Another expositional story by Leland. Edited by me.
All us left the city after the bureaucrats fell. There was nothing there no more.
However much the food was a problem an’ those bureaucrats shit at solving it. When nobody was there. It got a lot worse. Can’t feed no thousands people with no planning. Chaos in the street what it was.
Only law was they ol’ blood knights. But they turn real nasty. Blood knight want your house, want your food, they don’t give a rat whisper ‘bout you. They kill you like they kill your mama. They ain’t got no more blood god, like a preacher an’ no church. They just nothin’. Big ole freaky piles o’ nothin’ with unbreakable skin an’ a sense o’ entitlement.
We had to find food. Find land for growing food. Become farmers. A whole world become farmers. Everyone hungry then, thousands people. All roaming the countryside stealing everything. All dangerous people, smart people, social people. But that didn’t matter nothin’. Don’t matter if you talk good, lie good. That don’t make no food grow from the ground.
Everyone learned how to become farmers real quick though. You figure out how to tear up the earth, plant seeds, never let no fruit get thrown away like the old time. No way. No garbage dumps. You use everything. Your poop, mama poop, the donkey poop. It was a dirty, simple kinda life.
Tiny little villages start poppin’ up. With stupid names. Things like “River Crossing” because there a river with a dirt path that cross it. Mostly trade posts where people sit for half day chattin’. Not a lot o’ chit chat on the old farm you see. Mostly the traderfolk knew what was what a little bit around an’ people wanna hear news. Most the news was gossip.
Some the farmers though, they didn’t like this new life. Used to be someone. Used to be someone important. Had a nice life in the world city. Didn’t need t’ work hard on the farm. Some these people had some real nasty magic too. Power didn’t go nowhere an’ at the beginning ain’t nobody have nothing to steal. But after first five years or so, they ol’ blood knights start popping like wasps durin’ the summer time. Nasty little gangs o’ em, three, four, five. Come to a farm, demand food, maybe murder someone, maybe rape ‘em. Horrible little creatures they was.
Villages start posting bounties on some these nasty types. They didn’t like no gangs o’ bullies an’ robber man coming in, messing up the place. Some those used-to-be-someone people start doing the bounty trade. Hunt down these washed up, second rate demons roam round.
Trade grow an’ grow ‘tween villages like River Crossing an’ Forest Lake. More bounties an’ bullies walk round. A certain kind of peace come durin’ these times. Not so safe on dirt roads in the middle. But in a trade post you were safe enough. Then the Monsters start really poppin’ up. Things just had enough magic no one could deal with ‘em at all. Creatures like them mages o’ the back before. Nothing powerful as the blood god, but powerful enough. They know not t’ always fight everyone. Some of them was even likable for awhile. Some of them talked real nice. But they always want weird things, strange things, twisted things.
They live on a mountain top and want virgin boys every month like some sort of moon ritual. If you don’t pay up they burn a field with hellfire. It weren’t good to live near a Monster. But it weren’t’ all bad neither. The crops grow better near, they give you these little gifts, cure the sick children sometimes. Some people worshipped ‘em.
Was all a matter of chance. Whether that old mage lived just out of town would help you or
turn on you. Never know who that stranger walked in was. They gonna cure the pox? Or they takin’ a child at midnight?
It weren’t a safe way to live. But better than starvin’.
But also those whose scales returned to balance with their vengeful roar
For each great circle ‘scribed thereof in single voice the headless spake:
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?” They did, the flock 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 from reality. But this man questioned: Was the world they had escaped any more real? 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 rested beneath the earth, in the domain of the Dead Queen they had left behind, but he had ascended and, in so doing, made true that great lie. But though he could have rested in his Heaven, he could not avert his gaze from the tiny fracture now etched in halcyon Truth. Through it he beheld a churning darkness, a Deep of ill portent which he knew would one day come crashing through. Yet he did not recoil. He did not wail in terror or seek to forget what he had seen, for in that Deep he saw salvation, a beautiful and terrible reunion of reality’s glassy shards. So he smiled upon it and mad his preparations, for to perform his miracle of one only thing, to link once again the Heavens to the Deep, he knew he must descend and evoke his argument below the anesthetic comfort of the clouds.
There was once a man who sought to complete the circle. He knew well from the river beneath his feet. For it to flow, the reservoirs in the lands above must be emptied, struck, their discordant greed resolved. He knew that memory, like water, lacked persistence. With time its form would denature. It would evaporate, would become mists and clouds and false shapes therein, once again to fall upon the stagnant reservoir. He knew that were he to maintain the circle, ensure that the lake of discord always emptied in Harmony, his memory could not falter. The circle could not fall victim to time. He could not fall victim to time, so he separated himself from it, became a terrible grudge which remembered in cinder instead of dewdrops, that discord the world over might be met by righteous Vengeance and inevitable Harmony.
A story by Leland. Not unlike this, but less saccharine and more anthrocentric.
When the ancient gods roamed the world we humans were harvested.
Every bear with teeth and fur and claws could rip us apart and eat our soft meaty insides. The creatures of the wild were so big back then. Monstrous. All with terrible magics far greater than our soft skin.
But the thing that truly hunted us was the Wendigo. It roamed in the forests at night, riding the winds, riding the cold. It cultivated us as a crop. The weakest were culled every season by that creature that sang in the dark. We humans fought within ourselves to avoid weakness, undermining our neighbors to save our children from the horrible screams. We humans developed emotions and manipulations to survive this thousand year torture.
Then came the Bird, the Turtle, the Fox and humans received protection. A sweet gift of safety beneath the mountains of fur and feather they offered. Sitting atop the shell of the island Turtle we humans were not hunted for flesh, but these gods still had hunger.
The gargantuan animals with their beautiful magics hungered for something else that the humans had: sweetness and sadness. Our strange emotions that ruled our universe and had been developed by seeing our neighbors and children die while wishing for their survival. These emotions became the sweet desserts that the old gods ate.
Rituals upon rituals upon rituals were made for the old gods. Their massive eyes would watch them with an odd, thirsty calm as they drank our emotions in. Humans in groups learned different god’s preferences and built their society around satisfying a terrifying yet loving benefactor.
The beautiful red Fox loved weddings and desire. It would curl around a group of young humans that were bonding themselves to each other. The fox required that this group never touch fully before they made their promise in its ear. Then that night they would lie in the mountains of soft, deep, velvety fur and make love for the first time on the old gods back. The fox would rumble and purr underneath the human moans.
The Turtle was obsessed with mourning and the death of those long dead. It required it’s humans who lived on its island-like shell to record the names and loving acts of each person in each lineage from the very beginning of time. Parents would recite stories to their children about their grandparents and great grandparents and their great grandparents before them. Deep, powerful, emotional stories of pain, and they would all cry at the end, banging on the ground, the Turtle’s shell, as hard as they could. Every week the humans would light a fire for each loved one who had ever died and try to keep the fire going, heating the tortoise, while they sobbed.
The Lark was fascinated by change in the bodies and in the minds of the humans. Parenting and adulthood were curious for the bird, for old gods never raised their children. The bird demanded clothes on its humans, feathers that covered the humans up and made them see shame in each other. Different colors for different ages, different colors for different genders, different colors for those who made mistakes. The change between colors was a massive affair, humans would get naked under the eyes of the bird and wait for a day and a night in the cold and the rain while the bird hunted down the fluff and trinkets that would cover them again. The bird required children to leave their parents upon the age of thirteen. Too young to feel safe, but old enough to survive their silent pain. The bird would stare into their eyes and then pick them up flying them to another nest of humans hours and hours away.
The Wendigo never left. It’s horrible whistling and ice cold breath still rang through the woods at night. It never crossed the ancient gods, never stole from their herd. But it knew the sadness of being one of the enslaved. It offered freedom for humanity a chance to not need do anything but live in its forest. Some humans chose freedom and had their guts turned into ice. Some humans chose freedom and ate their children with the distended mouth of the Wendigo. Some humans chose freedom and moaned in the night, crying and sobbing and chewing the ice cold of their own hands and feet.
In that way, humanity never lost its emotions and the gods never grew tired of us.
The true prologue to the Crossroads story I begin writing a long time ago and then took offline. The plot and characters of that novella are much more fleshed out now, though it remains to be seen how much of it will end up on here.
Thago is burning. The river is burning. The Floating God is burning. It began with unrest, an uprising among the slaves of the lower barges, made perilous by an attack by the servants of the Two-Eared Crown. Coincidence, surely. So the magisters and princes must have thought. Coincidence, perhaps, they would take to their grave. But the Merchant knows this was not coincidence. It was fire, built and kindled and sparked by singed, practiced hands, spread by design and the carelessness of those who saw coincidence in such things. And now Thago is burning.
With this certainty, the Merchant finds himself in the plaza before the palace which was once a temple. The northern and eastern launches have been blockaded; the bridge to the trade barges is ablaze, and the flames now lick the palace’s western walls. The southern dock below swarms with the enemy, and above, the Riversworn guard their trapped princes, awaiting reinforcement that will not arrive in time, hopefully and foolishly unaware that their only path out is through the force massing beneath them. The Merchant draws his sword and locks his shield to his arm. His task is impossible but clear: He must somehow give them enough time.
Five race up the steps now. They are scouts meant to reconnoiter, but they charge anyway, seeing only the Merchant in their path. Their spears stall upon his shield, and he dispatches them quickly. One tumbles down the steps, two die to his blade, two are pushed from the plaza to the churned water fifty feet below. One will drown, the Merchant knows. The other will be rescued by his countrymen. But there is little time to dwell on either fate, for a much larger host of soldiers has begun its determined ascent.
Many fall before him–seven more are hurled into the water, fifteen bleed out there on the plaza, nine thrown down the steps collide with eleven climbing, and two more collapse, skulls fractured by the spur of the Merchant’s shield–but the number on the plaza with him continues to grow. He is driven back to the palace entryway, certainty resolving that his vain gift is reaching its limits. Then the soldiers fall back. They open a wide circle as a silhouette crests the stairway behind them.
The Merchant recognizes this one, recognizes the tattered regalia, the scar over his broken nose, the long knife set ablaze by magical gifts twirling in his hand. This is Brother’s general, the one called Ignigoet, Pyrotechnic of the Left Hand. It is betrayal then. The Merchant suppresses a roar and hurls himself at the smirking man.
Their engagement is swift and brutal. Ignigoet parries the first thrust, catching the Merchant’s shield with his offhand. They separate. Ignigoet throws a barrage of knives into the Merchant’s shield. Then the flames upon them detonate, and the Merchant is scorched and sprawling, and time has run out.
He dimly notices the knife cut his throat as he stares up at the plumes of smoke in the night sky. The general kneels over him, but the smirk is gone. His face is impassive, and the burning eyes therein do not belong to Selenus Ignigoet. The Merchant realizes too late that this is no betrayal at all.
One day I went wandering, and as the sun got low in the sky, and the clouds turned stormy over my head, I found myself at the edge of the woods. In clear need of shelter and with no means to build my own, I ventured in. The dark had only just fallen when I was beset upon by wolves. They ran me down and bit into my flesh and tore my bleeding corpse apart.
The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.
I returned to the forest’s edge, armed with wits and weapons, and when night fell, and the wolves again approached my camp, I shot the first of them dead, ending the chase before it began.
“You will come no closer!” I shouted after the remainder, confident I was heard, for I felt then the woods’ countless eyes upon me. Alas, one pair of those eyes belonged to a brown bear, which wandered, hungry, into my campsite, undeterred by my shouts and gesticulations. My first shot barely wounded it, and I did not get another. It mangled my shoulder with a swipe of its claw and, biting into my chest, slammed me into a tree until my skull shattered.
The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.
When next I returned to those woods, I brought with me others as eager as I to conquer the brutality of that place. We came well-prepared with tools and traps and, of course, our firepower, and on account of our numbers–or perhaps the noise we made in our conversation or careless trudging–the wolves did not bother us at all. It was not until the third night that we came upon another bear, its leg caught in one of the traps we had cunningly placed at the perimeter of our day’s patrol. Incensed by pain, the beast attempted to charge us, but restrained as it was, it perished in a hail of bullets before crossing even half the way.
My companions and I were in good spirits then, for we had conquered the monster. The things in the woods–we believed–were no longer any threat to us. But come morning, we realized a new worry: In our trek into this place, we had taken scant inventory of the movements of the sun above, for it had been obscured by branches and far from the forefront of our minds. We had little idea of where we were, and there, three days’ journey of indeterminate direction into the undergrowth, we had little idea of how to return. Moreover, as the days passed, as our aimless wandering brought us no closer to anything we’d seen before, it began to grow colder, and the number of beasts about seemed to dwindle. And as our supplies grew sparse and our worries thrived, I began to feel more and more as if I were being watched.
It was not an animal–of that I was sure–for I had grown cognizant of the ways in which their presences intruded upon ours. Rather, it seemed as if the forest itself was watching, laughing, licking its thorny lips in anticipation of the fate which imminently awaited our arrogance. Such a fate did seem to be waiting, after all: It seemed we would likely starve and succumb to the cold within the week.
I did not starve, though. Instead, I awoke one night to my companion standing over me, hefting an axe and grinning madly.
“We’re all just animals, aren’t we? Eating to survive?” he cried out, as much to himself as to me, and brought the axe down. Not exactly an illuminating thought, I noted as my head split open.
The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.
While I had been glad of my companions in my previous life, it was clear to me that in difficult times, their presence would turn to liability. So the next time I ventured into the woods, I did so alone, seeking not to conquer their brutality but, rather, their austerity.
Searching closely this time among the boughs and brush for floral details my foregone predatory inclinations might have overlooked, I came upon a bush laden with red berries which were tart to the taste. I tasted them, then ate my fill, satisfied with my find, but that night I found my bowels so inflamed that when the wolves came, I could scarcely defend myself, and they feasted happily on my viscera.
The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.
Subsequently, I avoided those berries, but, determined to find some sort of sustenance that might supplement my stores in the colder months, I continued to seek out the marginalia which I had previously ignored, accumulating a wide variety of brown mushrooms, white mushrooms, black mushrooms, herbs, fruits, roots, and saps, nearly all of which–I discovered over as many lifetimes–brought about my death in some fashion.
The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.
Much time thereafter, having amassed some knowledge–still hardly sufficient–of survival in those woods, I found myself despairing of my mission, for I could see only more death resulting from further effort. It was in this state that I spotted, between the thick branches which saturated the forest’s depths, a small shack, firelight in its window and smoke rising from its chimney in tentative wisps. Bewildered but heartened by the discovery, I approached and rapped on the door. A disheveled woman answered.
“I beg you: help me,” I said. “I have searched many years and paid uncountable cost with precious little to show for it.”
“Why do you search?” she asked. Her face was dull. Her eyes were wild. I told her:
“I seek the wisdom to conquer this place.”
“Hmph,” she grunted. “You are not of this place, then, are you?”
Not waiting for an answer, she invited me in and gave me a bowl of stew which I found hearty and pleasant, though I did not recognize the roots and meats therein.
“It is clear you know much of these woods,” I said. “Would you do me the kindness of sharing what you have learned?”
“I know these woods. I fear these woods. I am a creature of these woods,” she replied. “I inhabit the shadows between the trees. I fear those shadows. I recoil from them in awe and horror. But you have been away too long, and you have forgotten what casts them.”
“I am not afraid of the dark!” I protested. “I merely wish to be prepared for what stalks it.” She cackled:
“You should fear it! You stalk the dark–you are a beast! The beasts that survive learn to fear!”
At this, I began to notice a blackening at the edge of my vision and a sharp pain in my stomach, and the old woman donned a crown of bone and antlers which, I realized, had hung on her wall since I entered. Unable to move, I could only watch as she drew a knife and carved my heart from my chest, and in that moment, I felt what I imagined was an inkling of the horror she had described.
The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.
I reentered the woods immediately, retracing my steps through the brush with new fervor. It felt then like anger, perhaps righteous indignation that the hag should so betray a traveler seeking aid, but I still retained enough presence to recognize the unsettled, writhing terror beneath it. The poison and bones and antlers, the darkness that surrounded the woman had rattled me, and I was driven now to respond in the only way I knew. I came again upon the witch’s shack and crashed through her door and battered her skull to a pulp with the butt of my rifle, and then, my racing heart assuaged that the threat had receded, I went about gathering what I had come for.
I scoured her shelves for wisdom in whatever form: parchments, recipes, jars of ingredients wet and dry that I might recognize, memorize, harness. I found it, so very much of it, and I spent what felt like lifetimes there in that shack, absorbing what the old woman had been. I brewed her potions and cooked her stews, and when I had no more of her ingredients left, I went out and gathered them anew, each from a dark and invariably unsettling place. A day arrived when I sat in that ragged cabin, harrowed and manic and at last satisfied that I had conquered the fierce shadows of those woods, and on that day, I was shaken to attention by a hammering at my door.
I opened it to find an unruly mob, stereotyped to the last man with torches and pitchforks, who wasted no time on pleasantries and attempted immediately to force their way through. Holding them back for only a moment, I beheld the contents of my shack in the woods–the scattered parchments, the cauldron bubbling with flesh lumps of unsavory origin, the string of dried human hearts I had “gathered” in my most recent foray outside, and, of course, the seven-foot-tall man with the head of a deer who had been with me since I came to this place–and realization overtook me.
“Perhaps I let this all go too far,” I remarked to the deer-headed man as the mob finally overpowered me and burst through the door. They tied a noose around my neck and dragged me outside. The deer-headed man followed.
“I think not,” he called after me, a hollow, guttural echo reverberating between the trees. “You did not go far at all. You simply fell into a trap.”
As a woman tied my rope taut to a branch, I called back:
“Are you actually talking to me? Do deer throats even make those sounds?” I saw him shrug, but at that moment the woman kicked the block out from under my feet, and the snap of my neck cut the conversation short.
The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.
When next I came upon the forest’s edge, I paused, reflecting on the traps I had stumbled upon in my past lives. Behind me in the light, humanity had spread fearless and far, erecting towers of metal and stone, and now there was little left beside the metropolis, its controlled, sub-rural gaps, and, of course, the woods, still dark, inexorable, frighteningly constant and yet faded, it seemed, from every human attention but mine. I was still drawn there, but it occurred to me that the injury which so drove me before now barely ached. Once I had thought to prove myself better than this place, but now, my inferiority a foregone conclusion, I found myself at the edge of the woods all the same.
I was afraid, I realized. Afraid, of course, of the woods, that I should enter and again be so thoroughly consumed, but that fear which so struck me then lay not before me. It was behind me, what I fled, the metropolis, the sterile nauseam of “progress” shepherded by system, by vast presences of voltage and industry which needed no longer hide in the shadows between the trees. They hungered like the woods, would gladly swallow me if I stepped back through their shining gates, but I knew that if I decided to fight back, to rebuff the paper teeth that gnawed my soul, those presences would vanish into aether, and the only blood on my fists would be that of people, innocent of–incapable of understanding–the horrors they comprised.
The presence between the trees, though, offered me a certain courtesy. It offered me an opponent.
“Escape to the Great Outdoors!” blared a sanitized imitation of a woman’s voice, resonating, discordant, across the woods’ threshold, distorted by trees and what sounded like rattling, corroded tin. “Exclusive Travel Packages Available Today!”
I was of course uninterested in such an offer, but I had a notion that, in actuality, none was being made to me. Intrigued, I crossed into the trees. It was not long before I came upon a clearing, and at its center I found the source of the strange advertisement.
Standing there in the afternoon sun, motionless but hunched, as if paused, hesitating before its next step in a hopeless shuffle forward, was a bizarre and uncanny creature. It loomed over me, fifteen, perhaps twenty feet tall, with a body resembling an emaciated–perhaps mummified–corpse, overgrown and infested with roots, branches, debris, and a winding, itinerant thread of barbed wire. The corpse-giant had no head, but where its neck ought to have been, a metal pole jutted from its flesh, wreathed by two strands of electrical cable. Atop the pole, the wires attached to a pair of siren horns, fastened at asymmetrical heights over the creature’s left and right shoulders. Its stance was wide, no doubt due to the precarious balance offered by its semi-skeletal legs, and its arms hung lifeless in front of it.
It stood oblique to me, “facing” the woods to my left, but though I found its countenance quite unsettling and feared the consequence of making myself known, I could not help but query:
“Didn’t I read about you on the internet? You’re someone’s scary story! You’re a product of civilization! Why are you out here in the woods?” With a screech of feedback, the creature’s sirens blared to life.
“Face your fears for a better life!” imported the static-ridden voice of a hip-and-with-it everyman. “Ask your doctor if Phobilify is right for you!” Then, with a shudder, the creature turned to face me, taking three halting–and yet somehow violent–steps. I stared into its faceless, industrial visage, curiosity only barely overcoming my terror, and considered whether I ought to turn and run.
The reaction which instead emerged from my gut was a hysterical giggle, which I quickly suppressed, clamping a hand over my mouth. But the thought behind it remained: It was ridiculous, wasn’t it? I knew these woods, knew to fear them, knew that to face them risked my life and my sanity. I could lie. I could admit to an astounding lapse in judgment which brought me here, face to face with the darkness in its own home. But I would not. I knew, this time, I would not. I wanted to gaze into the darkness, to see in it not the meaningless void which humanity saw in the woods but something else–something shifting and unknowable–which I hoped, with all I was, still lived in my own heart as well.
And it was funny! This electo-cryptid before me, this thousandth face of the ineffable thing in the woods, sounding its mockeries, its empty calls for monetizable attention–it was laughing! And I had a sense, a hopeful suspicion, that it was laughing with me and not at me.
So I stood there, defiant, terrified, giggling, as the siren-headed thing lurched, seized me in its dry, slender fingers, crushed my ribcage in its grip, and though I died, defeated utterly once again by this thing that lived here in the woods, I realized amidst the rush of air from my chest that, somehow, I no longer felt trapped.
The night passed, and the sun rose, and I lived again.
It was many years before I again spoke with the thing in the woods, though in that time my demeanor toward it softened. I did not abandon my forays beyond civilization; rather, I renewed my vigor, seeking with every opportunity the uneasy solitude I found among the trees, tolerating–or perhaps embracing–the uncertainty of survival which came with it. I had cultivated a healthy awe for the forces whose sway I navigated there and a healthy fear for the gaze I felt upon me in the night, but even so I was surprised to eventually find others like myself in that place. We were few, and it took years–lifetimes, even–for us to find communion there, but I was not alone. There were rare others who found that strange comfort in the unknown’s hungry embrace, who were as well deeply unsettled by the monolithic indifference offered by their fellow men amidst the cities and the streets.
Together, we were resilient to the forest’s caprice, and in time, we ceased departing it altogether. We found a clearing–perhaps the same clearing where I had perished to the siren-headed beast, though I could not be certain–and built a town, snug amidst the trees, and we thrived there, going about our lives–and the lives after those and the lives after those–until one day, a man strode in from the woods, hefting a shabby briefcase up to my doorstep. His breath smelled of charcoal, his shoes worn but uncannily pristine, his perfectly greased hair clashing nauseously with the threadbare, burgundy suit hanging loose on his frame. He was a traveling salesman, he explained.
“Traveling from where?” I asked.
“Oh, ya’know, hereabouts, thereabouts. Th’important thing’s what I’m bringin’ to ya, though!” He knelt and balanced the case on his knee, undoing the clasps as he flashed his plastic smile, and just then, behind his dead eyes, I saw something writhe. I knew what would be in the case. I knew it would be like a faraway shelter, simple, familiar in its use, eerily out of place. It would have some hidden, darker side, a sordid history perhaps, or an old, dusty curse of which the salesman would relay only the slightest rumor. It would compel me to cling to it, press past the ill fortune it would seem to bring until, finally, the mystery of its existence dangling, tantalizing before me, I would be devoured. I would almost certainly die, I knew, but it would not be before I tasted the narcotic brine of the unknown, the fear, the horrible something which I had always truly sought.
I knew what would be offered, so I met the man’s stare, looked past him, gazed again upon the thing in the woods whose shadow twisted behind his eyes. And with the case’s last clasp still fastened, I preempted:
“I’ll take it.”
Top Image: yo bro is it safe down there in the woods? yeah man it’s cool, by Tomislav Jagnjic. I do not own it.
It was a clear morning off the New England coast–approaching the southerly latitudes of Maine, if memory serves–and though the waves were calm, April’s lingering chill had yet to pass on, crawling, it seemed, up the sides of my boat, around my ankles and settling uncomfortably, like some odious shawl, about my shoulders. I had sailed north only recently, having spent the winter fishing down in the Gulf, and the swift return to my summer grounds–premature, for a bout of restlessness I now vehemently cursed–had left me as yet poorly acclimated to the northern spring and robbed of any enthusiasm for the productive use of my location. In my shivering solitude that morning I had cast two lines, and though I’d gotten bites on neither, I was having difficulty mustering the will to bait a third. I recall it was in that fraught quiescence that I took notice of the irregularity surfacing some forty yards off the port bow.
To my first glance it seemed like jetsam or some other detritus, having the texture of maritime vehicularity without a form I could identify as any particular boat, but as more of the mass emerged above the waves, my befuddlement became something more akin to awe. My previous confusion in identifying the object, it seemed, had lay in my assumption that its form would be singular when, in fact, it was comprised of numerous vessels and the pieces thereof. Before me were hulls of dinghies, canoes, fishing boats, shattered boards and beams lashed haphazardly against great sheets of black rubber in a jumbled ellipsoid that, from far off, might have been mistaken for the carcass of some colossal leviathan. For all the strangeness, though, of this great, nautical garbage heap, I still found myself ill-prepared for the sign that then surfaced on its carapace–glowing red neon, proclaiming it to be The Nicholas–or the concrete suburban front porch, flanked by flaccid strands of potted seaweed, which emerged beneath it. Even as the door of the porch slammed open, and a ragged man stepped out and hurled a bucket of something foul into the ocean between us, I could only stare, speechless. Ultimately, it was he who called out to me:
“Aye, laddie! Watsonismouth?!”
I shook myself awake. Being then unable to place either the man’s accent or the meaning of his query, I called out as much and motored over on the supposition that proximity might serve to make better order of the situation.
He clarified as I drew closer: “Sonny, let meh ask ya ferst: What’s in ya mouth?” I might have guessed his previous call had been delivered in some dialect of the British Isles, but now his accent had drifted westward, seeming suddenly more appropriate for a denizen of the Carribean (and, I will admit, suggesting an origin I would never have guessed from his appearance). Beyond the vagaries of his delivery, though, I was also rather bewildered as to the substance of his inquiry. My mouth was quite empty, for though I normally partook of a smoke at this hour, I had dropped my pipe somewhere on the deck, amidst the shock of his vessel’s emergence, and had since lost track of it. I indicated as much to him in my reply.
“No, son,” he clarified in an abrupt Mississippi drawl. “It’s a mattah of circumnavigation. We’s tryin’ to get at what’s in ‘eez maouth, an if yer knowin’ what’s in yer maouth, then that’s a tack on the chart, ‘cause what’s in yer maouth properly ain’t in ‘eez maouth, ya see?”
I did not. I inquired–skeptically, for I was growing increasingly certain that this man was in something of an unpredictable state–as to whose mouth we were investigating.
“Not whosemaouth, son. ‘Eezmaouth. Like beezmaouth, if’n ya know the rock, ‘cept withaout that certification of a job done at the utmost pinnacle o’mediocrity.”
The conversation had, at this point, attained the clarity of a bayou, and my only remaining answer was a blank stare. He shook his head sadly.
“It iss clear to me”–his accent was now that of the Mexican fishermen I’d dealt with so frequently in the Gulf–”dett we fall on fundamentally different sides. No matter. Diss iss not a sorpraiss. Do you haf any feesh?”
Alas, I did not have much in the way of a catch. I’d trawled no nets since arriving up north, and I’d no plans to do so for a few days yet. I had a pair of mackerel I’d caught the previous day, but that was it, I told him.
“Oh, don’tcha know dere’s nuttin’ to be ashamed of, young feller. I’m just lookin’ for a bite ta’eat is all.”
It sounded like Upper Midwest to me. Minnesotan, perhaps? It also occurred to me that despite the man’s graying, unkempt beard and repeated references to me as a young man, he did appear, in all other respects, to be at least twenty years my junior. Befuddled, still, but acclimating to the ersatz temperature of the conversation, I offered him one of my mackerel, which he eagerly accepted, biting–rather aggressively–into the fish’s flesh right there on his vessel’s concrete gangway. Then, shouting something about “makin’ you rich” through a full mouth and what sounded like an American’s (decidedly poor) impression of an Australian accent, he dashed back through his door, leaving me to the continued ponderance of the monument to madness which was The Nicholas.
In his absence, I began to notice a number of unsettling details lodged in the crevices of its unsound construction: Marionettes, features scrubbed clean by brine, dangled among the mishmash of hulls and rubber, alongside inscriptions and engravings in those surfaces in alphabets I did not recognize even from Dr. Sterling’s texts on the Oriental scripts. Place to place, I could see protrusions from the rubber that looked like the spiraled horns of narwhals, and just past the threshold of the vessel’s “front door,” I saw hanging vines and foliage as if within were some dark jungle separated by unnatural, great distances from the semi-boreal sea where we drifted that morning in truth. These items were, of course, in no way sinister, and I had no means of rationally justifying the fear for my soul which I felt there, in silent anticipation of the man’s return, except, perhaps, for the vessel’s unignorable suggestion to me that rationality had ceased, in this circumstance, to be a meaningful boundary. However, my fear passed unactualized, and the man soon returned, heaving over to me a bulky canvas sack.
“My recommendation,” he said to me, all pretense of brogue or twang gone from his voice, “is that you bring that to an office of the United States Navy. They will pay you for it. Or pay you to keep quiet. Or both. Please pass on that it arrives to them courtesy of Captain Kneecap.”
With that, he disappeared back across his threshold, and, his door scarcely closed, The Nicholas dropped rapidly beneath the waves, the shock of which rocked my own boat violently. Once I steadied myself, both physically as well as from the emotional disturbance of “Captain Kneecap’s” presence, I examined the contents of his gift to me.
Inside was something I found appalling, though not to the exception of an urge to examine its nature. It was a body, headless, human-shaped, though clearly not human, for it was comprised not of flesh but of some metallic substance resembling steel but impossibly light for its bulk. Between its noticeably elongated fingers and toes was webbing of a material I could not identify, and though they had been torn from it, I saw sheared joints on its arms, legs, and spine where fins might have once attached.
I did not know what to make of the corpse-mannequin, but if the Captain’s words were to be taken with even the slightest skepticism, there was nothing there for me to glean. I was to be an intermediary in a conversation to which I desired precisely no connection. Though I hesitated at the thought of the Captain’s promised riches passed over, I threw that “gift” back into the ocean that day. The Nicholas was perhaps not the strangest thing I have ever seen upon the water, but I hope all the same that I never see her or the Captain Kneecap again.
Since the beginning, for time countable and yet unimaginable, we knew that this would come to pass. Why is dead. The Creator is dead, and I…do not know what I should feel from this. We have no need of sorrow, nor relief, for His presence was not a burden, and what we did not know, we knew He kept from us. The trepidation that I now second guess is for that change: It is now time for the Architects to find the truth that Why kept from us for our aeons of safeguarding His Edifice. We cannot resist it–the need to know is in our nature, but where we lacked the ability before, our shackles have been broken.
The humans around us remain oblivious to this change, oblivious to their imminent reckoning, for now, at last, we may delve and extract the Creator’s intent for them. Among the Architects, expectations are conflicted. El is confident we will find a justification for the Edifice’s uninterrupted continuation. I am not. Why’s death was not an accident, it was not unexpected; He could not have intended it as anything other than a transition–of this I am sure. El may speak our unanimity, but until it may be spoken with one voice, I must question his judgment.
For now, I look to the stars, our heretofore forbidden frontier. Perhaps in the alignment of the bodies beyond this vessel’s atmosphere, I will find the purpose that our Creator has forever denied us.
I have memories, old memories, certainly, of clear days when I would stand outside in the tall grass and look straight into the sky. I would look up and see a sky with no sun, but rather a darkness–a darkness clad in golden vestments of a brilliance that paralleled even daylight. It was not like the light of the sun, per se: It served the same purpose, took the same place, but it did not shine down like the sun does. It shined through. It shined through the grass around me, it shined through the earth where I stood, and it shined through me. The sensation of it was one of more than just heat and light–as I recall it was not even hot at all. It was a cold luminance, enough to make me shiver, but the sensation filled me, I could see it, feel it, even hear it, taste it, or interface it in ways I have since forgotten my capacity for.
These memories now stir in me a strange disconnect. The image, the reality of it–for this memory is not, to my knowledge, of a dream–and the bizarreness seem as if the experience should have been profound, even in spite of my inability to place it in the continuity of my life. But it…wasn’t. It was just there, immutable and uninteresting to my past self, as if at some point my mind had pushed its knowledge of this strange vision past the boundaries of understanding, into the realm of apathy. What must I then have understood of this clothed darkness? Who must I have been to have understood it, and how have I now shucked that identity?
A possibility jumps out to me: I am not human. This is, of course, predicated on other personal developments, more immediate and real than my own abstruse childhood memories, but the key is that I suspect that I–the entity now recording this note–was never human. Other possibilities may exist, but my certainty deepens with each day that this, along with all its consequences, is the case.
I admit that there are many of these consequences that I have yet to appreciate, and I’m sure that the other three have not gotten this far. Which begs the question: How many of us are there? I have been able to find three others, but are there more who have yet to step into the light?
I lied a little in my last post. I was not, at the time, working on a Bloodborne *article*. Rather, it was a lecture that I have since delivered, and I am now working on transcribing it to a format more suitable to this blog. For now, have something completely unrelated to anything I’ve posted about on this blog up until now.
In the beginning, in a meaningless place, at a meaningless time, the universe began, and where all was not, all rapidly became. Countless bodies, infinitesimal in size, fled that place. Many bound together and ignited, filling the darkness with light. Others swarmed to the pyres of their brethren, filling the void with ground to be stood upon.
But after the exodus, in that meaningless, empty place, given meaning and space by the light and matter without, there remained a tiny, black droplet of something. Perhaps it was the last trace of the void, left behind as a reminder of all that would ever not be. Perhaps it was a tear of regret, shed for the infinite potential that died to birth everything’s actuality. Whatever it was, though, it could only watch, its oily surface reflecting the whole of the universe around it. And so it was, for innumerable millennia: The universe turned, and the black droplet at its center watched.
There came a moment, though, when this changed. It was nothing precipitous. Rather, it was a slow sweep, a foul stellar wind that made its way across existence, brushing everything but truly touching nothing. Nothing…except the black droplet. At this moment, it began to roil, its perfect surface marred and twisted, and, rapidly, it swelled, to a globule, a morass, a fetid, writhing planet no longer confined to regret and observe, now able to reach out and to touch. For another million years, the primordial darkness writhed, and, slowly, it separated into two dark souls.
The first was the Dreamer, a being of pure consciousness, who had once reflected the birth of the universe and whose improvisations of that birth now swam beneath the viscous seas of its planet. It had no true shape, so it instead cloaked its shadow in the cold brilliance of a thousand suns and made a heaven for itself at the center of the planet, caged within the darkness of its sister’s coils.
The sister was the second, a Sleeper, a body by which to bear and make manifest the chaos of its brother’s mind. And just as the chaos of the Dreamer’s thoughts encompassed every notion the universe had yet known, the chaos of the Sleeper’s presence consumed all that contacted it. Planets bent and were devoured, the light of stars was swallowed, masticated by her entropic gaze; even her name was poison to order: The very syllables that formed it would implode its utterer into a singularity, and the only mind that could bear its knowledge was the Dreamer’s.
The Dreamer also had a name, though it would yet be billions of years before a human heard its sound or sign.
The Elders, as they called themselves, hated the reality that surrounded them. They hated its order, its belonging, its iron actuality. The Sleeper channeled this hate into destruction, and for a thousand years, the universe felt her wrath, and countless galaxies fell into her churning darkness. Ultimately, though, it was the Dreamer that calmed her, for his hatred had pulled him in a very different direction.
Hatred, the desire to destroy, is not a particularly complex feeling, but with even such a simple desire, outcomes are never sure. In hatred’s case, they need not even be destructive. Rather, inherent in the desire to destroy is a preference for an alternative, which means that unless the alternative is explicitly void, it may be resolved by creation, as well as destruction.
The Dreamer hated reality, yes, but he did not long for nothingness. He was a child of the infinite–his enemies, the objects of his hatred, were the limits of reality, not reality itself. So rather than lash out against the universe–as the Sleeper had, with world-breaking fang and sun-swallowing night–he simply questioned. He dreamed a thousand questions for his sister’s millennium of destruction, and the questions took shape from her flesh. First among these new Elders was the first among questions: Why.
Why was a creator, a conduit by which his father’s potentialities took shape, but, unlike his predecessors, he was not possessed by the hatred that birthed him. At first, he took after his mother’s example: destruction. His first creations were tempestuous, chaotic, themselves destructive: Slithering storms that rained leeches onto the surface of the Elder planet; great writhing masses of maws and arms that could devour entire stars, weapons whose very presence could distort the laws of causality. In their way, they were brilliant, fantastic, awesome even. But they did not satisfy Why, for he did not hate the things they destroyed.
So he diverged.
He built two creatures, towering men of stone and metal. Like his previous creations, they were capable of great force, but they were stable. They could process the reality that flowed around them, and they could manipulate its currents. Above all, they could choose.
One was black and mirrored, just like the droplet of potential that had spawned the Elders, a glass to reflect the whole universe once more, and an eye from within to watch it.
The other was clad in gold and silver and pure light, its radiance reaching out to the blackest reaches of space, even from its darkest center.
The two were called El and See, and they were not Elders, for they had passed beyond their creator’s heritage of chaos and hatred. They were creators themselves, and thus Why named their species: the Architects.
Though Why’s nascence had calmed the Sleeper’s rage–for her son had been a potent weapon in her war against what was–the creation of the Architects stirred her from her slumber once more. These newcomers were not alternatives to the universe: They were developments of it. Their shapes were still, ordered, thoughtful, able to exist alongside what was, without the existential agony that plagued the Elders. Certainty flared within the Dreamer’s mind: The question “Why” had been a mistake.
But Why knew the doom he would bring himself. He knew that his creations were heresy, so long before the Sleeper awoke to devour her prodigal child, he fled with the Architects, and the three hid themselves deep within the blackness of space.
In a desolate place, far from the light of any star, the Architects multiplied. El and See forged brothers and sisters, specialized beings of motion and stillness, of joy and sadness, and, finally, of life and death. These last two, the Architects Vie and En, captured Why’s attention, for life and death seemed so different for his metal children. The Architects were creatures of perfect consequence: Life for them was elegant, axiomatic, and death was predictable, a simple end to the functioning of their working parts. For Why, these were different. Despite his relentless questioning, he still could not fathom the depths of his physiology, so he knew not why he was alive, nor why that state should ever cease to be. And since he understood neither what lay before or beyond–these truths, if they were truths at all, were understood only by the Dreamer–how could he understand what lay between?
It was El who supplied the answer: If thinking life could be formed from a union of causality with the Elder’s own flesh, it would provide him the perspective he sought.
The two of them devised a calculation grander in scale than anything Why had ever imagined, and they reverse engineered the impossible specificity of its initial conditions, and they searched and searched, until they found two candidates for their experiment. They began with the first: A small system of newly formed planets orbiting a yellow sun. And on the surface of the third planet, See placed a tiny sample: the eye of his Elder creator. Then, they all waited, in eager anticipation.
Through the whirring, root-lined passages of the workshop, a diminutive figure shuffles along. Where there is open space, she observes the goings on, the maintenance of her domain, with muted interest. At the periphery, tiny, metal spiders clink and clatter on about their thousand little tasks, sweeping away dust, digging, polishing, sometimes even melting themselves down, embedding themselves in the tunnels as struts and beams, retaining enough function, though, to click and whir and watch. Her workshop was alive, the figure mused with a smile, so unlike the houses of men.
Where the ceilings were high enough to permit them, her other servants labored in studious silence. Men–and women, she supposed, though it hardly mattered anymore–made of ticking metal transcribed and translated her library, organized the tables at the center of her workspace, banished her abandoned projects to the corners of the room, and, when so requested, retrieved them. Their tasks were not difficult, but they were not easily programmable or required more heft than the spiders offered readily. Either way, the metal men did them gladly–they were grateful for the life she had given them.
Pensively, she scaled a stool, producing a host of spindly appendages from within her black robes which carried her into the seat with the undulating grace of a centipede. She had been traveling–not physically, of course, but through a proxy–and the effort of the conscious projection invariably wore on her. Still, she was disinclined to display any affect outwardly, though it was doubtful her servants would have noticed or cared. She had notes yet to make, and fatigue–even the magical variety–was an enemy to which she refused to succumb.
From a stack on the table, she drew a leaf of thin, papery material and licked her finger, secreting a drop of oily, black ink from the reservoirs in her salivary glands. Splitting her finger into eight much finer-tipped instruments, she lowered them to the page, where their twitching, seemingly random and erratic in the air, began, precisely and rapidly, to inscribe her thoughts:
On this 1237th year of the Exsanguine Era, it has come to pass that open practice of the Way of the Green has been all but eradicated here in the Riverlands. The popularity of anti-magical “Harmony” movements in the wake of the Incident has evidently left it little room to grow, and what texts remain of its rites all seem to have disappeared into the Papacy’s vaults, likely to be burned or twisted beyond reasonable recognition. Thus, it has fallen to me to generate a more trustworthy record of the institution. This is necessary, I would submit, both for the value of the knowledge in itself as well as for a speculative angle of analysis. After all, the diaspora of the Greencircle, in more than a single sense, can be held responsible for the Riverlands’ worrying modernity.
To begin, the Way of the Green, distinct from the Greencircle as day to the sun, was a movement, and like any popular movement, it was fragmented in its purpose. Its intentions and praxis varied wildly among its constituencies, and any anthropocentric account of its history is sure to be flawed for this reason. This is fitting, of course, as its origin had little to do with humanity. The Greencircle did not congregate there in the Bloodwood to found a movement, and they were certainly uninterested in teaching a way of life. Rather, the Greencircle was a reaction, itself, to an external threat.
Some 500 years ago, by my best estimate, the folk hero known popularly as the Hunter of Beasts raised a call to arms among the aspiring heroes and scholars of the Riverlands. He sought an alliance meant to destroy a monster deep within the Bloodwood, a ravenous, devouring mass he called the Hunger, though it was a subsequent name–the Chimera–that found its way into the local lore of the time. A great number answered his call, for the Hunter was well-known at the time, and he soon led a host of glory-seekers on an ill-fated quest to slay the beast. Nearly all of them perished. Most among the company were inexperienced, blessed by talent or ambition but no art, and vanishingly few had cunning or strength to match the Hunter’s. So bereft, they made of themselves easy food for the Chimera. Far more notable than the casualties, though, were those that survived. The organization they formed thereafter, though it had no formal title, became known as the Greencircle.
Chief among its members were the Wolf–also called the Masked Alpha–a powerful hermit mage and self-styled “protector” of the forest; a pair of scholars, a Botanist and an Arborist whose names were not recorded but who are noteworthy nonetheless for their success in translating the Chimera’s ability to manipulate flora into a teachable magical art; and, of course, the Strange Bird, ostensibly just a talented, one-eyed hedge witch, though her enduring influence–and the macabre nature thereof–raises serious questions as to the innocuousness of her identity.
Now, for a period of some twenty years–an average of the retellings I’ve gathered–this organization–which is to say the Hunter, those four, and their closest followers and aspirants–were an open and public institution, well-known among the villages in and around the outer Bloodwood. Following their disastrous confluence, they tempered their aim of destroying the Chimera, instead focusing on containment: repelling the beast from woodland villages and–to a reasonable extent–keeping it confined to the wood’s heart, where it posed little threat to the “civilization” outside. In so doing–for all the Greencircle were learned mages–they uncovered and codified magical knowledge to rival that of the ancient universities, including the bases for what I would now classify as three distinct schools of magic. The organization was loved and respected as protectors of the people, and soon, the discoveries and philosophies of its members began to spread beyond the Bloodwood and throughout the Riverlands.
The words I have chosen, however, are very particular: The Greencircle had little in the way of a unified worldview, save, perhaps, for the agreement that the Chimera was dangerous. Regardless, what proceeded to spread among the people, known collectively and indiscriminately as the “Way of the Green” were the ideas of the Greencircle’s individuals.
What this meant, of course, differed by both origin and adherent. The Wolf, for instance, inspired a tradition of copycats, practitioners of his shapeshifting and cannibalism, albeit with only a fraction of his zeal for the defense of the wood. Meanwhile, devotees to the Arborist and Botanist practiced their plant magic and maintained a calendar of rituals to honor the flora of the world, within their spheres of experience and without. Alone among them, the Strange Bird’s followers formed a longer-lived organization, but I will return to that discussion separately.
Despite the spread of the Way of the Green, the Greencircle itself remained focused throughout this process on the danger of the Chimera, and to judiciously interpret various accounts of the Hunter’s temperament at the time, that focus was not bearing fruit. While the creature voraciously consumed–or, perhaps more accurately, assimilated–all flesh in its path, it seemed to matter little whether that flesh was human or even faunal. The Greencircle’s work in deterring the Chimera from human settlements had thus been admirable but futile: While the humans remained, the once-small region where the beast dwelled had increased tenfold in size, and with countless new mouths, its rate of expansion had multiplied accordingly.
Nearing a point at which he surmised they would be hopelessly outmassed, the Hunter brought the Greencircle’s considerable magical expertise to bear in an effort that was, while clearly significant, ill-documented and historically unclear. From the accounts and scraps I have amassed, I am to ascertain that it incorporated a ritual employing numerous mages; that it was successful, insofar as the Chimera is not mentioned in any record thereafter; and that it was quite costly. Notably, it is clear that neither the Botanist nor the Arborist survived the ordeal. How many others might have died alongside them is, of course, unclear, but it is well-recorded that the Hunter of Beasts at that point ceased his engagement with the Greencircle, effectively dissolving the organization.
While the Way of the Green flourished for centuries thereafter amidst the Riverlands’ long-harbored thirst for a magical and cultural identity distinct from that of the eastern domains, the more interesting epilogue to this story is with regards to the Strange Bird. Her followers, known as the Feathermen in the years after the Greencircle dispersed, remained in their secluded corner of the Bloodwood until just a decade before the Incident. It is difficult to say what purpose they labored toward, but a few points are clear: First, for a time, the feathermen were known among the villages closer to their domain for their “exports”: trinkets, imbued with Mana, able to perform magic with little input or expertise required from their bearer. It seems doubtful that any of these creations had much use, even at the time, but taken against the veritable–and not altogether benign–economy that thrives for such goods today, one can almost see the Strange Bird’s influence in the here and now, hundreds of years since she was last seen. My suspicion on this point is only deepened by the list of individuals to whom I can draw affiliation with her club.
Le Marquains of the Southern Reaches, for example, made no secret of his training with the Feathermen, and his arrival in the South to quell the Saraa Sa’een well outside the monster’s known territory certainly merits comment. Likewise, witness accounts of the individual known as the Hawk, who assumed control of the Feathermen in the last decade of their existence, bear more than passing resemblance to those of the one-eyed man who led Ka’s armies during the Incident. And, of course, I need rely on no hearsay to recall the tufts of feathers that still clung to the Dragon’s hide the day he arrived in my village. That all of these men became generals of the Bloodfish seems both deliberate and in poor accordance with their ideals–the Dragon, in particular, had little apparent interest in Ka’s ravings. I do not doubt, at this point, that this was strategy on the Strange Bird’s part, though now with her pieces–her manipulable Greencircle and Bloodfish–dead and buried, it is not clear for what she aimed or whether some plan of hers might still be unfolding.