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

The Conceptual Economy

Part three of the Dark Souls series, on the Undead and Lordran. Part 1 here. Part 2 here.

Image result for dark souls firelink shrine art

Lots of words have been written at this point; here’s where we’re at: There’s a clear parallel between Nietzsche’s progression of nihilism and Dark Souls’ setup.  We’ll flesh that out soon–the last essay only introduced it–but it’s better that we have most of our details down before we get into implications. After all, “the world of Dark Souls is nihilistic” is so vague as to be undisputable, and it’s not like it makes Dark Souls make sense by itself.  If we want that, we’ll need to discuss the game’s minute-to-minute experience.

I.

I chopped this out of the transcription from last essay, but let’s discuss it now:

Yes, indeed. The Darksign brands the Undead. And in this land, the Undead are corralled and led to the north, where they are locked away, to await the end of the world… This is your fate.

Only, in the ancient legends it is stated, that one day an Undead shall be chosen to leave the Undead asylum, in pilgrimage, to the land of ancient lords, Lordran.

You probably have some internal definitions of what it means to be “undead”, and Dark Souls probably doesn’t meet very many of those.  The denizens of Lordran are often articulate, intelligent, usually even “normal”-looking. They aren’t skeletons (though they’re around), they aren’t zombies (they’re around too, see Hollows), they’re just exactly the same as humans except for some little black scab that you wouldn’t even notice unless things were getting hot and steamy.  One might point out their (inconsistent) tendency to revive around swords shoved into campfires or the fact that hollowing makes them more and more zombie-like, but that combination of traits seems so far away from a conventional understanding of the term that you wonder: Why call them that at all? Why not play up the “curse” aspects instead of reengineering a term with so much cultural cachet (1)?

This probably sounds like criticism, but I’m really just trying to discourage face-value readings of the situation.  At face value, labelling people in Lordran as Undead seems confusing and stupid, so you can either ignore the apparent Japanese arcana of it and blow right past, or you can be a kind reader and work from the assumption that the stupid-looking decisions are deliberate.  This is my essay, so I’m going to do that. Start from the basics: What does being Undead mean for the Undead?

Solaire of Astora: Now that I am Undead, I have come to this great land, the birthplace of Lord Gwyn, to seek my very own sun!”  

Laurentius of the Great Swamp: “In this land, pyromancers earn a certain respect.  The Witch of Izalith, one of the legendary Lords, is the godmother of pyromancy.  So, the day I became Undead, I was ecstatic. I felt as if I’d been chosen to attune myself to the ancient arts.”

Of course, it’s not all great–these people were still hunted by Allfather Lloyd, et al and corralled in asylums, but now zoom out to the world, Lordran.  Solaire and Laurentius both are excited that their Undeath should grant them entry to this place, and you have to wonder why: A) It’s in ruins, steadily falling apart, hardly seems aspirational, and B) in what way, exactly, does Undeath get them in?  Does the bird only carry people with the Darksign? Is the bird the only way to get there?

Let’s examine the ruins question first.  Lordran certainly looks like a slowly degrading collection of fallen kingdoms, but only if you aren’t looking very closely.  If you are, the juxtaposition is jarring: A semi-functioning city is stapled to a church guarded by knights of a random ancient kingdom.  Go down a staircase, and you find a giant hydra in a lake, surrounded by crystalline golems, and just a jaunt away is lethal funhouse staffed by murderous snake-people.  And Anor Londo, lost city of the gods themselves? Just over the hill past the fortress. If you look at it this way, you can see it: This isn’t a kingdom at all–it’s a museum.  It may be trying to kill you, but don’t let that give you the wrong impression. We’re in the metaphysical layer, walking through a monument to what once was (or perhaps what once was mythologized), which brings us to question two: If becoming Undead qualifies you for entry into a place inhabited by gods, wherein reality itself is enshrined semi-eternally, where are you (bonus: Your alternative, pending one bird flight is a hellish prison guarded by literal demons)?  I’m no theologian, but it seems like you might be in some kind of fucked up Heaven.

II.

While Lordran as the afterlife may be a good entry point into a particular way of looking at it, it’s best not to take that interpretation too far.  An afterlife presupposes that Lordran’s denizens had a before-life, outside this place, and while there is evidence for that, it’s really not clear to what degree it’s relevant to the world dynamic (at least in Dark Souls 1).  For example, it’s pretty easy to tell that Solaire of Astora isn’t from around here because it says right in his name: He’s from Astora.  Astora, ostensibly at least, isn’t in Lordran (also dialogue, etc.), so Solaire almost certainly existed before he showed up there, but there isn’t much mention of anything he did in his past life or its bearing on the here and now (2).

To rephrase, the question is one of emphasis.  Starting with the afterlife interpretation, consider the aforementioned inconsistency of characters’ resurrection.  If you squint, you can see a conceptual pattern between the types of characters that respawn (random enemies, ie museum exhibits; phantom Undead) and those that don’t (bosses, other non-phantom Undead, legendary enemies like Black Knights or Havel).  Excluding the player (this is also a thin reading, but hear me out), you can describe these same groups as [those enshrined/entangled in Lordran’s museum-reality] and [those vying to dominate it]. Since the player character is as inexterminable as a cockroach in spite of belonging clearly to the latter group, the resurrection angle may not be accurately descriptive, but the distinction between conquering agents and metaphysical background is still useful.  It also brings us to two important questions: First, what is the significance of that struggle to conquer for the physical and metaphorical layers; and second, what exactly does domination of the metaphysical look like?  The former is broad and has a broad answer–we’ll be exploring it through the entirety of this series.  The latter is more specific, tied to a question so obvious it’s a wonder we’ve avoided it up to now: The game is called “Dark Souls”, right?  Pray tell, what exactly are these “souls” (3)?

III.

For those following along who have not played the game, Dark Souls’ souls are a catch-all currency and experience system.  When you kill an enemy, you are given a number of souls (usually hundreds or thousands–the guy was carrying them or something).  You can use these souls to improve your attributes, but the interesting thing is that everyone around you seems to be doing the same.  This isn’t entirely literal–individual characters don’t generally get any stronger throughout the game; that’s just you–but they certainly do try to get all the souls they can, and if they aren’t inclined to do it through murder, they’ll do it through trade.  Characters throughout Lordran will sell you items or teach you skills for souls, and the game lampshades their status as currency with juxtaposition to actual currency.  See the Gold Coin.  Description:

“Coin made of gold, with Allfather Lloyd and his white halo shown on its face.  Even coins of great value in the world of men have little value in Lordran, where the accepted currency is souls.”

Our metaphysical realm, then, has an economy of souls.  The prose is appropriate to the genre, but in real terms, what does this mean?  What is a soul? Conventionally, of course, it’s paired with a possessive, the soul is someone’s.  It’s someone’s identity, agency, lifeforce, whatever.  The three-digit numbers you reap from each fallen foe might discourage that interpretation, but a certain class of item muddies the water.  Throughout Lordran, you will find items called something of the form: “Large Souls of a Lost Undead”. These, along with “Soul of [Boss Name]” (guess how you get those), can be consumed for a reward of some number of souls, suggesting that characters in Lordran are not just fueled by souls, but comprised of them.  Reasonable, but the plurality is perplexing.

One resolution might be the American Gods route: The metaphysical is the realm of the gods, and gods have metaphysical strength proportional to the strength of their believers in the physical world.  Might a single soul then represent a believer? There may be something to this line of thought (4), but A) it doesn’t really have any explicative power as the nihilism metaphor is concerned, and B) petty, perhaps, but the metaphorical mechanism can be improved: Ideological battles aren’t exactly amoebic as followers are concerned–sometimes people convert when they clash, but more often they just die.  In Dark Souls, by contrast, the nature of conflict is straightforward: You kill a guy, you get his stuff.

Consider a close alternative.  Among believers, a clash of ideologies is inherently political, and politics is, well, difficult to model, especially in a way that makes sense at this level of abstraction.  So, for now, take out the believers. Without them, the ideological clash is just an argument without an audience, reason applied to determine truth rather than realize a political goal.  Not all such arguments have a victor, but when they do, there is no death of the evidence–it all merely supports a new conclusion, a victor in the battle.

What, then, are souls?  They are concepts, memes, evidence, tiny fragments of truth.  Which is appropriate: If the Lords found their souls within the Flame, and the Flame is Truth, then why should their progeny be built of anything but its component parts?  Why should the above be unlike the below?

Footnotes:

(1): Worth noting that Dark Souls 2 does this, but that Dark Souls does not feels deliberate.  Consider also that Miyazaki did not direct Dark Souls 2.

(2): There are exceptions, the most nuanced of which is probably Siegmeyer of Catarina, whose sins ultimately pursue him to his end at Ash Lake.  But even then, it’s not like you ever find out what they are, which is a good indicator that his case is one of brand rather than particulars.  Specifically, his daughter’s mention of his relationship with her mother seems to more to serve as development of his persona in Lordran as a paragon of wanderlust.

(3): This question rightfully begins with Demon’s Souls, from which the experience system was more or less transplanted wholesale.  For what it’s worth, I’ve never attempted a literary reading of Demon’s Souls, but it may be on the docket for the future, alongside Bloodborne.

(4): If you like conspiracy theories, here’s one: The maximum amount of souls you can spend leveling up in Dark Souls is 1,692,438,971, suggesting by the believers metaphor that this is the maximum number of a followers a metaphysical ideal can have.  The largest religion in the world is Sunni Islam, with a very close 1.5 billion followers. Probably a coincidence, but that’s a weirdly precise match of orders of magnitude.

Top Image: By DRAGONizm, found via Google

The Sevenfold Gyre, Part 1

The first installment in what will likely be a longer fiction piece in the War Torn world. Highly referential toward a particular work. Preemptive apologies to those who might recognize it.

“Why seven?” the old man mumbles, his voice barely audible over the campfire’s crackling.  “I’m not sure there’s a reason. Some mage prob’ly has shit to say, but I don’t think the number is special.  I, uh…” he trails off, lifting his face to glance at the sky. For a rare moment, his gnarled face and horrible, focused eyes are visible beneath the brim of his hat.

“I think it’s like music,” he says, pausing and lowering his gaze back to the ground.  “When you strike a chord, it’s really so many notes, and until someone hears it, it’s not like any of those pieces have meaning.  But then someone walks up and listens, intrudes upon that perfect silence, and suddenly the notes combine.  They hear music. I’m sure that with different notes, the song would change, but there is no origin, no reason, no truth for why this all should be.  The two of us plucked seven notes, and now the harmony echoes.”

“That is all it is.  Cause and effect. No reason, and, yet, no coincidence either.”

Part 1 – Amir

Hate did not come naturally to Amir.  He knew because he needed to remind himself why he should.  The effort was not natural either, but it wasn’t difficult–the memory jumped to the forefront of his attention barely bidden, with a cruel clarity that defied its age:

He was ten years old, at market with his mother and sister.  They were newcomers to the Riverlands, and they lived nearly a half-day’s journey from town, but the folk there were kind and welcoming.  On that day, he remembered chasing his sister among the stalls as his mother picked out the week’s supplies from the merchants’ noisy forum.  He couldn’t say why he chased her–he couldn’t remember–he only remembered it seemed important then. But it distracted him, he thought with spite and shame, even though he couldn’t be sure whether his undistracted ten-year-old self would have noticed the change in the market’s air.

It was subtle but swift.  The bustle, the purpose of the square, the shouting merchants’ wall of noise, in a matter of seconds it all crumbled, replaced by…nothing.  Not alarm, just a lack. And the stupid child didn’t notice a thing.

When he did notice, he heard it before he saw it.  Clicking. Uncanny chittering. Soft hoofbeats, the snarl of a stallion.  He froze, turning slowly to see a macabre procession at the corner of the square.

Ambulating deliberately into the crowd on bony appendages not meant to ambulate were a number of creatures.  In the way they carried themselves, they resembled dogs, or perhaps giant insects, but in every other respect their anatomy churned the stomach.  Exposed muscle strung about the cages of bone, shattered and irregular, that made up their thoraces and wound about the amalgamations of ribs, mandibles, and vertebrae on which they haltingly skittered.  The townspeople drew back in terror where they passed, but the boy barely moved. He was frightened and confused, but he hadn’t the imagination to grasp the depth of the nightmare that approached him.

Instead, his gaze fell to the one that led them.  It was a man, thin, unnaturally tall, astride a massive dark horse that seemed to glide across the ground where it stepped, with a grace that only just failed to disguise the aura of dread emanating from both mount and rider.  In stark contrast to the shambling corpses at his side, the man was clean, trim, obsessively orderly. His long hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and his black armor shone in the sun. It made his gaze all the more unsettling.

The man’s right eye was calm and piercing blue, unconcerned with the folk cowering before him, content to absorb the scene.  His left was a gaping socket, torn ragged, surrounded by tiny gouges and scars and blackened, as if scorched. This was a man with the bearing of a prince, but it was this small corner of his face that told his beholders what he really was, what he really wanted.

And so it was then, as the one-eyed man’s gaze fell upon the boy, that his imagination expanded, and he opened his mouth to scream.  Barely a yelp escaped his lips, as the stallion crossed the square in an instant, and, in a single, fluid, practiced motion, the man reached down to the boy, pulled him by the hair across his saddle, and plunged a wicked, two-pronged knife into his mouth.  The boy thrashed, blood running across his face, down his throat, but the man held him fast. As he struggled, he was dimly aware of his mother’s screams, the shouts of the townsfolk, the agitated clicking of the roach-like bone creatures, but the most striking assault to his senses, the very clearest memory of that day, was the sight of the man’s face as, one by one, he dug the boy’s teeth from his jaw: It was calm, serene even, unbothered by the boy’s attempts to escape, the streams of his blood, or the mounting chaos in the square around.  The slightest smile graced his mouth, and the boy realized with a chill that stabbed his heart that this gruesome spectacle was, to the man, not a joy, not an excitement, not a whim, but a comfort.  The notion that he was almost certainly about to die had not occurred yet, but this realization, that the one-eyed man was utterly in his element, utterly in control, silenced his struggle by itself.

But then a good man intervened.

The one-eyed man’s expression did not change, but leaned back abruptly as a rock flew through the air where his head had been.  He turned, and the boy squirmed to get a glimpse of the assailant.

It was the town’s mayor, a man whose name Amir knew to be Matze Matsua, already hefting another rock for a shot at the one-eyed man.  He had galvanized the town, and the folk behind him were readying their own projectiles, but their desperation was so far from enough.

One of the bone creatures lurched forward, impaling Matsua on a spinal column and tearing into his flesh.  Once again, the square froze amidst Matsua’s screams. Then, the one-eyed man gave the slightest of nods, and the remaining bone creatures fell upon the crowd.  Knife raised, he pulled the bottom of his hand over the boy’s eyes.

Before he lost consciousness, Amir remembered, he heard a whisper:

“Are you awake from your nightmare?  You think you’re dying, I’m sure, and fighting death is such hard work.  You think you don’t have time for fun anymore.”

There was a pause, the slaughter of the town echoing in the background.

“Silly boy.  There’s always time for fun.  And there’s always time for things to get worse.  Your world has changed, and it will keep getting smaller.”

When the boy woke, he was in the town square alone.  His mouth was bloody, and half his teeth were gone, but it seemed the one-eyed man had taken his roaches and left.  One way or another, everyone else had left too. The air was rank with the scent of iron, and ground was still slick with blood, but through the whole town, not a single body–breathing or no–remained.  It was just him. Just Amir.

But who the fuck was Amir?  It was doubtful anyone in town had even known his name.  He was just a stupid, distracted child, just an idle hobby for the one-eyed man, just the first of many to bleed that day.  No one would remember him. No one ought to remember him.

Instead his mind flashed to Matze Matsua.  He was a kind man, brave, beloved. He had moved to save Amir, sacrificing his life when even the boy’s mother stood aside.  His was a name that ought to be remembered. But, the boy thought, confusion and fear subsiding, the one-eyed man had denied him that.

And then it all flooded his brain: Confusion became certainty, fear became anger, and sorrow–for his mother and sister, certainly dead; for the kind, welcoming townsfolk; for Matze Matsua, lost to the thoughtless gyre of history–turned to boiling hate.

He–the boy and the man he became–hated the One-Eyed Sadist, whose name he would never learn, he hated the Lord Ka who commanded him, whose face he had never seen, he hated the roaches, the cruel war they waged, the atrocities they committed, and he hated the gods that sat in their heaven, allowing these monsters to rule in their stead.  For that brief moment, it was natural. It was consuming. Hate was all of him.

But through all the remaining years of his life, all of the times he forgot and remembered–forced himself to remember–this feeling, he never once realized the trick, the smiling lie: that the best man he’d ever known had taught him to hate.

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

Death of an Old Wolf

His first words were: “I wonder about choices.”  I’ll confess it made little sense to me at the time, but it’s how he began.  I remember it vividly.

He said: “I wonder about choices.”

It was near the end of the campaign.  The trees had fallen, victory was within our grasp, and for the first time, Mother had seen fit to allow me to accompany her expedition.  I knew she expected the beasts to surrender–it was a reasonable expectation. We outnumbered them ten-to-one, and their groves and hidey-holes had been taken from them.  But the old wolf didn’t want to discuss surrender. He wanted to discuss choices.

He turned to face our battalion.

“You are the one they call Kr’lash, yeah?” he asked.  Mother nodded. He rolled his shoulders and smiled a manic, harrowed smile.  “You’ve made choices. Do you think about them too?”

We had found the wolf in a strange place.  Days earlier, we had raided the fort he’d taken as a headquarters, only to find it empty of beasts, of supplies, even of traps.  The scouts found tracks in every direction, like the beasts had just scattered. Most led off into the desert, but one set had run deep into the fallen wood, to a cave at the base of the mountain.  They found him there, alone, and, by his request, went to fetch Mother for a “talk.”

The term “cave,” however, failed to truly capture this place.  Though the tunnel we’d taken to get there was dark and narrow and all the things you would expect of a cave, the chamber where the wolf awaited us was something else entirely.  It was a cavern, vast, uncannily silent, lit in part by beams of sun slicing in through cracks in the ceiling, but truly strange was what the cavern contained.  

Just behind the wolf were two great trees, branching like black lightning into the darkness, in bizarre defiance of the cavern’s lack of light, but where leaves might haver hung from their branches, instead tongues of flame crackled, strung from the boughs like tears of a willow.  And though I could feel the heat from the blaze where I stood beside Mother, I saw that the branches did not smolder or crack.

In the dim behind the trees, nestled into the rear wall of the cavern, was a great stone building, its crumbled statues and pillars just barely visible through the shadows.  I did not grasp it then, but when I think to that day, I now wonder whether I did not see a body, stained with blood, sprawled across the stairs of that structure.

“I do, Bleeding Wolf,” Mother said.  “Though I cannot say I regret those I’ve made recently.”  The wolf regarded her coldly, one hand clenched in a fist.  The other, I noticed, was twirling a small knife between its fingers.  I use these words deliberately: It was as if the gesture was occuring, serene, entirely outside the wolf’s sphere of attention.

“You cut down a forest,” he growled, bewildered, seething.

“You gave us no choice,” Mother replied, her voice every bit as cold.  “My people would die in the desert, and they would die with you and your cannibals lurking between the trees.”

“Cannibals…” the wolf remarked to the air as she spoke.

“Yes.  You are.”

“Of course.”  There was a hint of a smile on his scarred face.  “It’s just that you’ve judged us human enough to recognize our meals as our own.  Unusual. Flattering.”

Mother seemed taken aback, but only slightly, and only for a moment.  She reformed her composure but did not respond. The wolf took notice, shuddering as he chuckled.

“Still, do you see how it circles?” he asked.  “I’ve been looking at the big picture. I’ve seen what you people do to places like this, what we’ve done to places like this for millennia, and I tried to stand in the way.  I tried to make it so that one of us, at least, would live to see tomorrow.  It was the only choice. You might say,” he looked over his shoulder at one of the blazing trees before turning back with an unsettling gleam in his eyes.  “You might say I had no choice at all.”

“I’m left here wondering,” he continued,” whether anything we’ve done has ever mattered.  Were we always going to die?”

“Perhaps you always were,” Mother said.  “You and all those who traded life for power.”

“Wonderful try, K’rlash, but your history is dogshit.  Everyone keeping score knows about the prophecy, but no one remembers what anyone tried to do about it.”  He gestured at the surreal vista behind him. “Do you even know what this place is?” Mother smiled, rising to his taunt.

“I’d chance a guess this is their temple,” she replied.  “The ‘long lost’ temple of the beastmen that called themselves the Lords of the Sky.  I’m surprised you found it, but I don’t know that it matters.” The wolf stared at her, seeming almost offended.

“Incredible,” he muttered.  “Did you learn all your history by interrogating prisoners of war?”

“Is this banter a condition of your surrender?” Mother asked, this time stonefaced.  The wolf cackled.

“Absolutely not!  But to understand the conditions of my surrender, you’re going to need some education.  This, for one, is the temple of the god that started all of this. The one who looked our fate in the eye and said ‘I choose death.’  The Lords of the Sky have just been squatting.  

“Moreover,” he continued, “only the outcasts of the Lords of the Sky took up the ways of my people, of beasts.  The main contingent kept a very different culture. They dwelled here until recently, guarding their own sordid history.”

As he said this, his knife stopped twirling, fingers snapping tight around the handle.  It took me more than a decade to understand this gesture, and this delay has become one of my greatest regrets.

“Both of these facts are known,” the wolf said, “if you ask the right people, look in the right places.”  He paused, then added: “Take the right care. I don’t suppose your mages have noticed the power in this place?”

I was not, at the time, accustomed to opening my body to magic–my mother and her advisors had taught me that doing so would hasten the death of the world we sought to prevent–but at the wolf’s words, I reached out and felt what he meant: This place was awash with magic and soaked in death, but words struggle to capture the feeling.  I knew with a certainty and clarity I’d never before felt that blood had been spilled in this place, in dizzying quantity, over centuries long past but reeking of death as if the slaughter had stopped only yesterday. Mana oozed from the dirt, from the stone, even from the air, heavy with the collective last breath of tens of thousands.

“He brought us here because he’s stronger,” I whispered to Mother, jumping to my own conclusions.  “He doesn’t intend to surrender.”

“Apparently,” she replied, raising a hand.  At this, the archers trained their bows on the wolf.  “Make sure that you and Cain are ready.” As I made eye contact with our pyromancer, the wolf seemed to take note of our conference.

“There is a number three, you know.”  His voice goaded. “My own little secret.  Would you like to hear it?” Mother decided she did not.

She signalled the archers, and in the same moment, the wolf sprinted to one of the burning trees.  It was nearly fifty feet away, but he covered the ground in a second. By the time the first arrow left its string, he was plunging his knife into the tree’s bark.  His priority seemed bizarre, but we realized its purpose quickly enough: As he stabbed the tree, its flames flared and then suddenly vanished, and then we were left in darkness with the most powerful mage in the forest.

The first thing that broke through the pitch was Cain’s torrent of flame, narrowly missing the wolf as he charged our front line, still in transition after the archer’s initial volley.  The spearmen made it to the front, but they were unable to set their weapons before he crashed through their line, sending bodies flying, limbless and lacerated by the maws lining his hands and arms.

The wolf’s form had changed.  Though it still resembled a human in shape and number of limbs, its features had twisted into nauseating mockeries of both human and beast.  Its body was now covered in grey fur that bristled, raised, needlelike, against the bursts of fire and dim sunlight above, and everywhere, along its arms, legs, all sides of the appendage that was previously its head, were mouths, gasping, tearing, gnashing thousands of horrid fangs.  The only part of it untouched by the amorphic nightmare of jaws and teeth was its torso, where the scars that had lined the creature’s skin as a man had begun to run with blood, and in so doing, had begun to glow red with magical power in the darkness.

I reached out, grasping at the mana it radiated, pulling the strength of the earth around me to collapse the dirt beneath it, but I pulled too much, and instead of dragging the creature into the mud, I shattered the ground beneath all of our feet.  The wolf stumbled, to be sure, but the majority of our soldiers were sent sprawling, and the earthen shrapnel from my explosion proved far more ruinous for them than for the creature.

After only a moment, it stood, jagged rock protruding–and falling, woundless–from its flesh, seeming no more in pain than before the blast, and looked to Cain, who had been knocked unconscious by a stone to his temple.  In that instant, Mother charged from the shadows, her black armor only barely visible in the darkness, and plunged her sword into the wolf’s chest. As the blade punched through, grinding audibly against bone, the beast’s glowing scars ignited.  I realized, suddenly, that she had prepared for this–her sword was wreathed in mana, and, attuned as I was then to the flows of death around me, I recognized the pattern in its enchantment, and I realized then that Mother was not above imitation of those we had vilified.  

For its part, Mother’s magic was devastatingly effective.  Through the flare of the wolf’s scars, its own blood shot from its torso in a salvo of glistening, crimson spikes, wrapping about its arms and legs and solidifying, pressing, suddenly crystalline and sharp against its flesh.  Even so, bloody and nearly crucified, the wolf was not done. With a sudden, tinny crack, it wrenched its right arm free of its gruesome restraints and grabbed Mother by the neck, fingers curling around the bottom of her helm.  I willed my legs to move, desperately trying to close my distance to the beast as I saw its claws slowly elongate, puncturing the sides of her head. Within an instant, her body went limp.

Enraged, flailing, I sent a pulled a spike of rock from the ground, impaling the wolf through his abdomen.  It lurched, and its claws receded. Mother tumbled to the ground. I rushed to her, but for some reason, I couldn’t pull my eyes from the wolf.

“You fool,” it mumbled to me.  “You don’t see it. You think you’re out of time, it’s do or die, you have nothing to lose…”  The lupine features of its face seemed to melt before my eyes, ragged fur receded, teeth pulled back as its jaw flattened, until it was no longer a wolf.

“There’s always time,” the man said, blood burbling from his open mouth.  “And things can always…get…worse…” He trailed off, as the cavern began to shudder, and with no more warning, the floor beneath us collapsed.

About a third of us survived, able to climb to safety near the entrance of the cavern.  Following the collapse, the fire never returned. The trees had disappeared, and the only thing that remained was a vast pit, descending into the darkness farther than any of us could see.  I sent a party down to search the rubble at the bottom for Mother’s body, but only one soldier was able to climb back out alive. He never found the body. All he was able to deliver was a small knife.

Slowdown

A brief update, as this blog is starting to gather droplets of attention. I will be travelling for the next week and a half, without access to a computer, and between that and the backlog of material I used to start this blog slowly dwindling, my frequency of posting will slow a bit. I have a few posts queued up for the time I’ll be gone, but don’t expect to see more than a few until I return.

Long term, the plan hasn’t changed. The Dark Souls series will continue, and I will continue posting short fiction as I write it. For those now following, thank you and welcome.

The Chimera

Very rough, written for use in a War Torn/Rale playtest one-shot (hence the weird, second-person framing).  Posting primarily as an excuse to show off Rae’s art.

You feel time drain from your perspective.  Where you are is not here, when you are is not now.  The trees around grow tall and vast, larger than you have ever seen, and the underbrush grows in kind.  From the canopy, birds take flight, and squirrels scamper between the boughs. Amidst it all, you see a stag emerge from the greenery.  The creature is tall and proud and weathered by its years in the forest–it knows that even as it is surrounded by life, death is never far.

Even now, it is pursued by a group of men.  They carry bows and spears and fire, and eve though the creature flees from them at great speed, they are relentless.  Soon, it is tired, and the men reach it. Their blades and arrows pierce its hide, and their flames scorch its face, and though it tries once more to flee, its legs fail it, and it crashes, heavy, to the ground.

The men approach but do not reach it, for suddenly, a wolf leaps from between the branches and bites a man’s throat.  Blood flows, and the man’s companions stab the beast, but even in death, it does not forsake its quarry.

The stag, seeing life abandon its would-be salvation, cries out in horror.  The sound is feral, animal, real, but you recognize the creature’s voice all the same from the echoes you heard beneath the earth in your own world, outside this strange rift in reality.  Abandoned by life, it instead calls out to death, to draw the macabre scene into its warm embrace.

For the first time in the creature’s long memory, death heeds its call.  The branches around them, imbued with that deathly force, grow and pierce the men, enshrouding the dead wolf in monument of briar and blood.  At once, the stag realizes: To help the world escape death, it must become as death. It must draw the whole world into its embrace.

The stag, galvanized by fear and grief, sets about its task.  It devours the wolf, swallowing its tail, its flank, its shoulders.  As the stag engulfs the dead beast’s maw, a spark of life, of hunger, awakens inside it, and the beasts, now twinned, begin to eat as one the men, the briar, the earth, and the trees, until the chimera and the forest are one.

Years pass, and the earth shifts, and a Hunter arrives at the forest’s edge.  He understands, as the chimera does, the balance of life and death. And just as the chimera has, he has swallowed the strength of the dead, stocked it beneath his skin.  For years, the two hunt each other, attempting, as they had before, to pull one more soul into their embrace, but they are tenacious and tireless, and neither does prevail.

The Hunter grows tired of the hunt, but he cannot walk away.  He bands with a strange bird and a king among beasts, and the three end the chimera’s advance in a cavern below two burning trees, ensuring, despite the creature’s cries, that the world never will be saved from death.

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