Getting Back

Apologies for the prolonged silence. I’ve been sick as well as traveling a lot recently (still not quite done), and writing has been even slower than usual. That said, I still have a little content for you while I’m wrapping up the main fare. See the final draft of Names above. I posted Rae’s original concept test some time ago here, and I think it’s absolutely wild to see how far it’s come.

Part of the perspective change was to put that extra emphasis on the piece’s namesake (pun unavoidable), but in fleshing it out, we were also able to lay some groundwork in determining what Ka used the camps for, and with that came conceptions of the roaches, of labor systems, of facilities built at harbors atop muddy banks that slowly shipped the dead and rotting offal the Bloodfish’s forces gathered back to his citadel.

Top image: Names, by Rae Johnson, commissioned for War Torn/Rale

Something About Tortoises

“What happened to that Sevenfold Gyre post you said was in progress?”

Totally still in progress, but words are hard, and it’s been really slow going. Not really writers block, since a little has been getting done every day, but it is not a fast process. The character sketch posts were meant to be a delaying tactic, but they are not proving to be quite enough.

Oh well, here’s another: Les Marquains magically bound within a painting inside his house. At a point some time after the death of Ka, he disappeared leaving behind a house bereft of all the magical curiosities it had held since his grandfather’s glory days. None could say what became of him and his treasures until he resurfaced, forty years later, not a day older than when he had last been seen.

Top Image: Concept of Les Marquains in hiding, by Rae Johnson, commissioned for War Torn/Rale

Character Sketches 3 (and the Barabadoon)

I’ve written a sparse little about the Saraa Sa’een on this blog so far. The name was originally used by the peoples of the Endless Dunes to describe dangerous exiles, criminals, or singular enemies of a society, but in the time following the Dereliction, it came to refer to a particular monster, an animate sandstorm that would arrive in a village, murder and torment its inhabitants for days, and then leave as suddenly as it came. Though the creature’s origins were uncertain, the danger it posed was clear, and an order (perhaps a cult) formed among the peoples of the Dunes to hunt the beast and protect against its onslaughts. This cult, named for a beast of myth (perhaps one of the Old Gods, perhaps a baseless legend), was known as the Barabadoon.

The Barabadoon was, at any given time, led by three gifted mages: The Nose, the Whiskers, and the Tooth. Of these, the Tooth was the fighting force behind their cooperation as well as the face of their order, and at the time the Saraa Sa’een was finally defeated, the title was held by this man:

Alikazan, Tooth of the Barabadoon.

Images: Concept sketches of Alikazan, Tooth of the Barabadoon, by Rae Johnson, commissioned for War Torn/Rale.

Character Sketches 1

As a side-effort to our main pipeline of artwork, we asked Rae for their interpretations of a number of characters in our timeline. Here is Le Markhan (or Les Marquains, in the Riverlands tongue), from She-Lord of Ka! He’s looking a little svelter than he ought (he was not a thin man), but it’s a work in progress. I’m a huge fan of the imagery Rae brought to these pieces. Enjoy!

The Sevenfold Gyre, Interlude 4

This is the interlude preceding Part 5 of the Sevenfold Gyre. That part is in progress and will be posted soon. This interlude is shorter than its predecessors, but things are coming together, and the pace will speed up from here.

It has been two years since the walls of Mudhull burst, releasing their torrents of undead upon the Riverlands.  It has been nineteen months since the region fell to the Bloodfish, its last defenders retreating, with every citizen they could persuade, to the Bloodwood, the Dunes, the northern hills, whichever domain brought them relief from the Sadist’s inexorable advance.  It has been a hard, hellish war, but its life has thus far been short. For the man that calls himself Matze Matsua, though, it has been much longer. He has seen this all before, seen its beginnings and ends again and again. As before, he remembers the beginning–the first beginning.  He always will. But since then, he has discovered just how long life is.

This time, the war is going well.  The coalition, the forces of Harmony, fled the roaches for a time, but upon their first counterattack, far from the Sadist’s main force, they discovered the weakness, the hollowness of the Bloodfish’s stunted war machine.  Its monsters are swift, strong, inhumanly vicious. They know not fear nor pain, but, as Harmony discovered, falling upon the most far-flung of Ka’s outposts, this is because the creatures know almost nothing at all.

Harmony has now learned a great deal about their enemy, that the roaches are no more loyal to their keepers than to their enemies, that Ka’s soldiers keep them chained as threats to their sparse prisoners but never free them, that only Ka and the One-Eyed Sadist are able to command them.  And, of course: the monsters are fueled by magic, imbued with a lifespan of months instead of years, and each wretched one is made–unborn, undead–by Ka himself in Bloodhull. In this knowledge, Harmony has found its target. They will destroy the Bloodfish’s death camps, his grim depots for his armies’ harvests.  In so doing, they will rob him of his bones, his eyes, his teeth, the materials the camps channel back to Bloodhull. Without them, the roaches’ numbers will dwindle. Ka, influence shrinking, will grow desperate, stupid, and then, then the tide of discord–as it always does–will ebb.

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 Ben-Gan Shui was not terribly cruel, though her interest in humans as objects for experimentation was not a kind one, and though Les Marquains 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.