The Crossroads, Chapter 18: An Image of Failure

Ty was well-traveled, used to the discovery of new places, cynically just as used to leaving them forever at a moment’s notice.  He’d lived in the Shrah, upon the slopes of the Gravestones and amidst their foothills.  He’d scavenged for nearly a decade in the Basin of Hazan and traveled among the nomad tribes that casually defied its scorched, arid landscape.  He was well familiar with wastelands, and the Riverlands were emphatically not a waste.  Which is why it was strange to him that they were so damned empty.

His three days of journeying since the meeting with the Dragon had been circuitous and painfully slow.  The sudden flight from the Crossroads had left him low on supplies, which, in the absence of any nearby smaller villages–and a distrust for the secrecy of any caravan he might attempt to contact on the road–he’d had to painstakingly forage from the verdant but unfamiliar biome.  And after two nights–and one nocturnal rainstorm–of camping alone and off road, Ty was beginning to suspect that at this rate, if he arrived at the Southern Reaches at all, he would do so with either a dearth of strength, an abundance of pneumonia, or both.

On the third day, he finally caved, surreptitiously joining a caravan by way of his magical knacks, and he asked a merchant’s manservant where, for the love of the gods, the river, and the Green, he could find any vestige of human civilization south of the Crossroads.  The manservant was confused, though whether this was for Ty’s sudden emergence upon his conscious attention or because he saw no sense in an alternative when the Crossroads was scarcely a day’s walk away, Ty couldn’t tell.  Reluctantly, he shared that he knew of another village close by, a short ways south and across the river, though he knew his employers to be uneasy about stopping there.  Ty wasn’t sure what that meant–and the manservant had been unable to clarify–but he was running out of options.  It would have to do.  He found a point where the river’s current was particularly lazy, swam the gap, and headed south, following the tentative directions as best he could.

By nightfall, he reached the village, if one could call it that.  Against the cloudy orange of the sky, he could make out a tepid gathering of twelve huts lit by a row of raggedy seed-oil torches, with a scattering of farm shacks on the horizon.  Much more interesting, Ty felt, was the dense copse of trees rising in the distance behind them.  He wondered if the “village” had more of its population squirreled away in the woods, but he supposed he would check here first.  As he neared, he noticed a woman sitting on a bench by one of the huts, cleaning a bundle of some sort of fiber.  Meeting his gaze, she set her work aside and rose, hobbling to where Ty approached, at the head of this village’s approximation of a street.

“Good evening, stranger,” she called with a warm and practiced smile.  “Have you come seeking rebirth?”  Ty blinked, pausing mid-step.

“No,” he said.  “Uh, no.  I can’t say that I have.  Just looking for some food, a tent, perhaps a place to spend the night.  I have some coin to pay.”  The artifice of the woman’s smile melted, leaving an expression that seemed at once relieved and disappointed.

“Ah, just a traveler.  Your sort is a rarity these days.  Well, come.”  She motioned over her shoulder and began shuffling down the street.  “We have little to spare that you can carry with you, but we can at least provide a roof for the night.”  Uneasily, Ty followed.

Despite the strangeness of the woman’s greeting, the village itself did not seem especially strange–it just seemed poor.  Ty noticed a few more villagers outside their huts as he and the woman made their way through.  Most of them stared him down for a short while before growing bored and returning to their leisure–or at least their idle work–but they seemed all of a kind he’d seen before: undernourished, raggedly clothed, all possessing the stoic sunkenness in the eyes of those who have learned to vivify their drudgery.  It wasn’t until they had nearly made it to the end of the street that he realized that something actually was off.  All along the way, the door of each hut had been decorated by a large, round rock, about knee-height, placed beside the opening.  At least Ty had thought they were rocks.  Upon approaching the end of the street, he noticed beside the stairs leading up to the final hut–a smaller house than the others, built upon stilts–was a gleaming, polished, silver sphere.  Exactly the same, he realized, as the rocks beside the other doors.  This one was just clean.

The woman offered no explanation for the objects, nor, as far as Ty could tell, any indication that she had noticed his wandering attentions.  Instead, she brought him to the door of the house beside the stilt-hovel, a larger structure that looked capable of sheltering multiple families.  She opened the door and stepped aside.

“You may rest here tonight, traveler,” she said.  “Come morning, you may take some food if you need it, but it would be best if you do not linger.”  Ty thanked her and stepped through the door of the hut.  Oddly, her implied wish that he would get gone was more reassurance that he was safe here than any more traditional gesture of hospitality.  In his experience, none was more trustworthy in the world of the scav trade than someone who was unhappy to see you.  Regardless of any resentment they might harbor, one could always tell exactly what they wanted.

Inside the hut, by the light of a single glass-shielded candle–the most conspicuous human luxury Ty had yet seen in the village–he could see row upon row of straw bed mats, most empty, but not all.  In a corner, away from the light, three scrap-clad beggars sat, attempting attention to a figure, speaking softly, sitting before them on a wooden stool.  Ty could make out little of the figure’s appearance save that its demeanor and voice seemed vaguely masculine.  The beggars, however, were visible and uniquely pitiable.  One was missing an arm and a leg, jealously cradling a piece of malformed driftwood that Ty could only guess might have been her crutch.  Another, the least clothed of the three, stared at the locutor, open-mouthed, toothless, and dazed; arms, legs and most of his face covered in scabs.  The third, face covered, seemed to be looking past the figure, gazing idly upon the bare wall beside Ty.  Blind, perhaps?

“You would do well to remember,” the figure said, barely audible over the rustle of Ty’s clothes as he sat against the far wall.  “She does not empathize with you.  She will not pity you, and if you should persist at the wood’s edge in an appeal to that pity, she will harvest your body for parts.”

Instinctively, Ty’s eyes darted to the figure’s silhouette, still obscured by shadows even now that his vision had adjusted.  Their words were alarming, and, he noted, something about their voice was…off.

“Did each of you bring an offering?” the figure asked.  The beggars nodded.  The scab-covered man reached into his threadbare vest and withdrew a small, pale figurine.  He held it out to the figure.  “Very good,” they said, and without moving or otherwise acknowledging the beggar’s gesture: “Hold it for now.  It is not for me.  For the rest of you, know that she will accept or refuse at her discretion.  But she prefers that which is magical, mechanical, or beautiful.”

That was it, Ty realized.  The figure wasn’t moving.  At all.  Staring closely, he realized that no portion of the silhouette so much as fidgeted.  They didn’t even appear to breathe.

“In one hour, you will travel to the wood,” the figure continued.  In a strangely smooth motion, they lifted their arm to point at the crippled woman.  “You will go first.  I will let you know when it is time.

“You will approach the wood with your offering and hold it outstretched in your palm.”  Their forearm shifted, turning their palm upward.  “If you hear the song and see the lights within the trees, you may proceed inward.”

With that, the figure rose to their feet and turned toward the door, pausing to answer the question that remained, bubbling ominously in the instructions’ wake:

“If you see and hear nothing, come back another night with another gift.”

They moved to the door, making a peculiar hiss with each step, turning briefly to face Ty as they went.  Ty gulped as he caught sight of them, the silver glint off their arms and fingers, the lipless, skull-like steel of their teeth, the thin hoses running from their temples to the base of their neck–this was a humanoid shape, comprised, save for its glistening eyes and spare bits of connective material, entirely of metal.  But they said nothing to Ty and disappeared through the doorway.

It was abundantly clear to him now why the merchants did not visit this place.  He imagined his risks were not so acute–he, unlike the merchants, carried not “offerings” this cult might covet–but it was still a cult.  If you stuck around, you’d be pulled in or torn apart.  All that was left was to figure whether the villager woman’s one night of begrudging hospitality qualified as “sticking around.”  As he considered it, a clear of a throat across the room grabbed his attention.  He turned to see one of the beggars–the one with the covered face–beckoning him over.

“Hail, stranger,” he said.  His voice was soothing in spite of the clear effort he put into speaking.  “Have you also run out of places to go?”

“No,” Ty called back, guarded.  “Not yet.  Just looking for a place to rest, then I’m movin’ on.”  The beggar with the missing limbs seemed to start at the sound of his voice, glancing between Ty and her companions nervously.  The beggar with the scabs didn’t react at all and continued to stare, slack-jawed, into the dim.

“Is that you, Ty Ehsam?” the blind beggar asked.  It was Ty’s turn to start.  Instinctively, he jolted to his feet and seized his pack, but something about the beggar’s smile, now visible beneath the layers of cowl covering his eyes, gave him pause.  Then, a spark of recognition:

“Bernard?” he asked.  The beggar sighed, his smile deepening.

“It is good to hear your voice.  And good to know my refusal to give up your whereabouts has borne fruit.”

Ty relaxed slightly and heaved his pack over his shoulder.  He stepped cautiously toward the beggars and their corner, at once relieved–to find a friend in this remote and altogether spooky place–and chilled: Bernard had not been blind when Ty had last seen him.  He hadn’t been a beggar either.  In Hazan, Bernard had been a small-time dealer–like Marko but with smaller stakes and more mobility.  He was an uncommonly clever man and one of the kindest Ty had ever encountered in his horrible line of work.  And his presence in this place spoke poorly of his fortune since they last met a few months ago.

“Did you know my whereabouts?” Ty asked.  Bernard laughed, the sound coming out somewhere between a cough and a wheeze.

“Of course not,” he said as the fit subsided.  “All the more reason to refuse.  I can claim the moral high ground that way.”

Ty took another hard look at the other beggars, trying to determine if he knew them as well.  No, he didn’t know their faces, he concluded, and if their bewilderment was any indication, they didn’t know his.

“He came for you, then,” Ty said.

“He did,” Bernard replied, pulling the cowl from his head to reveal a cascade of oozing, melted flesh all down the top half of what used to be his face.  “Surprising in retrospect that he didn’t have me killed outright.  S’pose it helps his reputation to have a few examples of his wrath around to precede him.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“You didn’t steal the stone, did you?”

“We got attacked by another scav group.  I was the only one to get out.  I’ve been tracking the stone ever since.  I’ve found–”

“Then it’s not your fault.  And if you don’t mind, I don’t want anything more to do with it.”  Ty nodded, swallowing his excuses.

“Okay…” he said, unsure how to ask his question.  “Why, uh–”

“Why’ve I hauled what’s left of myself here?”  Do you know where you are right now, Ty?”

“I’ll admit I’m a little lost.”

“I wouldn’t go looking right now if I were you, but the forest near this village isn’t really a forest, not like any you’ve ever seen.  This forest has trees made of metal and a witch who rebuilds people who bring her the right gifts.”

“Gods, Bernard.”

“What, Ty?”

“That’s a False God,” Ty said, trying as best he could to convey how alarming every piece of this felt to him, but Bernard just scowled.

“Don’t give me that.  Look at me, Ty–I’m trying best I can not to blame you and your crew for it, but I’m at the end of my line.  Either this Ben Gan Shui is gonna fix me, or she’s gonna put me out of my misery.”

Ty exhaled, speechless.  He hated the logic, but it…it made sense.”

“I’d do it myself if the upside weren’t a possibility,” Bernard added.  The silence stretched, the candlelight wavering as a breeze outside blew a draft through the boardinghouse.

“Ben Gan Shui, huh?” Ty asked at last.

“I don’t think it’s a real name,” Bernard said.  “I think it’s the sound the machines make.  You heard the man in here before, right?”  Whenever he moved–” Bernard mimicked the hissing noise of the man walking: “Bengan-SHUI, bengan-SHUI.”

“Is he a machine?”

“Obviously, but they say he is a man as well.  He had something wrong with his lungs some time ago, and the witch made him new ones.”

“Other things too,” Ty said.

“I can only surmise,” Bernard replied.  “But now he functions as a guide.  Perhaps you noticed: This village is a sort of annex to the Ironwood, under the witch’s protection so that they make sure all the rabble seeking her make an orderly queue.”

“That’s…oddly civilized,” Ty admitted.

“The witch herself is civilized, they say–in her way.  She has her rules.  She abides by them.  Just wants people around here to understand that they’re here at her pleasure.”

The walls of the house creaked as another draft blew through, but this time, it carried the faint sounds of a conversation ambling through the village.  And the sounds, Ty noted, were distressingly familiar.

“…keeps an emissary here?  Lives with…” came a growl Ty recognized as Bleeding Wolf’s.

Fuck.

“I have to go, Bernard,” he whispered.  “Good luck.  Please don’t mention I was here.”

“Who was here?” Bernard wheezed through a smile as Ty dashed to the doorway, peering out onto the muddy street.  Maybe fifty feet down, he saw the outlines of three figures walking past the torches.  One was the woman who had greeted him.  Another, based on the bristling hunch of his shoulders, was certainly Bleeding Wolf.  Ty did not recognize the third, but he was not especially curious.

Taking a deep breath, he exhaled mana and slipped out the door, around the side of the house, into the brush surrounding the village.  He pushed through it, moving away as swiftly and silently as he could, even as Bleeding Wolf called out behind him:

“Show yourself, mage!”

Ty, of course, did not.  The people of the Crossroads knowing where he was, where he was going, only put them in more danger, to say nothing of the danger it invited upon himself.  No, he put the calls and the flickering lights of the village behind him and made his way back out into the wet, sticky, mosquito-ridden wilds of the Riverlands.

“I’m glad we came to a mutually agreeable conclusion on that matter,” Ty’s mouth said of its own accord, triggering a wave of panic down his spine as he attempted to reestablish control over his jaw and tongue, to no avail.  “Come now, did you forget our arrangement already?” it asked.  Ty paused.

“Well, now that you remind me,” he said.

“Good,” the Dragon replied.  “As it were, I would have insisted you depart even if you had not found your own reason.  If the trinket man had noticed what you are, his mistress would have become far too interested, and I’ve no desire for any collaboration with that worm.”

“Yeah, you don’t seem much for collaboration in general,” Ty muttered.

“Sayeth my own collaborator?  You wound me.  I collaborate with jollity given the proper opportunity and leverage.  But not with her.”

“History?”

“Oh yes.  I fear she never forgave me for our last collaboration.  She would only try to take advantage of me now, and I’m sure such advantage would come at the expense of your bodily integrity.  Veer left here, away from the trees.  No need to stray so close to certain death.”

Ty complied, finding the Dragon’s explanation grating–but plausible enough–and gave the woods and village both a wide berth as he drew a zigzagging, uneven route back to the river.  In spite of the moonlight, it was dark as shit, and he knew he would lose his bearings if he didn’t find a landmark before making his next move.  Eventually, though, he made it back to the dull roar of rushing currents and earth that squelched beneath his feet.  He pushed aside the reeds at the river’s edge and confirmed the dazzling dance of the moon and stars upon the gleaming water as he pondered what to do next.

No thought had time to arrive, however, before the sound of striking flint range in his ears, and a bloom of fire all but blinded him.  Shielding his face, Ty made out the shape of a vessel tucked onto the riverbank not ten feet from where he stood, and as his eyes adjusted, he recognized the figures on it.

Brandishing the newly-lit torch was the dilettante scholar he had met on the initial journey north–Naples, if he recalled.  Cowering behind him was an emaciated boy that Ty dimly recognized as Orphelia’s brother.  And of course, standing at the prow of the boat, posed dramatically with a hand on his hip–

“I understand you are heading to the Southern Reaches, Mr. Ehsam,” Lan al’Ver declared.  “Might I offer you conveyance?”

“Fuck,” Ty’s mouth muttered.  He wasn’t sure whether it was him or the Dragon who said it.

The Crossroads, Chapter 17: A Fish Which Flies

It had been hours since the feeling set in, but Lan had not been inclined to worry.  The river was, at its heart, a chaotic process.  Eddies, whorls, ripples where the surface was disturbed–all were commonplace.  But what was not common was constancy, and as dusk fell, and Lan docked beside a shallow crossing, and Gene and Bleeding Wolf disembarked heavy with apprehension which Lan knew–uniquely perhaps–was ill-founded, he found himself more and more distracted, more and more irritated with the anomaly he had apparently left behind in the Crossroads.  Alone on his vessel, he stared down the river’s burbling surface, contemplated the currents’ beginnings and endings and assimilations.  And there it was.  The constancy.  The source of his unease, it seemed, was not a ripple–it was a ripple which had disappeared.

This was serious.  He made up his mind to return to the Crossroads.  Then he was there.

Stepping off his boat with highly irregular purpose, he made for the tavern at the end of the tradesmen’s street.  The timbre of the cricketsong told him the apothecary was presently occupied, and the other ideal witness was…compromised.  This left the fateful stowaway repacking his experience with mulled wine in the tavern’s soft candlelight.  Ah, yes, he was there: Lan kicked open the door, slamming it into its hinges hard enough to dislodge a nail, to the clear consternation of the proprietor and her patrons.

“Where is the girl?” he barked at the third table from the door.

“Ah!” Naples gasped, looking up with a jolt from his journal.  “Captain al’Ver, I’d thought you were awa–”

“Answer, man!  Everything depends on it!”

“What?”

“The girl!  Miss Orphelia.  You were to be watching her.”

“But, I,” Naples sputtered.  “What–no!”

“No, of course you never agreed to,” Lan said, charging the table and grabbing Naples by the shoulder, “but you certainly intended to.”

Even in the dim light of the barroom, the shock on Naples’ face was electric.  In the split second of silence that followed, though, the presence of the tavern’s denizens reintruded.

“Mr. al’Ver–” the barkeep began.

“Captain!” Lan corrected.

“Yes, uh, what is this about?” Lan swept his hand dramatically in the direction of the bar.

“A girl has gone missing, my lady, and Mr. Naples is to help me locate her!”

“I swear to you there was nothing untoward about–”  Lan interrupted Naples limping excuse with a roll of his eyes:

“Yes, yes, you wanted to investigate her connection to my illustrious self.  I am very interesting.  Now gather your things.  We have work to do!”  

As he snarled the order, Lan instinctively scanned the rest of the tavern.  Most of them were visibly bewildered by the intrusion, a small few were adeptly ignoring the interruption which, for all its suddenness, was still in no way their business or their problem, but there was one set of eyes fixed significantly upon Lan with intent that was not immediately readable nor obviously benign.  It was an old man with a hat at the table in the corner.  His presence wasn’t right, Lan noted, but it was far less wrong than Orphelia’s disappearance, and time was short to get Naples moving.  

He turned, twirling his umbrella, and exited as Naples scrambled to catch up.  Outside, he paused and stared up at the half-moon between the night’s murky clouds, as much for the pragmatism of allowing his new disciple to finish his exit as for respectful consideration of the ill omen that the damn sky always seemed to bring him.

“I truly have not seen her since this afternoon,” Naples said, stumbling through the doorway behind him.  “She was sneaking out of the apothecary’s, went to the market, then toward the old theater. But that’s when I lost her, I swear to you.”

“I have no reason to doubt your sincerity, Mr. Naples,” Lan replied, still staring skyward.  “And I will admit I already knew the answer to my first question.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“‘Where is the girl?’ Mr. Naples.  It was a trick question.  Miss Orphelia is currently nowhere.”  After a brief silence, Naples attempted a response:

“I…don ‘t follow.”

“The river runs always, Mr. Naples, from today to tomorrow, from spring to summer, from one year to the next, and we all swim in its current like so many fish.”

“A lovely turn of phrase, Captain.”

“And so much more besides,” Lan said, beginning to wander up the street.  “The trouble is that Miss Orphelia seems to have leapt from the stream.”

“Well, to run with the metaphor, fish do jump sometimes,” Naples offered.

“Except she has not come back down.”

“Ah.”  Naples went silent, thinking for a moment.  “Like a flying fish?  Or perhaps a fish snatched by an eagle and carried elsewhere.”

At the words, Lan felt a surge of fire run up his spine, and the clarity of the old man’s gaze upon him in the tavern returned.  He had been familiar, Lan realized.  The wide-brimmed hat.  The burning in his eyes.  Ah, yes.  That one.

“We had best apply our razors, Mr. Naples.”

“Sounds danger–oh!  Like the Thagosian idiom?”

In spite of the foreboding complexity manifesting in the currents, intruding upon Lan’s consciousness, so rudely calling “Wake up!” at this inappropriate hour of night, he could not help but smile.  Naples continued to be a pleasant reminder of how long it took for humans to truly forget anything.

“Precisely,” Lan replied.  “If you don’t mind, I have further want of your aid.  It has come to my attention that a few old friends of mine have come to visit.  One is at the apothecary now–let us go and meet him.”

***

“Lazy fucking idiot.  Wake up!”

Devlin started awake at the rough voice, inches from his face, as a rough hand grabbed him by the throat and dragged him from his bed.  He opened his bleary eyes to see a shaggy face and a singed hunter’s jerkin by the dim light of Brill’s infirmary before being flung, skidding to the floor.  He whimpered.

“Oh, shut up,” the man sneered.  Devlin blinked his eyes open, shivering as he pushed himself half-upright.  The man, he could see now, was tall, tall enough that the candlelight didn’t reach his face above his beard.  But that notwithstanding, Devlin had never seen him before in his life.

“Wha–what do you want–” he began to stutter, but the man reached back to a quiver tied behind his waist.  He drew a short spear with a gleaming, serrated tip, and Devlin stopped cold.

“Where’s your sister?” the man asked, testing the tip against his forefinger.

“I don’t…I don’t know?”

“Really, fucker?  Been outta the hag’ claws three days now, and you still think that’s an acceptable answer?”

“I don’t know–”

I don’t know what you’re talking about!” the man mocked.  “Best start payin’ attention, then, huh?  And don’t try to feed me any crap about being sick–you haven’t been sick since that fop pulled the bitch off your finger.  You just figured that if you could still be sick, then it couldn’t have been your fault you killed your stupid mom.”

At this, Devlin sobbed and, scrambling to his feet, tried to run for the door, but the man grabbed his shirt and pulled him back, slamming him against the wall.

“And while you were making excuses, your idiot sister jumped into the deep end of the river.  Time to take responsibility.”  In a motion Devlin couldn’t really follow, the man pulled a hook-like implement from his belt, slotted the spear into it, and flung it backward.  The spear embedded itself with a thunk in the wall.  “You’re gonna fish that girl outta there, or I’m gonna kill ‘er.  Those are the only two options.”

At that moment, the apothecary door on the other side of the infirmary curtain burst open, and Devlin stared, terrified, into the man’s burning eyes for several horrible, silent seconds before the curtain was swept aside by a man Devlin only dimly recognized.  This one had come with Orphelia often when she came to visit him back here.

“Daniel,” Lan al’Ver said sternly.  The shaggy man grunted disdainfully without taking his eyes off Devlin.

“Minding the shop now, are you, ‘Captain?’” he asked, curling his lip.  Another man stumbled in behind Lan, freezing upon seeing the situation in the room.

“Oh!” he exclaimed.  “Oh dear.  Uh, who are you?”  The shaggy man turned to face the newcomer, his venom now tempered by the slightest tinge of confusion.  “And, uh, yes.  Why are you threatening the boy?”

Daniel stared the newcomer down, weighing what Devlin could only imagine was a clear urge toward violence against unknown considerations.  He kept his cool, apparently, backing begrudgingly away from Devlin and turning back to Lan.

“Stinks of cruelty, dragging an innocent into the Gyre,” he said.

“I navigate the waters as I please,” Lan replied.

“With passengers?”  Daniel’s laugh was bitter.  “You’ve a poor track record with what you carry, you know?”  With that, Lan drew his rapier, defiant, scowling, prompting an outburst from the third man as Devlin tried as best he could to sink invisibly into the corner of the room.

“Hold on now, both of you!” the man said.  “Whatever this is about, we need to find the girl, right?  Orphelia.  Let’s set the weapons down and talk!”  At the mention of his sister, Devlin perked up.  He did not understand the nature of this sudden interruption, though he was certainly glad for it.  But more people looking for Orphelia made him even more anxious to find her.

The room was silent for a moment before Daniel straightened, reattaching his hook to his belt.

“Minding the shop indeed,” he muttered.  Then, to the third man: “Fine.  You two go get the girl out and take this little bastard with you.  He owes it to her.  And to Harmony.”  Devlin gulped as all the men renewed their attention on him.

“Who took her?” Lan asked.

Rom,” Daniel said, with a tone that Devlin could swear smelled of smoke.  “I understand there is a certain Jin Gaenyan he wants pulled back into the fold.”  Lan nodded, sheathing is sword, and Daniel retrieved his spear, all to the third man’s obvious bewilderment:

“Captain, what does all of that mean?”

“Fear not, Mr. Naples.  We have our destination now, and we shall make sure that dear Orphelia and young Devlin are reunited once more!”

Daniel, meanwhile, made for the door.

“The personas, all three of you,” he muttered.  “Who the fuck wants humanity anymore?”  And then he was gone.

Devlin looked up, shaken, as Naples approached him with the ersatz, showy alarm of a concerned citizen with only an arm’s-length notion of how one ought to interact with children.

“Dear boy, are you quite alright?”  Devlin nodded, limping away from the wall, which seemed to satisfy the man, as his focus returned to Lan: “Captain, please no more oblique reference–what on earth was that all about?  Who was that?”

“That, Mr. Naples, was Daniel Patch.  He is part of an entity called Harmony.”

“The cult of Matze Matsua?”

“Precisely.  And yet also not at all.”

“Captain…”

Devlin took advantage of the moment of pleading confusion to swipe his ring from the table by his bed.  Over the past several dazed, he had attempted to reach it several times, but his efforts had been thwarted: The table had been kicked, its contents had been swept aside for a bowl of soup, he had received a sudden, semiconscious hug from Orphelia–each had, at the time, pushed the ring just out of his grasp, and each, he was beginning to realize, had been the direct or indirect work of Captain al’Ver.  He had little idea why the Captain would care about the ring or his possession of it, but he certainly didn’t want to ask.  And to make sure he wouldn’t have to, he decided to hide the reacquisition of his treasure.

As his fingers touched the cold silver, he heard the faintest sound of flapping wings outside the infirmary.  It chilled him, and it comforted him, and while he could fathom the reason for neither, he was far too afraid to lose his last link to his family to question any of it.

“The magic of legend itself shrouds them, Mr. Naples, and even I cannot speak directly of what binds Mr. Patch and his colleagues.  You will have to pardon me in this respect.”

“Very well,” Naples replied, dejected.  “But what of the names he mentioned–Rom?  Jin Gaenyan?”  Lan laughed.  The bravado of the gesture seemed uncharacteristically brittle.  “What?” Naples inquired.

“Well-read as you are, I expect you’ve heard of them,” Lan said.  “The second is the clue we needed, for though the name ‘Jin Gaenyan’ has been lost to all but the most observant chroniclers, I can assume you have encountered some mention of the Saraa Sa’een?”  Naples scratched his chin.  Devlin, unsure of what to make of this conversation, began to inch toward the door.  He didn’t trust these men, and he wanted to find Orphelia before they did.

“The Saraa Sa’een was killed by the Barabadoon nearly sixty years ago,” Naples mused, “with–oh you clever dog!  This is exactly where we left off three days ago!  They did it with the help of–”  Lan snatched Devlin’s hand as he attempted to sneak out the doorway.  He froze, looking timidly up at the Captain.  The man’s grip was amiable but frustratingly firm.  He smiled warmly down at Devlin before facing Naples again.

“My friend, you should know better than most how history may play reanimator to even the longest-dead,” he declared with the inflection of a showman.  “But in this case, the Saraa Sa’een is quite literally alive.  He was, as it happens, captured, to be used as a defensive measure by the architect of the place where dear Orphelia will reenter the stream.”  Naples exhaled, the expression on his face souring.

“The Chateau de Marquains,” he confirmed.  He glanced at Devlin and grimaced.  “That’s no place to bring a kid.”

“No.  But it is as Daniel said.  We are navigating the waters together, and my path is thus ordained.

“Hmm.”

“Mr. Lan?” Devlin piped up.  “Are you sure this place is where we need to go to save Orphelia?”

“Indeed I am, my dear boy.”  The man’s smile was still warm, and Devlin still found it suspicious.  But needs must.

“Then I’m not scared.  Let’s go!”  It was partially true: Devlin truly did not fear the Chateau de Marquains, in large part because he knew nothing about it, but he was terrified for his sister, for the violence that had seized the both of them weeks ago and, it seemed, would not let them go.  Would not let her go.  He felt the wind of wingbeats brush against his cheek.  He needed to save her before it was all gone.

“We are decided, then!” Lan proclaimed.  “Let us depart before Brill discovers your intrusion, Mr. Naples!”

“A fate to rival the False Gods,” Naples joked mirthlessly.  He moved to follow Lan out of the infirmary, pausing momentarily to look in the direction of Devlin’s bed.

“Come on, Mr. Naples!” Devlin called.  Shaking his head, the man turned and exited.

A Walk Between the Paths in Autumn

A story told by fallen leaves in the style of a young Nietzsche

***

Note: To be clearer to those less familiar with the context, this is a discussion of various literary themes (or just personal points of interest) in Elden Ring.  It’s meaty for a series of essay-fragments, but disconnected and certainly not a complete treatment of any of these topics, much less the game as a whole.  The style might be something I return to–temporally, though, I had just been reading a collection of Nietzsche’s earlier aphoristic work (alongside, as I mention, Borges), and it seemed a decent way to expound upon the contents of my brain at the time.

Cross the fog to the Lands Between.  In the tradition of Bloodborne (and in contrast to Dark Souls) Elden Ring is rather forthcoming with the metaphysical nature of its action.  The Lands Between are ruled by a goddess who has banished the very concept of death, power is conferred by “runes” (including the Elden Ring itself) and “grace”, individuals physically accomplish insane, abstract tasks like “holding the constellations in place” or “literally being two people” (including the fecundity implied by a less abstract multiplicity)–no need for the subtlety of a bird ride that transcends substrates of reality, but that’s okay.  I mean it genuinely.  It is often okay to say what one means, especially with the cat so far out of the bag.

Familiar Miyazaki-isms return: The fog from without the Lands Between again symbolizes the shifting becoming of materiality giving way to the divine being of grace (the Christian through-line) and runes (the Norse through-line, perhaps to be taken as Viking geometry, linking the metaphysical language to the old Platonic stand-in).

Perhaps it’s the Borges I have on my brain at the moment, but it’s all rather evocative of a labyrinth.  Lands of resolved solidity delineating (forming pathways amidst) the fog (or vice-versa–the negative of a labyrinth is also a labyrinth)–I sure don’t have any idea what it was meant to house (or I lack the energy to enunciate it–you guess which), but labyrinths are awesome and, definitionally, provide both a goal and at least one path to tread in one’s delving.

***

Long lost grace.  Grace, the guidance of gold, a network of glittering signposts and rest stops left by the Greater Will (the Outer God from which the Golden Order and the Two Fingers arise; and against whom both Marika and Ranni rebel), a golden glow in the eyes of the blessed–beyond its utility as supportive game mechanics, it sounds kind of like “purpose” and even more like “commandment”.

For the player character it’s a rough constant, but it’s worth considering the others for whom it comes and goes.  Back before the Shattering, Godfrey, First Elden Lord, was divested of grace and “hounded from the Lands Between”, as far as I can tell not for any indiscretion, but because he fulfilled his commandment.  He was done conquering the Lands Between in the name of Marika and the Erdtree, so as is only just, she banished her champion and the father of (some of) her children and remarried…herself.  Divinity certainly is a strange thing.  No one would appreciate me extrapolating this logic to IRL religion, but it’s worth ruminating on this characterization of “divine love” and the rules it plays by.

Anyway, when Godfrey is banished, loses the guidance of gold, he becomes Tarnished.  Because From Software spends approximately a bazillion dollars (or at least hours) on English translation, we should be careful with their words–and we should be very suspicious when it looks like they aren’t.  To which end, pure gold doesn’t tarnish–silver/other stuff does.  The implication, then, of calling the Erdtree’s discarded guardians “Tarnished” is subtle but important: The golden grace which they formerly held was not a transmutation of the soul but an alloying.  They, at base, are not gold but silver.

Sound familiar?

“I said; ‘but all the same hear the rest of the story.  While all of you in the city are brothers, we will say in our tale, yet the gods, in fashioning those of you who are fitted to hold rule, mingled gold in their generation, for which reason they are the most precious–but in the [guardians, Samzdat’s words] silver, and iron and brass in the farmers and other craftsmen.’”

-Plato, Republic

TL;DR/#AllGreek2U, the rulers are gold, the soldiers are silver, everyone else is economically replaceable, and in the Lands Between, we sometimes stuff warriors into cabinets (or jars) until (or, more realistically: so that) they get corroded and gross.  It’s worth considering as well that (Plato’s) Socrates presented the city based on the noble lie not as an ideal city (as he might have claimed for plausible deniability) but as a hellscape, a festering city, an absurd monument to the tendency of human complexities toward strife.

You can blame the genre or the philosophy, but either way the result is what you’d expect: Strife arrives, the gold-souled rulers are proven untrustworthy (or at least unworthy), so the conduits of grace on the ground begin unearthing their guardians.  In other words, they not only followed Adeimantus’ bad example–they followed his bad example badly.

This is to say nothing of Miquella, child of Marika alone, who championed “unalloyed gold” as a countermeasure to the influence of the Outer Gods.  Because philosopher kings are clearly the solution.

***

Game of rings.  “Sonic or Gandalf?”  Depends on how fast you are.

An obviously relevant point of discussion is that the development of Elden Ring’s pre-Shattering mythos was a collaboration between Miyazaki and the much vaunted (though perhaps tarnished in his own right) George R.R. Martin.  Less obvious is exactly why this is relevant.  We do know that the collaboration was not longitudinal: Martin’s involvement was at the beginning, in creating a “D&D sourcebook” for a setting that Miyazaki would then twist.  What’s not clear is where the line is drawn–the degradation of the Lands Between was not by a single event, be it the Shattering (the war), the shattering (of the Elden Ring by Radagon), the Night of the Black Knives (which likely catalyzed both), or the banishment of Godfrey (which exposed–or even created–the cracks in the order that led to all the rest).  Miyazaki has commented that some of the characters ended up unrecognizable from Martin’s original submission, but that raises more questions than it answers (like the degree to which that difference is editing versus the in-story corruption of the Shattering).  All I can say now is that I would give not-zero appendages to see Martin’s original document.

In the same vein, I’ve long wondered about the particulars of Miyazaki’s collaborative strategy.  The structure of this arrangement is particularly clear (in spite of the aforementioned ambiguities), in the sense that such arrangements must exist in most, if not all, collaborative works of long-form literature, and we, as onlookers, rarely get this degree of insight.  Meanwhile, during the development of Elden Ring, Miyazaki was also directing Sekiro, on which he has stated he took a backseat on most of the object-level writing.  Yet: Sekiro remains a beautifully-written work with the same hallmarks of style and attention to detail.  I realize this observation is nothing especially profound, but I’m still curious about the nuts and bolts: Is Miyazaki himself especially good at directing his own style?  Are From Software’s processes particularly conducive to that style?  Do they simply maintain a staff of talented and faithful imitators?  I have no idea, but I would love to understand how I could scale my own work in the same way.

***

Yass, King, I seen’t it!  There’s something cowardly to me about getting too low-level in one’s critique/analysis, but there’s one piece of Elden Ring for which I’ll flirt with the lower bound of my standards.

Miyazaki has said before that his favorite boss in Demon’s Souls is the Old Monk, the proprietor of a tower in a swamp who was driven mad by a relic he acquired: a long, flowing, vibrant yellow robe.  His reasons for liking this boss are likely multiple.  There’s a lot to like, from the super creepy aesthetic (it’s instilled in me a lasting affinity for piles of discarded chairs), to the fact that the fight is not against the monk himself but an invading enemy player “possessed” by the robe (a mechanic which reprised its role in Dark Souls 3), to, of course, the literary reference.  Hidetaka Miyazaki, too, has seen the Yellow Sign.

That The King in Yellow is so close to Miyazaki’s heart (or at least his portfolio) makes his use of the color yellow in Elden Ring nearly unignorable.  To be fair, even not taking that into consideration, the precision (and deliberate obfuscation) of it is diabolical–or did we think that the representation of no fewer than four distinct (and bitterly-opposed) factions by nearly-identical yellow particle effects was merely sloppy art direction?

For accounting: The Golden Order, the “good guys” in the quest for a restored balance via the Elden Ring are, insofar as they are in any way a united front, represented by projections of pale yellow light and a predictably golden aura.  Those Who Live in Death, worshippers of Godwyn the Golden (the first demigod to die) who would see the rune of death reintegrated with the Elden Ring, are characterized by a golden aura intermingled with black smoke, as if to connote some corruption of Godwyn’s original purpose.  Similarly, the Omen, the curse of horns and filth that cuts its victims off from the Greater Will (see Margit/Morgott, Mohg, and the Dung Eater) is the same gold, interspersed with brown.  And of course, the Frenzied Flame, ender of life and bringer of madness, is also yellow, this time more saffron–though it is scarcely distinguishable from the Golden Order’s particle effect when it is in an NPC’s eyes.

Far be it from me to offhandedly summarize the “point” of The King in Yellow without citation, but I think a respectable try looks like: 

“A sort of madness, transient or not, of devotion to something larger than ourselves, even–especially–at the expense of the reality we would otherwise affirm, is endemic to the human condition.”

Shabriri and the Frenzied Flame thus stand at one end of the spectrum, wearing the same color but demonstrating, perhaps, just how deep the yellow/gold rabbit hole goes, while the remaining Erdtree derivatives reticently acknowledge that all that glitters, well, maybe it has something in common.

Less artistically but 100% also the point: The narcissism of small differences is often much more bitter than any rivalry with an alien Other.

***

We’ve made some improvements to the chapel since 2015.  Furthering the “thematic connection to Bloodborne angle”, the two games’ use of runic alphabets is worth interrogating, and Elden Ring in particular gives a useful starting point for the aspiring Lorax linguist: the tree.  The Lands Between admittedly incorporate several linguistic traditions (Latinate, e.g. Raya Lucaria, Dectus; descriptive English, e.g. Volcano Manor, Redmane Castle; and of course Germanic, e.g. Leyndell, Fortissax, Placidusax), but since most of them are allocated to the names of specific people and places (which is about how you would expect culture to work), the question of the Erdtree (a more fundamental concept) stands out.  It’s definitely a tree, that part makes sense, but per the name, it’s also an “Erd”, so what’s that?

My own leap of logic lands me on “œd”, short for œdal, the Elder Futhark rune for “heritage” or “estate”, a fitting symbol for the Golden Lineage (used also by the Nazis, a connection which I will not explore here).  It also seems to be the nominative basis for Bloodborne’s Great One, Oedon (not to mention the Norse god Odin).  Except, one problem–the œdal rune looks like this:

And the Oedon rune looks like this:

Actually, no, not a problem, just a connection.  You see, the seal of Queen Marika is this:

…which bears reference to Odin’s infamous vigil, hanging from a tree, and closely resembles the Anglo-Saxon rune “ear”, meaning “earth”:

…implying a “heritage of the earth” (Biblically, “inheriting the earth”) or the less grand “earthly heritage”, or both.  There are fruitful implications to either.

Note: While I did mention before that these explorations are largely incomplete, it’s worth mentioning the trail of breadcrumbs leading to the “elgaz” rune as well:

The literal meaning of this rune is “elk”, which is a less useful similarity to Marika and the Erdtree, but given its visual similarity to “ear”, it might indicate some connection to the moose/elk-themed Ancestors present in various locations throughout Elden Ring, whose culture is believed to predate the Erdtree.

If we’re going to grill the Erdtree, we ought to do the same with its disfavored progeny.  Thankfully, the Haligtree is easy–”Halig” fairly clearly derives from the Anglo-Saxon “hægl” rune

(or “haglaz” in Elder Futhark–aside, I am continuing to reference Elder Futhark mainly because Wikipedia’s entry for it is way better, but evidence points to the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet being the most appropriate reference for Elden Ring’s runes), meaning “hail” or “precipitation”.  Aesthetically, hail is appropriate–the Haligtree is located in the snow-covered northern mountains–but at a deeper level, the significance of the Haligtree is much better understood as precipitation, that which falls from the storm or, less meteorologically, from the heritage of the Erdtree.  Miquella is an Empyrean, one of the three potential successors to Marika (Miquella, Malenia, and Ranni, for reference), and he intended the Haligtree to be a new symbol of a new order in the Lands Between.  That it should be named for precipitation–or consequence–is entirely reasonable.

Lastly, just as we are shown the modified “ear” as the symbol of Marika, we are shown another rune as the seal of Radagon:

This is a superimposition of the epigraphical and manuscript variants of the Anglo-Saxon rune “gēr”:

“Gēr” signifies “year” or “harvest”, connoted as “year/season of plenty”, which in Radagon’s case might be taken ironically.  In his role as champion of the Golden Order, he was “harvested” from his place at Raya Lucaria, ultimately leaving Liurnia in disarray (if not outright ruin), and the metaphor only gets darker in the sense of “harvest” as it applies to fertility.

Radagon and Marika had two children, Miquella and Malenia, both of whom wound up cursed, presumably by the particular degradation of the divine gene pool that occurs when one’s parents are not merely related but are, in fact, the same person.  And if the problem of the harvest is a problem of one’s descendants, of succession, then it’s worth noting that the Shattering was literally a war of succession, preceded, of course, by the literal shattering of the Elden Ring–by Radagon.

***

A golden parasite for the golden lineage.  Also returning in the Lands Between is one of Sekiro’s most potent symbols: the centipede.  The one-armed wolf had a pretty good time with this one–literally, it is a creature that infests the corpses of the divine carp that swim in the Dragon-blessed waters of the Fountainhead Palace.  It lines the corpses with its eggs, and as the flesh breaks down, the eggs bleed into the overall water supply, into the runoff that flows to Ashina.  Then, when the mortals below drink the water, they find themselves “blessed” with an unpleasant and hollow brand of immortality.

The immortality, of course, is the result of the giant centipedes whose eggs they swallowed, now growing through and infesting their still-living body, though the “why” is definitely where the literality starts to blur.  Is it because they are parasites to the divine?  Is it coincident, in that the centipedes are themselves divine (which would allow them to devour the carp in the first place)?  Sekiro isn’t especially clear on the biomechanics, but it all but bludgeons you with the notion that the immortality granted by the waters of the Fountainhead is only a crude imitation of that granted by the Dragon’s Heritage.  A note, obvious within the Ashina province but worth clarifying for the Europhilic audience of Souls/Elden Ring: This is an Asian dragon we’re talking about here, no wings, serpentine, aquatic, celestial (a combination of adjectives worth dragging back to Bloodborne, by-the-by).

It should not be surprising that all of the supernatural creatures present in Sekiro (the carp, the centipedes, the giant snakes of the valley) all bear some morphological resemblance to the Dragon, to the divinity they emulate, but the implied ladder there also calls to mind a fable of a Buddhist monk and a centipede, where the centipede is expounded upon as a lesser creature which may yet regain its honor through rebirth.  

Do you see it?  Where the paradigm switches around?  In traditional Buddhist teaching, the centipede is on the same continuum as man–in Sekiro, the ladder to divinity is snakeybois top-to-bottom, and that divinity (be it the literal gestation of centipedes in your gut or the more metaphorical “feeding” of the Heritage via Dragonrot) is a parasite to mankind.  Yeah, religion.  Someone call Bong Joon-ho and see if he can work that into the sequel or something.

Right, this is about Elden Ring, but all that is necessary context.  So when Elden Ring’s Rune of Death is the Mark of the Centipede and golden centipedes begin to appear in places frequented by Those Who Live in Death, that is the lens we need to use to understand what it all ought to imply.

From the basics, the centipede, originally, is death, a threshold upon which the things that are become the things that were and then fade into the everything from which they were born.  It is fitting that the true Cursemark of Death, broken into half-wheels during the Night of the Black Knives, is not one, but two centipedes in a circle.  An ouroboros.  Fitting for a conception of death meant to coexist with the rest of the Golden Order, but Marika dIdN’t LiKe ThAt PaRt.  She cut it out of the Elden Ring, gave it to Maliketh, and what she got was a different death–not integrated cohesively with her Order but jammed askew into its cogs, birthing Those Who Live in Death.  For all points and purposes, they’re undead, much the same as the Senpou monks who drank of the Fountainhead in Sekiro, but that is a slim overlap with Sekiro’s otherwise extremely well-developed mythology for the symbol.

With the exception of Rykard, Elden Ring’s pantheon is nowhere near so serpentine as Sekiro’s, but consider the position of the centipede in particular.  Our myriapodal friend may be at the bottom of the spiritual totem pole (a turn of phrase made literal in Elden Ring: Godwyn, an unwilling recipient of the Half-Wheel Mark of the Centipede rests amidst the roots of the Erdtree), but the bottom of that hierarchy has more in common with the top than wherever mortal man hangs out (ie, not in the hierarchy at all).  The theme of parasitism is not as eminent as in Sekiro, but the game is clear that adherents to the Golden Order are not stoked about the centipede stuff at all, reiterating that even the most reverent dogmatists tend to find some expression of the divine they would rather revile.  And, of course, the parasite’s absence leaves an echo: Follow the Erdtree’s totem pole up to the very top to find the Greater Will, overwhelmingly interested in keeping the course of history in the Lands Between confined to its Golden parameters.  For a being so immense, so abstract and multifarious, it is difficult to even formulate the question, but in the end, what can mankind be to such a creature?  The answer: a pet, a pest–or a host.

The Maze in the Mists

Slight change of pace. This is the introduction for a new setting I’m working on for the Rale universe. Credit to Kelsyn for the original concept.

You have been walking this road for some time now.  It is an unremarkable road, unpaved, trodden uniformly by an infinity of unrecognizable footsteps.  All around you is mist, itself unremarkable for its familiarity–you’ve been living in it for longer than you’ve been walking the road, after all.  It is everywhere in this place: blanketing the fields, suffusing the woods, wrapping the scattered towns between in its damp embrace.  You suppose you can still remember that there was a time without the mist, but the specifics elude you.  All you remember is this:

You were a soldier once.  You and your companions.  You no longer know who you fought, what you fought for, or where, but by the time you stopped you had nightmares.  Bad ones.  The kind that woke you not screaming but frozen, paralyzed by the notion that whatever you had been running from in your sleep had crossed into the waking world.  It was there with you, standing over you, behind and to your left, just out of your peripheral vision, breathing heavy, deafening.  You could feel the rancid condensation of that breath on your forehead as that nameless creature reached down and caressed your hair with dirty fingers and whispered:

“Why would you do that?”

Whether you could answer the query is moot–you can’t anymore.  You never told anyone about the nightmares, save your companions, and you all agreed it wasn’t the sort of story anyone would want to hear.  The war stories, though?  The ones that preceded the nightmares?  Those you traded away gladly for the means to sleep soundly again.

That was the thing.  This place in the mists operated by different rules.  The people here had different wants, a different economy.  When it came time to pay for your meal, your provisions or board, they did not ask for coin.  They asked for a story.  And when you told it to them, it was gone.  It was no longer yours.

Not all of your stories were horrible.  The good memories you traded for fine food, company, and wine.  The solemn ones you traded for fresh clothes or flint.  The everyday occurrences, the uninteresting daily nothings weren’t worth much, but in a pinch you found they bought you attention, an ear to listen as you vented your increasingly formless rage.

You learned ways to make your stories last.  You could tell only a single side of a complex tale, embellish banalities, omit details that you could cling to for a while longer.  Sometimes it worked.  Most often they would see through you, not that they minded.  You were still offering a story of sorts, and it was still payment.  A falsehood was just worth less than a truth, and what you bartered for was measured accordingly.

As time passed, as you walked the road, you grew poorer and poorer, and you remembered less and less.  Sometimes you were able to trade your labor for someone else’s story.  Sometimes your travels and choices and happenstance allowed you to forge your own anew, but too often you found yourself giving away more than you got, and now…well, now you have been walking the road for some time.  You don’t remember the last time you saw anything but the dirt and the mist and the imprints of travelers before you.  But, of course, that could be for a number of reasons.

Three Gifts Given of Dissatisfaction

A brief interlude from Crossroads (because I caught myself working on material out of order). Note the references below to the Sevenfold Gyre and to the One-Eyed Crow (and, obviously, the previous Three Gifts story).

***

From these three came two and two

And circles stretched from sea to sky

To the Gyre did Seven headlong run

Then all the world

That’s why, that’s why

-Words From a Severed Head

***

The Fox’s Second Gift

Long ago I gave you hearth

A place of return from which you roamed

A fire within to banish night

To soothe your aches, to make you home

I rested then for I had thought

My labors had achieved their end

Of steeling you to cold and rot

Your fire I would not need to tend

But now we meet here in the Dark

In fearful quiet ‘neath the earth

Your inner fire early guttered

Broken body lost its worth

The light of day betrayed your years

Promised you many, gave you few

For you I’ll burn, entombed below

This shall be my gift to you

***

The Lark’s Second Gift

Long ago I gave you sticks

Upon your ground I taught my tricks

I brought you craft which you might ply

I bid you: Join me in the sky

Why now have you misplaced your wings?

Forgot that art which made you free

To toil among the beasts and bring

Those who bleed right back to me

I fixed their marks of red and black

As wisdom you refused to learn

I wonder if it’s fear you lack

To drive you on, to make you burn

‘Tis fear that brings you here tonight

Poxed and stricken, marked by blue

Fear of wrongs you would not right

This shall be my gift to you

***

The Turtle’s Second Gift

Forever ago I gave you time

A river running ‘round this bend

Would frame your life with reason, rhyme

Would crown your story with an end

When at last you came to cross

Your souls would from your bodies leap

Your ghosts I’d carry to the shore of loss

Your flesh would drift on to the Deep

I will admit I’ve grown fatigued

As I look upon your evil eye

Your request–it has me so intrigued

You’d go upstream instead of die

Three Gifts were given under Night

And from those three came two and two

You’ve sought your torment, earned three more

This last shall be my gift to you

Tarot

I have mentioned it before in the most fleeting sense, but one of the long-standing goals of the Rale project has been to produce a Tarot-inspired (though structurally not really) deck of cards depicting images from the world as exemplars of the ways that humans fight death.

Many of the images themselves have been ready for some time, but they have been waiting on frames. They need frames, of course, because the frame is what indicates the card’s suit. Like so:

Cruelty and Control are here presented in the “Viscera” suit. Blame is in the “Gifts” suit, and God is in “Stories”. Not pictured here are “Embraces” and “Avoidance”, as they are still in progress, but these came together so beautifully that I had to share.

Way down the road, a deck is in the works, but if you like any of these, they are now for sale on the store!

Images include work by Quinn Milton and Rae Johnson. The “Tarot” suit frames in particular are by Rae.

Prologue: The Merchant

The true prologue to the Crossroads story I begin writing a long time ago and then took offline. The plot and characters of that novella are much more fleshed out now, though it remains to be seen how much of it will end up on here.

Thago is burning.  The river is burning.  The Floating God is burning.  It began with unrest, an uprising among the slaves of the lower barges, made perilous by an attack by the servants of the Two-Eared Crown.  Coincidence, surely.  So the magisters and princes must have thought.  Coincidence, perhaps, they would take to their grave.  But the Merchant knows this was not coincidence.  It was fire, built and kindled and sparked by singed, practiced hands, spread by design and the carelessness of those who saw coincidence in such things.  And now Thago is burning.

With this certainty, the Merchant finds himself in the plaza before the palace which was once a temple.  The northern and eastern launches have been blockaded; the bridge to the trade barges is ablaze, and the flames now lick the palace’s western walls.  The southern dock below swarms with the enemy, and above, the Riversworn guard their trapped princes, awaiting reinforcement that will not arrive in time, hopefully and foolishly unaware that their only path out is through the force massing beneath them.  The Merchant draws his sword and locks his shield to his arm.  His task is impossible but clear: He must somehow give them enough time.

Five race up the steps now.  They are scouts meant to reconnoiter, but they charge anyway, seeing only the Merchant in their path.  Their spears stall upon his shield, and he dispatches them quickly.  One tumbles down the steps, two die to his blade, two are pushed from the plaza to the churned water fifty feet below.  One will drown, the Merchant knows.  The other will be rescued by his countrymen.  But there is little time to dwell on either fate, for a much larger host of soldiers has begun its determined ascent.

Many fall before him–seven more are hurled into the water, fifteen bleed out there on the plaza, nine thrown down the steps collide with eleven climbing, and two more collapse, skulls fractured by the spur of the Merchant’s shield–but the number on the plaza with him continues to grow.  He is driven back to the palace entryway, certainty resolving that his vain gift is reaching its limits.  Then the soldiers fall back.  They open a wide circle as a silhouette crests the stairway behind them.

The Merchant recognizes this one, recognizes the tattered regalia, the scar over his broken nose, the long knife set ablaze by magical gifts twirling in his hand.  This is Brother’s general, the one called Ignigoet, Pyrotechnic of the Left Hand.  It is betrayal then.  The Merchant suppresses a roar and hurls himself at the smirking man.

Their engagement is swift and brutal.  Ignigoet parries the first thrust, catching the Merchant’s shield with his offhand.  They separate.  Ignigoet throws a barrage of knives into the Merchant’s shield.  Then the flames upon them detonate, and the Merchant is scorched and sprawling, and time has run out.

He dimly notices the knife cut his throat as he stares up at the plumes of smoke in the night sky.  The general kneels over him, but the smirk is gone.  His face is impassive, and the burning eyes therein do not belong to Selenus Ignigoet.  The Merchant realizes too late that this is no betrayal at all.

And then he is gone.

Top Image: From Stories, by Rae Johnson

Purchase a Little Piece of Suffering Today!

Coming from here

This is so much later than “this week”, but testing shipping took a hot minute. While work is ongoing on literally everything, we’ve set up a shop! Offerings are limited right now, though we’re working to set up more soon. But still, if you’d like to buy a print and support our work, we’d be very grateful.

Humanity’s Eyes

A poem by Leland for Rale.

When I was born I was betrayed

My mother tried to kill me

For I was born wrong

Sickness marked me all over

I was a cur a curse a wanton filth

She thought a kindness was death

She threw me to the desert

But the desert men found me

Took me and raised me

As a second hand slave I was raised

A child of rejection and poverty and begging for scraps

I ran between the stalls of the desert men, not unhuman enough to kill, not human enough to love

We roamed through the desert

I stayed mostly with the children of the grit

Marred and scarred and blackened and raw they would not hit me

As I got older, the sickness that flaked my skin grew harder and tougher

Stranger by far, long thorns grew from me, and my eyes became a fetid yellow

I began to be called the demon.  The demon they whispered, no longer in contempt, but also in fear.

As my muscles grew thick and crusted like a humanoid crab, my eyes began to wander

I hated the world as the world had hated me

But there was one little girl who treated me with kindness

The daughter of the leader of the desert men

The daughter of their sultan

She was a kind girl with a horrible scar on her face from an injury from when she was a baby

She had one eye that was emerald green

She placed bowls of water out at night

I knew they were meant for me

Her emerald eye reminded me of the eyes of my mother

I felt that my mother had killed herself and she had been reborn, 

Now she was here to take care of me like she never had before

I got older and older and I never stopped growing

The other boys stopped growing, but five years later, they stood at my shoulder

Then they stood at my chest

Then they stood at half my height

The fear in the desert men’s eyes grew

Their deep religious belief in the martyr was being pushed

They began to talk about the “Demon among them”

I watched the little girl grow up.

She was beautiful

And kind.

Long brown hair and that emerald eye

My mother’s eye

She started to leave food behind with the water, and flowers, and then a lock of her hair.

I kissed it and nuzzled it and tried to breathe it inside of me

And I would watch her from the corners of my eyes.

As I roamed through the tent filled trading stalls, resting on my knuckles, clawing into the dirt with my back feet.

She came one night

And touched my face

Not afraid.  Not like the others.

She held my face that night

And she cried 

Her one eye pouring sweet and salty tears onto my mountainous, grotesque frame.

The people came the next night.

Her father came the next night

The torches came the next night

They told me to leave.

They pointed towards the desert

The said go anywhere but here.

My humanity had run up in their eyes

They owed me nothing

The savior owed me nothing.

I crawled into the desert

The aching moon at my back

The harsh sun on my face.

I walked through the desert, lumbering like a barge as the heat cracked my skin like stone

I licked rocks for water

I smelled foul nests of bugs using my strange and sensitive nose

I ate the creatures

While I thought of her

My mother reborn who abandoned me again.

As I walked into the heat of the sands

And the ice cold nights

I realized I was never human.

And I no longer wanted to be.

Part 2 here.

Top image: “Hazeen’s Man of the Clouds”, by Rae Johnson