Excerpt on “Pure” Magics

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pieces of Periods

I’ve mentioned this before, but I continue to get questions on it. So far, all of the fiction I have posted to this blog has been in the world of War Torn/Rale. This, for some, has been pretty confusing. The events of those stories span thousands of years of fictional time, and I’ve been telling them in an order that does not remotely resemble a chronology.

Enamored as I am with the Dark Souls style of relating fantasy via primary sources, I will only do so much to help you all with this, but while it will be an exercise for the reader to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, I will give you frame to work with.

In the beginning were the Old Times. In the end were the End Times. The intervening periods had more descriptive names. The chronology is this:

  • The Rise of the Great Cities
  • The Era of Spar
  • The Reign of the Blood God and Free Magic
  • The Dereliction of the Blood God
  • The Era of Heroes and Horrors
  • The War of the Roaches
  • The Era of Scavengers and False Gods
  • The Desiccation and Era of Grit
  • The Mud Wars, culminating in…
    • The War of Fallen Trees
    • The War of the Freaks
    • The Destruction of Haven

This is not really the way the world died–that is something more nuanced–but the terminology will hopefully give you some anchor for the events of the various stories.

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