She-Lord of Ka

Content warning: Rape

The boy was raised to be clean.  His father was heir to the largest domain in the Riverlands, bastion of the Pure, and in his grandfather’s house, all chose: They would be made clean, or they would be expelled.  Grandfather taught him to vomit all but the barest taste of his food from his guts, taught him to scrub the grease from his skin until it bled. He was taught that his body was sacred, that it must not be contaminated with the grime and gluttony of lesser folk.  When he failed–and he failed often–Grandfather broke his bones and seared his back with hot iron.

The boy was raised to be resilient.  When he was ten, his mother and father departed to lead the Bloodfish’s armies in the war.  Grandfather would not hear a word otherwise. Lord Ka had brought the ways of the Pure out of a great, lost darkness, mustering the strength to force upon the wretched the cleanliness they were too weak to maintain in themselves, and Lo Markhan, the hero of the Riverlands–Grandfather–would help him realize that revolution at any cost.  The boy was alone, bereft of any shield from the marquis’ ferric discipline. He learned to hide his pain, bind his wounds invisibly, make himself seem a model of Purity, for to be expelled was to join the roaches and Lo Markhan’s other creations of mud and bile.

The boy was raised to be strong.  Grandfather had studied the fey-magics of the Feathermen in the Bloodwood, and his house was filled with death-infused creations.  Some of these were for the boy, like the dish he was made to vomit in, the gown he was given for dress, the bandages wrapped around his seared skin.  They lapped at his suffering, hungry, as if one day, finally sated, they would wake, but of course they never did. Instead that suffering flowed into the house, accumulating in foreboding presences that loomed when Grandfather was away.

Other objects, the boy was never to touch.  There were shackles in the cellar that slowly gnawed the flesh of whomever they held, spools of thread, gifts from the Dragon of the West, that wormed into any skin unfortunate enough to be nearby.  These were meant for Grandfather’s guests-of-low-regard–prisoners, perhaps, or idle, sadistic diversions–but there were still other oddities whose cruelty was not quite so direct. The boy’s favorite was a painting in the sitting room near where he slept.  It was an arid, hilly landscape, unremarkable as a work of art, but fascinating in the way its pigments and smudges danced and drifted across the surface. Birds flew in the painted sky, dust blew, and branches swayed. It confused him, even as it filled him with wonder: How could this expression of beauty be at home amidst Grandfather’s other trinkets?  The boy understood these creations to be fueled by suffering, maiming, the pursuit of Purity, but that darkness did not seem to be there in the painting.

It was a visiting emissary of the Dune Men, a tall, intense man with yellow eyes, intrigued by the child’s interest, who finally revealed the answer: The painting was a prison.  Years ago, Lo Markhan had assisted in the subdual of the Saraa Sa’een, a terrible, wandering monster responsible for centuries of destruction. This painting was possibly his greatest creation, a cage of color and fiction that would keep the demon bound forever.  That was it, the boy realized. This beauty was still of death, but death was not confined to the ugly austerity Grandfather so revered. His bewilderment was gone, but wonder remained.

As he grew into his teenage years, the boy was allowed to travel beyond the house’s boundaries, down to the villages of Grandfather’s domain.  There, the customs of the Pure were merely one of many superstitions, and the darkness that watched him always seemed to abate. He walked among the villagers, queer but unobtrusive in his gown, absent the regalia and symbols of Ka or his manor.  Among them, he found companionship, a sense of commonality in survival–even flourishing–in a world the boy felt so acutely to be immersed in death. On his days of escape from Grandfather’s house, he joined them in their goings-on, he learned their sayings, he ate their food, he even fell in love.  

One day, he and a peasant boy caught a rabbit in the woods.  The cooked it over a fire and shared it. Overcome by an affection the boy had never known under his grandfather’s roof, he kissed his companion, and the peasant boy kissed back.  The two made love into the evening until the responsibilities of reality set back in, and, flush and delighted, they parted ways. But that delight soon soured–the boy had not been attentive to the time.  He would arrive home after dark, and Grandfather would certainly notice. Suddenly welling with dread and acutely aware of the rabbit fat still flecking his lips, he made his way back to the manor. He needed to find his dish.  He needed to vomit.

But when he arrived, Grandfather was waiting.  He tore the boy’s gown from his body, struck him with knuckles like horn, raped him until he bled, and again, and again.

“Is this how you like it?” he asked, his breath hot against the boy’s ear.

The boy did not eat for days.  He did not walk for weeks, and even then, he needed a cane.  He did not return to the villages for some time, and he never saw the peasant boy again.

But he wasn’t broken.  He simply understood: He was raised to be strong.  He began to grasp at the death he felt writhing in his broken body, in the house, in Grandfather’s demented trinkets.  He found he could speak to it, and it would make things change.  Perhaps it was his startling memory of first love in the forest, perhaps it was simple coincidence, but he found it easiest with plants.  He could make them grow, flower, entangle constrict. He practiced first with the vines growing on the manor walls, snatching insects from the air, crushing them, savoring the odor of their pain.  Then he embedded those vines in the lungs of a manor worker malingering in the shade on a hot day. He watched the man claw at his throat, eyes wide, gasping as the leaves emerged from his mouth. In that moment, he understood his grandfather’s cruelty, and he understood his strength.

He was raised to be resilient.  As the war grew more fierce, Grandfather’s attentions became ever more drawn to it.  The boy began to look for a particular opportunity, a pretext for removing the marquis from his sorcerous bastion and separating him from his lieutenants.  For a single day, he slipped away, finding the commander of the Bloodfish’s enemies in a remote village. He made the man a proposal: Attack the domain of the Dragon.  Lo Markhan would marshal his forces to defend his ally, and the boy would ensure the marquis would never arrive to the battlefield.

The commander did as the boy proposed, and when Lo Markhan departed to join his troops, the boy met him in the forest at the edge of his domain and entangled him in thorny branches.  He planted a briar in his grandfather’s throat, and it grew rapidly, bursting through the skin of his face and chest. In his final moments, Grandfather could not speak, but he did not need to.  The boy knew he was meeting the old man’s expectations.

He was raised to be clean.  When the soldiers returned to the manor months later, they found a new marquis there, decadent, flamboyant, everything his grandfather had not been, save for cruel.  The new marquis had found a diversion in the torture of his subjects, and he had begun to tax the villages of his domain for meat and wine and able-bodied men to satisfy him.  Some of the soldiers rebelled against Le Markhan, the sickening She-Lord of Ka, but they were defeated, tortured and executed in the village squares by the marquis’ thorns. Those that survived left without a backward glance, but to Le Markhan, it did not matter.  He did not much care for Ka or his war.

He ruled there for many more years, leeching the despicable world and its despicable people for all they were worth.  He, himself, was despicable–he knew that. But he had been taught that cruelty somewhere.

The Sevenfold Gyre, Part 3

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

Interlude 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now they are seven.

The old man looks up.

Part III – Fox

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

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

***

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

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

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

“Now what could you be doing here?”  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

The Way the World Has Died

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

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

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

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

-Mefit Il-Hazeen

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

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

The Sevenfold Gyre, Part 2

Part 1 here.

Interlude I

Amir sleeps on a kitchen table to separate himself from the clotting blood that soaks the house’s floors.  He wakes while the sky is still pitch, choking on rot, and stumbles into the street, where the miasma is not much improved.  His struggle to breathe holding him fast in the slender fingers of his ongoing nightmare, he runs, half sprint, half shamble, out of town.

He wanders for days, sustained by water from the rivers, desperately searching for someone to warn, to save from the massacre that has taken everything from him, but the One-Eyed Sadist is faster and very thorough.  Amir finds no one and nothing but town after village after town, soaked in blood and overwhelmed by stench.

Time is peculiar in the way it recontextualizes suffering.  In the moment, it is simply pain, but in memory it transforms.  It gilds the weeping of a stupid child, weaving glamour and filigreed shroud until meaningless days spent sick and wandering become fuel, drive, aspiration.  It turns weeks–or months?–of grief into thirst, desolation into a perverse reason to exist. So it is that Amir remembers his trek across the Riverlands, drenched in the afterbirth of a nascent Vengeance.  Of specifics, he remembers very little until his arrival at the death camp.

The place is horribly silent, all the more so amidst the whorl of fish-like decay pulsing from it.  Before the slime-covered buildings Amir can barely see in the distance, there is an impeccably clean, shining silver gate in the vague shape of a catfish’s jaws.  In wrought lettering above the gate, words read:

“Feel the gaze of Ka, the First Leader”

And beneath the gate, bodies litter the ground like wild shrubs, shockingly varied in dress and the visible evidence of their final moments.  Some are clearly townsfolk, hapless, dead of festering injuries or starvation finally taken hold beneath these gates to despair. Others are armed and armored in the regalia of the Bloodfish, lacerated and dismembered by some unknown blade.  Still others are the remains of roaches, barely describable as bodies in their twisted state, but it is these cadavers, riddled each with an impossible number of jagged shortspears that shout the loudest: Something very unexpected has happened here.

Amir cannot guess what sort of hero could have struck this blow against Ka, but he does not need to: In the shadow of the fetid camp, a man leans against the gate, sharpening a strange pick-like implement against a rock.

Part II – Patches

Daniel Patch had long ago given up being good.  It wasn’t particularly difficult. People didn’t like him, and after nominal experimentation regarding the substances he drank and the fights he picked, he concluded the reason was simply that he didn’t like them first.  He picked up and practically skipped out town–the third in recent memory he’d haphazardly tried to call home–and took up a semi-professional life of wandering.

In so doing, he found that his misanthropy, hobbling within his erstwhile close-knit communities, elevated him effortlessly in the network of mercenaries that thrived in the Windwood’s negative space.  He became a killer–one of the best, in fact–and somewhere between a steady, buzzing inebriation and the vaguely-justified violence of his profession, he found a kind of peace. One day, he was arrogant enough to frame that thought explicitly, and he knew, just as soon, it was a mistake.  By what could not have been coincidence, that was the day he met Rom.

Rom approached Daniel Patch, as those who were inclined knew how, at his cabin in the wilderness, days’ travel from anywhere of consequence, suitably unpleasant to reach for anyone without silver set aside for a mercenary’s fee.  The man was an odd bug, and the young lady he traveled with–whose name Daniel never picked up–wasn’t much better. He figured them for clergy of some sort: Though their moldering green-brown habits didn’t resemble any Kol-priest regalia he’d ever seen, their wild-eyed gazes and bizarre, chain-wrapped armaments smacked of ideology.  Still, their request didn’t seem ideological at all. It seemed…petty.

There was a village, they said, which had harassed them in their travels.  They desired the village’s militia be made an example of their wrath. Under cover of night, Daniel would–they hoped–take these vicious warriors’ lives and arrange their bodies at the center of town.

A man with more principles might have had questions, but Daniel had only one: Could these two finance their vindictive inclinations?  And oh, yes, they could. They showed him his fee–twice his fee–in gold, not silver; half upfront, half on completion, and they had no more need to explain themselves.

So the three of them departed for this doomed place, and through the seven days of travel to the very northern edge of the Windwood, Daniel Patch’s clients did nothing of note.  Against his professional intuitions, he began to wonder about them. Who the fuck were they? How could they have run afoul of this village’s tolerance while simultaneously carrying enough cash to fund its extermination?  Daniel could think of a number of endings to that setup, and none of them involved these two making it to him in possession of their money. For one reason or another, the scenario just shouldn’t have happened, and he was beginning to question whether he shouldn’t have refused Rom and his gold.  And all the while, Rom and his companion did nothing, said nothing to allay his bewilderment. They just stared and stared at him with that crazed, wondrous, vaguely disgusted expression, as if they were watching a spider shed its chitinous skin.

For better or for worse, Daniel never finished his train of thought.  They reached their destination, and leaving his unsettling companions behind, Daniel went to inspect his targets.

The village itself was starkly quiet, tense, so much that Daniel, strolling in his best impression of peaceful nonchalance, received no more interaction than a few fearful glances from women in doorways.  Which was odd on its own: There did not seem to be a single man in this place. But then he came upon the militia itself, and the pieces–enough of them, anyway–fell into place.

In the approximation of a square at the village’s center were five children fastened by their wrists to stakes in the ground, and behind those children was a man in armor efficiently and brutally driving a scourge into the exposed skin of their backs.  Another ten or twenty armored men stood in an arc about them, keeping a crowd–again, women and children–at bay. The scene was not quiet. The crowd whimpered and sobbed, the children screamed, the whip lashed, its wielder grunted, and Daniel could swear he heard flecks of blood strike the dirt with each swing.

Daniel had few sensibilities and no context for the culture of these parts, but in this place he was…uncomfortable.  It was violent, it was strangely gendered, and it was completely alien to his notions of how…people…should work. At that moment, he forgot his lingering revulsion for his employers, and though he was perhaps not enthusiastic about his impending murder spree, he was strangely okay with it.

He briefly noted the barracks-like structure at the edge of the square and left without a third glance to prepare for the night’s ugly business well away from this place.  He didn’t bother to find Rom–the man and his companion could clearly fend for themselves, and, being honest, he was quite content to speak with them as little as possible before they settled accounts.  The space was immediately noticeable, and the irritation that had fogged Daniel’s thoughts for the previous week faded to a level that allowed him to consider the specifics of his situation.

If he wanted to complete this job, there were two things that needed not happen: First, the militia members–brawny, fighting men they appeared to be–could not have time to prepare.  Daniel was dangerous, and he knew it, but there were almost thirty of these fuckers. The killing would take place predominantly with his quarry panicked and unarmed, or it would not take place at all.  Second, he would need to minimize time spent at close quarters. His skillset revolved predominantly around his spear-thrower, well-suited to stalking folk through the trees or waylaying travelers. All but useless in the building where these men would be sleeping, and besides, they were probably stronger than him.  If one got hold of him, it could end the night early.

He wanted to burn the place down.  Board up the windows, bar the door, there wouldn’t be a damn thing they could do, but alas, Rom had wanted them arranged in some kind of circle.  Daniel needed them out of the wreckage and, if possible, minimally crispy. He would improvise, then: Board up all but one exit and kill them as they stumbled out.  It would be a lot more difficult, but they would be dead and unscorched, and if one died in the building and couldn’t be dragged into Rom’s effigy mound, well, fuck Rom.  Settled, he sharpened his spears and the pick blades on his atlatl and waited.

The sun went down, and it got dark, moonless, air like ink between the trees.  Daniel got up, gathered his things and made his way back to the village, navigating by feel as much as sight, confident in casual defiance of the arboreal void before him.  He reached his destination and found it just as dark as the forest around and, oddly, unguarded. But, he wasn’t going to complain. He soaked one of his torches in oil from a flask at his hip, lit it, and slowly, dramatically, lobbed it onto the barracks’ thatched roof.  The building suddenly ablaze, he notched a spear into his atlatl and waited for his first victim to emerge.

Emerge, he did, half-clothed, grotesquely muscled, but with none of the anger one would expect of a seasoned warrior in a surprising situation.  No, it was just panicked, mindless fear. Daniel didn’t linger on it. He whipped his atlatl in the man’s direction, and the spear caught him in the mouth, impaling his head and freezing that panicked, mindless, fearful expression in his eyes for posterity.

***

A short time later, the last militia man dropped to the ground, a pair of thin holes punched into the side of his head where Daniel had struck him, and Daniel whistled, vaguely relieved and more than winded.  He was spattered in blood and ash, quite glad to be rid of these people and his need to be among them. He glanced about the square, now gently lit by the barracks’ roaring blaze, and counted the bodies. Twenty-three, not counting whoever didn’t make it out alive.  Good enough. Noting with discomfort the faces beginning to poke out of buildings in the distant shadows, he hurried to drag his victims into place, to a messy circle at the center of the square. He did so quickly and turned to leave with the same haste when a voice stopped him.

“There is something yet for you to see, Mr. Patch.”  It was Rom. Daniel reluctantly turned his head, directing a sidelong glare at its source to see the man and his companion standing, hooded and still, at the doorway of a nearby house.  Rom gestured at the circle of corpses with an airy smile. Daniel dearly wanted to tell him to go fuck himself, but something, curiosity, perhaps, or unwillingness to jeopardize his payment pulled his attention back to the square.  He was immediately unhappy with the decision.

As soon as his eyes fell upon the circle, it was as if the world plunged underwater.  The glare of the burning building dimmed, grew cooler, and the pitch darkness of the night beyond thickened and grew viscous as it encroached on the scene.  And from that oozing gloam, the rest of the village shambled into the light.

Their eyes were glass, their jaws slack.  They approached the bodies and knelt beside them in the dirt and thrust their hands into their wounds, tearing handfuls of flesh from their fallen guardians and lifting them tremulously to their open mouths.  Daniel was very resolved at this point: He did not want to watch any longer. But now, with his eyes locked on the circle, the scene, Rom’s–he realized–revolting display, there was something telling his body that he couldn’t look away now.  The externality of that thought was very literal: That something was not part of him, and Daniel had the distinct impression that whatever it was that held him, petrified in the dark before this sickening array of phagia, was laughing.  No, not laughing. More peaceful. Smiling.

“He was right,” Rom said, eyes wide in awe, as Daniel began to notice a sensation of angularity.  The circle and everything in it was still before his eyes, but in his mind it spun, and with its turning, it began to change.

“We have grown dull living on the surface.  Every truth we have ever known has simply bubbled up from the deep.”

The villagers’ bodies morphed and bent.  Their skin, their size, their sex, shifted, and before Daniel’s eyes each of them became a another person and then another and another as the gyre spun.  Their grim meal was no different, the dead militia men became other men, skinned beasts, and men again, and with each turn, both the villagers and the slain grew more and more monstrous, bristling with fur and eyes and tendrils and slime.

“The Man of the Clouds showed us to sculpt the deep’s effusions,” Rom said.  “To remake reality. Many followed, only one understood, and he was right: There was never any truth.  Only an ocean of realities that we never dared imbibe.”

The bodies in the circle had begun to degrade, no longer distinct individuals, rather mounds of rats and maggots and insects where they had been, and the component beings of those mounds continued to change, to get smaller, until the entire circle was tiny, winged, black flies.  And they flew, all at once, buzzing, a great verminous whirlwind flowing into the darkness above. What they left was very nearly the circle as it had started. The villagers knelt by corpses, hungrily devouring them, but there were two differences, and Daniel noticed them immediately: The militia men had become children, and the fort-like barracks behind them was not fort-like at all.  Perhaps it was a flaw in Rom’s attempt at exegesis, perhaps it was simply Daniel’s distrust for the man, but Daniel knew immediately: This was not a vision. This was the truth. He had just murdered twenty-three children, and he had been under Rom’s influence far longer than he’d thought.

“Truth is useless to us, Daniel Patch,” Rom continued.  “Abandon it and follow. There is so much waiting for us, and the Smile shall plunge us to its depths.”

Daniel wasn’t listening.  He had poured the entirety of his will into wrenching free whatever force held his mind hostage, and he had succeeded.  As Rom, beatifically ignorant, finished his sentence, Daniel’s arm was already in motion, hurling a spear at the bastard who had manipulated him.  But Rom was not quite so ignorant as Daniel hoped, and he was faster than Daniel believed possible. He noticed the spear as it entered the air, and with a sudden, twitching motion, he dashed out of its path, into the square.  His companion received his fate instead. The spear hit her in the chest, slamming her backward into the wall of the house and killing her instantly.

Daniel did not have time to throw another.  Faster, almost, than he could turn his head, Rom’s chain whipped across the distance between them and wrapped about his neck, crushing his throat as it pulled tight.  Daniel dropped his atlatl and struggled to free himself, but he had no illusions, as Rom ran to him with the knife on the other end of the chain, that he was actually going to escape.

“I blame myself,” Rom said, plunging his knife into Daniel’s temple.

***

Patches blamed himself too, but he resolved to make the injustice right, no matter how many times it took.  

When the old man woke him up, he found it strangely easy to acclimate.  He had seen the deep, he had seen the Smile’s grand lie. He understood his multiplicity.  Perhaps he was unique among the seven for understanding it truly. But there was an accord in his bond to the old dog.  Vengeance. He understood it too, at the core of his being. His name, well, it became an affectation. One Patch was not enough to sew up the truth, to hold back the lies, but he had been given another life, a multitude of lives, and revenge, by little revenge, he sought to repair the everything that he’d done his part to destroy.

Top Image: Draft work for Names (work in progress), by Rae Johnson, commissioned for War Torn/Rale

The Sevenfold Gyre, Part 1

The first installment in what will likely be a longer fiction piece in the War Torn world. Highly referential toward a particular work. Preemptive apologies to those who might recognize it.

“Why seven?” the old man mumbles, his voice barely audible over the campfire’s crackling.  “I’m not sure there’s a reason. Some mage prob’ly has shit to say, but I don’t think the number is special.  I, uh…” he trails off, lifting his face to glance at the sky. For a rare moment, his gnarled face and horrible, focused eyes are visible beneath the brim of his hat.

“I think it’s like music,” he says, pausing and lowering his gaze back to the ground.  “When you strike a chord, it’s really so many notes, and until someone hears it, it’s not like any of those pieces have meaning.  But then someone walks up and listens, intrudes upon that perfect silence, and suddenly the notes combine.  They hear music. I’m sure that with different notes, the song would change, but there is no origin, no reason, no truth for why this all should be.  The two of us plucked seven notes, and now the harmony echoes.”

“That is all it is.  Cause and effect. No reason, and, yet, no coincidence either.”

Part 1 – Amir

Hate did not come naturally to Amir.  He knew because he needed to remind himself why he should.  The effort was not natural either, but it wasn’t difficult–the memory jumped to the forefront of his attention barely bidden, with a cruel clarity that defied its age:

He was ten years old, at market with his mother and sister.  They were newcomers to the Riverlands, and they lived nearly a half-day’s journey from town, but the folk there were kind and welcoming.  On that day, he remembered chasing his sister among the stalls as his mother picked out the week’s supplies from the merchants’ noisy forum.  He couldn’t say why he chased her–he couldn’t remember–he only remembered it seemed important then. But it distracted him, he thought with spite and shame, even though he couldn’t be sure whether his undistracted ten-year-old self would have noticed the change in the market’s air.

It was subtle but swift.  The bustle, the purpose of the square, the shouting merchants’ wall of noise, in a matter of seconds it all crumbled, replaced by…nothing.  Not alarm, just a lack. And the stupid child didn’t notice a thing.

When he did notice, he heard it before he saw it.  Clicking. Uncanny chittering. Soft hoofbeats, the snarl of a stallion.  He froze, turning slowly to see a macabre procession at the corner of the square.

Ambulating deliberately into the crowd on bony appendages not meant to ambulate were a number of creatures.  In the way they carried themselves, they resembled dogs, or perhaps giant insects, but in every other respect their anatomy churned the stomach.  Exposed muscle strung about the cages of bone, shattered and irregular, that made up their thoraces and wound about the amalgamations of ribs, mandibles, and vertebrae on which they haltingly skittered.  The townspeople drew back in terror where they passed, but the boy barely moved. He was frightened and confused, but he hadn’t the imagination to grasp the depth of the nightmare that approached him.

Instead, his gaze fell to the one that led them.  It was a man, thin, unnaturally tall, astride a massive dark horse that seemed to glide across the ground where it stepped, with a grace that only just failed to disguise the aura of dread emanating from both mount and rider.  In stark contrast to the shambling corpses at his side, the man was clean, trim, obsessively orderly. His long hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and his black armor shone in the sun. It made his gaze all the more unsettling.

The man’s right eye was calm and piercing blue, unconcerned with the folk cowering before him, content to absorb the scene.  His left was a gaping socket, torn ragged, surrounded by tiny gouges and scars and blackened, as if scorched. This was a man with the bearing of a prince, but it was this small corner of his face that told his beholders what he really was, what he really wanted.

And so it was then, as the one-eyed man’s gaze fell upon the boy, that his imagination expanded, and he opened his mouth to scream.  Barely a yelp escaped his lips, as the stallion crossed the square in an instant, and, in a single, fluid, practiced motion, the man reached down to the boy, pulled him by the hair across his saddle, and plunged a wicked, two-pronged knife into his mouth.  The boy thrashed, blood running across his face, down his throat, but the man held him fast. As he struggled, he was dimly aware of his mother’s screams, the shouts of the townsfolk, the agitated clicking of the roach-like bone creatures, but the most striking assault to his senses, the very clearest memory of that day, was the sight of the man’s face as, one by one, he dug the boy’s teeth from his jaw: It was calm, serene even, unbothered by the boy’s attempts to escape, the streams of his blood, or the mounting chaos in the square around.  The slightest smile graced his mouth, and the boy realized with a chill that stabbed his heart that this gruesome spectacle was, to the man, not a joy, not an excitement, not a whim, but a comfort.  The notion that he was almost certainly about to die had not occurred yet, but this realization, that the one-eyed man was utterly in his element, utterly in control, silenced his struggle by itself.

But then a good man intervened.

The one-eyed man’s expression did not change, but leaned back abruptly as a rock flew through the air where his head had been.  He turned, and the boy squirmed to get a glimpse of the assailant.

It was the town’s mayor, a man whose name Amir knew to be Matze Matsua, already hefting another rock for a shot at the one-eyed man.  He had galvanized the town, and the folk behind him were readying their own projectiles, but their desperation was so far from enough.

One of the bone creatures lurched forward, impaling Matsua on a spinal column and tearing into his flesh.  Once again, the square froze amidst Matsua’s screams. Then, the one-eyed man gave the slightest of nods, and the remaining bone creatures fell upon the crowd.  Knife raised, he pulled the bottom of his hand over the boy’s eyes.

Before he lost consciousness, Amir remembered, he heard a whisper:

“Are you awake from your nightmare?  You think you’re dying, I’m sure, and fighting death is such hard work.  You think you don’t have time for fun anymore.”

There was a pause, the slaughter of the town echoing in the background.

“Silly boy.  There’s always time for fun.  And there’s always time for things to get worse.  Your world has changed, and it will keep getting smaller.”

When the boy woke, he was in the town square alone.  His mouth was bloody, and half his teeth were gone, but it seemed the one-eyed man had taken his roaches and left.  One way or another, everyone else had left too. The air was rank with the scent of iron, and ground was still slick with blood, but through the whole town, not a single body–breathing or no–remained.  It was just him. Just Amir.

But who the fuck was Amir?  It was doubtful anyone in town had even known his name.  He was just a stupid, distracted child, just an idle hobby for the one-eyed man, just the first of many to bleed that day.  No one would remember him. No one ought to remember him.

Instead his mind flashed to Matze Matsua.  He was a kind man, brave, beloved. He had moved to save Amir, sacrificing his life when even the boy’s mother stood aside.  His was a name that ought to be remembered. But, the boy thought, confusion and fear subsiding, the one-eyed man had denied him that.

And then it all flooded his brain: Confusion became certainty, fear became anger, and sorrow–for his mother and sister, certainly dead; for the kind, welcoming townsfolk; for Matze Matsua, lost to the thoughtless gyre of history–turned to boiling hate.

He–the boy and the man he became–hated the One-Eyed Sadist, whose name he would never learn, he hated the Lord Ka who commanded him, whose face he had never seen, he hated the roaches, the cruel war they waged, the atrocities they committed, and he hated the gods that sat in their heaven, allowing these monsters to rule in their stead.  For that brief moment, it was natural. It was consuming. Hate was all of him.

But through all the remaining years of his life, all of the times he forgot and remembered–forced himself to remember–this feeling, he never once realized the trick, the smiling lie: that the best man he’d ever known had taught him to hate.

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

Death of an Old Wolf

His first words were: “I wonder about choices.”  I’ll confess it made little sense to me at the time, but it’s how he began.  I remember it vividly.

He said: “I wonder about choices.”

It was near the end of the campaign.  The trees had fallen, victory was within our grasp, and for the first time, Mother had seen fit to allow me to accompany her expedition.  I knew she expected the beasts to surrender–it was a reasonable expectation. We outnumbered them ten-to-one, and their groves and hidey-holes had been taken from them.  But the old wolf didn’t want to discuss surrender. He wanted to discuss choices.

He turned to face our battalion.

“You are the one they call Kr’lash, yeah?” he asked.  Mother nodded. He rolled his shoulders and smiled a manic, harrowed smile.  “You’ve made choices. Do you think about them too?”

We had found the wolf in a strange place.  Days earlier, we had raided the fort he’d taken as a headquarters, only to find it empty of beasts, of supplies, even of traps.  The scouts found tracks in every direction, like the beasts had just scattered. Most led off into the desert, but one set had run deep into the fallen wood, to a cave at the base of the mountain.  They found him there, alone, and, by his request, went to fetch Mother for a “talk.”

The term “cave,” however, failed to truly capture this place.  Though the tunnel we’d taken to get there was dark and narrow and all the things you would expect of a cave, the chamber where the wolf awaited us was something else entirely.  It was a cavern, vast, uncannily silent, lit in part by beams of sun slicing in through cracks in the ceiling, but truly strange was what the cavern contained.  

Just behind the wolf were two great trees, branching like black lightning into the darkness, in bizarre defiance of the cavern’s lack of light, but where leaves might haver hung from their branches, instead tongues of flame crackled, strung from the boughs like tears of a willow.  And though I could feel the heat from the blaze where I stood beside Mother, I saw that the branches did not smolder or crack.

In the dim behind the trees, nestled into the rear wall of the cavern, was a great stone building, its crumbled statues and pillars just barely visible through the shadows.  I did not grasp it then, but when I think to that day, I now wonder whether I did not see a body, stained with blood, sprawled across the stairs of that structure.

“I do, Bleeding Wolf,” Mother said.  “Though I cannot say I regret those I’ve made recently.”  The wolf regarded her coldly, one hand clenched in a fist.  The other, I noticed, was twirling a small knife between its fingers.  I use these words deliberately: It was as if the gesture was occuring, serene, entirely outside the wolf’s sphere of attention.

“You cut down a forest,” he growled, bewildered, seething.

“You gave us no choice,” Mother replied, her voice every bit as cold.  “My people would die in the desert, and they would die with you and your cannibals lurking between the trees.”

“Cannibals…” the wolf remarked to the air as she spoke.

“Yes.  You are.”

“Of course.”  There was a hint of a smile on his scarred face.  “It’s just that you’ve judged us human enough to recognize our meals as our own.  Unusual. Flattering.”

Mother seemed taken aback, but only slightly, and only for a moment.  She reformed her composure but did not respond. The wolf took notice, shuddering as he chuckled.

“Still, do you see how it circles?” he asked.  “I’ve been looking at the big picture. I’ve seen what you people do to places like this, what we’ve done to places like this for millennia, and I tried to stand in the way.  I tried to make it so that one of us, at least, would live to see tomorrow.  It was the only choice. You might say,” he looked over his shoulder at one of the blazing trees before turning back with an unsettling gleam in his eyes.  “You might say I had no choice at all.”

“I’m left here wondering,” he continued,” whether anything we’ve done has ever mattered.  Were we always going to die?”

“Perhaps you always were,” Mother said.  “You and all those who traded life for power.”

“Wonderful try, K’rlash, but your history is dogshit.  Everyone keeping score knows about the prophecy, but no one remembers what anyone tried to do about it.”  He gestured at the surreal vista behind him. “Do you even know what this place is?” Mother smiled, rising to his taunt.

“I’d chance a guess this is their temple,” she replied.  “The ‘long lost’ temple of the beastmen that called themselves the Lords of the Sky.  I’m surprised you found it, but I don’t know that it matters.” The wolf stared at her, seeming almost offended.

“Incredible,” he muttered.  “Did you learn all your history by interrogating prisoners of war?”

“Is this banter a condition of your surrender?” Mother asked, this time stonefaced.  The wolf cackled.

“Absolutely not!  But to understand the conditions of my surrender, you’re going to need some education.  This, for one, is the temple of the god that started all of this. The one who looked our fate in the eye and said ‘I choose death.’  The Lords of the Sky have just been squatting.  

“Moreover,” he continued, “only the outcasts of the Lords of the Sky took up the ways of my people, of beasts.  The main contingent kept a very different culture. They dwelled here until recently, guarding their own sordid history.”

As he said this, his knife stopped twirling, fingers snapping tight around the handle.  It took me more than a decade to understand this gesture, and this delay has become one of my greatest regrets.

“Both of these facts are known,” the wolf said, “if you ask the right people, look in the right places.”  He paused, then added: “Take the right care. I don’t suppose your mages have noticed the power in this place?”

I was not, at the time, accustomed to opening my body to magic–my mother and her advisors had taught me that doing so would hasten the death of the world we sought to prevent–but at the wolf’s words, I reached out and felt what he meant: This place was awash with magic and soaked in death, but words struggle to capture the feeling.  I knew with a certainty and clarity I’d never before felt that blood had been spilled in this place, in dizzying quantity, over centuries long past but reeking of death as if the slaughter had stopped only yesterday. Mana oozed from the dirt, from the stone, even from the air, heavy with the collective last breath of tens of thousands.

“He brought us here because he’s stronger,” I whispered to Mother, jumping to my own conclusions.  “He doesn’t intend to surrender.”

“Apparently,” she replied, raising a hand.  At this, the archers trained their bows on the wolf.  “Make sure that you and Cain are ready.” As I made eye contact with our pyromancer, the wolf seemed to take note of our conference.

“There is a number three, you know.”  His voice goaded. “My own little secret.  Would you like to hear it?” Mother decided she did not.

She signalled the archers, and in the same moment, the wolf sprinted to one of the burning trees.  It was nearly fifty feet away, but he covered the ground in a second. By the time the first arrow left its string, he was plunging his knife into the tree’s bark.  His priority seemed bizarre, but we realized its purpose quickly enough: As he stabbed the tree, its flames flared and then suddenly vanished, and then we were left in darkness with the most powerful mage in the forest.

The first thing that broke through the pitch was Cain’s torrent of flame, narrowly missing the wolf as he charged our front line, still in transition after the archer’s initial volley.  The spearmen made it to the front, but they were unable to set their weapons before he crashed through their line, sending bodies flying, limbless and lacerated by the maws lining his hands and arms.

The wolf’s form had changed.  Though it still resembled a human in shape and number of limbs, its features had twisted into nauseating mockeries of both human and beast.  Its body was now covered in grey fur that bristled, raised, needlelike, against the bursts of fire and dim sunlight above, and everywhere, along its arms, legs, all sides of the appendage that was previously its head, were mouths, gasping, tearing, gnashing thousands of horrid fangs.  The only part of it untouched by the amorphic nightmare of jaws and teeth was its torso, where the scars that had lined the creature’s skin as a man had begun to run with blood, and in so doing, had begun to glow red with magical power in the darkness.

I reached out, grasping at the mana it radiated, pulling the strength of the earth around me to collapse the dirt beneath it, but I pulled too much, and instead of dragging the creature into the mud, I shattered the ground beneath all of our feet.  The wolf stumbled, to be sure, but the majority of our soldiers were sent sprawling, and the earthen shrapnel from my explosion proved far more ruinous for them than for the creature.

After only a moment, it stood, jagged rock protruding–and falling, woundless–from its flesh, seeming no more in pain than before the blast, and looked to Cain, who had been knocked unconscious by a stone to his temple.  In that instant, Mother charged from the shadows, her black armor only barely visible in the darkness, and plunged her sword into the wolf’s chest. As the blade punched through, grinding audibly against bone, the beast’s glowing scars ignited.  I realized, suddenly, that she had prepared for this–her sword was wreathed in mana, and, attuned as I was then to the flows of death around me, I recognized the pattern in its enchantment, and I realized then that Mother was not above imitation of those we had vilified.  

For its part, Mother’s magic was devastatingly effective.  Through the flare of the wolf’s scars, its own blood shot from its torso in a salvo of glistening, crimson spikes, wrapping about its arms and legs and solidifying, pressing, suddenly crystalline and sharp against its flesh.  Even so, bloody and nearly crucified, the wolf was not done. With a sudden, tinny crack, it wrenched its right arm free of its gruesome restraints and grabbed Mother by the neck, fingers curling around the bottom of her helm.  I willed my legs to move, desperately trying to close my distance to the beast as I saw its claws slowly elongate, puncturing the sides of her head. Within an instant, her body went limp.

Enraged, flailing, I sent a pulled a spike of rock from the ground, impaling the wolf through his abdomen.  It lurched, and its claws receded. Mother tumbled to the ground. I rushed to her, but for some reason, I couldn’t pull my eyes from the wolf.

“You fool,” it mumbled to me.  “You don’t see it. You think you’re out of time, it’s do or die, you have nothing to lose…”  The lupine features of its face seemed to melt before my eyes, ragged fur receded, teeth pulled back as its jaw flattened, until it was no longer a wolf.

“There’s always time,” the man said, blood burbling from his open mouth.  “And things can always…get…worse…” He trailed off, as the cavern began to shudder, and with no more warning, the floor beneath us collapsed.

About a third of us survived, able to climb to safety near the entrance of the cavern.  Following the collapse, the fire never returned. The trees had disappeared, and the only thing that remained was a vast pit, descending into the darkness farther than any of us could see.  I sent a party down to search the rubble at the bottom for Mother’s body, but only one soldier was able to climb back out alive. He never found the body. All he was able to deliver was a small knife.

The Chimera

Very rough, written for use in a War Torn/Rale playtest one-shot (hence the weird, second-person framing).  Posting primarily as an excuse to show off Rae’s art.

You feel time drain from your perspective.  Where you are is not here, when you are is not now.  The trees around grow tall and vast, larger than you have ever seen, and the underbrush grows in kind.  From the canopy, birds take flight, and squirrels scamper between the boughs. Amidst it all, you see a stag emerge from the greenery.  The creature is tall and proud and weathered by its years in the forest–it knows that even as it is surrounded by life, death is never far.

Even now, it is pursued by a group of men.  They carry bows and spears and fire, and eve though the creature flees from them at great speed, they are relentless.  Soon, it is tired, and the men reach it. Their blades and arrows pierce its hide, and their flames scorch its face, and though it tries once more to flee, its legs fail it, and it crashes, heavy, to the ground.

The men approach but do not reach it, for suddenly, a wolf leaps from between the branches and bites a man’s throat.  Blood flows, and the man’s companions stab the beast, but even in death, it does not forsake its quarry.

The stag, seeing life abandon its would-be salvation, cries out in horror.  The sound is feral, animal, real, but you recognize the creature’s voice all the same from the echoes you heard beneath the earth in your own world, outside this strange rift in reality.  Abandoned by life, it instead calls out to death, to draw the macabre scene into its warm embrace.

For the first time in the creature’s long memory, death heeds its call.  The branches around them, imbued with that deathly force, grow and pierce the men, enshrouding the dead wolf in monument of briar and blood.  At once, the stag realizes: To help the world escape death, it must become as death. It must draw the whole world into its embrace.

The stag, galvanized by fear and grief, sets about its task.  It devours the wolf, swallowing its tail, its flank, its shoulders.  As the stag engulfs the dead beast’s maw, a spark of life, of hunger, awakens inside it, and the beasts, now twinned, begin to eat as one the men, the briar, the earth, and the trees, until the chimera and the forest are one.

Years pass, and the earth shifts, and a Hunter arrives at the forest’s edge.  He understands, as the chimera does, the balance of life and death. And just as the chimera has, he has swallowed the strength of the dead, stocked it beneath his skin.  For years, the two hunt each other, attempting, as they had before, to pull one more soul into their embrace, but they are tenacious and tireless, and neither does prevail.

The Hunter grows tired of the hunt, but he cannot walk away.  He bands with a strange bird and a king among beasts, and the three end the chimera’s advance in a cavern below two burning trees, ensuring, despite the creature’s cries, that the world never will be saved from death.

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

The Dragon’s Thesis

At first, I did not know what to make of it.  This tome, Hazeen’s darkest secret, the sole condition of his surrender, contained nothing at all.  There was no forbidden knowledge, no power warranting censure, certainly nothing that would save us.  There was merely a gargantuan and sorry heap of blank, tattered parchment. I wept then, for I know for the first time that we were finished, that my dream of Haven was just that: a dream, a dewdrop world, dangling from a dry branch, mere seconds from a ruinous descent to the desert below.

My sorrow was the first thing it took.

As my tears ran onto the pages, I felt a great shadow rear up before me, and, raising a spectral hand, it wiped the anguish from my eye.  I reeled back to find that, in truth, there was no demon, but nonetheless my eyes were dried and my heart emboldened, and when I peered once more over the pages of Hazeen’s grimoire, the first few were stained with a twisted scrawl.  They began:

Human, would you like to hear a story?  It is a story of a man with a dream. You had a dream as well, didn’t you?

I read on, unable to look away.

The man came upon his dream in a time of great impermanence, the page continued.  The soil was soaked with blood, and men ended–frequently and without warning–beneath the shadow of the crow.  In this tumult, the man desired a particular constancy: He desired to remain. Even in his mortality, he knew what this meant–he knew that he sought more than mere survival.  To survive is to endure, and endurance is temporary. His aim was clear: he would be eternal.

The message came to him from below bloodied waters:

“When the Dragon rises, it shall devour the world, and when at last its maw reaches its tail, only Dragon shall remain.”

To remain, he knew he must become the Dragon.

In his pursuit of this transfiguration, the man wrought horrid, inelegant things upon the earth–just as you have, savior–but he learned from them.  He became the greatest scholar the world would ever know, and with his knowledge, he armed himself with the trappings of Dragon-ness: shields like scales, to deflect mortal swords; flames hotter than the flesh-furnaces of Ka; and a great and devouring hunger for ever more of the earth.

They protected him, and he remained.  His inelegant things rose up and cast him to the ground, and, still, he remained.  He knew, though, that he was still no Dragon. His scales would rot. His flames would gutter.  His hunger, still far too human, would never outlast the prolonged rale of his dying planet. It was in the fetid depths of this realization that he encountered the nascent impossibility that for so long he’d sought to emulate.

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.

I did not speak, though I cannot say what recognition crossed my face.  Somehow, though, the book intuited a clarification.

Read on, graced the bottom of the page.

I turned it to reveal a scene, etched by ink as if into stone, of a village in ruin.  The streets were slick with blood and bodies were everywhere: pinned to walls, shredded in piles of dirt and charnel, even suspended in the sky by twisting, crimson tendrils.  I exhaled. I recognized the force–a blank, man-shaped space at the bottom of the page–from which the bloody tendrils emanated. They were old stories–those that mentioned him–but so very many had been told for so long.

The Blood God, the next page read.  The harbinger of our end.  What do you suppose made him a god?

It certainly wasn’t fear or reverence: A great many have commanded those and died wretched, suffused in humanity’s scum.  You might be forgiven for thinking it was his might. He had so very much of it, but since his time, men have held blades just as sharp and died just the same, leaving only the faintest scar upon the world.

Our Dragon surmised, thus, that godhood was that which had no counterexample: It was that which remained, that which never died.  But he failed to grasp the pith of it.  Something allowed the Blood God this storied immortality, and our Dragon had no notion of it until he encountered one with the true potential for godhood.

The page was blank after that.  I turned to the next in hope of more to the story but found only blank parchment.

“What happened then?” I asked aloud, to myself as much as the book.  The answer oozed onto the page, as if bleeding from a puddle of ink below it. Eventually, he realized his ambitions, it said. He became a god.  We know you do not desire godhood, but like our Dragon, you do desire for you and your Haven to remain, no?  Read on, then. For your attention, we will give you the answer you seek.

Top Image: Redemption, by Rae Johnson, commissioned for War Torn/Rale
Middle Image: The Blood God, by Hector Rasgado, commissioned for 
War Torn/Rale