he was beginning to question whether he shouldn’t have refused Rom and his gold.  And all the while, Rom and his companion did nothing, said nothing to allay his bewilderment. They just stared and stared at him with that crazed, wondrous, vaguely disgusted expression, as if they were watching a spider shed its chitinous skin.

For better or for worse, Daniel never finished his train of thought.  They reached their destination, and leaving his unsettling companions behind, Daniel went to inspect his targets.

The village itself was starkly quiet, tense, so much that Daniel, strolling in his best impression of peaceful nonchalance, received no more interaction than a few fearful glances from women in doorways.  Which was odd on its own: There did not seem to be a single man in this place. But then he came upon the militia itself, and the pieces–enough of them, anyway–fell into place.

In the approximation of a square at the village’s center were five children fastened by their wrists to stakes in the ground, and behind those children was a man in armor efficiently and brutally driving a scourge into the exposed skin of their backs.  Another ten or twenty armored men stood in an arc about them, keeping a crowd–again, women and children–at bay. The scene was not quiet. The crowd whimpered and sobbed, the children screamed, the whip lashed, its wielder grunted, and Daniel could swear he heard flecks of blood strike the dirt with each swing.

Daniel had few sensibilities and no context for the culture of these parts, but in this place he was…uncomfortable.  It was violent, it was strangely gendered, and it was completely alien to his notions of how…people…should work. At that moment, he forgot his lingering revulsion for his employers, and though he was perhaps not enthusiastic about his impending murder spree, he was strangely okay with it.

He briefly noted the barracks-like structure at the edge of the square and left without a third glance to prepare for the night’s ugly business well away from this place.  He didn’t bother to find Rom–the man and his companion could clearly fend for themselves, and, being honest, he was quite content to speak with them as little as possible before they settled accounts.  The space was immediately noticeable, and the irritation that had fogged Daniel’s thoughts for the previous week faded to a level that allowed him to consider the specifics of his situation.

If he wanted to complete this job, there were two things that needed not happen: First, the militia members–brawny, fighting men they appeared to be–could not have time to prepare.  Daniel was dangerous, and he knew it, but there were almost thirty of these fuckers. The killing would take place predominantly with his quarry panicked and unarmed, or it would not take place at all.  Second, he would need to minimize time spent at close quarters. His skillset revolved predominantly around his spear-thrower, well-suited to stalking folk through the trees or waylaying travelers. All but useless in the building where these men would be sleeping, and besides, they were probably stronger than him.  If one got hold of him, it could end the night early.

He wanted to burn the place down.  Board up the windows, bar the door, there wouldn’t be a damn thing they could do, but alas, Rom had wanted them arranged in some kind of circle.  Daniel needed them out of the wreckage and, if possible, minimally crispy. He would improvise, then: Board up all but one exit and kill them as they stumbled out.  It would be a lot more difficult, but they would be dead and unscorched, and if one died in the building and couldn’t be dragged into Rom’s effigy mound, well, fuck Rom.  Settled, he sharpened his spears and the pick blades on his atlatl and waited.

The sun went down, and it got dark, moonless, air like ink between the trees.  Daniel got up, gathered his things and made his way back to the village, navigating by feel as much as sight, confident in casual defiance of the arboreal void before him.  He reached his destination and found it just as dark as the forest around and, oddly, unguarded. But, he wasn’t going to complain. He soaked one of his torches in oil from a flask at his hip, lit it, and slowly, dramatically, lobbed it onto the barracks’ thatched roof.  The building suddenly ablaze, he notched a spear into his atlatl and waited for his first victim to emerge.

Emerge, he did, half-clothed, grotesquely muscled, but with none of the anger one would expect of a seasoned warrior in a surprising situation.  No, it was just panicked, mindless fear. Daniel didn’t linger on it. He whipped his atlatl in the man’s direction, and the spear caught him in the mouth, impaling his head and freezing that panicked, mindless, fearful expression in his eyes for posterity.

***

A short time later, the last militia man dropped to the ground, a pair of thin holes punched into the side of his head where Daniel had struck him, and Daniel whistled, vaguely relieved and more than winded.  He was spattered in blood and ash, quite glad to be rid of these people and his need to be among them. He glanced about the square, now gently lit by the barracks’ roaring blaze, and counted the bodies. Twenty-three, not counting whoever didn’t make it out alive.  Good enough. Noting with discomfort the faces beginning to poke out of buildings in the distant shadows, he hurried to drag his victims into place, to a messy circle at the center of the square. He did so quickly and turned to leave with the same haste when a voice stopped him.

“There is something yet for you to see, Mr. Patch.”  It was Rom. Daniel reluctantly turned his head, directing a sidelong glare at its source to see the man and his companion standing, hooded and still, at the doorway of a nearby house.  Rom gestured at the circle of corpses with an airy smile. Daniel dearly wanted to tell him to go fuck himself, but something, curiosity, perhaps, or unwillingness to jeopardize his payment pulled his attention back to the square.  He was immediately unhappy with the decision.

As soon as his eyes fell upon the circle, it was as if the world plunged underwater.  The glare of the burning building dimmed, grew cooler, and the pitch darkness of the night beyond thickened and grew viscous as it encroached on the scene.  And from that oozing gloam, the rest of the village shambled into the light.

Their eyes were glass, their jaws slack.  They approached the bodies and knelt beside them in the dirt and thrust their hands into their wounds, tearing handfuls of flesh from their fallen guardians and lifting them tremulously to their open mouths.  Daniel was very resolved at this point: He did not want to watch any longer. But now, with his eyes locked on the circle, the scene, Rom’s–he realized–revolting display, there was something telling his body that he couldn’t look away now.  The externality of that thought was very literal: That something was not part of him, and Daniel had the distinct impression that whatever it was that held him, petrified in the dark before this sickening array of phagia, was laughing.  No, not laughing. More peaceful. Smiling.

“He was right,” Rom said, eyes wide in awe, as Daniel began to notice a sensation of angularity.  The circle and everything in it was still before his eyes, but in his mind it spun, and with its turning, it began to change.

“We have grown dull living on the surface.  Every truth we have ever known has simply bubbled up from the deep.”

The villagers’ bodies morphed and bent.  Their skin, their size, their sex, shifted, and before Daniel’s eyes each of them became a another person and then another and another as the gyre spun.  Their grim meal was no different, the dead militia men became other men, skinned beasts, and men again, and with each turn, both the villagers and the slain grew more and more monstrous, bristling with fur and eyes and tendrils and slime.

“The Man of the Clouds showed us to sculpt the deep’s effusions,” Rom said.  “To remake reality. Many followed, only one understood, and he was right: There was never any truth.  Only an ocean of realities that we never dared imbibe.”

The bodies in the circle had begun to degrade, no longer distinct individuals, rather mounds of rats and maggots and insects where they had been, and the component beings of those mounds continued to change, to get smaller, until the entire circle was tiny, winged, black flies.  And they flew, all at once, buzzing, a great verminous whirlwind flowing into the darkness above. What they left was very nearly the circle as it had started. The villagers knelt by corpses, hungrily devouring them, but there were two differences, and Daniel noticed them immediately: The militia men had become children, and the fort-like barracks behind them was not fort-like at all.  Perhaps it was a flaw in Rom’s attempt at exegesis, perhaps it was simply Daniel’s distrust for the man, but Daniel knew immediately: This was not a vision. This was the truth. He had just murdered twenty-three children, and he had been under Rom’s influence far longer than he’d thought.

“Truth is useless to us, Daniel Patch,” Rom continued.  “Abandon it and follow. There is so much waiting for us, and the Smile shall plunge us to its depths.”

Daniel wasn’t listening.  He had poured the entirety of his will into wrenching free whatever force held his mind hostage, and he had succeeded.  As Rom, beatifically ignorant, finished his sentence, Daniel’s arm was already in motion, hurling a spear at the bastard who had manipulated him.  But Rom was not quite so ignorant as Daniel hoped, and he was faster than Daniel believed possible. He noticed the spear as it entered the air, and with a sudden, twitching motion, he dashed out of its path, into the square.  His companion received his fate instead. The spear hit her in the chest, slamming her backward into the wall of the house and killing her instantly.

Daniel did not have time to throw another.  Faster, almost, than he could turn his head, Rom’s chain whipped across the distance between them and wrapped about his neck, crushing his throat as it pulled tight.  Daniel dropped his atlatl and struggled to free himself, but he had no illusions, as Rom ran to him with the knife on the other end of the chain, that he was actually going to escape.

“I blame myself,” Rom said, plunging his knife into Daniel’s temple.

***

Patches blamed himself too, but he resolved to make the injustice right, no matter how many times it took.  

When the old man woke him up, he found it strangely easy to acclimate.  He had seen the deep, he had seen the Smile’s grand lie. He understood his multiplicity.  Perhaps he was unique among the seven for understanding it truly. But there was an accord in his bond to the old dog.  Vengeance. He understood it too, at the core of his being. His name, well, it became an affectation. One Patch was not enough to sew up the truth, to hold back the lies, but he had been given another life, a multitude of lives, and revenge, by little revenge, he sought to repair the everything that he’d done his part to destroy.

Top Image: Draft work for Names (work in progress), by Rae Johnson, commissioned for War Torn/Rale

Flailing

Art by Rae Johnson, original story by Leland Masek, editing by me. In between some of the larger posts, I wanted to give a look into the creative process we use for War Torn/Rale. The story was the concept we used to flesh out the idea of this character’s–Judiah’s–death scene, a pivotal moment in the history of our world. Your context is certainly limited, but that’s the intent–what do you glean from these images and words?

Forty hands with forty daggers will find the hole in Judiah’s unbreakable flesh.

And that is what happened.

Judiah, False God of Wind and Time. Was stabbed in the armpit by a random, thrashing, dying girl. With a blade from her grandmother, meant for crops, a tiny, cutting blade. As he held her down and lowered the Arm of Justice to her skin, turning first her hair, then her scalp, to ash, as if caressing her with love. Her random flailings hit flesh like stone over and over, the sound of steel chipping at rock ringing out, nauseating, infamous in Judiah’s wake of destruction. Until a strike landed wet and hot in her hand.

And Judiah’s eyes opened wide. And he blinked. And the Arm of Justice drifted inward, obliterating the poor child’s face as he fell, dying.

The blade had found a gap in his uncanny invincibility, a gap that had not existed the year before, a gap that grows from magic wearing thin. But Judiah had never known his tools well enough to become careful. And like that, his powers of Wind and Time, which had made him God-like for twenty years, simply and utterly failed him.

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