Orbiting Within the Shadow of History
“Survival in the world of men is to have seven faces and four hearts.”
– Y’Kuiri, historian
And I have taken another of each, thought I, after reading that line again today. So few are the works in my possession; the volumes in my library make nearly the full list of things I regret losing to the Darkness. All else can be replaced. Or nearly.
Control over the Engine remains a separate matter, and one that imposes on me a great feeling of anxiety.
Is there any hope for renewal? I think not. There is only adaptation; I have fallen from such great heights! Once, I was a distant planet, knowing nothing of Ai but what came from drawing near to it for a season. But now, I orbit within the reach of the shadow of history, am affected, dominated by its cruel fingers along with every other living thing. It has not always been so, the Engine says. And I agree. We once ruled–with a subtle, unfamed hand, I know, but ruled none the less–from a vast distance.
Perhaps therein lies the Engine’s restlessness: regret. Can that be possible? It would kill everything it cannot rule, I know that much. But regret? Can it feel such things? I will leave that for now.
If, currently, I am subject to the whims of history, then my course of action is obvious: I must reenter the world of men, search it for the beginnings of a new Path. And so I have returned to Talentha. And so I have taken another face, a noble one.
Oh, the role is not such a stretch; I have played it before. Moreover, it is not an entire fallacy. Not entirely. A little time and effort into the subject of genealogy (and a good lawyer) might’ve even won me such a title before the Darkness. Might have. It really means nothing, one way or the other.
And she, she will help me. Has she any choice? Not now. She is bound to me by her own guilt. It is as good a bond as any. One day, perhaps, I will let her go.
No, the Engine says, we will hold on to her forever. She is too valuable to be left to her own devices.
Intellect and Soul, Dialogue
Soul: I drempt again, that chain of dreams which comes so often in my sleep.
Intellect: How begins, it?
Soul: With fire: great worlds of infernal white, whole planes of it lapping at my flesh.
Intellect: At what length? Until you are consumed?
Soul: An eternity, timeless. Until my bones are wrapped in white ash–but I am not wholly consumed. It denies me death.
Intellect: For you have already died.
Soul: I presume.
Intellect: The dream does not end there, in the flames.
Soul: There is another, or the same. The first is timeless, and it is impossible to gauge.
Intellect: You are buried, entombed.
Soul: I am grasped to the bossom of the earth, guarded by its stoney wings. I am warded from all evil, even that which dwells inside me. For an age, nothing is allowed to enter, to disturb my rest. The earth itself is jealous for me, keeps me as a great secret, mends me, caresses my dry bones with silence.
Intellect: Above you?
Soul: Wars rage, The flames rage; the vastness of the earth is a shield, and they cannot touch me. I feel them–cannot hear them, but feel them–from a great distance: shouts and dying, rumble of hooves and ballista wheels. And the fire, the roaring fire. A fortress fell.
Intellect: There was deadly sin in that fortress, and it did recieve its punishment. You, also, were party to that sin; why should it pass over you?
Soul: The earth cared not. It was jealous as a mother, and would let nothing reach me.
Intellect: Why, then, did it love us so? It has shunned us since our very conception; we are an abomination.
Soul: No, we were taught that by our fae kin, that the earth would shun us doubly, for we are–they say–twice unnatural. But lo! the soft voice of the earth said that I was, and was thus natural. Existance is Meaning.
Intellect: What next?
Soul: Within that dream came dreams. The earth relented, and allowed dreams to come to me from the absolute darkness.
Intellect: We drempt of our mother.
Soul: Our first mother, the Fae. So fair: a face as pure and desolate as the hush of snow; eyes like forest pools, so barely green as they reflect the eternal robes of firs, aspens. Was her voice as sweet? For me, she had no cooes, no whispered songs to lull us to bliss; only disdain, downcast eyes for the object of her guilt. She demanded our death.
Intellect: She had no choice. And you could not possibly remember those things; your memories are barrowed from stories. Her stories, she of the venemous tongue.
Soul: Yes, she came next, another dream. No longer was I in the earth, but high above it, upon the peak of our mountain. We used to sit there, she and I, watching the line of dawn crawl slowly over the world below, bathing it in light. I drempt that we were doing the very same, once again. She was the only creature that I have ever loved, that had ever loved me.
Intellect: She was filled only with poison, and offered you nothing but venom. She filled you with it, as she was filled, as one cup pours into another. Every word was a hammer’s blow, folding you, shaping you into a weapon–her weapon. Every whisper was a sharpening stone, and you were so very sharp. She built you to kill.
Soul: We were born to kill, even as we were born under a death sentence.
Intellect: More of her poison.
Soul: Yes, but each drop of it was infused with love. If we were her weapon, we were also her life; our very life ran in her veins, and hers in ours. Is that not the sweetest, the most powerful of all love-bonds, to need desire, to desire to need?
Intellect: That love twisted us beyond hope for health. That love damned us.
Soul: Then let us be damned! Let us suffocate in the bowels of all deepest hells for all eternity for even the very memory of her, so precious it is! I have no regrets, and would suffer worse damnation to once more taste her breath, to once more realize her loveliness, her perfection in form and movement. To once more feel her spirit brush the threshold of mine, I would gladely mouth the ashes of the most bitter hells.
Intellect: And you will, you will. Even now, all is being prepared for you. But the dream does not end with dawn over Ai, does it? I remind you of your ‘love’, and your damnation.
Soul: No, I have said too much; we know how the dream always ends.
Intellect: Speak it. You and your love watch the dawn from the Serpentines. And then?
Soul: No, I cannot.
Intellect: Speak it.
Soul: It was not my fault, not my will!
Intellect: It was your blade, your hand. Speak it. You must.
Soul: Why do you torture me? We know, we know how it ends.
Intellect: This is the gate you will take to the abyss; this moment you will relive again, when all hells claim you. It shall be proof of justice. Speak it.
Soul: She rises, steps to the edge of the outcrop. The wind bears a chill that carries her hair like a banner, flying over the whole world below. Her back is to me, but I know that her eyes are closed.
Intellect: And you rise, and the blade is in your hand.
Soul: No! It was not my will, but hers; she moves my limbs with her voice.
Intellect: We are a wise man; we saw her doom approaching, watched it surmount the horizen like a cruel dawn. Long before, we saw it, but did not prevent it. That is your love, that is your gift.
Soul: We were not so wise, then. It is not our fault! She brought the blade up, she commanded it to the ivory of her neck. We tried, we tried to resist, but she was our god.
Intellect: And then?
Soul: The wind takes her pieces, casts them into the mist below. She is dead; he spell is ended. We move to follow her, but….
Intellect: We send the sword, instead. We survive. And then?
Soul: Then? Nothing. Perfect darkness, darkness absolute, until we awake.
A Most Absolute Failure
Guile is all well and good, but it works best when supported by sheer power. The heart-strings have never been my forte; better, I, at the killing blow, or the installation and manipulation of terror. A noble brow and silver tongue will only get one so far, it seems to me.
Like the woodsman, as he dresses his prey: a quick and sure knife–a surgeon’s knife–is a fine thing. Effeciently, he cuts off the paws; a line up the belly, up the throat, to empty the innards; the skin drawn back and a net pile of waste for the wolves. But if he has not the strength in his bow-arm to bring the beast down, the practice of the former becomes an exercise in vanity.
And I had not the strength in my bow-arm, that day.
It is not that I am a poor dramatist. Contrary! So adroit in roles am I that, often, I am lost to them, blind to where he ends and I begin. I know, I know the danger of it, to be prisoner in a world of your own design. What can it be but a matter of focus? So hard, it is, to focus in this age. Play the fool too long and you become one.
What chance had I, truly, at victory? The walls were far too high to slip over, the gates shut too tightly to slip past. I had not the strength to knock them down, to realize them as dust and blow them away with a breath. And is it not a kind of victory to choose defeat? Is there not power, also, in free-will? I can yet prove that I am not an automoton, life-limbs moved by the force of some invisible string.
If it were a victory, it were a sordid one. A sordid victory smacks too much of a stale-mate, which is nothing but defeat on both sides of the line. But there is time, yet. We shall see.
All this is nonsense; again, I am succumbing to my own machinations. To have them wholly under an iron septre–to have them bowing, prostrate, to my rod-iron throne–would be a most absolute failure. I must never aim for that.
I cannot be alone. I cannot be all that is left, a relic of some age past. Left-overs of some failed line. It cannot be so; there is always another, always others.
The Engine offers me only silence on that particular, not a breath of insight.
And so my feet carry me, nightfall upon nightfall, through this hovel’s dark streets, pressing (nearly) into the same footprints left from the night before: down through avenues of empty shops, thoroughfares of business closed, where I imagine that I can hear the chime of coins counted behind bolted doors; down pass sleeping houses, their stone-worked windows dark as sepultures; down to the Market Square in which, this hour, no merchant can be found, but stuffed and drunk patrons trickle out from idle taverns–like crumbs from their own fat mouths–to stumble homeward within a pocket of coarse glee. The laughs of these, these Telanthen brutes, urges me to uncork their skulls, spill their insides into the cracks of the cobblestones like so many bottles of sour ale.
But, having reminded myself of why I am out (I’ve a treasure to find…), I give way to the path, let it carry me further.
Down to the Temple Gardens, ground sacred to the Golden Dragon. The familiar night-flowers (asters, I think) invoking a familiar question, a familiar argument. Namely: my oath.
Though a relic, I can beget relics; if I am indeed last, it is in me to be the Second First. Progenitor. Transmuter. Savior.
Break it, yes. Save us, the Engine cries incessantly, relentless, it is within your power.
But to break my oath after so long would be tragedy. And it is the foundation of my holiness.
Was, it reminds, In the Darkness we were reborn. Let old oaths die. Let old ways die. Save us.
Down to the Refugee Quarter. Lean-tos and tents grow from the corpses of gutted buildings like mold, a cesspool of caged cultures. Here, though the hour is now quite late, there is movement, noise. Here there is always noise.
As I pass a derelict courtyard, someone screams out madness amidst the shuffle of feet. A fight, better evidence of the plague then one can find in other places. Discreetly, I glimpse back at the odd face that makes to ogle me from behind a pole, or a tent-flap, or a crack in a boarded window; my treasure, should it be found within the palisades of Talentha, will be found here, in this confusion of browns and wet greys. Why? Because the sheep in this poor flock are many; one or two will not be missed. That is what I would be thinking, if I were my object.
But on this walk, this night, a new thought strikes me: I am as destitute as these. All without a copper, or even a mat, of my own. The comparison is terribly entertaining for a brief moment.
And an old one, as well: What happens should I find my treasure to be an enemy, a Pandora’s box? Almost immediately, I decide against worrying over that particular; even a nemesis can become a friend, given some time, a few maneuvers.
Stupid fool, I should have taken your money; it would have been easy enough, as easy as it was quick for you to believe every word that broke from my lips. No such road–straight as an arrow, broad as daylight with a view for ages on all sides–leads to any greatness, I can assure you.
So I sent you on a fool’s errand, gave myself time to wonder on your possible uses (even hot air can hold some weight. The trick is to know what to expect it to carry).
And perhaps I am expecting too much; I should have sold you off for whatever you might have been worth, easy prey to be caught and gleaned and released. But what should I need of gold? I require very little, and the cost of my desires cannot be redeemed with coins.
Still, I might think of some use for it, if I tried.
Hope and Reason, Dialogue
Reason: The course is set; all is inevitable. With this disillusion, we only delay our Fate. Do not deny that you see it! There, an ominous dawn to break over our darkness, a stone wall at the end of a timeline. The course is set; only the algorithm has changed.
Hope: There is always another way. Free Will gives life to our Fate. It expands and contracts the whole shape of it: forcing the forks and paths outwards as our choices create possibilities; collapsing them upon themselves as time turns possibilities into realities, banishes impossibilities to oblivion.
Reason: The course is set; the shape of our Fate has always been defined; all your forks and paths lead to the same end. This illusion of choice causes us only unnecessary pain.
Hope: If we are to end in evil, and there is no Free Will, then all of our choices are evil, can be nothing else. But this is a fallacy; there is no good and evil without choice.
Reason: Fine: then our evil end is only good, ultimately just. Our damnation is just. And it is just in return that we cause only death and suffering to all that we are and touch; that is our purpose.
Hope: It cannot be so; there is no justice in that reasoning. Our purpose will be proved by our choices. We have a Will, and we can bend the shape of Fate with its power, as heat and hammer can force dead metal into the shape of a blade.
Reason: We have proved that we cannot. We have proved that the blade has already shaped itself.
Hope: We have proved only that we can fail; if we can fail, at times, then we can succeed at others.
Reason: There are no failures and no successes, only occurrences. Your perception of them causes us only suffering, only guilt. To deny our Will, to release the concept of it so that it may drown in the great ocean Fate, will bring us satisfaction.
Hope: Without failures or successes, there can be no growth, no motion, no enlightenment.
Reason: Then there is none. There is only Time, aging. We are propelled by Time towards the inevitable, an arrow to its mark.
Hope: But the arrow has a great desire to Will its own mark. That desire proves that Will exists, that choice exists. The analogy breaks down, becomes a lie.
Reason: I know what you desire. It is a petty thing, unworthy and inconsequential: you desire her love.
Hope: I desire only the possibility of her love, faith in the concept that we might be worthy of love. If that possibility continues to exist–and we can make choices that uphold its existence–then the possibilty of balance also continues to exist. Therein we prove that it is not just for us to only be a monster, that it is right and good and possible to strive for greater than that.
Reason: This struggle offers us nothing but suffering. We can find satisfaction in our monstrous Fate, to deny both love and hate.
Hope: That is not the only choice; we can find satisfaction in also the suffering, in also the struggle. Satisfaction in not only our Gift, but also our Curse. Our nature and un-nature coexist within the sphere of a paradox, and true satisfaction can only be found in the acceptance of both our desire to Will, and our obligation to Fate. To deny either creates the true illusion, the actual fallacy.
Reason: And you believe this?
Hope: We must; we have no other choice.
Reason: Then indeed is our course set; though we know nothing of our destination.
Have I lost my mind? Have I become deranged?
So absorbed, I, with lust for my object, my prize, that I failed to sight the very obvious–the most obvious–signs of a fake. That can be the only answer. How stupid! Am I an infantile sireling that I should offer such a scene of violence before the very doors of the Temple? Only now, as the risen sun shuns the demon’s grip on my mind can I see my mistake. Fortune, only, spared me from worse sufferings, worse consequences.
The magnitude of my midnight-blindness appalls me, an insult to my senses on par with the filth of this hole in which I sit. Better to rest here for a while–here where I am invisible, ignored; here where I can think.
That man. Twice now, he has crossed my path, ill fortune bouncing along in his wake, ensnaring me. He smells of death. I must know him; how do I? He, also, must have a hole to hide in, though it should reek not as this.
And dear Comrade! So apt were you to obey my deranged will, my maniacal orders, all without questions or clarifications or obstinacy. Am I that precious to you, that you should risk your skin to my whims? Even in my state? Objections would have been decent, but your trust is priceless, a golden headpiece set with the most precious and rare of jewels to adorn your brow.
Which commands another thought (the Engine, even in its stupor, begs it of me): Even a greater ally, my comrade, you might be. Would you stretch to it, rise to it given all you have known of me, all you have seen? Would it be a mark on your head, or strength in your bones? But the Oath! Even now, even now, it throbs in my ears, my own voice repeating after hers.
I see it now, a fork of two paths. It rushes upon me hence, terrifying as an army with banners, to overwhelm me, to force from me a choice. Even now, though the terror of it grips me–have I not already chosen?
Grim alley, this: dank byway with walls warmed by the sheer mass of breathing souls; crowded by canvas and tinder, piles of band iron, filth, rotting fabric. And though the uncouth scent of it permeates my being–though the chill of stone is hardly impeded by this mat of rags–I can make this alley cease to exist.
I can close my eyes, close my senses to the crush of poverty. I can decend into the depths of self, brush against that vast hollow, and find one of the many back doors that lead in and out of your reality.
Even here, the arcane winds blow. In this vast space, I can see them with my inner sight. There is nothing outside of myself that cannot also be reached from inside. The Engine is silent to my commands, resistant; its will is immobile, immutable, but even then, its strength is my strength. I am warmed by those crimson coals, even if I cannot reach them, cannot incite them to flames for my own purpose. What knowledge I have gained from my disciplines, what skill, is not lost; the arcane will hear and obey, even if the Blood-Gate remains shut.
There is a river which flows from Nowhere, to Nothing, and all the infinite swells beneath its currents. I step out from the bank, submerge the whole of myself. I drift, and I am cleansed.
How long have I lain here? The straw is dead and dry, the earth is dead and dry: not the sweet earth of the Derileth, black soil soft as breath and deep as oceans; or the cold, centering stones of Mount Zaiziban, scoured by a cleaner wind that suffocates sound, makes thoughts flow easily. The granite here sheds dust like skin; I wear it like a second skin. Such effort to keep clean–clean from the dust, from the noise (less now: the crowded hut next-door has emptied. Did they think I’ve died in my sleep and fear to be implicated? Have they simply come to fear me, above all? I can only imagine what kind of neighbor I must be; no childred scuffle feet just outside my door no beggars crying alms and all rush swiftly past, I’ve noticed, if they must come this way).
I should find a better place.
And no Djetul for weeks, now. Has it been weeks? (I’ve lost count of the subtle change in light, haven’t lit a candle; haven’t a candle or the inclination.) The thought worries me, rouses me from my meditations. I remember, now, the straw. (It’s dead and dry like a pile of shards of bones a mat of ancestors in an endless file standing still on some cruel timeline waiting to be counted and numbered and recorded a census of Morhaigs kingdom a list of treasures in her storehouse.) It ought be changed. I never brought him here, but that shouldn’t matter much (he’s a keen nose) and the fact that my throat remains un-slit proves that I’ve made no lists of marked men which is a slight disappointment (no locks here, no guardians and stone walls might as well be made of fired clay, sans a bolting door). No Djetul or murderers and I am beginning to worry. What poison did he hear (make?), what words did she stew and ferment to reheat and serve to him, or has he too lain forever lost in a dark cave like a old dragon hoarding treasure already lost to him? (Nothing here of any value, a wise move.) I recite poetry to console myself all the saddest poems I can remember from the valley of Nad’reth and the plains of Red Hills and in elvish (not the halting verse of men, lines like broken wagon wheels) but my lips haven’t moved for an age.
And how all the needs punish me for my stillness, my overwhelming patience (I’ve become lazy?). They come to the door like the tax collector and threaten to imprison me in Frailty forever, shrill little dictators “EAT SLEEP MOVE” with their silk shirts and blood-thirsty armies and iron bars in arsenal. But the pain means nothing when you taste it long enough like eyes see nothing after taking a white-wash from the sun or how a scream loses all its charm when it goes on contralto for hours. The pain becomes nothing but the needs still come knocking (tap tap tap) until the need becomes exquisite in its sublime modulations of strategy (you learn to see it like a color, and aurora now with bright and terrible wings; it plans to terrify me into submission. Yesterday it came consoling like an old lost friend with flowers and promises of home).
And I’d rise and feed myself feed the whole world if I had to but I don’t think I can move.
Am I dying? Was there ever a sweeter word? I don’t think I can move. It wasn’t like this last time.
The Substance of Loss
Things get complicated.
Such is life, such is the space between breath drawn in and breath expelled, the birth of one moment and the annihilation of another which propels the great revolutions of existence. There are patterns – microcosm and macrocosm – turning over into others insitrically, weaving themselves into larger patterns and still larger ones until the whole, organized mess can be reduced into a kind of devastating simplicity; eventually, the same re-occurring changes make the whole concept of change a droll joke.
Everything changes, and nothing does. Despite, this rationalization doesn’t make them any less painful.
Given enough time, given the repetition of the blows, one would expect to lose sensitivity. Time itself becomes a kind of torture. You are tied to the table of existence, and each moment is a warm drop of water falling to the same spot on one’s forehead: pleasant at first; irritating after hours; a tiny, excruciating hammer after weeks; then…what? Never deadly. Never dulling. Why not?
Because the death of discomfort requires a cease of response. If it were physical, that would be the logical conclusion – enough pressure and tissue dies, nerves cease their reporting, the body goes numb. A lack of response and all becomes bearable. A dip in the river Lethe. But here, unlike the physical, the existential has no such conclusion; it goes on and on, cycling diabolically off into the realms of the infinite. Each cycle brings about something inherently new, but not new to the Whole. Thus never does an experience itself gain age (each one is as old or young as the last, so infinitesimal they are), thus each event is allowed its full and blinding force on awareness – a nerve that never ceases reports of impact to the soul. And as each of these moments fly unerringly into a line of existence, like arrows into the earth, the awareness itself is bound to that line in forward motion, moving in time to take every hit, to feel every pierce, one after another, without merciful pause. Each one new, but not different; fresh, but not unique.
It is the fool who tells himself that he is becoming numb to it all, the fool that convinces himself that he has drawn his consciousness far enough away from that line of awareness to no longer be affected by the report of infinite arrows. I cannot afford such luxuries. And my line stretches longer than most.
I wander to the acts of death and Restoration, and their affect on memory.
Memory is the recollection of those experiences behind the point of consciousness on the time-line of awareness; if one is compelled forward, then one can look back. The entire concept is misleading, of course; the whole line of existence is (in fact) whole, inseparable as a sea. One can fill a jar with seawater and examine it. If they say that they have captured a part of the sea and separated it from the rest, they are wrong; the sea cannot be separated. What they have is the still the whole sea within the jar, or an illusion of it. Alternately, they have none of it; their jar-full of water is no longer related to the sea, but outcast by it, disowned – the sea still remains in whole outside the jar. I will not argue which of the two is more correct. The point is that the sea cannot be divided. Neither can awareness be divided into jars of memories, each one to be examined as if they were individual parts of the whole. Once disassociated with the whole, the memory becomes an illusion, a fairytale, a reconstruction of facts borne on the whims of preference. The seawater in the jar becomes anything you like, because it isn’t anything at all.
Thus, if singularities cannot truly be extracted from the whole of awareness, how can the act of Death and Restoration ‘remove’ memories from the line of awareness? It simply isn’t possible. Not even the full power of all gods can change the formulation of existence, which they themselves are bound to. Not even the gods can separate the sea. This leaves me with but one conclusion:
Just as the fool designs to spare himself the pain of existence by suppressing his consciousness as it passes along a line of awareness, so must the gods, in their mercy, be offering blessed relief to mortals by cloaking their memories of death. The memories are not removed, but hidden away for safe-keeping, and thus the Restored are comforted. And thus that comfort am I denied.
And as my consciousness comes closer to parallel with the awareness of my existence – the closer I draw to full enlightenment – so much more painful these repetitive moments become, so sharper the sting of their report, so much harder these changes are to withstand.
She is being drawn out of my ocean by some current that cannot be fought. Like a drop of fragrance, she had seeped into all my parts, and the taste of my waters had become far less bitter. But I can feel her slipping away, now, evaporating – and I am powerless. We lived without her before; we shall have to learn to do so again.
The Ties That Bind
It is possible that I pushed too far; I would have rather had that encounter without the distractions of the evening before, without the spectres of memories marauding silently in the background. Like a curtain of rain pouring as the backdrop of all my thoughts (she meant that to happen, I think; playing games).
A little fear is all well and good. Fear is, perhaps, the most accurate test of character; it eats away at aesthetics like an enzyme, peeling back the most carefully finished enamels to reveal what truly makes the bulk of a person: wood or iron, bone or silk or empty air. Fear is the sharpest of knives, able to skin a man in one stroke, cut him in two with another more forceful. And there’s no true defense against it (everyone is afraid of something). The symptoms are relative to the victim, as is the method of delivery and effective volume; the algorithm is the same across the board.
I hadn’t intended to do any cutting. Time will tell of the effects. He obviously has a lot of pride; doesn’t like to be given orders, led around by chiming chains. Few do, I suppose. But he’ll miss the point if he thinks that it is just a trap, a cage, subjection. I need slaves, children, least of all. No, the chains are themselves merely a bridge, a connection; they always run in both directions (I remind myself often), and neither participant is ever free again.
Is that not the true nature of the universe: all the humming threads that bind us together, all the lines that link living things to their fate, to each other? Some, we are free to draw; most are drawn for us. To struggle for freedom is to thrash on the cosmic web; no one is allowed above it, and all the flies are already caught, released not even in death.
The pattern of the rain outside my abode rouses the same unwanted thoughts. Those spectres are out there, those memories, just outside the door. Knocking. Calling in frightful whispers, ‘like a bird without a song’.
I will rise, pass those ghosts haunting my door, and go out into the filthy street. I will spill some blood tonight as a sacrifice to Morhiag and Balor, and chance to clear my aching head.
The insolence! The foolishness! It’s beyond my ability to comprehend. This plague itself is a living thing, a monster lurking with groping tendrils trailing about, grasping for any fool that won’t move swiftly from harm.
The young one can’t be blamed for her own madness (though she must have some notion that she is loosing her mind; she saw the maggots, not I. If I were the plagued one, could I have possibly conjured up her illusion? The world was right for me, sans her mad display) but the Tir can be, ushering her under wing like that. But what’s to be done? I should not have toyed thus; should have killed her quickly and burned up the corpse, even in the Temple Gardens. Even at Cymur’s door (and where art thou, Golden Dragon? Your people writhe in illness, and you do nothing, even with such madness at your very door….).
The Tir, I remember, was there the night criminal Athansios was arrested. So of course I would be deranged one, the liar, the threat (such tiny minds here, drowning in a murky pool of their own subjectivity, unable to rise even a moment into the fresh, clean air, to see past their own biases and glimpse the true danger which hangs over their heads like an axe blade).
I’d let them rot in their tiny heads, let the axe fall, but a few obvious particulars prevent me. A tentacle will grasp even me, eventually. I shudder to think of the consequences of such an illness in myself. Would I become like the Vacant? An otherworldly body churning with the power of a mad engine, without hope of a conscious mind to balance it? I doubt I would be shunned from my body, like the Vacant. Rather, trapped within some dark pit inside. A thought worth being afraid of, that.
Which brings us back to Mr. DeNault.
He wasn’t home again, tonight. I checked, let myself in as I have done on a number of occasions. All remained in the same place: nothing on the desk had been moved; the blanket on his cot lay undisturbed. He hasn’t been home for days, now. Is he hiding? From me, or something else? Does his body lie still, rotting away in some dank alley? Or the sewers (Possible that he went down there without proper protection, slave to his research)? Or do bits of him digest in the stomach of some wild animal which even now roams the forest?
If he were dead, I might have heard something of it. Still, not much there to make an opinion on.
A last thought knocks on my door, one I’ve been avoiding: Tal. The Captain can answer many questions of mine, one way or another. I doubt I can ask him directly; simply asking the right questions will reveal much, whatever his answer. I admit, the thought of his reaction to my blatant presence is a little amusing; he wouldn’t expect me to be bold enough to just saunter into his office and tip my hat.
I’ll dwell on that tonight, yes. Put the other problems in their boxes, for now, and shut the lids.
A Moment of Passion
What a horror it is to write, what torture!
What had I done? All the words themselves were a curse of some kind, I’m sure — a long, hex of sophistry, locusts and plagues on the tip of my tongue. Could I release such a thing into the world? Did this curse of a text, now translated, bite everyone? Or only I? What had I done?
And so was my mindset when I finished the thing; it helps explains my actions. Or was it reaction? It makes no difference; I gave it a huffing spin into the dark rambles of the forest, far from where I was sitting. So many years spent translating; the last lines written and all I suddenly wanted was to destroy the damned wretch, or lose it forever. I threw it as far as I could, into the night, and ran in the opposite direction.
There, thought I, it’s done; let it rot. Poems for mud and frogs and bulbs of river orchids. It was a stupid thing to do, to write, but far more so to think that I could just toss it aside and expect it to disappear. Which is, exactly, what I did expect (I wasn’t in my whole mind, I can admit…).
These fits come more often now, I think. This particular one took three full days to pass. On the third day, I trudged like a sly idiot back into the woods, towards that particular stream I had been sitting by. Nothing, of course. No trace of the damned thing. It was dark when I threw it; what did I expect? I expected it to walk off on its own into some dark hole and hide, and that’s exactly what it did. Only I thought it would stay there forever. It wasn’t nearly that long.
It was only a week. Oh, terrible, torturous week! Time sat like a coal in the back of my mouth. But only a week passes by, and I happen to find the note on the town board addressed to myself. A tacky thing to do, such an announcement — but then again, the sort of person who would tramp through those woods looking for little treasures is also the sort who posts announcements of private matters like a peasant.
The note was from a woman who wanted to discuss a ‘great work’ of mine. She wanted an interview, if I would be kind enough. But the words were so careful! I could see her trembling, hesitant hand making them out. ‘Burn it’, I would’ve replied, right underneath on the same page (one peasant to another), but I was feeling a little more sane than usual.
It should only take one a moment to put the pieces together; she was afraid because she found the thing in the mud, a book translated by a poet-noble who imprisoned and nearly murdered the last peasant who publicly touched his works. An exaggerated story, of course (advantage or disadvantage?), threats taken out of context. She’d done nothing wrong. A bad taste in my mouth, there: people are primarily only guilty or afraid when they know they’ve done wrong. And here was this woman, scared for what? My reputation? Hardly.
Perhaps I am conjuring the whole thing, I thought, and so went to look again. I’d look all day for it, and if I didn’t find the book still laying in the mud, then I’d know my earlier suspicions were correct. Nothing, until twilight.
Not far off, against all odds, I find the same woman, an alchemist, picking at shrubs and berries or what have you. Digging up roots. Exactly the sort of peasant I imagined, at least at first glance. Hands in the mucky earth.
But no: this one was sharp. I found her fear to be a matter of respect. This was in its own way uplifting. She gave it back without even the whisper of a hope of reward. Like a good, honest peasant. Such a thing, of course, does not exist, so again I became wary. I found her respect was a matter of passive avoidance; an effective and wise maneuver. Sharp, as I said. Tragically, her wise boredom will not last forever (I see with a keener eye than most).
How much longer would heroes and villains in stories live, how much happier would they have been, if they simply ignored the portent of adventure, if they had passed up in wise and good faith the whispered orders of gods and kings and generals?
“No, sir. No, master. It sounds fun, but I’m just going to go home and tend my garden instead, thank you.”
These are the wisest ones, these people who avoid the tragedy of history, these rabbits who stay in their holes. Their reward is grey hair and only the most quiet selection of stories to tell.
Let It Come
I am assaulted by thoughts of violence.
The body is soft and easily damaged, a clay jar that can’t survive a drop. Or a kick. The blade won’t even quiver on entry — there’s no resistance, just push and the flesh gives way, like poking holes in parchment. Killing is easy. I could kill them all, any who step foot in the arena, any who dare get within ten paces. Make eye contact, and die. One or two or five at a time.
Funny that Jirand should mention death, when death was on my mind. I nearly took his head off, just to prove his own point. Oh, how that would’ve drawn a crowd. I was really very close to it, when I think about it. I could imagine the shock on his face, the confusion, when my hidden blade was suddenly jutting from his throat, attached to my hand. I would’ve given him a moment to orient himself. A moment of realization (‘All gods! I’ve been stabbed!’) before a twist of the wrist and a little lift and plop his head is rolling off the table with that stupid look frozen on it, like a child’s caricature, X’s for eyes, tongue flaccid and dangling.
And Mao wasn’t far, herself, not far from the edge of that abyss, that fire. Just reach out and crush her throat. Like plucking a strawberry. Do they know I can kill without leaving a mark? Not even a scratch, or a bruise. Just touch her with the Sign of Suffocation, watch her choke on her own fear, those shining, half-Tir eyes shining all wet with tears as the life just slips out of her like an escapee (all packed up and ready to go, just give the word). Who would have said anything. Who could have? I might’ve cleared the whole room, just because I hadn’t a reason to.
He might have. But there’s already a place for him in my hell, the sweetest fruit of all. Just bring him close and smother him, like some deranged mother.
Death is a cure for everything, even bad dreams. All corpses are healthy.
…but this is vanity. Or madness; an empty thing. Must retain my head. I could clear a path with blood, but it would mean nothing, change nothing. Must remember that. I cannot win by destruction. It’s what the demon wants, I’m sure. He wants a show. A show is what he’ll ask for, some entertainment. The path of least resistance is slick with death, this time, but not his. I can do better.
I had a dream, the first in months. A suspicion.
If that woman is not the Red-haired Relic, not the Old Soldier I thought I saw, I will simply have to mince her into very small pieces and arrange them into a holy sign. It would be the only thing that could relieve my disappointment
I am reminded of a line:
Let it come, let it come,
The time of which we have been enamored.
The lonely alleys and byways of the Merchant District spoke tonight of nothing but turmoil. But why? No stone has left its place in any wall, no brick has been uprooted from any street, no foundation threatens imminent destruction; each inanimate piece of the city remains inanimate, without alarms or surprises.
Even the air is still. Not as cold as it was, perhaps, a week before. All is right with the world, as far as the world is concerned.
Above me, as I loiter, the edges of the Dark Cloud circumvent a field of stars (clear sky, a black sea of buoyed gems, some winking and shuddering as if afraid), but neither the field nor the Cloud waxes nor wanes, each taking up only their proper places, and not an inch more. They say the Darkness covers the whole remains of Aagos; I have not confirmed it, myself.
Somewhere to my right, a lamp is snuffed out behind a foggy window pane. A second-story flat, no doubt. I am reminded of the time — Ylessa has not yet set; dawn crouches still in its lair, not yet stirring. No sound but the distant thump-clack of a military patrol, keeping curfew. Telanthan Authority empties this district at night for the safety of the stones therein, think I and smile,that’s worth writing down.
But no, no symbols for words tonight, not for I. Words like fireflies mimic stars in darker corners, waiting to be caught in nets and pressed, flat, between pages. Not for I. Not tonight.
The turmoil, as I mentioned, did not lie anywhere about me. This district offered it up only as rumour, as merchants would in the morning when they mulled around before their shops, lifting awnings and unlatching doors. The turmoil was mine; I carried it here like a foreign thing, says the district. I expect glimpses of wide, angry eyes behind darkened windows I pass (moving again, now), but see none.
Where was I going? I tried to pretend that I didn’t know; I am the Master of Pretense, or can be. The truth remained evident, despite — I was visiting an old habit, an old trail. A hunting trail, let’s call it, and I was walking it again — hunting, no less. The quiet street begged me to move on, to carry my turmoil somewhere else. The good people here were sleeping, it said; I acquiesced.
Down Market Street, then. I had brought a scarf, a woolen one the colour of charcoal, but wasn’t using it as I had meant to. As I crossed over the avenue, the sound of a patrol, a single guard, could be detected behind me; I could hear the mail chiming on his shins, on his shoulders. He didn’t say a word, though I must certainly had been sighted — no matter: I was already leaving.
Down into the main square, not quite empty yet, despite the hour. Never quite empty. Drunkards trickled across it north, heading for their cheaper homes in crowded, middle-caste boarding houses. I had been, recently, in such places: small but clean, humming gently with a feeling of community, a feeling of polite despair, warm with life, timbers and floors creaking softly like the lower decks of a ship. There were others about, too — catching some fresh air, no doubt, before retiring to their letted rooms above the taverns they where just outside. These were the talkers, the socializers, the workers of odd and spaced labor, the once rural merchant-farmers and millers and fish-trappers. Among them were many foreigners of better standing, living and working in inns and taverns for these past five years, unable or unwilling to find a proper flat, build a proper home. These were lucky enough to avoid the madness of the Refugee District for a great variety of reasons, or none at all. Nearly all were human, but some were great, lumbering Skrel’eth, the odd, urbanized Tir. The Tyen — those, anyway, still living under the mental banner of their Emperor — tended to isolate themselves together. I wouldn’t find many here, if I were looking for one. And I wasn’t, so I moved on, mostly ignored.
Down past the temple, cornerstone of the Church of the Golden Faith. Was Cymur himself there, sleeping? His back to the slow, riotous decay of the Refugee District, no doubt. The image felt uncomfortable (What was I doing but seeking comfort?), so I left it alone, let it be, and avoided the Temple Gardens all together.
Down to the edge of the refugee district, within site of the city walls. A corridor of filth and madness opened on either side, two wide maws, east and west. Choose your poison. I was hunting, and experience told me my prey, my treasure, lay in either direction. I could nearly catch a scent, or so I imagined, and the scent opened a floodgate of memories.
I was hunting a thing which hunted. I was following the logical path.
“You red-haired shadow,” I think I said aloud, “which way? You are here tonight; I can feel it.”
Surely, they had seen the signs I had left. They could not be missed. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, why I had not yet been approached. They always come when I call them, but not these, not yet.
I was looking west, I remember, peering through the distant noise, the silty fog of broken life that marks that end of the Refugee District. I had a thought to turn around. I expected to see something. I didn’t quite make it.
What slowed my turn was the sight of the southern gate. For a moment, it seemed to have appeared in its spot as if by sudden magic. I remember feeling surprised. But one look at it — one good look — and I knew that the whole path before had been nothing but a distraction. From the moment I had begun my walk, I knew, knew where I was really heading. I was hunting for something entirely different tonight, and it was not to be found within the city walls.
When one stares such an epiphany so broadly in the face as that gate, one must always concede. There is simply nothing else to do. So I left Telantha.
Not through the main gate itself, of course, but the night door, a tiny thing off to one side. The conversation with the gate guard above was brief (I, of course, could go wherever I pleased, but I really ought to consider traveling with Balor and Cymur, and not alone, no matter what the rush) and excruciatingly polite. Obviously, I was a great, noble idiot, but I could not be stopped. I denied the suggestion of a small escort, and was let through.
They did send down a lantern, shocked that I hadn’t planned on carrying one of my own. Now, I was deranged, and the subject, I think, of a brief spurt of actual pity. It didn’t matter. I accepted it to be benevolent.
I stuck to the path — not because it was advised, but simply because it was the quickest way to my destination. I met nothing but an early morning lark, the odd call of a hunting owl. Even the forest had left me alone to torment myself, as the city had. I saw old dreams in the twisted trunks of beech trees, heard old songs muted beneath the near streams, the muffled, sobbing laugh of water. We, the pale trunks, the cold, wet ground, we forced to laugh in our tears together, each to our own hymns as we made them up. I have felt the earth heave with sadness in this new, dark age. I have felt it, or I have imagined it out of the shadow of my guilt, which still seems to be missing. It means nothing. I am acting. I was afraid.
The trees together told me that I was afraid of actually reaching the Outpost. They suggested that I should stay the night with them, find a warm hole in the ground, a den as foxes do, or bears. But the epiphany which met me at the gate refused to turn its face: to make a decision without seeing her, speaking to her, would be worse.
Lamps ahead lit the wooden palisade; I had arrived. The scarf made sense, now, and I took a moment to wrap it well over my mouth and nose, an attempt to protect myself.
The outpost is rife with plague, which is, of course, the very reason I am here. At times, neither all the gods in heaven nor all the demons that walk the earth can help me from myself.
The Outpost and After
…Old bones, discarded husks, empty houses….
It began, or rather continued, in a particularly empty house set on a particularly neglected block of North Wall Street. I found myself at the emtpy desk of the one-room hovel, sitting in the old, pine chair, amazed that the place seemed to remain undisturbed in something over two seasons: a blue blanket lay still folded on the dusty cot; blocks of coal hide alone, unburned, in the chilled belly of an iron stove; not a foot-print in the dust on the rug, except my own.
“Not home yet?” I asked the empty space, “I’ve come to call.”
I almost expected a response. I took the silence as a negative
Thus, I sat myself down, as if to wait. What’s an hour after so many weeks? The chances of seeing my servant, my brother, return were as good now as at any time. It isn’t, you understand, a matter of hope, but one of inevitability. It is hopelessness, the assurity of death-occurred, which makes a tomb of an empty home (If the loved one lived, they would live here, but they live no more…); hope is a moot point when death is not an inevitability. And thus, I waited. I cracked a book.
The book itself had purpose here, as all things do, which is to say that it was appropriate. It was written by a friend. A sort of physical irony, an artical of tragedy. The knowledge contained in the thing (it is a work of nonfiction) is precisely enough to enlighten the author of the state of their trouble, but insufficient to provide them with a solution. I spent the afternoon flipping through the pages in an attempt to decide, for amusement, which common demon would describe me best. None seemed right; these were monsters without minds, which makes all the difference.
What I admit to actually doing, at that desk, was remembering the day previous, the few hours spent at the Southern Outpost.
I hadn’t been there for a year, or nearly. What was once a military post is now a colony for victims of the plague. I am not, by any standards, a stranger to human suffering; even I was taken by suprise at the filth, the living poison, the rotting, reaching, growing cesspool of disease. It had hooks and fangs, invisible, in the air, needing, wanting, hungry for fresh life to consume. This was a monster with a mind.
I didn’t stay long, as if I wanted to. She was too mad, too far gone to speak with for more than a few minutes at a time. A whole world, I found hints too, with its own charcters, places, values et al, none of which existed in the true one, of course. She was curt with me. She said she had seen me dozens of times before, heard dozens of promises like the ones I had made, each time only to return again without result. Tal visits sporatically also, she said. I wonder if its true. It certainly is for her. It ended, as I expected, in paranoia, in abandonment.
A monster with a mind, as I have said; it seems to know exactly the flavours of one’s personal hell, the fears you weren’t sure you were afraid of, but are. It knows victims better than they know themselves. Perhaps I am using too much imagination, but the same seemed to be true of Jirand.
The poor fool was there, also. I have no clue as to why. Poor fool, of course, because he dared enter the hall of the Plague without an once of attempt at protection. He let them touch him, let them close enough to smell their boiling flesh, their hot minds. He was even injured, slightly, leftovers from some combat of which I am unaware. The woman Mirae had made an appearance, as well. I’ve a suspicion she followed me. I shall have to ask. She, at least, seemed to be more aware of the danger, though she also took little in the way of precautions.
But that was yesterday, and this was today (what can one do? Wait….). Time crept by the lonely house — it seemed to find no company in my presence; it too was waiting for its master, and not I. The shadows shifted on the filthy windowpane. Dusk had come. I put the book away, and wrote a note (the pen and paper still lingered, incredibly, in the desk’s drawer), an invitation, then left, locking up.
Having sent the invitation by footman (and by footman, I mean, of course, a passing vagrant child), I made my way through the evening streets, awash with the colours of dusk, to the cemetery. I had brought the scarf with me again, though it already felt in need of a washing, and put it in place across my mouth and nose as I walked, armour against my invisible enemy.
I have not slept in three days or nights. Paranoia is no more comfortable when it has some roots in fact.
I have walked only once before through these fields of graves, in the marble shadow of the Telan family’s mausoleums. My guest would be some time in coming, I was sure (I gave the boy no better instructions but a description and a few suggestions as to where he should look first), and I deigned to fill the time with something like morbid tourism.
I walked first between the marked graves in the western field. Some of the names I recognized. Old merchant families, patri- and matriarchal foundations of both noble and common lines etched into the granite walls of their sarcophaguses.
If one had asked me, at that moment, ‘what is the truth?’, I would have replied: ‘here lies the truth! Two hundred years of bones beneath our feet; notations on a time line, like counting rings in a tree stump; navigating by ancient, cold stars towards the inevitable outcome of history, life by life; creation to destruction to creation along a highway of placenta and crumbling skulls.’ Old bones, discarded husks, empty houses eternally.
The thought both frightened and excited me, and I could not center on why, so I decided to move on. Towards the great, stone dragon, then, deific patriarch of the city itself. A sign of elder Cymur thought, perhaps, to be watching over the dead of his people. Misplaced, perhaps, in his duties (what did Cymur care for the dead? That was his Sister’s problem). No matter. It was an appropriate place to wait, with the wide field of unmarked graves to my left. I still had the book with me, and made to read whilst I waited. It wasn’t long.
For a brief time, earlier, I had become unsure of whether or not Jirand would show. He’s become suspicious of my intentions. This is not surprising; I myself wonder, at times, exactly what I have in mind. I had no intentions of killing him. Not really. I admit, I toyed with the idea (what better place than this? He must surely be thinking something similar), but there was no value to it. It would have been an act of simple, wasteful madness; for such things I had neither the time nor the inclination tonight, if not the stomach. In truth, I was coming to terms with the notion that I might need him. And I do. I decided then, for the time being, we should continue to be friends (as much as he and I can be).
And so were my thoughts as I heard him open and pass through the old, rod-iron gate. In truth, I had one more: the Plague, I thought, watch for the Plague. He spoke, something simple and direct in greeting (his way, I suppose), but I continued to pretend to read. Eventually, I remembered that we ought to be friends, and a conversation began at length.
Information, mostly. The quiet killing of misconceptions (he labors under the idea that I know everything about anything, but I suppose that is not entirely his fault). I admit that he has a certain quality about him. Bright, even, for a human. I learned that night as much from him as he from me; he didn’t seem to recognize it. No matter.
I watched the terror grow behind his eyes, as we talked. I never asked what he saw; I didn’t care. The moment he seemed to lose control, I took his strength with a rune and cast it into the void. It must be terrible to suffer a violent hallucination without the ability to move — I thought of it, possibly even pitied him, but it couldn’t be helped. I wasn’t about to let him wave his blade about in his madness, not even with the distance between us. Any harm he felt was in his own head, and I couldn’t do a thing about it. I told him so; I don’t know if he heard me.
To protect him from himself, in my mercy, I sunk him beneath a magic sleep. When I considered it later, I imagine it gave him awful, hellish nightmares. No worse than my usual, I expect.
Among the empty houses of his ancestors, I left him laying. None would bother him here; he would survive to see another dawn, unlike those beneath him.
Only now, hours later, have I stopped to dwell on the full ramifications of the rushed assassination, of my…show of strength. How many survived the inferno? The whole Inn was gutted by fire, I am sure. No doubt they will blame that on me, also. I might’ve angered a few people. I certainly frightened one or two (the proof is in Jirand’s round end scrambling out the window, expecting to be next on the list).
I try not to think about it. There’s probably justice in it somewhere. Who can say if I have won or lost, if my own motives are matter of grand debate?
All I know, at the moment, is that it isn’t over. Not yet.
The still-smoking bones of the Satyr spoke to me like a monument as I passed. To what, exactly, I am unsure. Something meaningful. A shift in the course of history.
As an event, its destruction had no real significance, no real weight. Taking the Rat’s head meant nothing, either. Spilling a great deal of his blood in public is not the thing. It’s difficult to pin down. It occurred to me that I could simply scare him, demand from him what I wanted (needed); the truth is that he could not possibly have the thing which would honestly satisfy, thus I took what I could, having a proper excuse.
Not an innocent victim, I’m sure, though I’ve no proof of that. Not that it matters. His sin was stepping, like a palisade, into my path. That’s enough, for now.
Many will believe I kill without purpose, viciously, like a confused viper, like an animal — or like a thief, crouching, taking what isn’t mine to take. It isn’t true; every head I take is mine. I have rights to ownership of it, like a Lord and the dust beneath his feet. They wouldn’t, couldn’t understand. I don’t expect them to.
But somewhere in the last week, I have applied my weight to history, and it has shifted. We shall not debate how, or why, or whether or not it was for the better. Too many things caught in the web to pretend that there is wisdom in judgment. It has applied its weight on myself, as well. He struck me, and I shuddered like a bell. I suppose that’s what bells are for. They’ve no right to complain.
But all this moping smacks of defeat (haven’t lost yet, I don’t think, doesn’t seem over; losing is an end), and I am not quite done. One voice says I have made a mess, but another says I have struck the wall and chipped in it a foothold. A third reminds me that this is all posterity, that nothing I do could possibly mean anything, as I do not really exist (a nightmare conjured up for the dreams of someone else) and I should be happy that not everything meets my expectations, or has any at all.
Mao is right; the cure’s the thing, and I might as well slash and burn anything that whispers resistance. That is sometimes a good policy.
The grave, at least for now, is symbolic. I didn’t dare return for the body — not even I. I think I had left a few more with it; I cannot remember. The memory is distant when I try to recall it, like watching a ship depart in the fog — no, a lie: much of it is perfectly clear, reoccurs constantly when I close my eyes to sleep.
But I did dig a tomb. I poured all my fury into the rock, mad as the grim Elder under the Mountain, who shakes his stone prison eternally as I did for a single night. I would have done it with my fingers, if I thought I could, just for the pain of it; I used a stolen pick instead.
To the rising suns, then, I screamed, I roared, I laughed like a maniac to hear the effect of my own voice. I drew out all the curses from all languages I knew (ancient things of deep voices long silenced in tandem with coarse and modern threats), I threw them at the fading stars from the edge of Twilight, let them smash against the rock walls to splash back at me. I mocked all things to mock myself, my luck, my fate, my choices.
The ferocity itself was ridicule, of course. It meant nothing, did nothing to relieve the sensation of emptiness. Where there should be grief, there is nothing. Where there should be guilt, there is nothing. I feel nothing, and I feel it very heavily.
If, in that moment, you had asked me ‘what is the Truth’, I would have replied:
“There is no justice in Aagos — of this I am certain. It is buried itself deep beneath the foundations of the earth, lost to all sentience, to all memory, hidden (like I) from gods, a secret that keeps itself safe, visible to no one (unlike I). There is no justice in Aagos, for if there were, I would long be a thing of the past, an old monster who’s name had been forgotten.”
Oh, poor, poor old Vek. They’ll never understand, not in a thousand years. Less so, in ten thousand.
Oh, poor, poor old monster: you are still inane, still have self-pity, still have a small measure of wrath, which is yet something.
The two letters ‘S’ and ‘K’ might mean anything, yes, except that as she carved them so artfully into the man’s back, she called herself ‘Scarlet’. The victim’s name, I had been told, was Slazeruss (or something similar) — a deceiving but irrelevant point. The irrelevance of it hit me very firmly, akin to the fist of the Skrel’eth that had managed to find my jaw.
“Not ‘SK’,” said that second fist, “but ‘S and K’; ‘S’ is for Scarlet.”
I shall have to take it as a sign, a missive. Of what it pertains to…well, that it more difficult. She let the man live. My beautiful little informant said nothing about her acting like a lunatic; the act of violence seemed justified, all cause and effect. If this is all true, then why am I so afraid? And I am; a taste like something rotten in my mouth.
Another end I had tied up has willed itself loose behind my back. There are others. Some in the form of tattoos. There has been, in all my history, two kinds of people who wear tattoos like those he showed me, and only one of them is always Dryth. It isn’t hard to see his future in those tattoos, even if he isn’t aware of it himself. Another sign of a gathering storm, but I ask myself: ‘Where are all the other clouds?’
There is one in Tal. He’ll be angry.
There is one in the possibility of illness, for which there are no sure symptoms.
There is one in a rash but powerful elder.
And one in the threat of another Movement, like a phalanx of Dryth spears.
And one in the proximity of the walls of my prison; I am beginning to feel those walls as I lose the ability to control the speed at which they close. This city, this pot, is approaching the boiling point, and there is nowhere for the overflow to spill. I find myself without friends, under the wing of weak Cells, a few of which seem just as likely to cover me as to suffocate.
At the same crossroads in a different land. Enemies on the left and on the right — worse ones at the end of either path. It is good that this time, I am better prepared. It is bad that I am still alone.
The Problem of Nature
Dead gods, I thought in panic, Oh hells, hells…I’ve gone blind.
The pressure behind my eyes exceeded description: head filled with millions of hectors of water; thousands of tons of iron. I had awoken into complete and absolute darkness — a chaotic darkness, where swirling and bursting purple and green shapes assaulted me.
I am blind, I am blind. I have lost my sight. I have gone too long, too deep, and have lost my sight.
There was an attempt to wave my hands before my face, but neither of them acquiesced. There was a struggle. The weight receded. About then was point where my vision began to return, darkness only around the edges, spots fading into familiar shapes: the dusty walls, the candle on the shrine, my scavenged table. My hands, I realized, were full, holding something to my breast, parallel to my frame — something long, a pole. The cane. The cold, brass head, the owl, rested against my collarbone even as I lay on my back, feet together. The proper position for burial, I thought, laughing silently (easy to laugh now, with the paralysis proving a temporary thing).
I had been meditating. Dreaming, I think. Or had I attempted to conjure some great spell, something too difficult? Why had I laid like this? I could not remember, and trying to only brought on that feeling of heaviness again, so I stopped. The firmness of the of the cane, it’s smooth, lacquered surface, was something of an anchor. It felt very real, and I walked from it to the waking world as one would walk a bridge, or through a door. Once on the other side, I remembered that the thing which I gripped was holy, and I was reminded of why.
I was unsure of what to do with it. It wasn’t a bridge, now, as much as a noose. A pointing finger. An argument without solution. In the South, in the wide deserts, there dwells a kind of viper called a sand snake. It’s venom is particularly effective. I had been told a story, once, that involved such a snake. It goes like this:
A Tyen was traveling over the rocks of the wilderness, when he made to go over a mountain, there. Just on the far side of that mountain, on the high slopes, he heard a small voice in anguish call out to him: “Master,” it said, “help me down the mountain, or I will surely die of cold.”
The Tyen looked to his feet, or very near, and saw the serpent whom had spoken, stiff and swollen from the cold. “I know you:” said he, “you are a sand snake, and will surely bite me should I pick you up.” He was, obviously, no fool, and rightly suspicious.
“Too cold, too cold to move am I,” declared the serpent, explaining his story bitterly, though he had not been asked, “I had been stolen from the ground by a hawk, but I bit him, and in his wounds, he dropped me here.”
But the Tyen wouldn’t be moved: “That is unfortunate,” he replied, “but perhaps someone more brave than I will come to save you. I still think you are sure to bite me, as you did the hawk, and there is no one within a great distance.”
“You see, then I will die, frozen; you said it yourself, there will be no one else. Please,” the serpent begged, putting its head to the ground, groveling, “have mercy, master, and take me with you. I swear upon the head of all my children that I shall not bite you. Carry us both down safely, and let us go our ways. Please!”
At this, the Tyen was moved, and he relented. Cautiously, he bent to pick up the frigid snake, and it let him — as still and passive as a piece of rope. Together they left, the Tyen carrying the serpent in his robe, next to his skin for warmth. At the bottom of the mountain, the sting came at once. The savior reeled in shock, in horror, threw curses:
“You swore, foul thing, venomous monster, that you would not bite me — now I will surely die. Why? How could you?” he screamed, already feeling the poison. The serpent slide from the robe, crying with dark tears.
“I am a sand snake,” it said, and left.
The Problem of Nature (II)
I had meant, that day, to be rid of the thing, I think. I wasn’t sure why I had accepted it again in the first place. Three times a gift, the cane. Two of them unpleasant in the giving and receiving.
After the paralysis, I had risen. Dusk outside — not cold any longer, not the bitter cold of Darkfall, but cool as Spring. Moisture in the air, but no rain. An evening for spilling a little blood. So I began to wander, as I do, dreaming and conniving and such while looking for little rabbits to show a hint of themselves, to show a little opportunity. Steps took themselves, and it was not long before I had left Telantha for the forest, and for no particular reason — or not yet apparent.
The wood, that evening, the trees, reminded me of the Daerlet — an old home. A past lair. There are many memories tied to that older, darker forest. I lived there a long time, alone, a hermit, a wood demon to fill the role of mystic villain in the camp-fire tales of the local Tir tribes. After a few brothers lost while hunting there, the Tir elders declared the wood forbidden for the moster that had obviously taken up residence near a wide, shallow lake in the centre. The lake had no name. None came for a great while, no foreigners traveled through it, and I had to search out victims from their camps, eventually. I imagine there are still stories about foolish, wandering children and wayward warriors eaten whole by the pale wood demon of the Dearlet. I should like to hear one, sometime, on the gravelly voice of some tribal elder as he speaks to listeners through the flames. I imagine the tale is absurd, and it would prove amusing.
Absurd is precisely what I was feeling as I began to wander through the night, in this newer wood, this Virothian one. I came to cliffs, eventually, the eastern rim of rock that cups the forest valley near Earthwall. I came upon a tomb, there. I read the inscription, tapped at it with the tip of the cane.
“Rubbish! Trash!” said I aloud, but not loudly, “Who wrote this garbage? It’s insulting.” And it was. It was I, of course, that carved it there. “Cut out his tongue, take off his fingers, that he may never verse again!” I ordered the rock before me. It did nothing. I decided that I was not yet to receive my punishment; I waited for a boulder to roll off from the top to crush me, but it never came.
“Here, then. An empty tomb. An empty tomb is a lie!” I yelled at the cliff, “I shall fill it. With this, the gift. Break it into small pieces, right here, like an offering to you.” I made to strike the cane on the rock, raised it high, but simply lowered my arm. I grew bored at my own madness, suddenly, and left for home. Brought the cane home.
On the way, I walked through the Dearlet again, in my mind, remembering events there that were not as pleasant as I had previously pretended.
“Where have you been?”
“Off dreaming, my head alongside
the secret heart of the world.”
“Of what did you dream?”
“I dreamt of all my children,
the pantheon of my mothers and fathers.
And of curses, and of faces, and of ashes
–but mostly of my offspring,
most of whom have not yet come.
“Of hot, red blood, as well;
fountains of it, wells of it,
roots dipped in it and eager,
feverish appeals for planting.
“Of great crimes that cry out
from their own hells, unheard,
disremembered, disembodied, but rolling
in tumultous despair. Of ashes,
as I said. Of ashes.
“And of fire: not hearths nor lamplights,
but fire as high knives for
cutting roofs and cutting floors,
for opening doors without knocking.
Fire for dead leaves. Old as lies.”
“The past, your dreams are in.
Or is this the future?”
“Neither exist, nor do I,
But that shall give us both no less sting,
nor shorter swords.”
So many words, grasping for my attention, clawing, writhing for a voice. So many, in fact, that I’ve taken to etching them into the mud, into the wet sand of river banks or onto the water itself, let the shapes of characters cast themselves downstream. They disappear beneath rocks, under current, or roll off of cliffs into deep pools below, shattering on impact.
Or sometimes I put them on the wall, let them have their own voice: bright and crimson, daring, contumacious. Ravenous and insubordinate. So that I am not possessed by such words, such fire, I speak only the more sober of them out loud. I fashion some as mantras, let them soak in as a salve would.
I have made many mistakes, I know. But not all the ones attributed to me are fair. A crown of swords is still a crown, after all.
More often do I meditate on these words, these symbols and their identities. And more often, when I awake, I find faces floating in from the mirky past–like old ships on a new shore. Old dreams that cannot die.
The first of these dreams is clad in white satin, her tressed dark and scented with myrrh, her fingertips blushing with the life of her prey. In the land of the Cursed, we have no queens; if we had, we might know her as one.
The second is darker, and of him I know only rumours of reputation. He has eyes the same as his master, though. We have yet to speak. I wonder of myself what he knows, what he has heard of me, if anything.
“I remember a time,” says she, but does not finish.
One wonders. One must. Any answer I can come up with is, frankly, too sad, and I have not the energy nor the inclination. The reply which I offered came automatically, a mouthful of drivel prepared beforehand, sitting on a shelf in a bottle–though I didn’t actually speak it outloud.
I could blather on, expound on the fallacy of memory and all it implies (What do you remember, my bird, my gypsy? Which time?), could pontificate, could regret, could validate the actions and motivations of a multitude with a few choice words–but it would be all acting, and there is no audience, now.
“I remember a time,” says she, but does not finish; the words were not for me, but for the cronies crouched around, wearing corners and shadows, assassins and bloodthirsty all, afraid and hating, my name on their knives.
And they might say from their shadows: “What could we pity? You came in gruesome parade and rubbed his blood in our face.”
If they think, that murderous lot, peasants and pitchforks, that I kill just to spite them, well, not even the breath of their old, cruel gods can help them. If they think that I kill to spite their gods, then they are closer to the mark, but still leagues away.
“I remember a time,” she says, but does not finish; I shall finish for her:
i remember a time
before liars knew lies
before skies were closed
before windows hid eyes
when my thoughts were mine
when my thoughts were mine
when my thoughts were mine
and the water was clear
before the spears lowered
and showers of stones came
from the congress of the unjust
before the spears lowered
and the circle clawed in
before the spears lowered
and the circle clawed in
before the spears lowered
and the circle clawed in
before the spears lowered
and the noose choked us both
We Must Be Reminded Sometimes That We Are Lonely
The days are getting longer. Night seems always to be just beyond, pacing along the horizen like a neurotic.
No one has been sleeping at my door.
So I went out, trudged old trails through the city, ones I used to follow compulsively in search of any sign of old faces, old voices, walking memories. I went again where they would go: the dark alleys, the dank quarters lax on law and mute to oppression. (But now there is a treaty, says Our Lady in White–it brings me everything but peace. Probably my own fault: couldn’t put my paranoia to rest with a hammer and a shovel. The spies are everywhere, hunting me even in my own wood, eyes like fish: dead and unblinking, biding their time.)
The rain started as soon as I entered the Southern Gate, as if in reaction to my presence, as if it would wash me away, if it could. It’s rare that I take a child. They terrify me, so inhumanly small and stupid, prized by their dens above all else, stinking of hidden futures that cannot be nearly guessed. But took him I did anyway. He was kicking stones at the back wall of the forge house at an unreasonable hour, flushed with his own boistrousness, giddy and rediculous. I’d like to think it was the anxiety that prompted me, that I was pressed on by some weight of current events (there is no one sleeping at my door, thought for sure she’d come hounding me for an explaination), but it was just the same old hunger biting at my throat. Nothing new or unusual, except perhaps its intensity. He let me right up to him, the stupid thing, didn’t even react until the blood was running. His mother probably hits him.
He did scream eventually, his shriek a complaint against me using something as dull as my own teeth (seemed wrong to use a knife, inappropriate). I even covered his mouth. It caught me by surprise, although in retrospect that makes very little sense. As much as I took I was shocked that he could still move. His little feet rushed him stumbling home like a drunkard, like a wounded squirrel to die (I imagine) in some filthy hole. He tasted terrible. I should have washed him first, drowned him.
It gave me nightmares. I heard, the next evening, that someone had flayed a whole orphanage. Turns my stomach to think of it, all those children in one room. The culprit must be made of iron.
And the old tailor has died, the one that sold me these clothes so long ago. I should get new ones. I have decided I will attend his wake, mostly for fun. Fun is in short supply, these days.
Spring is over, though it only lasted a handful of nights. I think I slept through most of it. I thought that surely she’d come to show me her anger, at least. Perhaps the blow Our Lady in White had dealt her was a killing one. I’ve yet the chance to find out, heard nothing. I shall have to go out again and ask.
I awake to find the city humming with new life.
It’s not that there are more people, no–just more activity. I am reminded of how dogs rush to play, froth like pups in the advent of their own demise. I doubt its really the same thing (even dog’s wisdom seems to have been bred out of men).
New life: lines and nets scrounge the rivers for fish, axes ring against the trunks of knarled trees, merchants scream wares and the taverns are full, always full to overflowing.
I feel out of place. I feel no new life. So I keep to the darker holes in town, as I often have, avoiding the notice of this rush to action. The eye of feverish action. I catch lovers necking in quiet corners, even in the dank. They are all strangers, somehow, though I’ve been here for what might as well be forever.
Strangers but for Jirand. I spotted him out on a stroll–not in th dank, but the bright center, in the shining, sickening flurry (of course, he wouldn’t be caught dead on the paths I often tread). He looks older, I think. It’s hard to tell. One looses perspective. I had half a thought to stab him as I said hello, just for old times’ sake–but oh, mad as I am, I’m brighter than that. I’d think I’d like to watch him grow old. A little older, anyway.
We had words, old Jirand and I, but really said nothing. I fear there’s not much to say, which might imply that I’m losing my touch (no fingers in any pies).
So. There’s murmurs and fears and motion: not much changes. Still she asked me for a solution. Magic. I wonder at a trap, as I tend to. I wonder still what she meant. More conversation is on the plate, I think. A parlay.
Let it come, let it come, the time (etc., etc., etc.)…
There are rules, even in war, just as the lines of any game’s playing field are clearly marked. Rules are not always set by negotiation, by council or parlay, or even tradition; they sometimes simply exist as a matter of sense. Damage control. Decimation breeds retaliation, if it’s not complete, and it sometimes can never be.
That weapon (that weapon, dear jury) is a step down a spiral staircase that cannot end, a monster from a more ancient hell–it bites both sides, inevitably. Fear is far more dangerous to the wielder, if held improperly.
Which is exactly the face of my confusion: she doesn’t seem to understand. ‘Not for you,’ she said, ‘not yet.’ But it will be, must be, of course. For all of us. Each one. The gods haughtily endorse genocide in a war where not all parties can be killed. And they call me mad.
But there are other concerns in my schedule, on my list:
- must remember to not sleep so much; may not wake up in time
- feed my pets
- stop killing guards (they are here to help)
- convince the captain to not murder me during parlay
- lengthen the leash (i did not put it there; it’s not my fault)
- remember to smile
The Second Year…
When I awoke, it had been from the stirrings of a dream; I didn’t know at the time that the dream had been playing out for a year — or even a little longer. Can I properly express to you what it is like to sleep for a year at a time? Your eyes open to the ancient remains of a fire in the pit: its coals no different from the cut stones of the floor, the ashes reminiscent of the grey dust that covers it. You gain a framework of time lost when you notice that your few pieces of furniture have rotted to mud by some marvel of condensation. Panic is subdued by the lock on your door, which you find secure. Hunger rises, crawling to surface from the bottom of the sea (the blood shrine is as dry as your bones).
So I went out. I found the world not so different, passed a wretch sitting in the muddy rocks near the waterfall. For the sake of my own good humour, I warned her that she was trespassing. ‘Let beasts be taken by beasts’ she groaned — I am perhaps a monster, but I am no beast, and as such I let her be; my mark, my meal, was wandering somewhere in the city, and not soaking in the forest filth.
And Telantha, which is indeed the whole world, I found not to have aged much, but for the tighter grips, perhaps, of a desperate monarch and a failing war, their pressure draining colour from the faces in taverns and squares. Rumours like copper leaves were tossed about my feet as I walked through the market district, dropped from the inhabitants of closing stalls — talk of rampant crime, of battles won and lost, of failing wealth and a new nobility (half-hearted and weak). As I entered the square, it was towards me that the voices began to direct themselves, calling me by name. And the voices asked questions that were impossible to answer; all that I had left to do was laugh and move along, pausing only to offer some of them sanctuary.
It was the least that I could do.
Even In Famine
They will ask me, inevitably, ‘Why, when Telantha is set on all sides with grief, would you make yourself our enemy, would you thieve and kill and seek to ruin us?’
I will reply: ‘Even in famine, who does not seek to feed themselves? Would each of you give up your plate, all along the line, so that the poorest wretch among you is handed more than he could eat?’
And I will reply: ‘To feed you chaos from the end of a blade is a reminder. Vengeance is a check and a proof. Even as I share in your misery, I can add to it.’
And I will reply: ‘The king points his finger at the abyss and slams his gavel; do not hunt us too well, less the abyss slam its gavels back. The gods you worship are cruel, and not infallible.’
And I will reply: ‘I was sure, for a moment, that she had forgotten; I shall blame it all on bad dreams.’