Sword of the Outsider: Chapter One

hi, readers mine! Those of you following me on Twitter will be aware that I’ve been working on a novella dubbed Sword of the Outsider, for which those of you who aren’t following me there can find more details in this thread.

Also, you should really be following me on Twitter.

Edit, 5/15/2021: As a warm-up I went through to correct a few typos, revised the way I handled certain early points about a character’s gender identity, and added two small content blocks concerning the Outsider’s ideas about the present tense of memory as well as working a certain key symbol into the climax. Total additions: about 300 words. I’ve also replaced the alpha version of the Outsider’s Sigil with its completed form, both which I should mention are my own design work. Hope you enjoy!

Edit, 7/16/2021: swapped out the previous text with the text from the line-edits. Total word-count’s down by about 360 words; added some details, removed a lot of redundant lines, reordered descriptions and ideas here and there to make them flow better and/or easier to understand. Hopefully this should make for a much better reading experience!

Also, snuck in one more reference to a story I like. Come on, I had to.

The Outsider’s Sigil. Don’t mind the watermark–I mean, come now, this IS a very good design. I’d like to receive due credit for it!

Anyway, I’ve finished the first chapter and you can find that below the asterisks!

Content warnings are as follows:

Mental: cognitive dissonance, dissociation-like PoV, implied gender dysphoria, overstimulation, mention of second person, possible hallucinations/breakdown of reality, threats/prophesy of annihilation
Physical: body horror, implied gender dysphoria, mentions of gore, torture, violence, and death; paralysis
Social: gaslighting, hypocrisy, othering, toxic masculinity
Supernatural: breakdown of reality, eldritch cognition (PoV, morals)

Please tell me straight away if there are more I need to add!


Chapter 1

She, Who I Call Myself

I want this story to hurt you.

Pale fingers poise upon woven shadows. Interlacing gleams, silvers and faint lilacs, mimic crosswise silk bands on the grip past the broad-faced black handguard carved as a gateway to the abyss. A forefinger’s blade-breadth lies outside the curving swath of confined miasma that serves for its scabbard. Shining whorls upon the flats recall steel, pattern forged, yet oily and ever-shifting.

The undulating border where the edge begins is utmost blackness, true umbra made manifest. A blade longer than my leg outstretched and measured from hip to straining toe-tips. Wickedly curved. In that edge dwells my heart. In my heart its bite. The meeting resonates a breath before my pale fingers seal the black razor edge behind the seam of scabbard-maw and black guard. A single metal clash merged and multiplied with a thunderclap, with a split moment’s howling wind, with its own preemptive echoes.

Ahead lies only golden-brown sand studded by black pillars and crumbling archways. A roseate and foreign star hangs against the rust-red skies. Tell yourself nothing lies behind. It did not happen for you. The successive crashes that shake the ground, their crumpling shockwaves that send dust spiraling on the hot wind against my back with a beguiling scent tangy and bitter like warm iron on the tongue… no. Forward, the silvery sabatons encasing my feet. Forward, I angle the umbral hilt.

I grant this shape so few eyes. What for sight beyond the flesh? Tell yourself it cannot exist, that none can see what falls behind. Know only sight that shines kinship with yours.

Kindred sight looks forward to the endless wastes.

I am the form that I am, human shapes woven from embracing dark-mire. Like forlorn smoke and irredeemable ember the shadow winds over limbs shaped into muscle as though sinew and tendon make a difference to me. Where they gather thickest the shadows take texture, silky mottlings mantling shoulders molded by the cleaving sword’s weight. The well-toned waist, the broad hips, the frequent hints at heavy and indulgently full breasts sometimes unveiled, or perhaps coalescing from, the sprawling darkness emanating in tendrils behind my spine where it reaches forward over my ribs. I meld with it, it with I, each trailing into the other. Silhouette obscured.

Sight: my favorite construct.

Call these shapes whatever you desire so long as you call them feminine. Do not call for honor to flesh and flesh’s fey mutations. Call these shapes what they are, for that is the echo of me, and it is my will that makes me woman.

Upon my brow the shadow clings soft and cool, nocturne water’s kiss. Snow-white hair beneath the black veil hemmed by silver thorns and a thousand lurking slit-eyes—perhaps only embroideries. Of the visage I choose, only a diamond jaw and full lips painted black emerge from the veil’s obscurance.

I halt. A soft and semi-liquid sliding sound drifts from the path now past. It ends with a final wet report lost in the hot wind’s rustle against the golden sands.

“To the banishment of dreck, and the annulment of the Enemy’s hymn,” I say. “Still, where is the horn that was blowing?” Again, the hot wind’s caress. Ahead the endless wastes, rolling sometimes. Never rising to a peak. “Foolishness,” I finally mutter. The umbral grip pulses under tightening fingers: hot, cold, numbing in tandem.

Will claws me into the mournful air. I am jet-black, prickling pinpoints blooming all around my center. The roseate star’s light splits into component rays, or loses itself in the watery ripples fringing my sky-punctures. I split the stale-fabric lattice that divides atoms and ether. Hissing like molten rock against the ocean, rasping like parchment torn and torn and torn, endlessly. An ovoid gouge. Now ten. Now one-hundred eleven.

Each portal opens a story yet untold: the thousand towers of a crystal citadel where creatures of talon, bone, and tentacle scuttle back along paths crafted of spiral-carved gem. Roiling fumes on a charnel abyss. Horned figures lash their tails and brandish igneous blades. An echoing chasm of countless thin and sharp-edged metalloid wings, arcs, and spars, all unanchored and grinding. Bolts spark along their ridges. Ghostly silhouettes soar, fading into clarity and out again.

One-hundred eight other paths, equally enticing, loom as an enormous segmented sphere around my form. But I am their resonance already: the open ways ahead too well answer and amplify the pulsation that emanates me.

“Always against causality,” I say, coiling backward with my left foot’s bracing slide. “A capricious strand, less knowable than chance.”

Many eyes widen, many forms dart, many powers array on each gateway’s other side. I strain space until it breaks. The umbral blade howls. I flash upward and twin spirals unite, a shearing helix.

All portals collapse, each vista halved into a maelstrom of stolen colors. Thought asunder, ruptured memory, sound waves split: the charnel realm’s frozen glimpses mix with stained glass and silken banners. The metalloid spars blend into a towering mountain perforated by a hundred smooth-sided caverns. The crystal citadel’s slivers melt in blood-red ocean. Echoed auras merge and mutate.

I spin above shredded potential. My right arm’s sweep seals the umbral bade in its midnight sheath. Sensation doubles like fingers opening from a fist, a pleasant ache, as a second arm unfolds from wrist, from elbow, from shoulder. I become an arrowhead distortion and plunge down through the final spiral-cleave. Two cuts side by side transect the first upon every portal-corpse. They plow the golden sands and rupture the black stone below. Cobalt radiance billows from the rifts, making the shadow all the starker beside it.

I am the cocoon of power enclosing the discordant morass above. I am two hands pulling the shadow-scabbard and umbral blade in opposite harmony to sheathe it, and I am the will that spins the essence-storm on an unseen spindle. All condenses. Echoes drown each other. The abyss-wrought guard clashes home against the scabbard’s oily-haze maw.

I turn and face the final portal.

The gate rises ten times my height and breadth. A deep blue night. Nodulous white-stone buildings spill amber light from windows framed by lazy ceramic curlicues. Here and there curving rampways bridge their heights, anchored through tunnels in the concave sides of skyward spike-towers. The village square below anchors four cobbled streets in green sheens. They pass through a thicket of peaked roofs, brick or greened copper or painted and latticed facades, through gables and pavilions. Winding stairways stretch for the high towers. My amusement radiates and fades unanswered. My black-painted lips form a smile that glistens too brightly for the wan moon’s light.

A last chance gust carries crystalline dust in an arc around me: gradation from deepest azure through pink into blood red that glitters against the restful night. I pass the world-threshold and draw my bracing shadows through behind, suturing the rift.

Floral scents waft from thick-hung vines and branching plants with shaggy fronds coating their branches. Feral minds note my coming. They emanate: sharp startlement, ticklish interest, sometimes cold fear. A hundred coursing air-currents meet my aura far away above. They are within me, and I within them, felt by feeling that needs no skin to contain it. My steps ring on tiles tinted with dusk-hue golds, oranges, and reds.

“Pleasant respite under darkened skies,” I murmur. A tingling note cuts the encroaching clouds. It sharpens, buzzes, blazes to a white-light flare fracturing the stygian night. I ride the thunder stroke’s resonance back to myself where I stand, and recombine as my fullest form at the first raindrop’s patter atop my veiled hood. What other answer is there? I throw back my head and laugh loudly. I walk for the door twenty paces ahead where music, laughter, and clattering plates promise warmth.

Promises given so idly are seldom kept so well.

The delirious glows take shape to become a cozily-appointed tavern, sturdy-trestle tables heavy with food, life, and mirth. Tapestries, paintings, booths plush despite vagrant tufts. Wait. There. Rude pressure like the unsought specter who heralds a dream’s change into nightmare. Half-seen figments: a portly creature tumbling through a hall lined by sawblades yet bouncing harmlessly away, screaming and making no sound. A spine-backed being plated in gold. They dance atop a marble altar while a second self screams for them to stop. Dreaming minds through the musty dark wood rafters. Bedrooms above. An inn, then. This knowledge diffracts my thoughts about the tableau before me.

I condense. Time’s causal mirage bends around my singular point.

A broad-shouldered human gesture becomes a pose, sloshing tankard outstretched. Golden-haired, golden-bearded, eyes blue like glacial ice. A gallant cloak, an elegant vest, a long sword with its crosswise hilt… this one kindles disinterest.

The one reclining beside him restores it. Scales more golden still and five faceted green eyes mark a narrow visage. Hooking bone-spurs stud long jaws crested by ridges broadening only slightly into skull-like sockets. Swaying cilia all along the cheeks. Mirror-polished plate armor with steel-blue tint, a bronzy tabard, a tall rectangle shield and a straight-bladed sword with a hilt of golden spirals and a grip of black leather.

Oh. A second essence belies their own: a cloying incense reek against interpolated soul-pores. A filmy orange underlay inside the mortal’s blue aura, an ocean of rust-ridden sludge polluting a nascent star. A god’s jealous veil. Thus they mark their sworn.

Curious. The others pour themselves into the space around them. “I am he”, “I am she” “I am they, or them, or xem.” They tint my cosmic mirror by their own truths. This godsworn’s aura claims “he,” and yet I sense… well. I shall not transgress the unwritten plea. “He” says the aura. “He” shall I echo. Perhaps it’s the truth he needs nurturing to fulfill.

Another human leans away from the gold-headed hero and his froth-headed tankard, hands crossed before her face. Ale-flecks nonetheless dapple her spectacles and leave tiny moist sparkles on her pinkish cheeks. Dark-haired, silver-eyed, wearing sleeveless purple robes and a white undershirt beneath a broad black hat. An electric rush enlivens her essence. Aura sight shows phantasmal light and shadow outlining the muscle-fibers beneath her skin—a mage. The treacherous current’s conduit.

The broad-shouldered, four-armed figure behind the bar leans forward on one elbow with a proprietor’s air: half placid dominion, half angst. Two potbellies sway side by side on his muscular form. Intermittent slits march along his arms and the wingspan muscles settling his round eyeless head atop his torso.

And what’s this? A humanoid figure staggers towards the table where the two humans and their god-sworn companion sit. Three platters hover in his wake, heaped heavy with food. He wears a deep blue tabard over steel mail. A sword hangs through a holster on his belt. A long and gently-curved blade. A black-lacquered scabbard. A grip bound by white silk, braided, with blackened rayskin under it. Three prong-tipped tails sprout as a bundle from its bearer’s read.

One wraps the sword for comfort.

Red and bronze scales form spiral-arrays on his dark brown skin. They anchor his clawed fingers. So too for the four recurve horns with bladed inner faces framing his sculptured oval face. A secondary mouth filled with many-rowed obsidian fangs underlines his cheekbones, and a wide third eye in blue compliments the golden slits under delicate white brows like the dreadlocked white hair pulled into a brace behind his head.

A psionic’s resonant barrier veils his aura from me. A surprise. A puzzle. A challenge?

Seek the inn’s other guests by your own sight if you wish. To this moment and its shapers, they do not matter.

A faint smile finds my lips. I watch the four-horned demon’s eyes find me first. Next the mage. Now the golden-scaled godsworn. Expressions fester. The godsworn reaches over-ready fingers for his spiral-hilted sword. I elect to match the time they keep. By that pace, all eyes latch upon me with swiftness they shall later call uniform. Now those eyes dart, that by counting others each may assure themselves they witness the same visitation. The glances that began alone drift back to me together.

I am slowing, but still full enough for now to witness the waves. The golden-haired human mouth births them with spittle and hoppy runoff: luminescent sine-spheres growing fainter the further they try to carry through the chamber. They smash apart on table edges, roll along his companions’ flesh, splinter through their fabrics, and become faint glimmers where they pass through my shadows. The sine-tides emerge altered, pure meaning resurrected from one tomb of speech and condemned at once to another.

Sound: my favorite hallucination.

“Vletru, hold the sword,” the golden-haired human says. He thinks to whisper: “but not too much.” Every inch and molecule unclaimed serves for a thousand tiny ears. Admitted or not, he shouts into me. I step forward.

“Keep your distance!” The mage says. Trembling legs raise her upright. The current ripples under her  touch, through the planar fabric. Omnicolor sprites and rays well up around her like gaps in clouds unseen. How does one keep distance?

I choose an answer. Space wrinkles for this black-veil body, and all it clasps wrinkles with it. Latticed walls, wooden beams, untaken tables and abandoned tankards fold inwards around the event horizon. Fearful cries mask a lone goblet’s clatter against the bowl-warped floor. I am the fateful weight at the deepening vale’s center.

“What in the name of ruin are you doing to my inn?” the innkeeper shouts.

“Stop! Stop or I will cast on you!” the mage shouts.

Such ungrateful responses. I let the warp subside. Frantic eyes seek anew to assure panicked hearts that the patterns they call reality are still there. Patrons shuffle their feet. Drinking and muttered talk return.

“Calm, Mulreg. Just an illusion,” the golden-haired human says.

“There’s a goblet on the floor,” this mage, Mulreg, answers.

“She could’ve knocked it off with all manner of arcane tricks,” the golden-haired human says, opening a hand to one side. “Even Ichril could’ve done that.”

The anxious demon’s aura twangs. Ah. I begin to understand.

“We don’t even know if she can speak Keneb,” Vletru says, collecting his tower shield.

“Cold greetings on a storm-wracked night,” I say. Their shock nourishes me. “I clarify: I cannot speak Keneb.”

“Clarify? That doesn’t clarify anything. You speak it right now,” the innkeeper says.

“I promise you,” I say, savoring the unheard words on my lips, “I am not.”

“I don’t even know if we should be speaking to her,” Ichril says. He sends the food-platters drifting down to the table where Vletru, Mulreg, and the gold-haired human sit.

“Ichril’s right,” that human says. “Look at her. It’s as though the night decided to wrap itself around a fresh maiden’s corpse.” Beneath his words Ichril ventures “And can we stop saying our names in front of her, we don’t know if” before surrendering to apathy’s muffling. I find the simile of myself with the graceful dead duly flattering. I blush beneath the veil. My shadows flutter in response. “See? She melts into the darkness, it oozes her out again. We don’t know how much is flesh and bone. She could be hollow inside.”

“Flesh and bone? A penance, a memory, bonds long undone,” I say. “The answer you seek, the answer within, is nothing. I wear no skin. I am sense, self, soul undiluted.” Trailing shadow-sleeves welcome pale fingers. “I am power.”

“We’ve heard it all before,” the golden-haired man says. “One mystic’s like another.”

“I don’t know about that,” Ichril says. His three eyes focus on me. “You seem like you plan to stay. Rather than leave us to guess, why not tell us yourself: who or what are you?”

“Must a what and a who fly separate courses?” I ask. I twirl my fingers through the umbra’s embrace. They unravel layer by layer, discolored strands. Skin, tendons, and veins unwind from glittering black-metal bones and dissipate with my black blood into shadow until my right hand ceases. The onlookers widen eyes, cover mouths, fight their rising bile with retching strain. I turn my forearm. My right hand is whole.

“Never mind my answer. Your companion forever prefers his own,” I say. To the prodigal demon I give my longest gaze. He returns it without words. I let my turning steps and twitching head absorb me about until my wait turns fruitless. I look to the proprietor at the long, smoky room’s opposite end. “You call this place an inn. I may stay?”

“Say no,” Ichril says. His triumvirate eyes would surely pin me where I stand if they possessed such power. “I can’t even sense her. It’s…” He gulps down spit. To what end this act? Is it a ritual means to eat feelings? “It’s as though she’s not there, and she took the whole front of the inn with her. All the auras are just gone.”

Ah, yes. That must be worrisome.

“Well, we’ve learned something else Ichril can’t do,” the golden-haired human says. He spews his laughter into the stagnating air. “Feel a woman!” Other throats at other tables rank their mirth behind his. “It’s been a long day. We’ve had a few drinks. Naturally we’re more vulnerable to parlor tricks.” He gestures to the nearest empty table. “Seat yourself, shadow woman. I was just regaling the patrons with the tale of our latest adventure.”

I look toward the innkeeper. “You own this place, do you not? This inn comprises your domain, not his. Does this man speak for you?”

“That man,” he answers, with an overwrought gravity I know well, “is Gerakaeto Mohs.” This surname deserves more than the snicker I muffle against my sleeve. Yet the innkeeper has shown me no disrespect, so I constrain instinct and let him speak on. “And those with him are the Vanguard of Shailavach, the same fine town where you now stand. It was their strength and courage that saved us all from destruction. You will show them due respect if you stay under my roof.”

A server bearing heavy platters pushes through the rattling swing-door to the innkeeper’s left. Ruddy-faced and cheery, he turns his shaggy head from banter at the cooks too late to avoid walking into Ichril. Anguished clatters and cutlery shrieks spin out on the smoke-laden air with the scents of beer and a soon-wasted roast.

Now I stand beside Ichril. Heat-haze vibrations thrum for a breath while I burn the fall’s velocity into warmth and my phantom forces resettle the meals on their trays. No gratitude answers. Instead I am struck by jarring eminence from every mind: two dozen translucent blips pulse out, press me as electric tingles and shattering glass, then dissipate.

“What in the name of all hells was that?” the innkeeper shouts, clutching his skull.

I drift the meals back onto the server’s hands. He reels away. I perceive that my closeness brings discomfort, so again I am standing where I started. The same jarring rebounds against me. This time it echoes within the encircling minds until they must force it out with shouts of panic and pain, tears and nails on wood and weapons drawn.

“Stop doing that!” Ichril yells. He rests his fingers on his sword’s white grip.

“I am sorry,” I say, for I am. “I forget places and ways akin to yours. I find swiftest harmony with…” I twitch my head sideways. Then I remember how these tics read to unfamiliar souls, and straighten. “With elsewhere. With other ways.”

“Calm, Ichril,” Gerakaeto says. Yet he grimaces and laces his space with a jittering. Something cold. Acrid. “It’s nothing we’ve not experienced before.” Beneath denial’s clamor, his words sing truth. I recall another by it: about places. About the ways their people fill them. Emptiness needs its own space. I remember why I harm souls like these. “Cease these games, mystic. No one here is impressed. And you’ve gleaned plenty of names from us, but I’ve not heard one from you.”

“A name?” I echo. Can any name sustain my nature with those who refuse to know? I tap my lips, blotting shadow-puffs and refilling the divots with more shadow still. These displays ease the other patrons. I pace under gazes that now grow deeply dry, and at last say, “will you accept this pact? I will tell you a fitting name before I leave.”

Gerakaeto snorts. “That doesn’t surprise me, but I prefer it to you putting on all that show before saying, ‘but I am the Nameless One’ or something like that.”

“How could I be nameless?” I ask. “I have never been eaten.”

“Ichril, is any of this familiar to you?” Vletru asks. He rests his shield beside his chair and slumps. His back-spines rattle on its back-slats. “Perhaps in your Earther traditions?”

“An Earthling?” I ask. “That explains much.” I stir shadows with a dismissing wave. “But I have known Earth too well already. I would hear the promised tale, Gerakaeto Mohs. Recent adventure. Sights yet unseen.”

His companions make half-hearted protests, all trampled under his own words. “As I said, seat yourself—but none of that illusory teleporting! It’s already gotten tiresome!”

I incline my head and pace to the empty table. Everyone I pass leans away from me. Some scrape chair-legs against the floor in hasty retreat. The umbral blade levitates from my shade-sash and poises beside my seat. My shadows spread, seeping along the table’s crevices and running in foggy streams on the aged floor under my plodding sabatons.

“Food and drink nourish with their flavor, though not their substance,” I say to the innkeeper. “Name your price.”

He taps the menu above. “Tell the servers, pay what’s listed. I don’t care what else you think you can offer. The menu says copper, so it’s copper.”

“Numbers bore me when used this way,” I say. I coalesce new matter as a golden disc between my fingers. “Let the mage test this by her arts if you wish. Will gold suffice to justify an evening free from calculation?”

“Give me that,” Mulreg says. She snatches the disc. Magic’s current pours through her flesh’s fibers. Its irradiant potential sheds colors and dulls until it wafts through the gold as a bronze pulse: once, twice, thrice. Mulreg pushes her spectacles up her button nose with a twitching finger. “Its molecular composition is odd. There are trace elements I can’t quantify. But it shouldn’t be harmful, and it’s certainly gold.” She clears her throat. “This is also about five gold pieces worth, but I digress.”

“As I have said,” and I steeple pale fingers before myself, “numbers bore me when used this way. If you cherish numbers’ for numbers’ sake alone, I wish you joy by them, but I prefer knowing the universe by other constructs. Calculate the weight of a dream for me, mortal mage. Tell me the equation for life, or against it. ”

“On this count I agree with Gera,” Mulreg says. “You’re using emotional reasoning. Mental tricks and logic-loops meant to trick me into imagining answers to fill the blanks. Well, it won’t work. Numbers transcend that. Numbers are consistent,” she says, proving she knows nothing about numbers. She drives this false theorem with a finger’s jab against their table. “They give a sense of scale, of objectivity. And I can imagine why a being like you loathes them so, but just because you reject reality isn’t enough to change the fact that math is built right into the laws of physics. All magic is grounded in numbers.”

“I know,” I say. “That should have been the first warning.”

“You know,” Gerakaeto says, “I actually think I understood that one, mystic.” He does not. If he understood it, his eyes would burn out from his skull and his flesh would unravel in melting strands until it freezes as unsupportable sculpture on the copper-stinking air. He does not understand, so he continues: “But enough. Listen well to our story. It’ll teach you a thing or two about what people need.” He clasps the gold medallion around his neck, knuckles whitening with conviction. “What it means to be a hero.”

And with these words I remember another mortal lesson: hatred. I remind myself that I am too prone to it. I stamp it out before it can grow under my skin.

Gera begins to speak. Once begun, he speaks a great deal. His drive to be heard thunders in every word. I know it well: the resonance of one who loves to hear themselves speak. By itself I begrudge this little. A soul must live for itself before it can live for anything else. But here, Gera exceeds me. He sweeps his arms and hurls his voice and thrashes his body as though to fill an animate continuum with frozen afterimages, and so enlarge. I resist. I do not show him the power that serves this purpose best.

Gera speaks about a quest into the southwestern heaths. I glean more from what he implies than what he says. He takes for granted that the more distant regions have landscape-tears, but still speaks about day and night as mirrored spokes on the wheel named time. I judge this plane they call Jurnost a realm unfinished—or a realm willfully punctured. Without knowing the powers who wrought it, who can say whether it’s desirable that a mortal wanderer might plummet through a rift into the abyss?

Gera the warrior styles himself a master swordsman. I decide it would be uncivil to peel his skin for his arrogance. He mentions “the beings that live inside the rifts.” This intrigues me more than anything that follows. His tale journeys away from them until I remember the fatigue of the familiar. A far-flung village. A headsman panicked. A monstrosity prowling. I sit straighter when Gera mentions missing children. Sentences later I learn that they were hidden away elsewhere for reasons unrelated, and safe.

This shift perturbs me not until Gera adds, “So, after we saved the children, we—”

The phrase “meanwhile, Ichril had” occurs often, often linked with its earlier cousin, “we told Ichril to.” I infer that Ichril did a great many things which Gera excused himself from remembering. Ichril had to do these things where Gera did not have to see them. The tale continues until its climax against a great beast that Gera at first describes as “the great beast” and after that, “the vicious beast,” “the evil beast” and at one point, “the dark beast.”

This beast takes shape for me through the very instants when the Vanguard of Shailavach took it apart. Its scales gleam before me when Gera says, “Vletru managed to wedge his shield under the beast’s foot with the other edge against his sword, and that was enough to drive the point through its scales.” Its jaws coalesce when Mulreg blasts them back with “a spell of force,” a vagary gauzier even than I, and the beast’s noxious blood stinks in my nostrils only when Gera finishes, “in its death throes it would’ve bled on me a great deal, and boiled me with its poison ichor, but I was quicker than the end.”

He finishes, clearly proud of this last clause.

I know little about this plane. I prefer to believe I’ve heard a worthy onslaught’s recounting. So when the patrons cheer, I applaud with many clapping shadow-hands.

Perhaps Gera misunderstands. Perhaps he remembers more from his emotions at my entrance than he likes. Perhaps he simply doesn’t like me. Whatever the reason, he twists suddenly to confront me and says, “What tale have you to answer that?”

This stirs out laughter that I sense it would be wiser not to understand. So I look within and consider. The course that brought me here, perhaps? But now I recall what it means to sing out sagas before an indifferent audience. Further, I carved that path through the Dread Enemy’s dregs. To mention them before the uninitiated… why should I not? Oh. I remember now. That would be a slow and craven mass-murder. In my truth, some things are always evil. I do forget sometimes that my truth’s own desires might spawn them.

This meditation spurs me. I offer the essence of the numberless days when I warred against the Unwoken Hierarch—

“I’m sorry, I’ve never heard of that ruler,” Mulreg says.

“Entity,” I say, “though he ruled once, and schemes to rule again. Does the title inspire no inborn response?”

“Well, why is it significant for this Hierarch to be unwoken?” the mage insists.

“I hope to convey that by the tale itself,” I say.

“Please understand. I know that whatever you went through, it means a great deal to you,” Vletru says. “But… you say this story takes place over ‘numberless days.’”

“This battle took place across numberless days, yes,” I say. The umbral blade stirs beside me. The shadows swiften and contort. “Please, seek not to force my past’s metamorphosis with your present like shifting tense. I carry this onslaught within me still. Cannot my present past live side by side with yours? If you but listen, I vow I shall give you its worth by my words. How else can you see the colors my truth might reflect in yours?”

“Ichril?” Vletru asks, his eyes crossing.

“I’d need a cipher for her soul to tell you,” Ichril answers, shaking his head.

They hear, but will not listen. Underneath, I become serration. Eviscerating cold.

“But the days wouldn’t actually have been numberless,” Mulreg says. “You’re here speaking with us, so the battle had a finite, measurable duration.”

“Utterances unsolicited against claims unmade,” I counter. “Does it convey a dire struggle’s spirit to say, ‘it lasted two weeks?” A battle transpires one step, one stroke, one slaying at a time. Yet the battle does in truth remain numberless, for I care not to count its days by memory nor return.”

“Right, because numbers bore you,” Mulreg says, rolling her eyes.

“We’re only asking that you to prove listening to the tale in full will be worth our time,” Gera adds. I remember now that my hatred kindles so easily because I am so often given righteous cause. “You’re unknown to us. We don’t know anybody who vouches for you, and you’ve not exactly gone out of your way to endear yourself to us.”

“Perhaps you’ve a story—sorry, adventure—that involves a little romance?” Vletru suggests, speaking from a definition of helpful synonymous with suicidal. “Everyone likes a boy meets girl tale. Or, er, girl meets boy tale. Or girl meets girl tale!” The godsworn, an aura averring with redoubled violence that he is he, stammers “I don’t judge!”

“Trysts and loves lost and lingering I’ve known and will know again,” I say. “But your leader asked that I sing out an adventure answering your own. I chose one that I hoped held enough kinship to enrich both tellings without painting either as derivative.”

“Well, it’s our time too, you know, that you’re looking to use,” Gera answers. “And in our defense, you’ve had plenty to say tonight. Some would call it grandstanding.”

“Then why, if you found my effusions so overbearing,” I say, rising, “did you ask me to say more?” He attempts to rise. He finds this impossible.

It helps nothing that I have turned the air around him solid from his waist downward.

My darkness coils up. Again I claw the space around us inward, now as eight striated spokes of mingling darkness and light. Distance and scope bow beneath my fury until I tower a hundred feet above these heckling chemical smears with the eight-spoked icon spalling forth behind my silhouette.

My shadows segment the stolen light of torches and gems into fractured nova. My sigil manifests in its heart as a gouge of umbra through the core of light. Overhanging twin fangs meld with skeletal cheekbones above a spearhead chin’s impression, framed by six bladed horns. Two incisive sockets running up and in rather than sideways. Their shapes mirror in darkness the forbidden and radiant icon of the four-point star crowning their apex.

“Grandstanding,” I say, in tones of somber frost and slaughter. “Would you enjoy grandstanding, you mortal bilge, you offal, you wretched dredge from the utmost fathom of cosmic rot?”

“What the hell did you do?” Gera demands. He falls by his own folly. I did not solidify the air around his boot-soles, nor that around his chair’s legs.

“I will have,” I say, and speak the last word into absolute quiet despite all the stirring figures and rising panic, “silence. And you, you miserable creatures, delusive apparitions wrapped in red flesh and bile and such peelable skin, you will listen well. Who am I that you should listen? I’ll make you see me.” Shadow coils. Will snares firelight from torches and entraps the lightning-bolt Mulreg casts towards my veil. “You attempt my murder, waif. Your strike’s meagerness does not absolve you. Your life is now mine to claim whenever I wish. For now, you will kneel, and be thankful that I wish not.”

With sense beyond self I am in the tendons running up her legs. I buckle them down. Her knees crack against the floor. She cries out, soundless.

“And you, godsworn,” I say, glaring at this Vletru, then Ichril, “and you, Udugal wanderer with your idle Muramasa. Your companions face no danger unless you force a true battle. Do you understand? Let the Void devour your perfidious memory if you cannot stand against it, but first I shall have my say! I entered this inn in good faith, seeking essence given freely and freely to give my own. Your town of liars spurns me with preconceived disdain. My offenses were accidents of nature. And such easy accidents!”

My shadows dance for me, giving my words life. First the veiled warrior small beneath towering columns and riven causeways, leaping and launching myself to shear as shadow and fire through horrors of tentacle, blade, and rotting flesh. “I who held the gateway at Viil Geshrada alone when all the carrion-hounds of the deep ways descended! I, who purged the abomination in the overtaken heart of the necropolis Shordag Miliar!”

As spoken, so shown: wreathed by a ten-way nexus of slashing arcs and lightning aurorae, I warp my own shapes around the upward-scything blade-arm swung by that behemoth of seven flanged maws, all hinged through each other and overlapping to shield its miasmal core. The vision changes a third and final time. Here I remember just quickly enough to blur away traitorous details ere they form.

Veiled and grinning, I am half in one place and fully in another—here, my phantom outlines receive a great halberd’s thrust with a half-swording bind. There on the other side, I lunge full-out to drive the umbral blade through the helm-slit on a figure of fluted plate armor and twenty swirling cloth bands. “I, who slew the rogue phase-duelist Zella Faer on the forlorn snows of the Primordial Pale!” My will hurls open the inn’s door behind me.

“I, justify myself?” I shout, strident and sonorous as the thunder stroke that punctuates my words. “Idiocy! But I shall give you this much: the name you demanded! Bury this night in the syllables and tell yourselves that now you know everything!” I know that I should simply snarl the name and depart. But I have remembered rage. Rage must hurl forth, finding no barbs to swell it further, before it can be forgotten again.

“Pray to every broken god and seek atonement until death dies! It shall change nothing! If you have need of me against the Enemy, then to the Enemy’s maw I consign you! I will heed your cries for aid only that I may sup of your charnel reek on the irradiant maelstrom! May you burn to oblivion!”

Fitting: when I utter my final word I watch its waves collapse only to reincarnate the same shapes. My truest name’s ripples have no true translation in the shapes made by the sounds of Keneb. It reaches every ear in the form I know it by. It will mean nothing to them: “For as you scorn me, my name is Entropy!”


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