The Sevenfold Gyre, Part 4

Apologies for the wait. This is by far the longest in the series so far, though it’s a bit of a departure in terms of style. That may hold out in editing, we’ll see. For now, I think it frames this particular character better than the streams of consciousness in previous entries.

Interlude 3

A damp haze looms in the sky.  It is not so dark as smoke, not so ominous.  It does not billow. It only seeps. For the men and women working the fields outside the fortress, this is little comfort.  They have heard the stories, they know what approaches under that cloud, oozing like mud, skittering like vermin. Some know that they are about to die.  Others have not grasped it yet, but all are afraid–should death come, it will be horrific.

An army has arrived at the fortress today.  They are the personal force of Lord Martin, whose keep fell three days ago.  Their numbers are thinned, some are wounded, and they have come here to the domain of Lord Thom to determine their fate.  Will they run? Will they make their last stand here? The last of the Riverlands’ great powers stand together now, but though they still stand, they clearly tremble.

The two lords hold council with their officers in the courtyard.  A crowd gathers. Perhaps before the peasants would have allowed the soldiers and their commanders to settle these matters, but this war is unlike anything they have seen.  This is no longer a matter of to whom they pay their tribute. They face extinction, that the whole of the Riverlands be swallowed by the Bloodfish and the roaches. Perhaps it will be more than the Riverlands.  Perhaps the whole world will face a tithe of bones and tongues and teeth.

“Welcome,” Thom says, somber.  Martin nods.

“We appreciate your hospitality,” he replies, “but I don’t know that we have time for it.”

“You’ve seen them, then?  What can you share?” Martin exhales, weary.

“All the stories are true,” he says.  “They’re bones and mud, monsters, they’re faster than us, they’re inhumanly vicious, they’re immune to pain–in that they sense anything at all–and they outnumber us here five to one, with thousands more pouring out of Bloodhull every fucking day!”  Thom’s eyes widen, but he holds his expression otherwise.

“Can you think of any–”

“Godhusk, Thom!” Martin interrupts.  “We can’t fight them! I saw these things swallow half my men, and we couldn’t take a single one of them in return!”

“They are a distillation of mankind’s malice,” a voice from the crowd says, quiet but unmistakably clear.  “They are pure in their purpose. Of course you cannot defeat them head-on.” The two lords turn, unsettled enough to temper their annoyance at the disruption.  The speaker steps forward, a young man, dark skin, a white cloak, eyes dulled to fear but seething with determination. Strapped to his back is a wooden box, long enough, perhaps, to be a child’s coffin, but considerably flatter.

“But you are wrong, Lord Martin,” he continues.  “They can certainly be defeated.”

“Who on earth…” Thom begins, shaking his head.  “You speak as if you know these creatures, vagrant.  Explain yourself.” The young man unshoulders his box, setting it gently on the ground beside him.

“I will answer obliquely, if you’ll permit,” he replies after a moment.  “I have seen the roaches and the Sadist who leads them. I do not doubt that you have seen them too, but I suspect your vision is clouded, both of you.”

“For fucks sake,” Martin mutters.  “I’m about done.”

“Do you respect Ka, Lord Martin?” the vagabond asks.  Lord Martin snorts.

“The Mudfish?  Of course I don’t.  He’s scum and needs to be put down.”

“That is the problem, then,” the vagabond replies.  “You must accept that you are losing, that by virtue of whatever hideous power he found, Ka has become superior to you.”  Lord Martin pales.

“You speak out of turn.”

“The victorious general adjusts his strategy when he is losing,” the vagabond continues, pushing past Martin’s rage.  “And it is my intent that you should be victorious. That we should be victorious.” The deference is only token, but it is enough.  Lord Martin is scared–the entire fortress is scared, and this stranger is a glimmer of stupid hope.

“What do you propose, then?” Thom asks.

“We leave this place.  Take everyone and everything we can.  Head for the Bloodwood. It is likely out of range for the roaches the Sadist has with him now.”

“You want us to run away?”

“Oh, no,” the vagabond says.  “Once we have evaded them, we will return their malice sevenfold.  We will devour Ka’s outposts, spirit his people away, and when the fish is starved and desperate, we’ll bait him, trap him, gut him.  He has spread a dissonance in this land. We will return harmony.”

The two lords stare, silent, unnerved by the stranger’s sudden fervor.  Whispers begin to spread through the crowd around them. At last, it is Martin who relents.

“We will support this harmony,” he says.  “Do you have a name?” The vagabond speaks, gaze burning through Martin, through the crowd, through the vicious reality closing in around them:

“My name is Matze Matsua.”

Part IV – Catherine

She stood at the gates of Greypass for a moment, troubled, too lost in thought to signal her arrival.  This was a familiar ritual. She had repeated it annually for the two decades since she had been knighted, but every year the foreboding grew.  Her predecessor hadn’t had this problem. He came to this place an emissary of something real, something to be feared. The Knights of Kol were impressive in themselves, of course, but back then, to defy one of them was to defy the Blood God, a gesture separated only by words from a beautiful and violent death.  But Catherine came here in a time when that threat, while perhaps still real, was far less credible.

That was the first decade anyway.  The ten years since the Blood God disappeared outright brought even more unease.  Kol had fallen, and though Catherine was formidable enough to command authority at her outpost, that authority was her own, the tenuous, human variety.  If they defied her–a costly choice, but eminently executable–there would be no god to descend upon the wretches of Greypass in vengeance.  

And now, her thoughts returned to that reality, set ever more firmly by her futile pilgrimage to Kol’s ruins.  Every year she traveled back to Free Magic’s former seat of power, to the city where she was raised, hoping desperately that someone would be there waiting.  The Blood God; the Magni, returned from their exile; even citizens rebuilding, steadfast; but she was always disappointed. The ruins of Kol were just ruins, and the starving masses she’d heard fled its walls en masse seemed to consider their exodus permanent.  And every year, she returned to Greypass and pondered her mortality at its gates, considering whether this year might finally be the year she abandoned her post, made a life for herself in the countryside, disavowed her knighthood forever.

At long last she sighed, defeated again.  This would not be that year. She called the guard to open the gate.

***

“Lady Catherine,” Zacharus said, sipping from a goblet.  “I was pleased to hear of your safe return.” The room–Zacharus’ audience hall–had acquired a number of expensive furnishings in the month Catherine had been away.  She contemplated breaking one. Zacharus was far too comfortable in her presence. She settled instead for a cold stare.

“What has happened in my absence, Captain?”  

Zacharus was not a captain anymore, not really, but the title was still the basis of their relationship.  Soon after she had come to Greypass, he had climbed to the top of the ranks among the town guard, making him her primary contact for enforcing order upon the place.  He was an abject coward, but it worked well for them: He did what she told him, kept the town fed and riot-free, and made a tidy profit skimming from their taxes, and as long as he kept to his role, Catherine had no objections.  It seemed, though, that he had begun to deal in more than stolen cash. The opulence of the room where they now conversed hinted at influence beginning to be parlayed at a higher level. No doubt he had his own interpretation of the fall of Kol; perhaps he was beginning to fancy himself the true ruler of Greypass.  He would have to die soon, Catherine mused. She wondered how many of his thugs would stay loyal, watching him bleed out through his eyes. The image brought a thin smile to her face, though she was not at all happy with the news he was at that moment relaying.

“The harvest was poor this year, as you predicted, my Lady.  We’ve had to tighten our belts, alas…” Catherine suppressed a sneer.  She doubted his belt had been tightened in years. “Alas,” he continued, “some have not taken so well to the ascetic spirit.  Our men have had to work hard in making sure our just taxes have been paid. Four delinquents have been imprisoned so far.”

“Hmm,” Catherine merely grunted.  She had little doubt Zacharus was well aware of her stance on the matter.  She was actually fairly certain of every word yet to be spoken in this conversation.  It would be a difficult one for the verminous little shit.

“My Lady?”

“I do not approve,” she remarked.  “What of Amelia? Has she prepared my chambers?”  Zacharus nodded and took another sip. Alarm had yet to set in.

“Ah yes,” he said.  “Unfortunately, with the guard being so busy, we’ve needed extra hands at the barracks.  I had her reassigned to aid in that capacity.” Catherine unstrapped her wristguard from her right arm as he spoke, revealing a crosshatched pattern of shallow scars running up to her elbow.

“I recall leaving explicit instructions regarding Amelia,” she said, approaching Zacharus’ makeshift throne.  “You were to keep her far away from those degenerates you employ. That is what I remember.” She wanted him to hurt, she wanted him to bleed.  She felt the hate dancing through her veins, vibrating beneath the scars in her arm, hardening, sharpening, slicing through her skin and dripping down, dying her knuckles a glistening crimson.

Her showmanship had not gone unnoticed.  Zacharus had set down his goblet, clenched the arms of chair.  He stared at the blood dripping from her fingers, blood that dripped but did not fall, that instead flowed into a mass of glass-like tendrils that slithered back up her arm, hungrily waiting for a victim.  He had seen her work before, he knew what he was being threatened with.

It was unfortunate, Catherine thought.  She had hoped he would have some of his lackeys in the room to witness his embarrassment, to remember–since he apparently did not–that she was not to be fucked with.

“My…Lady…” he said, leaning back as she grabbed his throat, her animate streams of blood wrapping around his face, sharpening as they very slowly dug in at his temples, his mouth, his eyes.

“You subverted me, Zacharus.”  He whimpered, the beginning of a shallow scream, and she couldn’t help but grin, perversely satisfied with his insubordination and its lovely consequences.  She wouldn’t kill him, no. In spite of his traitorous leanings, she knew him too well. He was predictable, and in that he was safe. But she would hurt him, scar him perhaps, let him cry out just a little more.  She would have liked to, anyway.

“I am sorry to interrupt,” a dry voice echoed across the room.  “But you must be Lady Catherine.” She turned to see a man in a dark green habit, middle aged, hair far greyer than the lines on his face might suggest.

“My name is Rom,” he said.  He gestured to Zacharus. “The lord indicated you would arrive today.”

***

“I’m very glad you are back with us, my Lady,” Amelia said, handing Catherine a bowl of thin soup.  Catherine leaned back, sipping the scalding broth as Amelia moved about the room, arranging and tidying.  The girl was pretty, she observed, her twenties had been kind to her, to the point that Zacharus’ guards might have been giving her more trouble than they ought.  She took another gulp. It was worrying, something she would have to monitor.

“I’m afraid I must apologize,” she said.  “I anticipated that Zacharus would ignore my instructions for you.”  Amelia looked up from her work and laughed, shaking her head.

“Oh, please don’t worry!  I can handle myself around them.”  Her voice was bright, sonorous. Catherine smiled in spite of herself.  She was fond of the girl. Fonder, she admitted, than a simple preference in company, though she couldn’t say why.  Perhaps it was simply that in all the years she had been here, Amelia was the only one who had shown any fondness for her.  Because of Amelia, however minor, however limited to these evenings of casual conversation, Catherine had a place in Greypass.  It was a scarce comfort, and she was grateful for it.

“That is good to hear,” she said.  “Still, I am not pleased with him. I ordered him to free the ones he arrested over taxes.”

“The town is surely thankful, my Lady.”  Catherine set her bowl down, troubled.

“It won’t be enough,” she added.  Amelia’s pleasant smile faded. She crossed the room, placing a reassuring hand on her friend’s arm as she picked up the bowl.  “Zacharus’ actions can be dealt with. I am concerned that he will not stop attempting them.” She glanced up at Amelia. “I don’t think I can leave again.”

“Please, my Lady,” Amelia said, giving Catherine’s arm a gentle squeeze before stepping away.  “We will manage. Your work is important.” Catherine snorted. She had shared a number of her feelings and opinions with Amelia, but she had yet to confide her reasons for the annual return to Kol, her unwillingness to let the gone stay gone.  She quelled the dismissive gesture. It was not fair to Amelia, and besides, her freedom was not the only thing on her mind.

“What do you make of the Khetite?” she asked.  Amelia had begun pouring water for tea, but she paused.

“Is that what he is?” she asked, twisting to look back at Catherine.  “I thought Khet fell years ago.”

“It did.  But you saw his skin?  Looks like a ghost, doesn’t he?”  She reached out, accepting a teacup from Amelia.  The girl nodded. “That’s magic,” Catherine continued.  “The Magni Kolai believed it was passive imagery projected by excess shadow mana.  The scrolls say it made the shadowmen resemble dreams or ghosts, even when they weren’t actively channeling.”

“So he is one of them?” Amelia asked.  “A shadowman?” Catherine shrugged, sipping her tea.  It burned her palate, but the pain seemed to help. It focused her.  She shook her head.

“I don’t know,” she said.  “Could be, but he’s definitely a mage.  Smelled like…” She sniffed the air. “Murder.  I think he will need to leave soon too.” Amelia stared, obviously upset.

“What does he want?” she asked.

“He wasn’t very forthcoming,” Catherine mused, eyes wandering to the ceiling.  “Kept deflecting. I suppose that will be tomorrow’s business.”

***

That night, Amelia’s scream woke her.  Catherine sat up as her friend slammed open her chamber door.

“My Lady!” she yelled.  “Please, they think you–”  There was a thump, and in the shadows Catherine heard the spatter of blood against stone, caught the pinpricks of violent joy dancing up from it, felt, with heart shattered and sunken, the crumple of Amelia’s body hitting the floor.  She didn’t think. She couldn’t think. She could only howl, as every capillary in her body burst, sending spikes of blood through her skin.  Barely willed, her body tore out of bed, through the door, into the hall, where a crossbow bolt caught her in the stomach, tearing through skin but little else as her blood, roiling, seething with mana, spat it back out.

It was dark, but she didn’t need her eyes.  She could feel the heartbeats around her, three of them, more approaching.  She could feel their adrenaline, their excitement, their murderous intent, and in that moment, images of their death, their bloody, vivid dismemberment, were everything she saw.  She sprinted toward the one who shot her, batting a spear from the darkness out of her way. The man tried to block her swing with his crossbow, but she shattered the thing with a backhand swipe and grabbed him by the face, forcing channels of mana through his eye sockets and dragging blood and brain matter messily back out.

The spearmen pursued her.  Before he could raise his weapon, she caught him with a haymaker that collapsed his chest cavity, impaling him on bloody spikes as the remaining guard fired on her with his own crossbow.  Again, her magic stopped the bolt from going past her skin, and she sprinted back toward him, as he frantically tried to reload his weapon. He wouldn’t get to. His reinforcements were too far away, his hands too slow, and by the time anyone intervened, Catherine would have collected his spine.

But somehow, someone did intervene.  Mere paces away from the men fumbling their bolts, Catherine felt a shooting pain through her calf, and, through the pain, a sudden immobilization.  It took precious instants for it to sink in: She had been stabbed. No, that wasn’t possible, she thought, whirling, snapping the spear pinning her leg to the floor.  She had listened. There were only three heartbeats.  

Before her, suddenly clear to all of her senses, was another guard, reeling backward from his splintered weapon.  Why didn’t she hear him? What was going on? She lunged for him, but was stopped by another spear, this time through her side, as another heartbeat suddenly became apparent.  Her insides wretched. She opened her mouth to howl again, and blood poured from it. She was getting dizzy, but she drew even more mana, wrapping it around her newest assailant.  The guard staggered backward, hands clapped to his throat, his whole body beginning to swell. She felt the blood welling in his face, at his extremities, but she kept it forced inside him.  He would bleed soon.

At that moment, the man with the crossbow, finished finally with his task, fired again, hitting her face, shattering her jaw and her concentration.  Their swollen comrade exploded, covering the corridor and its occupants in blood and bits of flesh. Catherine, fell to her knees as the two remaining guards scrambled away, whimpering.

Her world was getting hazy.  Magic alone, now, was keeping enough blood circulating within her to keep her alive, but it was only doing so much.  She heard more footsteps approach. She winced as the guards drove a spear through her heart, bound her hands and feet.

“She’s a blood knight–she’ll take forever to bleed out.  Drag her to the dungeon.”

There was dragging, pain, oceans of nausea, bone scraping against damp, moldering rock, then darkness, as the guards trudged off.  And then a voice cut through the haze.

“I think it unlikely you would have acquiesced to my designs,” Rom said.  He was in her cell, leaning against the wall. She could not respond to him, she could not look at him.  She could barely even hear him over the pain. “But I’ll offer you an explanation. Not as an olive branch, but perhaps to soothe a final disappointment: That you were murdered and never understood why.”

“They attacked you tonight,” he continued, “because they believed you had killed me, and Zacharus felt this would finally serve as justification to have you removed.  They required no additional push in this respect, but acceptance of the Deep begins with acceptance of a single drop of alternative reality, and I mean to make these people understand it all.”

“Perhaps, though…”  His laughter was soft.  “Perhaps you will be the first of them.  Certainly you understand now that reality can change fundamentally in mere moments.  Things, people, they disappear, others, heartbeats, fade into existence like gathering mist.”  Catherine’s eyes widened. “The water is cold, at first, you cannot breathe, but you are amidst so much more than you have ever known.”  

As he spoke, his voice seemed to drift to the cell door–though Catherine heard no footsteps–becoming fainter with each syllable until it was muffled by the rotting wood between them, and all trace of Rom had vanished.  She wanted to scream after him, in defiance of her injuries, of the blood, coagulated in metallic crust holding together what remained of her teeth, but she knew that even that effort would kill her.

She needed to hang on, to survive, because if she didn’t, she would never get the chance to make that bastard understand her reality, understand agony, the brutal death of self that she was now enduring.  And it did test her. She felt the spear still embedded in her chest, splintering, rotting inside her, screaming like fire as she twitched.  She felt her world ache as her strength drained, her organs failed, the blood she held fast in her veins, churning through her impaled, no longer beating heart, began to drip away from her.

It tested her, but she persisted.

It was a long time, impossibly long, perhaps days or weeks, before she heard footsteps against the dungeon stone, the musty creak of the cell door swinging open, a sigh of disgust from a voice she didn’t recognize.  Then its owner grasped the shaft of the spear in her chest and pulled, and after all her endurance, then she screamed and writhed as one who was truly dying.

“Get up,” the voice snapped.  She realized the spear had come free, that the pain was fading faster than it should, that she was not bleeding.  With sudden command over her magic, she severed the bonds that held her hands and feet and reached to her face.  Her teeth were there, her jaw uninjured. She looked to the figure in the doorway, head cocked to the side, face in shadow, holding the spear he’d taken from her body.

“What did you do?” she asked, grim suspicion replacing her trauma.  The man sighed again. He slapped the flat of the spear against the wall.  He didn’t seem angry, and the gesture, Catherine realized, didn’t seem to be directed at her–the man simply seemed bored.

“You want to kill them, right?” he said, not waiting for a reaction.  “Let’s go.” He turned and headed into the hallway as Catherine’s memory slowly reignited.

Oh, yes.  Zacharus. The guards.  They attacked her, left her to die, impaled and disfigured in the dungeon.  She resented it, would repay them in kind, but she was a knight. It was part of her trade.  No, what burned now, what would make their deaths hellish was what they had done to Amelia. They killed the girl, her only friend, the one glimmer of good in this bleak, useless, pile of stone and flesh and avarice.  She had not fought. She only screamed, and for her warning, they killed her. Scrabbling to her feet, she tore from the room, scars opening once again, blood writhing with wicked intent. The stranger, the man who’d freed her, was gone, no trace, no heartbeat, but Catherine remembered Rom’s lesson, and though she bristled, she understood reality better for it.

Quickly, she ascended to the main floor, clawing through five guards on her way, sprinting to the audience hall, bare, blood-drenched feet slapping on stone as she entered to find Zacharus with seven of his guards.

“Lady…Catherine,” he uttered, face pale, but she ignored him.  He didn’t deserve any more words. She just grinned, wild-eyed, staring down the first of his guards, a young one, hefting his spear in a pitiful attempt at intimidation.  She looked to the next as the young guard collapsed, crimson spikes jutting from his mouth and ears and eyes. The rest ran, Zacharus among them, but Catherine lashed out with her magic again, and his right leg twisted with enough force to break bone.  He tripped and fell, scrambling to face her, pushing himself back as fast as he could, calling for his guards to help.

She slowed, looming over him, reaching down, gently cradling his jaw as, once again, streams of blood wound around him, slithering into his ears, his nostrils, his mouth, his eyes, gouging into him until his own blood began to run.

“You killed her, Zacharus,” she whispered, dragging him upright, pulling his face close to her own.  “You killed Amelia.” He hacked out a crying, burbling scream, but beneath his pathetic din, she heard another voice.  Shivering. Behind her.

“Did he, though?”  

Tensing her grip, she crushed Zacharus skull, dropped him, spun to face the source.  It was Amelia, drenched in blood, bolt still embedded in her temple, surrounded by the tendrils of blood magic.

“If you never returned,” she said, her voice tinny tormented.  “If you just ran, like you wanted, like we all wanted, I would never have been hurt.”

“Amelia…” Catherine gasped, but the girl just shrieked and flung herself forward, raking the air where Catherine’s face had been.  She tripped backward, knowing the girl would follow, would kill her. Amelia was justified, and Catherine didn’t have the heart to stop her.  But in that moment, Amelia vanished with the sound of spurt of blood, and Catherine turned to see Rom, not ten feet from her, with a spear through his shoulder.

“What the…?” the Khetite muttered, glancing at Cathering as another spear from the entryway caught him in the stomach.  He doubled over, groaning in pain.

“I’ve been looking for you.”  The speaker stepped into the room, another spear slung over his shoulder against a hook-like tool.  By his posture, Catherine immediately recognized her rescuer from the dungeon. Rom looked up as well, clearly in agony, but instead of shock, it was ecstasy that seemed to take over his face.

“Daniel,” he breathed.  “You’re back…it’s begun.  He did it.” Whipping the hook forward, Daniel flung his last spear across the room, impaling Rom’s unwounded shoulder, stretching him back against the ground on a gruesome tripod.

“It’s about to end,” Daniel muttered.  Striding to the edge of the room, he took a crossbow from a rack and loaded it.

“No, no,” Rom wheezed.  “You are there, we are there.  The Deep. Your world…”  Daniel took the crossbow over to Rom and placed it on his chest, the bolt just below his chin.

“Your world has changed…and it will keep getting smaller…”  Daniel glanced at Catherine.

“You wanna do the honors?” he asked.  She nodded, climbing to her feet.

“The heavens smile down on you, Catherine,” Rom said, grinning, a single trail of blood seeping from the corner of his mouth.  She looked the Khetite in the eyes, pulled the trigger, and soaked in the cascade of joy as his head splattered the wall behind him.

“Lovely,” Daniel said, after a moment.  “Now come on, we have somewhere to be.” Catherine turned to him, defiant.

“Who are you?” she asked.  “What do you mean?” He spat, pulling a spear from Rom’s corpse.

“I mean there’s a cycle to complete.  You got your revenge, now someone else has got to get theirs, and the old man’s gotta get everyone’s.”  Catherine stared at him through narrow eyes. He stared back. “You don’t have a choice,” he said, and–she realized–he was right.  She knew she was going to leave with him, that it had been preordained, that she had no will that could fight that truth on its terms.  

And so as he turned to leave, and she followed, she felt an unsettling pang, a realization that Rom had never been deluded, had not been a madman.  His ravings, that something had begun, that her world had changed, were precisely and completely true.

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

Life is Very Long

So is this damn writing process. Today I have good news, bad news, and a conciliatory gift.

The good news is that I have at this point pushed through two episodes of writer’s block on Part 4 of the Sevenfold Gyre. The bad news is that it is still far from done. Right now, it’s about 40% the length of Part 3, but since these have been getting longer with each installment, that’s no guarantee that it’s 40% done. Part of the issue is that the first two pieces were pretty tightly conceived before I wrote them (and if you are familiar with the material I’m referencing in the series, you know that Part 3 was preordained as well). We’re now reaching parts of the story where I only have shells to fill in. Quality-wise, that seems to be fine so far, but it’s taking awhile.

Also, an astounding amount of life has intervened in the past few weeks, so that’s inconvenient too. That said, we’re always working on things here, so while you wait and I write, enjoy these concept sketches Rae made for the roaches:

Bottom image: “Roach Party”, concept by Rae Johnson

Excerpt on “Pure” Magics

From A History of the Wars Fought-Under-Shadow, by Romesse of Khet:

Even before the Iron Queen championed the Prophecy to the intelligentsia of Spar, the Diarchian view of magic’s scholarship was already curiously close-minded.  The University had come of institutional age soon after the destruction of Thago, when the attentions of the Diarchs and their generals were fixed upon the applications of organized fire and water magics for future war efforts.  This, intentionally or not, seemed to form the basis of the scholars’ narrative, pairing political expediency with an already-prevalent explanation that mana was an expression of the earth’s natural, elemental energies.

The practice of magic, even then, was hardly limited to the four elements the University recognized, but it was geographically convenient to anchor its study there.  Spar itself had a social comfort with fire magic, and its neighbors in the Riverlands to the west, as well as the Endless Dunes to the south, had strong traditions of water and earth magic, respectively.  Alternatives were scarce or much farther afield: The Lie-magic of Khet was separated from the Diarchy by nigh-impassable mountains, and the arts of manipulating blood and plants were squirreled away in the countryside, the trade of hedge mages and medicine women.  Of course, the University was aware of these. It did not dismiss their existence. It merely rebranded it.

The theory was this: The earth’s mana could be drawn to a number of ends, but the elements were channels it flowed to most naturally.  With limited access to anomalous data, the scholars at first concluded that mana directed toward “impure” magics–for they classified the non-elements as combinations thereof–simply would not flow as readily, weakening the magic’s effect.  However, as tensions between Spar and Khet escalated, and knowledge of Khet’s shadowmen became more common throughout the Diarchy, the consensus shifted: Non-elemental magic was not weaker, per se.  Rather, it was more prone to “distortion”, a vague sort of misfiring or unintended disaster.  Still, though the University concurred on a value judgment for this debatably imaginary phenomenon, scholars could hardly agree on a quantification for the risk it posed.

In effect, the Iron Queen provided a resolution to this dispute.  After the Decree of Magic, the fear, the nature of the distortion, had been linked to the Prophecy, to an existential threat.  It was concrete, and needed no further debate…

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

Blame

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

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

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

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

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

The Sevenfold Gyre, Part 3

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

Interlude 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now they are seven.

The old man looks up.

Part III – Fox

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

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

***

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

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

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

“Now what could you be doing here?”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Fighting Death

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

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

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

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

I.

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

III.

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

Footnotes:

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

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

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

The Way the World Has Died

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

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

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

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

-Mefit Il-Hazeen

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

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

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 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