Few and Many

The few and the many

And these few,

Though they were not many

Were powerful,

Measuring legions in their reach

A pitiless few,

One crooked hand in every deep pocket

A corrupt few,

One strangling hand on each loud throat

They were few, these,

Yet even the many stood stricken

And when we stood helpless,

These few grasped outward

Each glimmer from us now taken,

Barrels loaded, iron sharpened

What are these few,

If not conquerors, tormentors?

In this we are few,

And they are many

What can we do,

But resist their touch, arms flailing?

A dangerous road, this

Paved with horrors we should not have seen

And poverties we should not have known

But they are few,

We are many

In each expression not a flicker,

Turned to these few

In starved eyes and hushed voices,

We have something which they do not

Against their claw we have open hands,

Good to face their evil

And they are few,

But we are many

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Know Me

Know me

Men know me,

The haunting ghost in their dreams

Women know me,

A darkness, companion

Children know me,

The shadows under their beds

You will know me,

The grim and withered on your soul

Black stains,

Truly never-fading

All will know me,

A hand which draws,

And those that don’t,

Will see soon that I left nothing

But red crimson in my wake,

Long days of hate

Now never fading,

You will know me by my name,

War

Perception

If I told you that I am insane, would you believe me?

Doubtlessly, you would hesitate to do so. After all, insanity carries a negative connotation. Deviation from the norm referred to as sanity is uncomfortable, one we much rather would not deal with. We have this tendency, you and I, to dismiss reality as fiction. That which stands out as uncharacteristic is uncomfortable, and we would much rather see it dismissed as fiction. You might be misguided, you say, anxious and worried, but you are not insane.

Of course, you might be right. I might be perfectly sane, simply hounded by my own panicked fear that I am too different as to be compatible with society. After all, what framework is there available to us that can readily discern the sane from the insane? The mind is such a thing that it is, effectively, impossible to say for certain. “Insanity” is such a broad word that its contents, by definition, might as well span the entire world.

But there is no rhyme to my reason. I have purpose, goals set clearly in my mind that I would strive toward with every ounce of my being. I have goals innumerable, thoughts and ideas that coalesce into shape in my brain while I sit idly, concepts that take form and address issues ranging from political to the entirely fictional. My brain has brought into being a hundred worlds and given birth to a million unique individuals, yet few of them ever survive. I sit lazily while their lives blend together and the ideas fade to black in the back of my head. Apathetically, I watch as my own creations drown in the vast space that is my mind. A void, you could call it, that both springs into being the most wondrous of worlds and sucks them dry before they can see the light of day.

I lack courage, just as I lack true personal insight. Those who know me personally might find that hard to believe. One of my greatest assets has always been my ability to see relationships objectively, from the outside. I have given life advice to those many years my seniors because they know they can rely on me to see and understand, yet I fail completely to understand myself. I wander aimlessly, asking myself whether I have purpose at all. There are many strings attached to my life, but not one that pulls strongly enough in one direction to provide any motivation; I go on like an automation, driven by routine and habit and cowardly enough to not leave a single of my habits behind. I have dedicated thousands of hours to things that give me no enjoyment, spent countless days doing things that serve no purpose in my life. All to not offend or cause commotion. After all, what safety is there for me if I change what I am? I am defined by what I do, and I am afraid that the stability I find in the routine.

Put simply, I do not understand myself. When I look in the mirror, I see someone that is not me. Someone who wears my skin and smiles to the world, knowing full-well the importance of appearances and norms. But I do not think I am that person. My life is that of a textbook teenager’s: chaotic, irregular, confusing. But my life is hidden, tucked away beneath countless layers of meaninglessness. At heart, I am like any youth. Concerned about appearances, grades, friends, looks, popularity, identity, the future. There is a girl. There is always a girl. But all of it is concealed by an outer shell that feels impregnable, as if I am stuck within myself. I lie, far too often, about the most pointless things, because I feel an instinctual need to adhere to expectations I have built for myself, unwittingly. I have created an image of myself that if broken would shatter my world. So I sit inside my shell, hidden away. A child banging on the thick window, not a sound reaching the outside world.

Is anyone really themselves? If I were to ask you if you are who you claim to be, if the person I see is the person you see in the mirror, would you really answer truthfully? I worry that everything is an elaborate ruse, a long, unbroken line of deceit and feigned appearances.

If I told you that I am insane, would you believe me?

Wrong

Wrong

Have you ever looked out of a window and blinked, absolutely convinced that for a short second you saw something that could not – should not – be there? It’s an uncomfortable experience, a clash of realities as the mind conflicts with sensory input. The brain is a complex machine, sophisticated and advanced but not infallible. Sometimes, not often enough for it to feel recurring but often enough for it to feel familiar, you look out of the window and see something else. Something that simply… isn’t there.

My front window was dirty. Dirty enough that your mother would accuse me of being apathetic, far too uninterested in appearances to warrant my own apartment. After all, I didn’t pay for the apartment – social services did – and you’d think the least I could do in return would be to clean the fucking windows. Not so. If your mother accused me of being apathetic and uninterested in appearances, she’d be right. You could write a full-length novel in the layer of dust that coated the windowsills and it’d lay undisturbed until it was submerged in additional dust and dirt and shit. It didn’t bother me and, since no one else was likely to walk in to find the dustpile I was grooming, it wasn’t going to bother anyone else.

As I was saying, my front window was dirty. Calling it a front window was a little deceptive, given that a circular building by definition has no front. What I considered the front window was the window that faced the garden. Calling the little square of sun-bleached grass and abandoned toys a garden was also a little deceptive, but living in an apartment complex in the middle of a 21st century metropolis one could hardly expect any better.

My front window being dirty, in and of itself, was nothing special. Most windows were. The city on the whole was submerged in a nauseating smog that painted all glossy surfaces in a greyish brown. Windows were not windows as much as they were surfaces for angsty and bored teens to paint obscene figures on. My window in particular had been painted with a magnificent set of anatomically incorrect penises and various symbols whose original creators in all likelihood had not intended for the marks of their ideologies to adorn windows in downtown Tokyo.

No, what was special was the fact that there were two suns in the sky.

Again, a deceptive statement. To say that there were two suns in the sky would be like saying there were several oceans in the world. Only, there are several oceans in the world, just as there were right now two suns in the sky. Does that make sense? Hopefully not. Readily accepting the existence of not one but two suns in the sky sounds a lot like a bout of dementia. Insanity. I had met a few of the real nutjobs in the psych ward when I spent a month there. High school dare, cocaine overdose, fire extinguisher… You know the situations that spring up when you’re young, stupid and hormone-fueled. I was taken to the psych ward of the Xiao Ten Health and Recreation Facility, a small and cozy little hospital near what was left of Nagasaki. But I digress.

There were two suns in the sky. You’d think it would be the dirty window playing a trick on me, the dust and the shit covering my window bouncing photons around and making the other side of the window appear distorted, but it wasn’t. First off, physics don’t work like that. My window may have been dirty, but it wasn’t dirty enough to bend the rules of physics and put a visually distinguished version (in the wrong color, no less) of the sun on the other side of the sky. And even if it had been, that didn’t explain why one sun was eclipsed by the moon and the other not.

”What the hell?”, I muttered, wiping the window at eye level with a dishrag. Or maybe it was a towel. I didn’t look too closely, my eyes instead fixed unwaveringly on the sun… suns. For a moment I entertained the possibility of the astronomical object being an asteroid passing by, an unexpected visitor in the Earth’s orbit. I didn’t own a TV or a smartphone so it wasn’t exactly impossible that I could have missed the announcement. On the other hand, I did read. Not the shit the media spewed out – I did well enough without oligarchic propaganda infesting my mind with bullshit – but I did read nonetheless. Books, essays, the kind of stuff you’d think died some time late 20th century. The kind of stuff cell phones and computers and TVs had replaced. ”The fuck did you come from?”, I asked the sun, only half-expecting an answer.

I stumbled from my front window across the piles of dirty, sweaty laundry into the corner commonly referred to as ”kitchen”. I had left some of last night’s ramen in a bowl in the sink. It smelled faintly of spicy pork and came off from the bottom of the bowl with surprising ease. I didn’t give the moldy layer that was crawling across the sides of the bowl any more thought than I absolutely had to, but I knew I’d need to get the sink cleaned out and the cutlery washed soon enough.

I sat cross-legged in front of the window watching the suns as I ate my cold breakfast. Maybe it was lunch. Whatever the case I did cross-legged and I did watch the suns as they moved farther apart from one another, the slow and agonizing drifting-apart of two lovers in a relationship broken by the crushing demands of marriage.

At some point during the day I fell asleep where I sat, and I didn’t wake up until the sun – the ”real” one – had disappeared behind the brown clouds. The ”visitor” was still there, engaged in a complex dance across the sky. It was still near zenith and made no indication of moving either up or down, nor did it seem bound by standard, conventional orbits.

It was almost nine in the evening before I got up from my place on the floor. There came a few disconcerting, cracking noises from the vertebrae in my lower back as I stood up. My hip made a clicking comment, to which I replied ”shut the fuck up.”

The visitor was still in the sky, suspended mid-air as if waiting for permission to descend into the smog to join its stellar counterpart. It shone with a sickly, bluish light that was more akin to the light you’d recognize from hospital basements than the kind of warmth you’d expect the sun to spread across the globe. It felt hostile, worrying. I wondered – briefly, but still – what other people were saying. It had been a while since I’d cared, but I knew well the tendency of ordinary people to shriek and call wolf at the first opportunity, and a body in the sky that was neither Luna nor Sol was an excellent opportunity. I made the mistake of taking a deep breath through my nose and promptly threw up on the floor. A chain of Slavic obsceneties bombarded the faintly yellow, ramen-prickled fluid as if I was trying to shame the puke into cleaning up on its own. When it didn’t work, I left the apartment.

My apartment was on the second floor, two steep, nasty climbs up from ground level. I met Misayi in the hallway and gave him a curt nod. He didn’t even try to hide his contempt, nor the fact that he wrinkled his nose at my stench. I couldn’t blame him. I smelled like a mix of shit, puke and old ramen.

I was half-way out the door before I remembered what I had gone out for in the first place.

”Oi, Misayi,” I called to the man who had threatened to throw me out of the complex more times than I had fingers and toes, ”what do you think of the extra sun?”

Misayi slowly turned around mid-climb to give me a puzzled look. ”You say fucked-up things, kid. I’ll leave your check under the door. Rent’s due tomorrow, remember.”

I shrugged. So the grumpy Japanese teacher-turned-landlord didn’t care about stellar phenomena. It didn’t surprise me. I didn’t, either. I wondered if Misayi would have liked me a little bit if I had bothered to clean out the apartment once in a while. Twice in a while, maybe.

When I woke up on the crooked couch in my apartment, I needed a full minute to figure out where the fuck I was. Making the same groaning noises I imagined a woman in labor making, I turned my neck towards the window, then slowly to the door. I blinked, eyelids heavy as if being pulled down by the swelling arms of Atlas himself. I stifled a yawn and confusion rippled through my head, immediately followed by a sharp spike of pain. There was something I was forgetting.

 

I sat cross-legged in front of the window, a moldy bowl of old ramen in my lap. I ate slowly, watching the peculiar dance of three stellar objects across the night sky. I only knew it was night because the clock told me it was 01:15am. Neither of the suns had moved for hours. The moon was making an obscure-as-fuck zigzag across the night sky that made no physical sense. Gravity did not make things move in patterns like that, and as far as I knew there were no engines capable of moving billions of tonnes of rock mounted on the moon in that moment. The moon had no right to move like that, no more than the second sun had any right of appearing in the sky and staying there to begin with.

I woke up on my couch, not recalling going to sleep the night before. I had a headache, so I chugged down a couple of pills. The package was labelled acetylsalicylic acid, which rang a bell. For headache. Hopefully. The pills alleviated some of the pain and took the edge off the ache in my back as well. I sat up and tilted my head to the side, trying to recall what I had been doing prior to crashing on the couch. I remembered ramen, mold, puke on the floor… If your mother had accused me of being apathetic and uninterested in appearances, I would have accused her of being too polite. The place was a mess, but I simply could not bring myself to care, even a little bit.

I leaned over the side of the couch and threw up. My mouth tasted of iron and beef, but the taste felt distant and the surreal, as if I wasn’t quite… there. My brain was registering the taste and relaying it to my brain, but my brain didn’t quite convey it properly. It was as if reality was slightly out of shape, as if my emotions had aimed for my head but missed.

The suns danced across the sky, locked in a complex waltz that brought them around in spherical orbits that directly violated everything I knew about gravity. The earth was moving, spinning along its axis, but neither moon nor sun seemed to care for the Earth’s journey through the void. They… tagged along, for lack of a better word, as summer turned to fall.

I sat cross-legged before my front window, now as clean as could be in the thick smog that covered all of downtown Tokyo. My apartment was empty. Misayi (wearing a gas mask) had come to clean it earlier today, bringing two men from Social Services and a police officer, none of whose names I could recall. It struck me that I didn’t remember their faces, either.

I was being evicted. “Your rent is three months late,” I recalled Misayi saying, “why?”
I had shrugged. “Who gives a fuck? Look at the suns, man.”
I remembered Misayi’s look, his old eyes staring out at me from deep within his sunken eyeholes with a mixture of contempt and disgust. There might have been a shred of worry. He didn’t understand. He had to have been looking at the ground instead of the sky for months. I would have felt sorry for the man’s wilful ignorance, but I found that I just… didn’t care.
In a few hours, a couple of days at most, I wouldn’t have a home. I would be one with the writhing mass of beggars moving along the streets of Tokyo, societal rejects, castouts. Did they care about the suns? Had they figured it out?

No, they couldn’t have. I had spent weeks — mild surprise was the only reaction to the realization — staring at the suns in the sky, watching their enchanting dance. Misayi had noted my weight. I’d lost a lot once my ramen had run out. I hadn’t had time to go out to get more. A tiny voice in the back of my head told me that the ribs protruding from underneath the skin on my stomach were warning signs, but it felt surreal. What if there were no ribs? If the ribs weren’t there, they could not be warning signs. If there was no need for food — after all, why would the need for food be any less changeable than the existence of only one sun in the sky? — then I could not be starving. It was simple. Logical.

I stared at the sun.

Two more days passed, or three, and I sat cross-legged in front of my window. My legs wouldn’t carry me, so I had taken to simply shitting where I sat. The stench was palpable but surreal. Felt distant. There were flies around me now, buzzing a quiet hum as I watched the suns dance across the night sky, chased by the moon.

I had a gun in my hand. I didn’t know exactly why or how I had managed to get it from the cabinet across the room, but it was there. Pointed at the base of my skull. It was puzzling, not more. The suns were there — two of them, not one — in the sky, defying all conventional logic. There could not be two suns, yet there were. There should not be any more than one sun, yet there most certainly was. The suns should set, follow the laws of physics, yet they didn’t. Nothing followed any laws, because nothing was real. That was the only logical conclusion. There could not be two sun, yet there were, so why should it be real?

A simulation is a simple thing. It emulates a world that is different from the real one. Apart. There was some beauty in that, in creating a world so alike the real one that billions of people feel convinced of its reality. I wondered briefly who had created it, for what purpose.

The metal was cold, heavy. It felt real in a way my surroundings didn’t as it pressed against my skin. My index finger caressed the trigger, gently stroking it in rhythm with the hum of the flies surrounding me. The suns were moving across the sky, locked in a spherical orbit around one another that seemed to know no end. The moon was at the sphere’s center, shining bright with the light of two suns. I wondered why they were there, what their purpose was.

I wondered why no one else had cared.
I pulled the trigger.

The mind of a breakdown

He stands alone in a hallway. The hallway is not empty, but no one else is alive. He does not know when he arrived or what has happened. The hallway is dark and smelling of blood and fuel discharge. He looks down, finding that the floor is littered with body parts. Arms and legs lay in crude patterns, bloody teeth scattered amongst them.

He looks at his hands. They are covered in blood, and some of it his own. He does not know how much. He does not feel any pain, but knows that the pain might still come later. His legs are weak, but he takes a few steps forward. Stops. Waits. There is someone else nearby, but he does not know where.

He looks down and sees that there is a weapon in his hand. A thin trail of black smoke runs from the barrel and it is hot. He has fired it, perhaps many times, but he does not remember. He does not remember coming here, nor does he know what he is doing here. He takes another step into the darkness, feels the other one’s presence.

Time has passed, but is difficult to discern how much. There are no longer bodies on the floor, but the blood seems to follow him. The walls have been painted a deep crimson by dying men whose screams seem to echo through the hallway.

More time has passed, and he is at the end of the hallway. He stands by a glass window overlooking the city. The suns are setting and the dying light dances across his body. It is covered in red, in blood, and he does not know whose the blood is. He feels the presence of someone else nearby but does not know where he is. He looks around, but there is no one. Exhausted, he sits down by the window. On the street, two boys are pointing at him. He cannot hear them through the window, but they look concerned, afraid. For a moment he wonders why, before he realizes that he does not care.

There is blood on the window and someone else is nearby. He thinks that perhaps the blood belongs to someone else, someone alive. A thick cloud of death hovers over the place and he wonders if he should care. He does not, but feels that is is wrong. That he is wrong, though he cannot say why.

A man appears in the arched doorway. He is tall and handsome, blond hair contrasting against dark brown skin. The man wears metal, an armor that seems as much a part of him as the body itself. There is blood on the armor, but not much. He wonders if the man has come to kill him, but finds that he does not care.

He looks at his hand, now pointing the weapon at the man. He squeezes the trigger and the muffled click tells him that the weapon is unusable. He feels tired, so he puts the weapon away. The heat discharge has burned his palm, leaving a bright red mark. He knows that there will be pain, but the thought is distant. He does not care.

There is blood on the walls. Oh god, why is there always blood on the walls?

Attempting darker characters

 

Chief among those who serve shall be the Striders, faceless tools of perfect destruction. In the name of the Order Templari they are those who shall bring forth honest subterfuge and righteous murder, those who shall defy the natural and the supernatural alike in the true quest for cleansing. A mighty fusion of those both wicked and virtuous, they are to be the grim reapers of utopia
-Castus 18:2

Eda Bonehunter was a man of simple pleasures. A drink after a day’s work, a bed and a woman to share it with. The crack of bone breaking under his boot in a skirmish, an outlet for needless but nevertheless entertaining violence when he so desired. The ability to spill the blood of his foes without the obstructions that prevented other men from doing the same. It was the little things that carried Eda through the numbness of the daily grind, so the taking away of any of these base desires, unimportant as they may seem to some, was more than a minor annoyance, it was a direct breach of daily protocol.
”What do you mean you can’t?” he asked, bitter-tasting irritation rising in his gullet. The man in front of him was some backwater guild merchant – dressed the part, the red and gold of his guilds filthy and soaked – carrying cheap spirits across the strait from Oakville. At least, that was what he was supposed to be doing.
”As I’ve told you sir, respectfully, I’m out” replied the merchant, holding out a coin-filled leather purse, as if showing the gold he had made off the sales somehow made things any better.
”I’ve been a regular with your guild for some four passings, man, and not once have I been let down by the guild’s services. I’ve filled the purses of your friends more than once, I don’t appreciate change, and I certainly don’t appreciate changes that disturb my evenings. I would like you to supply me.” Eda pulled his right hand out of his pocket, flashing the metal grafted onto his fist casually. The gesture wasn’t lost on the merchant – he took an unwilling half-step back and almost knocked over the table behind him. A few bar patrons glanced at him, trying to discern if anything of interest was going on, or if there was a fight in which they could participate. Seeing Eda – and moreso his expression – they quickly turned away, deciding that the bottoms of their mugs were more important.
”Sir, there is simply none to be had. I will gladly offer you a full refund if you just-” the merchant stopped mid-sentence as Eda put his grafted fist on the man’s shoulder. He was smiling now.
”Yours is the only guild to ship to Capital from Oakville, and unless you’re suggesting a refund magically puts a bottle in my hand I think we can work something else out. Sir.
The merchant’s professional behaviour was all but gone, replaced by whimpering and the shakes. With a mocking snort, Eda gave the merchant’s shoulder a tight squeeze and felt it dislocate. To his credit, Eda noted, the merchant kept his mouth shut while eyes teared up. A pitiful noise came from his throat regardless as Eda patted it condescendingly.
”Now, about the spirits?”
The torture that was the Arkanian military’s basic training had taught Eda that there is an ongoing struggle that courses through everything. Every relation was defined by it, every action decided by its complex workings.
The struggle between customer and salesman, sibling and sibling, husband and wife – the basic lesson was that no true friendship exists, that everything is but a struggle of power between the strong and the weak, between two equals struggling for superiority.
The idea had been drilled into him since his enrollment into the Special Ops Academy, and the more Eda saw and learned, the more it remained the same. It was applicable in every situation, he’d found, and it had given him – as he liked to call it – ”the shortcut to life”. When other disguised their desire for power over others, careful not to show any hint that they may have a purpose that lay beyond the groundwork of friendship and alliance, Eda watched in silence. Such men were fools that only hid what they truly were from themselves. He, on the other hand, had no qualms with showing his naked desire for power and his capacity for violence when he deemed it necessary.
So when Eda imposed his superior will (and strength) upon the merchant whose only crime was to bring news he didn’t want to hear, the little Oakville merchant had no choice but to abandon what little wares he had left – no doubt intended for a rich low-class noble somewhere in upper Capital, and hurriedly limp out of Eda’s way.
”Yer’ a bully, Bonehunter, ye know that?” Al’drec chuckled from across the bar table, raising his pint in celebration. ”A bully with a lot o’ booze, it seems” he concluded, sweeping his beer and gesturing a barmaid for immediate refill.
Al’drec Valentin was the biggest man Eda had ever met, Nadir or otherwise. Shoulders triple the width of most men, the size alone made him an imposing figure. The reflective dark of his skin only setting him apart further. But he wasn’t just big, he was gigantic in every sense of the word. Arms like logs, swelling muscle and charred skin as though he was fresh emerged from a fire, Al’drec packed enough of a punch to pose a very real threat to people at any given time.
The rest of Al’drec was rather reminiscent of one of the trolls that were cornerstones of children’s stories – huge beyond realistic humanity in every thinkable way.. But unlike most of their shared group of professional acquaintances (anything else would have been strange), Al’drec was a real brute. Barely friendly even on the surface, he – like Eda – was very careful not to let anyone overstep the bounds he set himself. While his aptitude for bickering and ever-burning desire for bar brawls made him an uncomfortable and highly undesirable drinking buddy for many, Eda enjoyed the giant’s unwillingness to spend a night in peace.
Their position within the Ops provided them with rare opportunity to engage in otherwise lawless (and certainly amoral) behaviour on a grand scale, the only prerequisite be that they stand at the ready when demanded and that no lasting damage be dealt to bar patrons.
”’course! Wouldn’t have it another way on bar night, Al’drec. That there was just about asking for it though, he knows that I need this particular spirit every passing!” Eda lifted a bottle of Oakville Blue, a strong sea liquor typically reserved for minor nobility across Capital Lake, and smiled.
Al’drec grunted.
”Not yer’ fault he didn’t take yer’ money either, I suppose”
”Indeed. But I can’t blame him, I’d much rather have Oakville than money too” Eda grinned, taking a sip. “You think there’s someone uptown with a supply of Oakville I could relieve him of? The Oakville guilds’ usually aren’t this low on spirits, so there had to have been someone in town with tastes.”
”I never saw what ye see in that cross-strait muck, Bonehunter, and I never saw why anyone would buy that crap. Ye should just stick with the good stuff”
”I can barely stomach a sip of what you consider great so I think I’ll pass on that offer, thanks”
”The crap ye guzzle down is making ye a woman, little man” Al’drec wolfed down the last piece of steak that remained on his plate and looked hungrily at Eda’s. The Arkanian chuckled and shoved his plate across the table.
”And the… whatever it is, that you drink, is turning you into a troll. Oh, no, wait – you already are!”
Al’drec shrugged, downed another mug and cut into his second meal.
“Ye visit the Mansion yet?” the giant asked smugly.“Very funny.”
“I’m funny by nature, but right now I’m serious, Bonehunter. Ye shoulda’ visited the day the order came, and it’s been weeks since. Palazzi ain’t gonna appreciate ye scuttling around when yev’ got things to do and places to be.”
“You should come then, I’m convinced it’ll be a riot.”
Al’drec snorted loudly. “I got places to be that’r better than playing word games with the Secaris. Ye got the order, Bonehunter, that means yer’ got to go.”
“You said it well enough, friend. The Secaris play word games, I prefer knife fights. Or beer. Or roasted boar. Truth be told, I prefer anything.”
Across the bar, something was brewing. Both Eda and Al’drec noticed – they were too used to civil unrest not to, but neither moved to address it. There was a mutual understanding between the two, rooted in the brotherhood of combat and honed through years of practise that was much like the mental links of the ancient magicians. Despite their affiliations, they avoided interference when they could drink instead, and if one made no move then neither would the other. And they always knew when the other would act.
The changing atmosphere in the bar did put them on edge whether they wished it or not, however. There comes a point, Eda had learned, when experience and instinct overtakes even conscious action, when one developed an additional sense for trouble that seemed to transcend the physical.
One could shrug off many things in the behaviour of others, but it was impossible to ignore hostility as open as the ones displayed by men who would like no more than to kill you.
The bar patrons in the far corner cast angry glances in the direction of the two Striders, seemingly attempting to judge whether or not the superiority in numbers could outweigh the supposed superiority in experience and skill the giant regularly boasted.
”What ye’ think we do this time?” Al’drec asked, not yet bothering to even look at the grumpy drunks who wouldn’t even give him the courtesy of an insult to the face.
”Hard to say” Eda replied thoughtfully. ”I suppose I may have slept with all of their wives at one point or another. Maybe all of them at once!” he chuckled. Al’drec grunted again.
”Should probably just take off. I like this bar, be a shame if we get banned or the keeper wrecked” he rose slowly, in no hurry to leave but very eager to send the message across. If you want a brawl, I’ll oblige, but don’t.

Eda gave an exasperated sigh, rising to his feet as well.
They moved across the room in unison, keeping practised distance while covering the other’s vulnerable side. A product of a thousand hours’ repetition yet invisible to the untrained eye.
As they passed the bar desk, Al’drec dropped a pair of heavy Capital coins in the tip jar without looking. At the same time, two men rose from their chairs on Al’drec’s right with unpleasantly hostile and sober expressions. Al’drec yawned, pulling out a chain from within his sleeve.
In front, two more men got up. The turn of events was disappointing – they had both hoped to leave in relative peace and be able to return at a later date for further consumtion, but Steering’s was fast becoming yet another place where they’d be unwelcome.
”Fer’ the throat or fer’ the joke?” Al’drec muttered, chain rattling. The bar had quieted down, those not interested in fighting moving well out of the way.
”Since these men are all jokes I think we can oblige,” Eda replied, a little disappointed in the lack of demands or angry accusations. He had come to enjoy the ridiculous justifications men like these used to explain their need for violence more than he enjoyed the heat of battle itself The men simply seemed like they wanted to fight, no strings attached. Strange and unwise, though he was sure Al’drec would find it entertaining. “They might come to their senses eventually.”
The two men in front charged and suddenly the bar was a battlefield.

Mere minutes later, two men – both dressed in military black leather, emerged from Steering’s Bar in the very centre of Manon’s lower city. While one limped slightly, blood tricking from a cut above the knee, the other swaggered out of the bar head high as though he owned the town. Not, for that matter, that such an assessment would have been wholly incorrect. Manon’s lower city was no place of luxury, and while the two men hardly looked any richer than the people around them, it would be blatantly obvious to anyone visiting even for the first time that the two leather-clad men struck fear into the hearts of every bystander. A kind of fear unlike unlike the begrudging respect that the men of the Order commanded.

Where they walked, writhing masses of people scattered hurriedly and where the two men looked, others turned away in quiet respect. The unhurt man – a man of average size, blonde with Arkanian features and a broad, unconvincing smile on his face, scanned his surroundings cautiously, looking for something beyond the dusty red of Manon’s lower city. A few whores returned his smile hesitantly, but he made no indication of interest in their services, passing them all without sparing a second look.
The man next to him, a giant of man with black skin and a chain strapped across his massive chest, seemed less concerned with the state of things. He limped on slowly, not lifting his gaze to even look at the people surrounding him. Blood ran slowly from a cut above the man’s knee, the only sign that they had, mere moments ago,
The two men walked through Manon with no clear purpose, taking winding paths through the mess of shanties and whorehouses nestled into the poorest parts of the city. Be it as it may that the shanties of Manon’s lower city were dangerous for the common man, but the thieves and the would-be bandits steered well clear of the two men as they navigated the maze of the shanties as though they were looking for something, but never speaking a word to the other.
When the sun finally set on the plains outside Manon, the two men came to a sudden stop in a dark alley known to the locals as Robbers’ End. In essence, it was nothing but a filthy pile of garbage and a score of drunks – sleeping or dead, scattered around they alley’s length.
The men moved with purpose into the alley, stepping over a long-dead corpse rotting on the first step of a set of stairs positioned at the far end of the alley. Knocking three times in rapid succession, the Arkanian took a step back and produced a brass key from his back pocket. A screeching noise came from inside as one keyhole appeared, then another, and then a third. He unlocked the first of the three locks and stepped back, allowing the giant to move up and unlock the other two with his own set of keys. Three successive clicks, and the the door swung open, revealing a dimly lit spiral staircase leading underground. The two Striders entered.

Butcher’s Fist was the modern-day name given to the gargantuan undercity located below the sprawling shanties of Manon. It had gone by many names in many languages over the years. Some remained in use while some – most – had been forgotten. There were only rumours as to who had built the undercity and why anyone would think to go through with such a senselessly grand underaking, but over the years rapid expansion and the ingenuity of certain affluent individuals had turned what had originally been the very apex of criminality and inhospitality into a place where treaders of the wide path could find both shelter and like-minded folk. That was, of course, as long as they paid the due coin to the men capable of offering them the protection they so desperately needed.

Every regime, Dissentian or otherwise, had sought to control Butcher’s Fist for their own gain. Likewise, every regime had failed. The undercity’s design prevented incursion admirably, and where government officials treaded no lawless of any kind was to be found, and where soldiers set foot grisly deaths quickly followed.

Those more prone to superstition among the thieves and mercenaries of Butcher’s Fist believed that Tabetha herself watched over them. Those tending toward insanity believed she had chosen them to be her servants and thus did everything in their power to put their hands in pockets where they did not belong. What was most puzzling about those few lunatics was that none of them seemed to possess even an ounce of skill. If Tabetha were to choose anyone to be her chosen servant, Eda mused, it would not be the half-wits that hid in Butcher’ Fist because the Order hunted them above ground.
There were talented craftsmen in Butcher’s Fist, to be sure, but those who knew the craft well-enough also shared the pragmatism of sensible men. Men like Eda and his associates.

Eda and Al’drec walked through the door and descended into the undercity like they’d done a thousand times in the past, steering clear of the tripwires set just inside the doorway with precise and practised movements.
When the door closed behind them, Al’drec immediately broke the silence.
”We really gotta to find an, ah, more agreeable bar. Again”
Eda grinned but secretly agreed. The fact that they were being alienated so actively by the locals had been eating at him. Since his and Al’drec’s relocation to Dissentia, they had went through over a dozen bars and emerged bloodied unhurt every time.
While a beatdown or a dozen might pose as decent entertainment – Al’drec especially seemed to feel that way – the deeply rooted dislike the Manoneers harboured for Striders and shady military figures in general severely limited the ability to procure alcohol.
”How’s the leg?” Eda teased. He imagined that if Aldrec’s skin was not already about as dark as could be, his ears would have turned red at the comment. Taking a cut from a simple plebeian was embarrassing and far below the standard they meant to uphold.
”I got more surface area than you, punk” Aldrec muttered in response, clearly antagonised. ”More body to cover in a fight” Eda grinned again but didn’t say anything.
The Striders turned left around a corner, descending into the depths of the undercity. Most men who ventured into the maze that was Butcher’s Fist came with a map (usually several) or a guide – someone who knew the ins and outs of the undercity well enough not to find their head impaled on a pike. Sometimes both. The undercity’s ever-changing nature made it near-impossible for non-residents to navigate its crumbling corridors, and the overabundance of traps – both those set by the undercity’s current residents and those long dead – made a peaceful stroll through the unmapped areas all but impossible for those who wished to retain their heads.
Eda Bonehunter, however, had made it his life’s goal to become the go-to source of all information on the happenings in the undercity. It had made the Striders take great interest in him even after his less than honorable relocation from Arkania to the Dissentian Islands.
He knew every nook and cranny of the first through sixth levels in the undercity by heart and was a good enough navigator in the deeper levels that he could be seen as a genius. He’d walked the upper corridors more times in his last three years than most of the lowlifes in Butcher’s Fist dared to in a lifetime of crime, and was one of the few to ever venture below.
Eda lead Al’drec down to the fourth level, where he parted ways with the Nadir and headed further down. “Yer’ idea is as crazy as you, Bonehunter” Al’drec had said,

Though the work they did in the Striders had quickly killed any lingering belief they had previously had in higher powers, the giant remained superstitious on a single point – he refused to venture further under ground than the fourth level. When asked about it, he would cite personal beliefs and quickly change the subject. “My tribe roamed freely on the northern islands, unbound by the soil beneath our feet. If I want to drown in dirt, I might as well head off to the graveyard” was the first he had spoken of the matter, when they had first come to Dissentia. Although he had gradually accepted the grueling necessity of passing through the undercity, his superstitions still kept him from venturing deeper, a secret he was careful not to share with anyone else.

Beliefs of the superstitious sort were frowned upon in military circles, and the Striders – as loosely tied to Dissentian governing bodies as the organisation was – were no exception.

On the sixth level, some hundred pace underground, lay the Secari Mansion. Constructed some time after the eighth great rising, the mansion was magnificent and enormously out of place in the layer of rusty red dust that covered almost everything in the undercity. Supposedly built on a foundation of the bones of traitors and rebels, Family Secari’s headquarters was a massive building of pure obsidian, standing in the center of a pentagonal plaza with drawbridges in every corner. Massive turrets sat atop the Mansion’s walls, promising swift demise to anyone who attempted to breach the perimeter without permission. Although disclosing information on a Family base of any kind was strictly forbidden under Order law, rumours of the Secari headquarters had eventually spread to the city above, which had forced Family Secari to take steps against intrusion.
Why one of the six Families had elected to rebuild their Mansion underground, inside the largest hive of criminal activity was a subject of discussion, one the Secaris didn’t seek to address.
A dirt road crept from the stairwell up to the mansion like a snake, moved a few inches here and a few inches there every year that passed in accordance with the Secari trappers’ demands. Straying from it was synonymous with death – if not from the traps set then from the defensive structures mounted on the mansion’s watchtowers.
Eda swaggered past the four guardsmen at the gate, whose bothered expressions told him more than any conversation could. It was abundantly clear that they didn’t want him inside, but had no grounds to stop him.
Very few people actually did.
Eda barely recalled a time when men had not bent knee to his superiority, be it physical or more indirect. Since a young age, when he had been little more than a scrawny kid Eda had always been the most agile, the most skilled fighter.
He had a finesse that normal men lacked – a way with words and with fists, and that finesse had made him one of the most powerful Arkanian thief kings before the Striders got to him.
The change of pace was nice, but he’d kept his Arkanian connections and retained the experiences that had made him for life in the first place. With ordinary men like the two Family guardsmen, he could pass without even slowing down. He enjoyed the subtle display of power immensely. He ascended a flight of stairs and found him in front of a set of great mahogany doors, standing ajar. Without waiting for an invitation, Eda entered.
Inside, sculptures of every Secari grandmaster lined the walls. At the very least, that was what the Secaris themselves claimed. Of course, the ”every” was a gross exaggeration. Their respective outward images were carefully constructed to create an idea, an illusion of unity within the Family. But despite what the Order Templari’s ample history and reputation made things seem like, Family politics were harsh – often more so than even national politics, and most dared not keep friends within their own Family for fear of betrayal. While the weapons of choice weren’t violent, deception and smearing were powerful tools for swaying opinion within the Order. As the Families demonstrated frequently, having subordinates vandalise rivalling Family members’ personal works of art was not below anyone with ambition. Some found that pathetic, but Eda found it acutely adorable.
”Are you admiring the art, general?” the Strider turned his head quickly to the left and was met by the Grandmaster Secari’s unmoving gaze, the very vision of calculation and provision. Against the perfect image of a calculating Family elder, the Grandmaster was comparatively tiny, something he more than made up for with a posture of confidence to rival even Cyon Zealot’s. His dark hair, turning grey after forty years of stressful Order politics and more battles than the historians who had made his life their work could count, hung over his wrinkled face. Albeit many years older than when they had last met, his legendary priggish smile had remained exactly the same.
That smile was never a sign of good news.
”You’ve… aged” Eda replied, dumbfounded. When the order to visit the Secari Mansion had first come, the letter had made it seem like an ordinary visit to renew old alliances and toast to the well-being of the Family. Standard procedure. He hadn’t expected to be met by a senior Family member, much less the Grandmaster himself. He had been caught completely off-guard. ”and please – I’ve not been ”general” in years. It’s Eda. Or Bonehunter. Maybe both. Whichever you prefer”
The Grandmaster’s gaze remained steady, as though he sought to probe Eda’s deepest thoughts with his eyes alone.
Eda remained still, eyes locked in a high-stakes staring contest with the most famously deceptive man on the islands, for a long while before the Strider conceded. Out of respect, naturally.
”I see” was the Grandmaster’s brooding reply. Eda felt in his bones that this encounter had been carefully planned out for some arcane purpose and that he, for a reason he couldn’t grasp, had been left out of the loop. Lack of information was a heinous offense to his base principles, and it made him uncomfortable. Worry stirred in his stomach, despite his mind’s best attempt at shrugging it off as unimportant. He cleared his throat nervously, telling himself that he had taken on more formidable opponents in the past.
”So, ah, can we, ah, sit?” ventured Eda. He wanted to continue with a sore comment about the Grandmaster’s age, but no words would come. Grudgingly, he had to admit that the Secari intimidated him. He wished it were otherwise, but the templar’s aura of dominance was unrivaled. He breathed a kind of power that humbled men. He hadn’t risen to the rank of Grandmaster for naught, it seemed.
”No. I will speak here, Bonehunter.”
”Alright, I’m here. Speak”
”It may be so that you once outranked me, Arkanian, but that was in another place and another time entirely. Here and now you will treat me with appropriate respect.”
The Grandmaster leaned close.
”I will have a favour” he said, plainly. He didn’t disguise it as a polite request or even something that could be turned down, instead simply sharing with Eda what was going to happen.
A tense silence followed as Eda weighed what few options he had in this conversation against each other. He concluded that he had none.
”I’m listening” he replied sorely.
The Grandmaster watched him with a mix of amusement contempt as he tried to wiggle out of the simple but efficient trap that had been set for the Strider. Invite a man dependent on your goodwill into and make a demand. He had won the battle of wills the second Eda set his foot on the sixth floor. Out of courtesy and because of that damn letter from Heirus, he had no choice but to listen and – if he knew the Secaris as well as he thought he did – oblige.
Fucking templars, don’t these folk ever tire of the games?
The Grandmaster loosened up a little as Eda’s body language signaled defeat. A small smile crept up on his face and he once again looked like a worn-out old man who had seen too many struggles.
”I trust you are aware of the present situation in the Order” he began, a pair of manservants appearing from the shadows with a chair each. He gestured for Eda to sit and sank down into his own, taking a sip from the hip-flask he carried with him.
”The Adjacents’ Meet side with the Zealot freaks and are cutting back on Secari privileges. We have less resources to work with than ever before to subjugate more dissenting beliefs than ever before in the history of Regent rule. Triage and Mantra are apparently in bed with each other as if things somehow weren’t bad enough. Triage’s Null bastards are taking what private contracts we could and should have obtained for their own gain and we’re left with nothing” a thick vein pulsated above the Grandmaster’s right eye, signaling the stress he was under clearer than words.
Eda fidgeted uncomfortably in his chair. Slowly, he was beginning to put together the pieces of the puzzle. Why he had been relocated to Dissentia and why he had just happened to find himself running a new kind of business a mere stone’s throw from the Secari Mansion.
”I’ve been, ah, made aware of the situation. Yet… I’m not clear on what it is you think I could help you with. My talents lie… elsewhere. Sir.”
The Secari said nothing, instead staring right past him at the statue of the first Grandmaster of his Family. If Eda didn’t know better, he would have said that there was a hint of sentimentality in the deep brown of the old man’s eyes. While he was eager to get far away from the old scrum, Eda knew better than to push his luck by driving the conversation onward forcefully.
When the Grandmaster did speak, there was no hint of softness in his voice nor on his features. What ever had crossed the Secari’s mind for a moment had disappeared as quickly as it had come and left the man cold and jaded in its wake.
”We were the right-hand men of the Regent once, we Secari” he said, a clear undertone of supressed rage in his voice. ”We protected the bloodline of Lucius from threats inwardly and outwardly, but first and foremost we didn’t bend knee to the other fucking families” he almost spat out the last few words, struggling to contain his evident hatred for the Zealots and their allies.
Eda could not help but feel somewhat sorry for the man. He had fought with tooth and nail for Dissentia’s survival (and the advancement of his Family’s power, granted) since he was but a boy and now he was seeing it being taken away bit by bit by a Regent younger than him and a Zealot whose hatred for Secaris was second only to his hatred for hellspawn.
It resonated deeply within Eda. The Grandmaster’s dilemma mirrored that which the Arkanian division of the Striders were facing. It was what had put him on Dissentia in the first place.
”We waged the clandestine wars of the Regent and the Adjacents’ Meet and they honoured us” – a grunt – ”we got the shit on our hands for doing the work they shied away from, but when the fucking Zealots dress up nicely we’re left spluttering in the dirt, and I won’t have it”
Realisation struck Eda like a blow in the face. From the very beginning, Eda had felt that this conversation was one that he had heard before. Only then, he had been the one speaking and not about the Zealots, but about the Dark Council in its entirety.
That Grandmaster Secari was shrewd bastard was common knowledge, in part because becoming Grandmaster in a Family built on deception and betrayal through honesty and a moral code was impossible, in part because he had been the one to run the show in the Adjacents’ Meet for fifteen years.
But bringing the conversation in Eda’s direction, striking as close to heart as he had managed without even having spoken to him beforehand… He had to admit, the Grandmaster’s cunning had damn near caught him with his pants down. Again.
With bravado, Eda leaned back in his chair and spoke, this time with confidence. He had cracked the Secari’s act, that gave him an advantage.
”I’m sure you realise that like you, I am a man of few hours and many tasks. What’s in this for me and, more importantly, what is the favour you want to ask of me?”
The Grandmaster Secari studied him closely, no doubt weighing the merits of dropping the act completely and proceeding with honesty.
Eda wanted to smile, feeling as if the infinitely subtle power play was going his way. Seeing through the verbal smoke screen of sob stories had put him in prime position to ask more than he reasonably could from a man of the Grandmaster’s stature, but Eda was all too pleased with himself to abide by the rules of caution.
”My proposition is of a simple nature” began the Grandmaster, signalling the manservants for refreshment. A crooked old man, likely more than twice Eda’s age, scurried across the hall with a bottle of aged Chever, another similarly wretched figure, though perhaps female as it carried different clothing, carrying a set of glasses. The manservant hurriedly poured two glasses of the brandy before spurting back into hiding behind the statues. His needs tended to, the Grandmaster took a savoury sip and gestured for Eda to do the same.
”The Adjacents’ Meet no longer welcomes me as one of their own, and I require someone to be my ears. Someone who can not be tied immediately to me. You will attend the gatherings as an envoy of Family Shield. You will not speak nor take make your presence known beyond rudimentary needs. All I need is knowing what is said about me and my Family so that I can make the appropriate… Adjustments.”
This piqued the Arkanian’s interest. He had expected the Grandmaster to be much less direct about what he wanted. Spying, that was something he could do.
He swept the brandy.
”Tell me more”

Current Project – “The Fire Thief”

“Good artists steal, great artists copy”

Drawing some inspiration from Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, I’ve wanted to try my hand at a first-person perspective story for some time. If you’ve read Rothfuss, this piece will likely read similarly in many ways, but I assure you that what I am doing with this is vastly different from what Rothfuss did with Kvothe.

In retrospect, the conventional wisdom of “don’t take jobs from men who you wouldn’t offer a job were the situation reversed” is more valuable than a gale-headed youth might think. But then again, most of everything is more valuable than a gale-headed youth might think. This was true for me in greater degree than for the common man, whose common sense might now and again aid him in making the right decisions in unfamiliar situations. However, this was not to be the case for me.
Indeed, the man that presented himself to me on the first Monday of y. 1010 had a look about him that should, at the very least, made me cautious about what he could possibly seek from a man in my venue of work.
He introduced himself as Ifga Drun, Lord of Muerin and the third to bear that name. Most people would have swooned at his stature or wondered what kind of place Muerin is, but my first words took the good lord aback as much as they did me.
“My condoleances.”
My reputation had, as I would eventually learn from the man seeking my services, preceeded me. The same was not true for Ifga Drun, whose exceedingly stern countenance should have acted as a deterrent for my more spiteful humour.
“Pardon?” Drun’s eyes had narrowed to slits, his curious grey eye colour giving him a very exotic look. Or would have, had they not presently seemed more intent on piercing my own with lances of ice.
“Must be bad enough to have to bear a name like Ifga Drun, but to know that two others did so before you? I can’t imagine the headache. I can also imagine that with a name such as yours, discretion must be somewhat… prohibited.”
Drun seemed unsure as to whether I was making a joke or seriously commenting on the benefits and disadvantages of what his parents apparently thought was a lovely name. Luckily, he seemed to accept the joke with some grace, shrugging it off with but a grunt. He drew out the chair opposite me and seated, beckoning for one of the barmaids to bring him something to drink. A grievous mistake in Mhag Ma – what Steering’s Tavern served at the time was little better than perfumed sludge.
“To what do I owe the pleasure of a lord such as yourselves, lord Drun?” I asked, leaning back in my chair. The foreigner’s air of hostility was not lost on me (in fact I was made acutely aware of it as my skin prickled under his gaze), but knowing that he had come to me – for what ever reason he may have found that my services could be of use – gave me some degree of confidence. The things I do and the company I keep by necessity involves a small sphere of individuals that is closely connected. We may be rivals and competitors one and all, but we’re bound by a strict code of honour put in place largely to make sure our heads don’t end up adorning Mhag Ma Castle’s battlements a fine summer evening.
That Ifga Drun had come to me meant, in all likelihood, that I was the right man for the job, whatever that job may be.
“I have been put in a… situation.” The man said, sweeping the mug of mead he had just been served with no visible reaction to the appalling taste.
“Men are put in situations all the time,” I drawled, drawing certain pleasure from antagonizing the man. Admittedly, my tendency to go far beyond what was reasonable to make fun of potential employers was a weakness, but it was a weakness that I allowed myself because it was entertaining so to the degree that to live without it would have been a form of torture of itself. “And my experience tells me that the vast majority of these situations tend to solve themselves rather immediately.”
Lord Ifga Drun was unfazed by my prickling attempt at humour. “Had this been a situation capable of working itself out, do you think I would have come to an elementalist such as yourself?”
Ah. With that, Drun made it very clear where we stood in terms of negotiations. He spoke with the finality of a man who knows that he has procured an almost insurmountable advantage. And indeed, he had. However, his knowledge of the specifics of my trade was a telltale sign that the man was earnest in his desire to employ me. What else does he know? I wondered, simultaneously awed and worried that someone would so casually march into Steering’s Tavern with knowledge of my capabilities and remain adamant in one’s desire to make use of my services.
Most people turned and fled at the revelation, those few who didn’t more often than not doing their best to bring my head a good distance from the rest of my corpse.
I leaned forward, my interest piqued. “Of course not, it was merely a jest. You must tell me more.”
The tavern door swung open with a bang and another man entered, this one swathed in dark robes and his face partly covered in a bright red cloth. I didn’t meet the man’s eyes and I didn’t have to in order to know that he was looking right at me. Or rather, would have been looking right at me had he possessed the necessary anatomy to look at anything.
“You brought an Eyeless here.” I muttered as the robed man strode through the dimly lit tavern toward us, “why in the hells would you do something like that?”
“An Eyeless?” the foreigner repeated, the surprise written on his features implying that he was without blame in the Spyglass operative’s presence at Steerings’s. Puzzling.
Granted, I was not particularly worried. The Terakeyan secret police was an overzealous and needlessly hostile organization, but the bulk of its operatives were hardly renowned for being particularly savvy. I had never come face-to-face with an Eyeless, true, but they had never seemed remotely interested in my sphere of acquaintances in the past.
“A drink?” I offered by way of greeting as the Eyeless stopped at our table, unseeing eyes the colour of charcoal passing over both Drun and me before the man drew out a chair from an adjacent table and sat. The man shook his head, producing a wax-sealed letter from the inside of his robe.
“You are Kian of the Gales?” he asked, his voice little more than a wheeze. A threatening wheeze, at that.
“I am.”
At that, he passed me the note without a word. The seal was unfamiliar to me, three black triangles pointing inward toward a white square. As far as I could tell, it was not Terakeyan, at the very least not commonly used. I ripped open the wax seal, finding that the letter was strangely heavy, weighted by what felt like iron in both ends of the envelope.
“And you are lord Ifga Drun of Muerin?” the Eyeless asked, turning his head – for reasons I am yet to comprehend given the man’s absence of sight – to the foreigner opposite me.
“That would depend on who is asking.”
“The Spyglass believes in objectivity of truth,” the Eyeless said plainly, “facts do not change with the seasons. The truth remains the truth by virtue of its power, unswayed by the interests of sole individuals.”
Drun’s eyebrows rose high onto his forehead.
“I shall ask again, are you lord Ifga Drun of Muerin, crown jewel of Velice?”
His face taking on a grim (grimmer) tone, Drun nodded. “Yes.”
There was a moment of silence among the three of us. In my hand I now held a note and a set of brightly red rocks no bigger than my thumbnails, and Drun produced similar objects from the letter he had just been given by the Eyeless.
When I broke the silence, the Eyeless’ face snapped back to me. I was stricken by the complete absence of emotion on the man’s face, as though the burning away of his sight had likewise burned away everything in the way of personality. It was almost as if the Ritual of True Sight had burned away his person. It was unsettling, to say the least, having no way of knowing what went on inside the man’s head.
“So what do you want with me?” I asked, the note that had been sealed within the letter offering little in the way of explanation:
“You have been invited to His Excellency’s personal celebration of birth in the Mhag Ma Castle.
Your gifts have been noticed and a reward for your skill shall be received.”
A joke, without a shadow of a doubt. The very idea of an invitation to the Mhag Ma Castle was preposterous bordering on the hilarious, and any person claiming that I had “gifts” to be rewarded was in dire need of awakening. The fact that a member of the secret police was delivering the note, to me and a man I had never met until fifteen minutes earlier, made me think that perhaps this was some strange manner of conscription. I had heard rumours in the past of the Spyglass’ arcane methods and a strangely convoluted attempt to bring two unrelated individuals together like this seemed in line with their reputation.
“It is as it says on the note.” The Eyeless replied, his face suddenly stern – as stern as could be.
Drun made a series of half-coughing, half-grunting noises. It took a few long moments before realization dawned upon me. The man was laughing.
“I must tell you, blind man, your demeanour almost had me fooled!” he chuckled, rising to his feet. Every remnant of good humour vanished from his features at once, replaced by the sour face he had worn when he first entered the tavern, “but I grow weary of this joke. Leave, or I shall.”
The Eyeless rose to his feet at once. “This is not a joke, lord Drun, lord Kian. You have in truth been invited to the Mhag Ma Castle at the request of His Excellency himself. Delivery of such an announcement is always to be carried out by Spyglass operatives to ensure discretion and… quality.”
“And now you have done this. Leave.”
The Eyeless made for the door, drawing the gazes of mostly everyone gathered in the tavern. The Spyglass operative seemed unconcerned with their awed stares as he maneuvered deftly between the haphazardly placed mahogany tables that littered the tavern’s common room.
A few of the regulars’ eyes moved in our direction, pausing on the foreigner with the deep frown before glancing past me, interest immediately fading. Everyone knew me in Steering’s Tavern. I was uninteresting. I came to the place more often than perhaps anyone else, creating more than one rumour of my lack of employment and creating a reliable illusion of my… untrustworthiness. Some thought I had inherited a fortune from an Uptown noble, thus allowing me to drink away my vast riches without a concern for the worries of ordinary men and women.
Naturally, this was not the case, though I did possess the ability to produce the crowns required to purchase nearly unlimited amounts of alcohol.
Drun sat down once more, crumpling the note and shoving it into a pocket. His two circular stones, identical to mine in shape and size but blue instead of red, followed.
“What do you make of that one?” I asked, fidgeting and shifting my weight uncomfortably in my chair. Although the Eyeless claimed to have come only to deliver that weird note and the two stones, the fact that he had been able to find me at all – and know of my existence – made me more uncomfortable than I wanted to admit to myself. My goal had always been that the Spyglass should not even know of my existence, much less where to find me should they desire to see me.
“I have matters of greater import to attend to than cryptic invitations to pointless events.” Drun replied, producing a map from within his sleeve. He put it on the table in front of me, rolling it out to reveal a detailed map of the Mhag Ma Docks. A cross had been painted in bright red on the pier farthest from Steering’s Tavern, the pier unofficially known as the Raider’s Pier, where everyone unsavoury conducted their dealings when they knew that their business was too illegal to hazard taking elsewhere.
“A score of men will be gathered here a number of hours from now. They possess something that belongs to me that I must have back.”
“Does it belong to you know, or is this a question of definition where it will belong to you after I conclude my… dealings with these men?”
Drun glared at me.
“None of my business.” I amended with a shrug. “Should I expect violence?”
“No. These men are harmless, I expect them to scatter immediately upon your arrival. The contents I require should be stashed away in a footlocker no larger than this table. There should be only one footlocker, and so confusion should be minimal.”
“What are the contents of the footlocker in question?”
Another glare.
“Some degree of information is required for me to do my job properly, lord Drun, and I expect that there aren’t a great number of people you can rely upon to perform this task for you, given that you have come to me of all people in Terakeya.”
“Just get the footlocker, elementalist. I shall pay you triple what ever you normally charge for tasks like this if you ask no further questions.”
A raised brow, and a nod.

The setting sun was painting the underbelly of the clouds a crimson red by the time I emerged from Steering’s Tavern onto the docks. Ifga Drun had left long before, several times stressing the importance of my waiting until no one outside could reasonably expect that we had spoken.
Nostalgic Terakeyans come to distant lands to settle after a lifetime of civil warfare will tell you that the Mhag Ma docks combine foreign cultures in a place where rich, poor, nobleborn and lowborn alike may come to meet and share experiences. The concept does sound quite charming, I certainly cannot disagree to that, but I vehemently disagree with the notion nonetheless. The Mhag Ma docks combines only two things, shit and sea water. The end result is neither pleasant nor particularly useful, and it baffles me that even the notorious war veteran’s nostalgia can do anything to change that.
The docks were abuzz with activity, the Morning Cartels only now appearing from their hives, some of them carrying nondescript jars and ominously green liquids in bottles, some of them burying their hands deep in their pockets in vain attempts to conceal what ever products they would try to sell in the alleys of Mhag Ma. A few of the cartel members nodded in greeting as I passed them, few of them younger than me despite my own youth. The Morning Cartels consisted of boys and girls, for the most part, and most of them ones I had acquainted myself with at one time or another. Not for the products they sold – I do well enough without powdered whiteroot – but because the Cartels were closely tied to the city guard. For reasons mostly pertaining to my own personal safety, I could afford no oversight when it came to the city guard.
I headed down the docks toward the piers, darting between smoke-dulled fishermen and various all-too-drunken sailors that stumbled haphazardly in no particular direction. The cobble underfoot was wet with the same nasty combination that seemed to cover all of the docks, though it had thinned out significantly until it was no more than a barely visible layer gathering in puddles here and there. What few stands remained open oozed the thick, perfumed smell of herbs and concoctions that, by necessity, had to be woefully strong to pierce the stench that lay over the docks like a blanket.
By the time I reached the pier, I had been over Ifga Drun of Muerin and his proposed job half a dozen times and the invitation to the Castle, delivered by an Eyeless with no interest in my history of questionable practises, twice that. I could not make either add up and I most certainly could not make the two events fall together in any meaningful way. I’d be the first to admit that I rarely received job offers, much less from men in any position to pay well (hells should know that my purse echoed sadly empty but for a trio of pitiful copper crowns), but that was an effect of my predisposition toward safety above zeal more than anything. Why had Ifga Drun sought me out? He knew of my aptitude for elementalism, which was a remarkable feat of itself, but I could not deny that there were more suitable men in Mhag Ma than I to carry out every request that could reasonably appear in the mind of a man such as Drun.
And yet he had come to me. The very idea defied my attempts at logic (I rarely succeeded in my search for an answer as I ventured down the path of logic).
My thoughts were interrupted by a hooded Cartel member crashing into me. His head knocked into mine with a bump and he subsequently dropped a heavy porcelain jar onto my right foot. The boot absorbed some of the impact, but it hurt badly nonetheless. Porcelain is heavy. A steaming pile of obscenities erupted from my mouth, then his in response, as we both immediately assigned the blame firmly to the other half. He grunted something inaudible
“What the shit do you think you’re doing?” he shouted, staggering to his feet, pants mostly covered in sludge, “don’t you look where you’re headed?”
I met his glare with a level stare, taking more interest in the reddening tone of his skin than the content of his words. The man slurred, indicating that he had drunk a fair amount of alcohol. I glanced in the direction from which I thought he’d come, noticing a mossy plank sign that hung from a iron bar protruding from one of the buildings along the road. It read STUCHIU’S BAR. Two more Cartel members were stumbling out of the door, neither looking any more sober than the man in front of me.
“Funny, I felt as if you really weren’t looking closely either.” I sneered, sidestepping and striding past the man.
Stars exploded into my vision as something exploded against the back of my head. I staggered forward, almost toppling but regaining my balance before I could take a dip into the sludge. Rage ignited in my head, swelling into my arms like a tidal wave. Somewhere in the farthest corner of my head a voice told me “Uh-uh, don’t!”, but the vast majority of my consciousness (which was rapidly giving way to instinctive aggression) said otherwise.
I flung myself at the Cartel member in a flurry of fists and knees and snapping jaws. There was a mild undertone of astonishment to my rage as I tasted blood in my mouth that seemed to not belong to me. Did I bite him? The Cartel member raised his fists to his face in what was a weak attempt at a defensive stance, but I swept his hands aside with one hand and cracked his nose with the other.
The two other Cartel members had taken notice and were scuttling across the dirty cobbled road, one of them reaching for a club coached at his hip. That should have been a sign for me to put some distance between me and the bleeding Cartel member below me, but I was caught too deep in my hole of anger and kept battering the man instead.
Around us, the crowd had scattered. Beyond the man’s two armed friends, none of the other Cartel members seemed overly eager to come to their companion’s aid and everyone else made sure to not even glance in the direction of the three Cartel members.
“He’s half-dead, man, back off!” said the Cartel member with the club. He unstrapped the heavy wooden weapon but made no move to put it to use. “Move off and we’ll put this beating off, Kian.”
At the mention of my name, I was given pause. And who are you? Why does everyone know my name today? I repeated the question out loud, wiping my bloodied knuckles against the man’s shirt. A mean gesture, perhaps, but my knuckles were dirty.
“The Morning Cartel knows you well. The Shoguns have had dealings with you and your sphere in the past, and our knowledge of you is little but an extension of that. We would greatly appreciate if you laid off the violence and went about your business so that we can go about ours. And judging by the state of your hands,” I looked down to find the skin on both hands cracked and bleeding from a number of minor cuts, “you would likely do well to agree.”
I said nothing, merely nodding as I got to my feet. The two standing Cartel members looked relieved as I gave the man on the ground a nudge with my foot, pushing him into a particularly nasty puddle of bile, and moved on. I was very aware of the stares that seemed to almost pierce my back as I marched the last distance toward the pier, but I did not turn to meet their eyes. I had no reason to.

The farthest pier in the Mhag Ma docks, surprisingly, was the cleanest. Perhaps it was that the numerous surrounding piers – all carved from massive blocks of stone imported from the great Nadari quarries of the east – acted as a layer of protection from the wind and the waves, or perhaps it was that few really ventured as far as the Long Pier to conduct their business. No matter the reason, the Long Pier was as clean as it could possibly be given its near vicinity to the Sludge Lake, and actually stepping out onto it was a relief for my sense of smell. The stench of shit quickly fading, I was able to take a few deep breaths to calm my raving mind.
I rubbed the cracked skin of my right knuckles with my relatively unhurt left hand and groaned. My frenzies take me far beyond matters of little import, including the ordinary human sense of pain. When I… cross the line, caution and care are forced down from their position of power to the very lowest dungeon of my mind, where they can extort no control over my actions. However, once the frenzy subsides and my conscious mind flows back into the ragged hole left by it, so returns also the pain that my mind had previously suppressed. A few cracked knuckles and torn skin can hurt a surprising amount, I now discovered, and severely limit one’s ability to properly move one’s hand.
I spat a set of Velicean obscenities that would have horrified any decently raised person and made my way down the pier.
The first thing that would stand out to you about the Long Pier is its complete absence of embellishment. Only a fool would argue that those ancient men who built Mhag Ma in times immemorial weren’t impractical sons of goats with an eye for the ornate and the arcane but little else. This desire to embellish was evident throughout Mhag Ma, where the crooked marble roads and arced ivory gates spoke volumes of architectural brilliance. But for all the artistic talent those ancient craftsmen had possessed, practicality had not been a strong suite.
And so it always struck me – and still would, no doubt – as puzzling that the Long Pier was renowned for its lack of embellishment. There were no decorations or similarly grand sculptures in sight, only the cobble underfoot overflowing with salt water and lines upon lines of boxes and crates being unloaded from the few but large ships that still came all the way to the Long Pier. A number of sailors marched down a wooden gangway thrown down from the ship nearest me, the five (they may in fact have been six, though my otherwise good memory betrays me) of them carrying a massive iron tube mounted upon a set of wheels. I had no name for the item they were carrying, though I recognised it as one of the Nadari siege weapons that the Molten Army so coveted. I gave the group a curt nod by way of greeting and was met with evil glares as the weapon slipped, crashing into the ground with a thundering bang that seemed to echo through my head.
Moving past the evening commotion, I passed the last ships anchored to the Long Pier and continued onto the unused area, which accounted for fully half of the Pier’s length. A number of crates, some broken, strewn across the cobbles. A set of jars, set down next to a lamp post that had long since been destroyed by rust. A wooden bench, covered in algae that had no doubt been washed up with the waves one particularly stormy day. But beyond this, nothing.
When I reached the end of the Long Pier, my feet were as sore as my mood. It may come as a shocking revelation to you now, but I once despised everything in the way of both cold and moisture. Being forced to take the long walk through the Mhag Ma docks onto the piers was not something I would hate doing by nature, but I could not deny that the docks had a knack that was quite uncanny in nature of wetting both the inside of my boots and the clothes that were made to be dry.
I shuddered, looking around.
No one but me.
I snorted, leaning back against the lamp post, already contemplating turning around and heading back down the pier. I had been forced to put up with retracted job offers in the past, more than one of them instead ending in unpleasantly close encounters with both the Spyglass and the city guard, none of which should have any business in my nearest vicinity.
In spite of this, I could not shake the palpable sense of truth that had clung to Drun’s words. I rate myself among Mhag Ma’s better judges of character, and I had detected no deceit or ill will in Drun’s words, no desire to fool the only elementalist in the Regent’s city for unknown purposes.
And still the Long Pier was empty.
Had Ifga Drun set this up as a way of putting me in the city guard’s sights after all? The possibility was a very real one. If a man’s name is Ifga Drun and his face is not that of a grit-faced inbred then he is truly worthy of suspicion.
However, the fact that he had known of my elementalism made me reluctant to believe that Drun would have come to meet me only to pull me all the way out onto the Pier to have me arrested and my head put on a spike. No sane man would freely walk into reach of an elementalist with deceit in mind, no matter how safe one might think the venture to be. No, Drun had to know without a shadow of a doubt that if I were to find myself betrayed and forced into a corner with no bloodless way out, he would be the first to fall, even if his demise meant my own in extension. I could not imagine that he was ignorant of my death-wrought frenzies.
You could have asked me, Kian, said Apathy, my inquisitiveness is a crucible for common men. Drun would not have been able to withstand.
Indeed, Empathy weighed in with a sour undertone of contempt, your belief in your own ability to remain well outside the confines of city guard scrutiny is worrying. Remember that your safety is regarded no higher than ours, and that by risking yours you similarly risk ours.
“Oh, I had thought that you were long gone.” I muttered in reply, the awakening of the two spirits hardly something I had desired. They were useful in truth when their abilities could be put to good use, but Apathy in particular was prone to a kind of scolding I did not appreciate in the slightest. Their presence in my mind was a necessity and an opportunity that I sometimes cherished for the power and potential it brought me, but frequently I wanted little more than for the two of them to remain asleep in my mind, awaiting command.
We awaken when it is in your best interest, Kian, as you know.
“Your silence would be in my best interest,” I grunted, “your voices sear the inside of my head.”
They do not, Apathy said, our presence in your mind does not truly affect your body physically. We enable your elementalism, true, but for your body itself we may as well not exist.
“Not existing sounds very tempting, please continue down that line of thought.”
I believe someone is approaching, Empathy said as a cold wind swept across the Pier. As quickly as they had awoken, the spirits returned to their state of non-existence.
And indeed, a figure was approaching from the same direction I had come from mere minutes prior. I squinted against the salty evening breeze, trying to make out any distinctive features, but I could see none. I leaned back against the lamp post once more, in no hurry to make contact. If the man were whomever was in possession of Drun’s item, then observation was worth the time.
As the figure got closer, a chill ran down my spine. I caught myself before I could gasp and reveal my astonishment, although I was convinced that the figure was well aware of the fear that gripped me in that moment.
It had no face.
Or rather, it might have had a face. That is a distinct possibility. However, no face was visible by virtue of intensely dark and compact shadows swirling around the figure’s entire body. From the figure’s toes, which were bare, and running all the way across its powerfully built body, there were shadows dancing around like the shadows cast by a brazier on a dark evening. Though the shadows twisted and churned around legs and arms, periodically flashing a white linen cloth beneath, they remained a solid wall around its head. Where the eyes would have been were only two very small holes, glowing with an emerald green.
I had never seen the like of this being and was unsure how to react. The sprites that sometimes venture into the corporeal world from the Beyond were creatures I could handle, in spite of their hideous appearance and unmatched malice. The demons that likewise came to ravage Mhag Ma I could manage. But when one comes face to face with a being of shadow, whose properties are as unknowable as its intent, what can one really do? An involuntary tremble took my legs, my teeth, and I hoped that the creature – what ever it was – did not possess a keen enough eye to spot my signs of weakness.
What does one do when faced with a being that seems to emanate evil?
“Hello.” I said.

The first seed of a story

1

Civil war is a bloody thing. A horrible thing. It scars not only the body, but the hearts of the nation and its people. A civil war inflicts harm that is not ever fully visible or even wholly comprehensible, but nevertheless there. Aching. Hurting. An ordinary war might leave piles of smoldering corpses and appalling stories that will forever haunt the memories of the people, but a civil war… A civil war does something else. It kills the soul. Erodes the will to live on, shatters faith in one another.
A civil war is the murderer of hope. In civil war, neighbors turn on one another to fight a war neither wants anything to do with, by virtue of ethnicity or religion. Political ideologies.
Is that worth dying for?
Some say yes.
Some act upon that, as is within their right.
But there comes a point when it is no longer right. When it is no longer justifiable to fight, yet the battles don’t cease. We have become to stuck in our warring ways, too engrossed in the desire to beyond all emerge victorious. What started it is no longer important. It has taken a distant back seat to the primal instinct, survival of the fittest. Cull the meek.
A very special type of person emerges in a war of that kind. A hard person, a person whose mercy has long since burned to the ground, leaving room for the ability to revel in the suffering of others, to set aside conscience so that brutal efficiency may allow for a greater volume of slaughter.
I am not trying to impose my beliefs on you.
I am trying to tell where I went wrong.
What happened to me?

2

History classes talk an unhealthy amount about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a way, that is understandable. It was the first time a weapon of true mass destruction had been used on living, breathing and innocent people who had done nothing wrong aside from the great crime of being born on the wrong side of an ocean. It set a dangerous precedent by displaying that humanity possesses enough power to eradicate enormous masses of people with but the press of a button.
But I had never appreciated those lessons. The event was long in the past, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki had both risen to become two of Japan’s great technological hubs. What interest should I have in an event eighty years past, when events of similar events had occurred since?
A fifth and final massive concussion thundered through the ear, sending spikes of pain through my ears and head and seemingly turning the world on its head. I would have confused the tremors for an earthquake if not for their unerring regularity. Powerful waves, five meters or higher, rolled across the water in strangely exact patterns even as the world seemed to crumble before the ocean’s calm. Although the waves were as abominable tidal waves ripped right out of a sailor’s horror story, a distinct calm lay over the ocean before me that wasn’t broken by the force of distant explosions.
The subsequent minor concussions that had followed the previous explosions never came, and the rumbling sound of buildings crashing down into themselves in the distance was replaced by an eerie silence.
I waited for the length of a heartbeat. Two. Three.
No more explosions. No more tremors.
I ran toward the pier with the desperation of a man who knows that he has only one way out, only a single path before him that doesn’t lead to certain death.
In the distance, directly above Piura’s center, a pitch-black circular object appeared in the sky. It rotated slowly, almost casually, as if there was nothing in the world to worry about and not a single reason for haste. It remained firmly in place as I unfastened my boat’s ties to the pier and punched the WAKE combination into the reader. The engine came alive with a muted hum. The City of Eternal Heat had truly lived up to its name, and the sun overhead did its very best to dry me out completely by pulling every last drop of water out my skin. I wiped my forehead with my sleeve and hoped that it would get cooler quickly as I headed north.
Briefly, my thoughts wandered to my family, still left somewhere in West Paru. I hadn’t gotten to say good bye, but that in itself bothered me less than it should have. I wondered if someone had given them a half-decent burial amongst friends.
With the sun burning my back, I headed north along the coast, away from the carnage I had been a crucial part in.

3

An intelligent man once said that there are two things that are infinite: the universe and human stupidity. Science quickly proved the first one wrong, and the second part of the famous quote was later revised. The new quote read “Only one thing is infinite, and that is human curiosity.”
Apt, really. As the first race to achieve a higher level of intelligence, it would have been strange if we were not also the race to most desire furthering of that intelligence, maximizing our knowledge. Curiosity was at the heart of the human race, responsible for our every advance. Every frontier of science and every philosophical question thought over the span of millenia have advanced far from their starting points, a fact some took great pride in. Human curiosity is a powerful weapon, a driving force that propels out race ever forward.
I have revised Einstein’s quote myself. Others laud the human mind for its greatness and its potential for love, but I have taken on a less optimistic outlook. I had been an optimist once, until the war tore West Paru apart. My optimism faded as my friends died in the border skirmishes. At one point, I concluded that I was the last man standing, and I realized that I no longer cared. My compassion had died, trampled by another power. A stronger driving force.
“Only one thing is infinite, and that is humanity’s potential for malice.”
Somewhere behind me, the capital of the Piura Region exploded as a beam of energy struck the center of the city like lightning. A few long moments passed before the sound reached me. And when it did reach me,the air did not carry the sound of an explosion, but of a million screaming voices belonging to men and women whose lives were now ended.
I cracked a thin, tired smile. 
Cull the meek.