Words From a Severed Head, Part 1

Teaser, coming from here.

There was once a man who wished to hide from the truth.  He gathered his flock and said unto them: “See how we cower in servitude before death and shadow.  Do you not wish to escape this tyranny?” His flock did, they replied, but they could see no path, no way by which they might escape.  So the man gathered the clouds from the sky and wrapped them about his people, that when the agents of death came to find them, they encountered only mist and lies.  The man then swept his flock and his clouds both to a peak rising high above the land, and from there, they ascended to the heavens.

There was once a man who realized the world was a lie.  He saw what the Man of the Clouds had wrought. He saw that what was real had been split in twain.  Others beheld the city in the clouds and declared it fantasy, an escape, but this man questioned: Was the world they had escaped any more true?  Was it so in any way that mattered? He thought to the lies the world had told him, that when men and women ceased to be they ascended to Heaven or descended somewhere else below.  But he had ascended and, in so doing, made true that lie, made it indistinguishable from truth, made a lie of Truth in its entirety.  So, to perform a miracle of one only thing, he resolved he must descend, to link the Sky to the Deep that had unraveled before him.

Godlike

“We shall pause, the page read.  Savior, what do you know of the gods?  We do not speak of the vermin who slouched across the wastes as our would-be Dragon did, adorned with the trappings of divinity and the trinkets of better men.  We speak of those gifted with the power to transcend their becoming–to be eternally.”

The Dragon’s Thesis

I’ve so far written not nothing about gods, and I’ll confess it is a serious literary interest of mine.  We create images of them, deify them as empowered forms of ourselves with interests, obsessions, psyches, separated from ours by gulfs of poorly-understood “power” but without a doubt like them.  This is almost certainly a cognitive bias: If we can’t imagine gods as like us, then how are we supposed to imagine them?  Lovecraft, et al went ahead and dropped the bomb of “not like us”, but that’s old hat by now, especially since writers seem to have interpreted the meaning of that phrase as “arbitrary to the point of irrelevance”.  And besides the cognitive tarpit, the myopia angle just isn’t that interesting. Let’s change the question: What does a god look like when it is like us?  That is, it was a creature of becoming that became godlike.

I.

War Torn/Rale has gods in four vaguely-defined flavors: the Old Gods, the True Gods, Heroes/Horrors, and the False Gods.  These are not universally accurate/reliable classifications–some straddle the lines–nor are they a hierarchy, they’re really just what (particularly aware) people called specific individuals at specific times.  That said, they all have one thing in common: power. These gods were all capable of exerting an influence on the human society around them on par (at minimum) with a tropical storm, which altered their relationship with that society in a way fairly alien to the standard human experience.  That relationship, then, is the focus for the above categories. I’ll expound:

The Old Gods are the closest thing War Torn/Rale has to a realistic depiction of religion.  In the long-tailed beginning of our timeline, the scale of society was small, and while magic was abundant, mages were not.  Magic was not understood in any meaningful, organized way, and so the way that people interacted with it was through rituals and mysticism.  In some cases, these rituals were merely acts with no supernatural power, but from which humans derived meaning. In others, they drew upon sources of mana in nature, often from animals that had intuitively learned to command magic.  Accordingly animist belief systems were common, and the objects of their worship were, collectively, the Old Gods. They were elusive, sometimes outright mythological, but their rare and poignant interactions with humans underlaid traditions that societies treasured long after those interactions ended.  Still, though, as humans gained more visibility into the channels of power and developed stronger traditions for wielding it themselves, these gods faded into fables and stories, and by the time Spar set fire to the Great Shell of Thago, worship of them had all but disappeared. Aside, though it did not have the social characteristics of an Old God, the Chimera is probably a good representation of what one would have looked like up close (ie, utterly horrifying in a way the myths, stories, and traditions would unrecognizably smooth over).

The True Gods, though they may have incidentally been objects of worship, generally interacted much more willfully with society.  They were not always visible (though the Blood God was), but their interventions were always directed–and directed toward society, where the animal gods of the Old Times probably had a very limited conception of what society even was.  The Blood God massacred cities single-handedly, and his will was sufficient to instill a culture of free magic the world over.  The Man of the Clouds effectively withdrew an entire city from worldly existence, the Gyre overlaid a grand narrative upon the world for thousands of years, and the One-Eyed Crow was responsible for, well, a number of unpleasant things.

Still, in both cases, the gods had conceptual and ideological significance.  They meant something, and society organized around those ideals.  The Heroes, Horrors, and False Gods weren’t really interested in that ballgame.

The Heroes and Horrors were outcasts, generally by choice, and though the societies they bumped into told stories about them, they tended to be the campfire variety.  The Saraa Sa’een was terrifying, but aside from the Barabadoon, a close-knit band formed specifically to hunt it, no one had much insight into why it did anything or what it was supposed to mean.  It was just a monster, it killed people, and then a similarly ideologically vague Hero showed up and drove it off.  In this way, they drove a different sort of folklore than the gods that came before them, and it’s really key to note that this was largely a function of their interests.  They had no desire to interact with the sphere of human consciousness–society was simply an object to them–so they left no legacy there.

II.

This all brings us to the sordid history of the False Gods.  All of the “gods” I’ve described to this point have been humans (or animals) that learned to commune with the world fundamentally in such a way as to give them power over it.  The False Gods had no such talent, no such strength of will or character, and of all the beings on this list, they were the most reviled.

At the end of the War of the Roaches, it became clear to Ka’s war-ravaged overthrowers that his sudden ascent from petty ruler of a fishing village to despotic necromancer was fueled by a single object in his possession: a stone–called the Hellstone by its discoverers–that radiated pure mana, allowing him to create the roaches (likely the only piece of magic he ever learned) on an unheard of scale.  The infusion of magic into objects was at this point a practice accomplished mages knew about, but it was rare, and disciplined practice was limited to a few recluses in the Bloodwood. For that reason, the non-magical layman had never discovered that he could become extremely powerful just by acquiring a lot of these miscellaneous objects.

Not all of them were so blunt as the Hellstone.  Some had very specific purposes, like a necklace that would bring its wearer back from death seven times, or a statue that would unmake any living thing held in its arms in order to radiate invigorating force to the people and plants around.  But no matter how niche their use, acquiring one allowed an ambitious individual to expand their power and influence far more quickly than they ever could otherwise.

And the effect snowballed: A would-be “god” would betray a friend for his panoply, then, fearing the censure of their community, strike first at anyone else in their vicinity who might hold similar keys to power.  Then, when they became powerful enough that they did not have to fear for their safety, the priority shifted to suppressing potential rivals. They used their powers to gather wealth and then placed standing offers to buy any magical items that people could bring them, raising an economy of thieves and scavengers that prompted any owners of magical items that they must sell or die.  And then, when a False God died for one reason or another, they would leave behind a vast trove of powerful artifacts for scavengers and successors to kill each other over.

The False Gods often roamed.  They enjoyed the generally cruel exercise of their power, but the people that surrounded them tended to flee.  They enjoyed–demanded–the worship of their people, but they rarely received it in earnest. They were “false” because though they commanded world-shaking power, they were divine in no other way.  They were tyrants and strongmen, and when communities gradually discovered that fighting back could sometimes slay those tyrants, the most brazen False Gods died, and the rest simply faded from notoriety.

This description is a very precise fit for Judiah, from the linked story, but other False Gods had different qualifications and priorities.  The Ban Gan Shui was not terribly cruel, though her interest in humans as objects for experimentation was not a kind one, and though Le Markhan was not nearly so arrogant as Judiah, it was his excess of hatred that brought his downfall.  Again, their role as tyrants rather than deities unites them.

III.

Every single one of these started out as a person (except the ones that started as animals, but that may be its own discussion).  The path of growth was generally very similar, in magnitude it was almost identical, but what they then became varied wildly. Some of this, of course, lay in their choices–what they did with their power affected how they were perceived, but also note that each of these groups tended to exist at different times (the Blood God and the Man of the Clouds were contemporaries, the other groups had periods of history named for them), which means that what they became to society was as much a function of society as it was of their temperament.  If you live in a society that has no gods, God himself walking into town one day, heralded by choirs of angels, is still no guarantee that he will be perceived as such.  Judiah was able to conquer armies, he caused crop fields to bloom with plenty, and yet no one revered him–they just saw a lecherous, bloodthirsty marauder with unbreakable skin.  There’s probably a profound observation about our society in there somewhere, but I’m not a doctor.

That’s the society side, but it’s also worth noting that the gods’ perceptions of the world end up just as varied.  The False Gods viewed humanity as a necessary part of their ecosystem, the Heroes and Horrors saw it as a fixture–replaceable but significant–but it’s likely that the Blood God looked upon his kingdom and saw its denizens as truly insignificant specks.  This was not a forgone conclusion, given his history, but it was his conclusion nevertheless.

Consider, then, that it may have been power that elevated these individuals to significance, but it was people, “just like you or I–indeed you and I” that decided what they would be, to the world and to themselves.  That’s a different sort of power, sure, but it’s power that the mortal have over the divine.  It may be worth remembering in our world of dead gods that still writhe.

Top image: Pieces of Control, by Quinn Milton; and The Blood God, Hiding, and an as-yet-unrevealed piece, by Hector Rasgado

Tax Collectors

Martin,

Yield from your province was low this season.  I await your explanation. Do not disappoint.

Mikel

***

-For the Quartermaster

His Lordship, Martin, informs that the wagon delivered unto the Revián Highlord was lacking in supplies.  His Lordship reminds you that this is an unacceptable outcome and demands you produce collection records for the most recent three seasons thus past.  His Lordship reminds you as well that failure, either to comply with the demand mentioned or in the adequate performance of your duties, portends grave consequences for your future.

Kindest regards,

Luc, Favored Scribe to Lord Martin

***

-For His Lordship’s Snivelling, Frog-Buggering Shadow-

Feck off.  Per your bloody demands, I’ve included three seasons of collection records, and I added some big feckin’ circles so your blind arse can see the problem I wrote you about three feckin’ months ago.  It’s salt fish. There ain’t none of it. And there ain’t none of it ‘cause all the salt fish in the territory comes from Mudhull. As it so feckin’ happens, the last two tax collectors we sent there never reported back.  I’ll go ahead and repeat what I feckin’ wrote you before: Sounds like you and His Lordship ought to get an explanation from Ka, but that ain’t my problem.

Feck your kindness,

“The Quartermaster”

***

Lord Martin,

Our scouting parties have encountered armed resistance near the bayou.  While my shame is great in admitting this so late, it seems the Mudfish has declared himself in silent rebellion.  I have engaged a small group of mercenaries to infiltrate his fortress and determine the scale and specifics of his military operation.  Afterwards, we will ride for Mudhull and put these traitors down.

Your Obedient,

Rein-Captain Jean Paul

***

The date at the top of the page is smudged, and the scrawl is messy.  Numerous lines have been rendered illegible by water damage.

It’s //// four days since we reached the bayou /////////////////////////////////// near Mudhull.  What we have seen so far already //////////////////////////////////////// ////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////
////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////
 I am making this record now, that our observations may return to Lord Martin by way of a messenger, as the possibility of no return has grown real.  The walls of Mudhull are //////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////////// with a crawfish smuggler who claims he can grant us safe entry.  I will continue to write what we find as we uncover it.

/////////////////////////////// Day 6

Those within Mudhull have been pressed into the worship of Ka as a sort of deity, ///////////////////////////////////////////////////// usually teeth, arms, or legs.  There are few men in the walls, and we have yet to encounter a woman or child who is not, in some way maimed.  Determining how this came to be ////////////////////////////////////////////// not speak a word against Ka for fear of their life, and even some who seem to believe truly that Ka has //////////////////////////  We have engaged ////////////////////////// “palace”.  She is afraid and seems sympathetic to our aims.

According to her, this began after the the one-eyed man and an ///////// arrived and met with Ka.  Soon after, Ka began–she says–to ///////////////////////////////////////////////// men of the town, perhaps by fear, to enlist as his enforcers.  Those enforcers are few, but we are able to see they are very zealous.  There is otherwise talk of a purpose for /////////////////////////////// as they are taken into the lower levels of the palace each day.  The slave has agreed to escort us there after nightfall that we may observe.

The rest of the document is written in a different hand, without smudges.

Fuck this.  Fuck all of this.  I show up here half-dead, no doubt raving about horrors and dire emergencies, and Martin can’t bother to see me for three fucking days?  Well good fucking luck. He gets this note instead. Go ahead and ignore the unreadable garbage up top, I’ll make it very simple: Mudhull is an abomination, corpses are sewn together and up, walking, mauling people in the streets.  Ka has declared himself god of this hell he’s brought to earth. You need to get every fucking soldier you have and wipe that place out of existence.

I’m getting the fuck out of here.  If you fail, I’m not sticking around.

***

Great Highlord Mikel of the Revián,

My sincerest apologies for the lack of explanation included with my diminished lot of tribute.  Alas, a village lord within my province, Ka of Mudhull, has rebelled, amassing an army in defiance of your just rule.  My forces are mobilizing to destroy him now, but lest his impertinence disturb the peace you have so carefully constructed in this fair land, I humbly request your troops and assistance in making an example of him.

Deepest apologies, with great loyalty,

Martin, Governing Lord of the Southern Reaches

The Old Man and the Demon

Probably related: Here and here

From the Barabadoon Book of the Demon:

In the beginning, the demon was not the scourge we now know him to be.  He was evil, but his evil was the evil of mankind, of mortals. In those days, to escape the guardians who hunted him, he took refuge in dark places, caves deep beneath the ground.  In one such cave he found a garden, lit and nourished by beams of sun shining through cracks in the ceiling. Tending the garden was an old man.

Overcome by curiosity, the demon approached the old man.  He asked: “Elder, why do you dwell here so far beneath the surface?”

“There is nothing left for me in the outside world,” the old man replied, honest, open, as we all should be to our brother.  “I get enough sun here, and nothing bothers me from without.” The demon nodded, for he understood the purity of solitude. But he bristled: Did not this old man desire to subject the world to his anger as well?

“But Elder,” the demon asked, “why do you hide from the world when you could fight against it?  Can you not protect your way of life on the surface?”

The old man shook his head and replied once again: “I have given my past much thought,” he said–for we all must practice introspection, must seek to understand and grow from our mistakes.  “I believe that I chose a life that was evil. Perhaps I could defend it perhaps not, but I believe that I should not.”

Seeing an opportunity to spread doubt, the demon inquired further: “Elder, if you believe yourself wicked, why do you persist here?  Why not take your life in atonement for your wrongs?”

“It is because,” the old man said, “the virtuous man who does wrong seeks instead to do right in the future.  If I end my life, I will cut short all of my potential, and my life will have been in the service of evil.” The demon scoffed, for the old man had fallen into his trap.

“If you seek to do good, then why do you remain down here?” he asked.  “What good can you bring about here in this cave?”

“I have found purpose in my exile,” the old man replied with a smile.  “I sought to hide myself in the dark corners of the world, for that is where evil things hide, and I had made of myself an evil thing.  But I realized I was not alone. I found yet more evil here, and I resolved that I would redeem myself by ensuring it should never escape this place.”

“Elder,” the demon said.  “Would you take me to this evil, that I might see it, that I might help you defend it from those who would do harm with it?”  

So the old man led the demon deeper into the cave, to a chamber where a knife lay on the ground.  Though it appeared to be an ordinary tool, the demon could see that the knife was enchanted with a great darkness.  At that moment, he revealed his intentions to the old man, attempting to overpower him with claws of stone, but the old man was vigilant, ready for the demon’s betrayal, for though he believed in the good of all, he made sure to ration his trust to those who, like the demon, had not earned it.  The old man deflected the demon’s assault with gusts of wind, pelted him with fire, and summoned a great stream of water that carried the demon from that place.

The demon, in awe of the old man’s hidden strength, knew that he could not outwit or overpower him, so for nearly a year, he waited, keeping to the cave’s upper reaches, out of the old man’s sight.  Though the old man was wise and of remarkable skill, he was very frail. One night, he passed peacefully in his sleep, and the demon descended once again, claimed the knife, and imbibed its darkness, becoming the monster we now see in the world.  The old man’s negligence would thus doom thousands.

You see, the old man practiced virtue, as all of us must.  He was ever vigilant, truly wary of evil as the Nose and the Whiskers must be.  His claws were sharp, and he was prepared to fight evil at a moment’s notice, just as the Tooth is.  But from his failure, we chosen of the Barabadoon may learn: If we are to pursue justice, not even death can be allowed to stand in the way.

Heirloom

This is a little rough. Where the Sevenfold Gyre is (among other things) a pretty in-depth exploration of the interior of a particular entity in the world of Rale. This is a much quicker, dirtier explanation of the same entity’s external influence. I don’t know that this will make it to the final collection in its current format, mostly because I find it too explicit. More likely that I’ll break up its “sub-episodes” and make reference to them in other pieces, but for those of you who have been reading closely, you’ll likely recognize a couple of them even now.

A storm is a wide thing, whorled, variable, separated from peace by the same dialectic line that cuts light from darkness.  But still it carries stillness at its center, like a heart sustaining it with a lifeblood of abstract potential, a reminder to the gyre that there is always yet a reverie to be broken.  Sometimes the eye of the storm is a great gulf, a tranquil window to the infinite chaos without. Sometimes it fits on the point of a knife.

The knife in question was not special.  Its handle was gnarled, rough, its iron impure, forged hurriedly and without care that it might carve pine and cut fruit and do very little else of consequence, but chance placed it in the hands of a craftsman who traded not in wood or nourishment but in smiles.  His art was not, as it were, in the evocation of grin or mirth.  It was a matter of use. A smile can open a door, turn foe to friend, instill ease, provoke horror.  For good or ill, a smile is a lie, and this craftsman was a liar, exceeded only by a legend, a face in the clouds.  For many years, he studied that Man of the Clouds, and then, when he had learned enough, he plunged his mundane blade into the sky.  Where the knife pierced, a stillness remained, and around that stillness, his self, his sins, and the violent gale of Untruth itself began to whirl.

Like a hailstone, the knife plummeted from the sky, crashed against a mountainside, tumbled deep within the earth where a fugitive happened upon it.  The fugitive, exiled, called a demon by his people, grasped the blade, recognized immediately the storm it anchored, and attempted, starving, slavering, to devour it.  And it made a storm of him. He who had been called demon became then truly demonic. He emerged from his cave and tore for an age across the land, surrounded always by a hell of grit and dust.  But even a demon cannot stomach a storm forever. His people hunted him, grudge undulled by time, even sharpened, perhaps, by the grit blown in that gyre he dared to swallow. They cornered him, imprisoned him, and at last he retched: The knife tumbled into the world yet again.

The demon’s captor collected it, gifted it to his lord who saw nothing in it, who used it to butter his bread.  But winds blow, and the world turns, and the lies and stories come round again: The lord saw not, for he did not need to see.  The storm did not transform him, for the lord was already a demon, had already crafted his murky hell, had harvested thousands, waged war on the world that spurned him, and carved his name into its writhing husk.  So when the vengeful came for him, none recognized the storm that bore them. Though it still raged, the world had somehow forgotten it.

From the corpse of the fallen lord, the knife was collected by a rebel, a taker of skulls who saw in it power–but not its power.  Instead, he saw echoes of a god of blood and glory, a reversal of the world’s descent, a road to his deity’s return.  Precisely; appropriately: He saw a lie. A lie within a storm of lies, a face of god in a cloud which was, itself, godlike.  So it was not by his intent, but the knife’s, the storm’s, that he roamed the earth, proclaiming his god’s rebirth, spreading his falsehood like rain for centuries until the right mind received it.

That mind belonged to a warrior, the greatest of his time but outcast, nonetheless, for his hideous visage.  In the way of the god of blood, the warrior slew the rebel, claiming the knife as his salvation, for unlike the rebel, the warrior would put action to his gospel.  He searched the shrinking, dried corners of the world to find the Blood God’s twice-blessed seat of power, and there he attempted ritual spoken to his dreams by the storm, attempted to soak the ground in blood, that a tree, a ladder to the heavens, might rise and grant his god descent.

He fought a great battle but was overwhelmed by those who would not acquiesce to his vision.  His body fell to the dirt, the knife with it, and it lay there for some time. In its somnolence, the knife was not hidden, and a number of curious souls gleaned its secrets as it held in stillness in the flickering cavern where it fell.  But they did not intervene. They saw the storm, they saw its eye, and in that peaceful center, they saw, shining, lifelike, the Smile that had never ceased to rain blood from the heavens. Unsettled, they, for that moment, let it lie.

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