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!

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! Trigger warnings are as follows: gaslighting, paralysis, possible hallucinations/breakdown of reality, second person address to the reader, body horror, dissociation-like PoV.

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

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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, etch crosswise lines mimicking silk bands past the broad-faced black guard carved forth as a gateway to the abyss. A forefinger’s breadth from the blade frozen free by lingering touch from the curving swath of confined miasma that serves for its scabbard. Thus glimpse its form: 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. In that edge dwells my heart. In my heart its bite. Soul, spite, and simulacrum sword: a blade longer than my leg outstretched and measured from hip to straining toe-tips. Wickedly curved. When my pale fingers reunite the abyss-gate guard with the scabbard’s mouth and seal the black razor edge behind their seam, their meeting reverberates a breath before its happening.

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 foreign star hangs against the rust-red skies with a golden light hateful only for its banality. Behind? Disregard what lies behind. Tell yourself it is nothing. 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 move the silvery sabatons encasing my feet. Forward, my pale fingers angle the umbral blade’s grip.

I grant this shape so few eyes. What for sight beyond the sight of flesh? Tell yourself it cannot exist. You do not possess it. You cannot learn to see what falls behind me. You can see through my sight only when it shines kinship with yours.

Kindred sight looks forward to the endless wastes.

I am the form I call me, weaving humanity’s shapes from the 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 troubling hints at heavy round plumpness 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—but do not call for honor to flesh and flesh’s fey mutations. Call them 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. I consider the way. A soft and semi-liquid sliding sound drifts from somewhere behind. It ends with a final wet report. The hot wind’s rustle whips the golden sands, and their rustle scrapes out the echoes. A pensive tilt carries my head sideways.

“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 lie the endless wastes, rolling sometimes. Never rising to a peak. “Foolishness,” I finally mutter. Under my tightening fingers the umbral blade’s grip pulses: hot, cold, and numbing in tandem. Will claws my self into the mournful air. I bloom around myself: jet-black pinpoints so absolute that the golden sun’s light splits into component rays around each, or loses itself in the watery ripples fringing the sky-punctures.

Under my touch splits the stale fabric latticed into every infinitesimal matter-speck. 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.

Within each aperture looms a path to follow: the thousand towers of a crystal citadel where creatures of talon, bone, and tentacle scuttle back from the opening along paths crafted of spiral-carved gem. Roiling fumes on a charnel abyss where horned figures lash their tails and brandish igneous blades. An echoing chasm’s impression outlined by undulations among countless thin and sharp-edged metalloid wings, arcs, and spars, all unanchored and grinding against each other. Bolts spark along their ridges. Ghostly silhouettes soar among them, fading into clarity and out again.

One-hundred eight other paths, all equally enticing, face inward as an enormous segmented sphere around my form. Still, the touch lies too heavy. I feel their resonance too clearly: a vibration emanating within me, answered and amplified by the open ways ahead.

“Always against causality,” I say, twisting 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. Ere any can respond space strains and splits around me. The umbral blade howls free. I flash into two upward spirals united as a single shearing helix at their apex.

Every opening collapses, cloven, its vista whirled with the others into a maelstrom of stolen colors. Bisected thoughts, ruptured memories, sound’s waves split asunder: the charnel realm’s frozen glimpses mix with a domain of 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 into blood-red ocean. Every aura merges and mutates with another.

I spin for a breath far above shredded potential. My right arm’s sweep seals the simulacrum-sword in its midnight sheath. The turn’s last drifting momentum enters my form through the shadow as an irising warp. One arm becomes two. I fan out through the division in the final spiral-cleave. Two clean cuts side by side intersect the first, and divide the portals further. With my impact upon the ground, they plough the golden sands and rupture the black stone below. Cobalt radiance billows up, making the shadow all the starker by its contrast.

In this cocoon of power I seize the discordant morass above with a grasp beyond my hands, and while my hands pull the shadow-scabbard forward around my form and slip the umbral blade’s point back to its rest, will lashes the essence-storm around an unseen spindle. All condenses. The echoes drown each other out. 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. On its other side rests a deep blue night. Nodulous white-stone buildings spill amber light from windows framed by lazy ceramic curlicues, arranged in ascending tiers, bridged here and there by skyward spike-towers with curving rampways anchored through the tunnels in their concave sides, all above a thicket of gables and pavilions with winding stairways to reach the high places. My amusement radiates before and fades out without an answer. My black-painted lips form a smile that glistens too brightly for the wan moon’s light.

A last chance gust carries crystalline dust, a gradation from deepest azure through pink into blood red that glitters against the night dimness. I step through the portal and draw my bracing shadows through behind me, suturing the tear shut.

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. Far away above I feel a hundred coursing air-currents. They are within me, and I within them, felt by feeling that needs no skin to contain it. My boots ring on tiles tinted with dusk-hue golds, oranges, and reds.

“Pleasant respite under darkened skies,” I murmur. At my words a tingling note cuts through the encroaching clouds. It sharpens, buzzes, and 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 with my form at the first raindrop’s patter atop my veiled hood. What other answer is there? I throw back my head and laugh loudly, walking towards the door twenty paces ahead where music, laughter, and clattering plates promise warmth.

Promises given so idly are seldom kept so well.

I close the distance and cross the threshold into a cozily-appointed tavern. Wait. There. Counterpressure and tumultuous muffled sensations. I open a hollow in my senses and receive delirious 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 gold dancing atop a marble altar while a second self screams at them to stop. Dreaming minds through the musty darkwood rafters. Bedrooms above. An inn, then. This knowledge diffracts my thoughts about the tableau before me.

I condense. Time’s causal mirage shifts and expands to accommodate. All that happens next happens in a frantic heartbeat’s space—dilated, distorted, reclaimed.

A broad-shouldered human slides through a glacial gesture with his sloshing tankard. Golden-haired, golden-bearded, eyes as blue as glacial ice. A gallant cloak, an elegant vest, a long sword with its crosswise hilt… this one kindles disinterest. One beside him restores it.

Scales more golden still and five faceted green eyes mark out a narrow visage. Long jaws studded by hooking bone-spurs and ridges broadening only slightly into the skull-like sockets. Swaying cilia all along the cheeks. Mirror-polished plate armor, a white tabard, a tall rectangle shield and a straight-bladed sword with a hilt of spirals and black leather. Oh. The second essence underlaying their own: a cloying incense reek I smell through interpolated soul-pores. An ocean of rust-ridden sludge obscuring a nascent star.

A god’s jealous veil marking their paladin like some base animal marks its rutting ground. I respect even the Enemy more than this, my anathema.

Curious. The others pour themselves into the space around them. “I am he” or “I am she”, their perceptions tints the cosmic mirror and reflect their truths towards me. This paladin’s aura claims “he,” and yet I sense something… well. Even I understand certain borders. I shall not transgress this one’s unwritten plea. “He” says the aura. “He” shall I echo. Perhaps it’s truth he needs nurturing to fulfill. If not… but I shall not transgress.

Another human nigh frozen amidst her backward lean from the frothy head atop the tankard. Ale-flecks nonetheless dapple her spectacles and leave tiny moist sparkles on her pinkish cheeks. Dark-haired, silver-eyed, catching my intent mostly for the hollowness where an electric rush seeps through her essence. Her every muscle-fiber shudders with inner light and shadow, potential untapped—a mage, conduit for the treacherous current.

The broad-shouldered, four-armed figure behind the bar leans forward on one elbow with a proprietor’s air: half placid dominion, half angst over the mess his guests might make. Two potbellies side by side on his muscular form. Intermittent slits 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. This one carries three platters heaped with food—two platters too many—and wears a blue tabard over steel mail. A sword hangs through a holster on his belt: a gently-curved sword in a black-lacquered scabbard. A grip bound by white silk, braided, overlapping with blackened rayskin under it. Its bearer has three prong-tipped tails sprouting as a bundle from his rear.

One wraps the sword for comfort.

Red and bronze scales form spiral-arrays on his dark brown skin and anchor his clawed fingers. So too for the four recurve horns with bladed inner faces arranged around his sculptured oval face. A secondary mouth filled with many-rowed obsidian fangs underlines each cheekbone, and a 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 puzzle unto himself as well: a psionic’s resonant barrier veils his aura. Yet he laces it with creeping, clawing sensations I must call anxiety.

And the inn’s other guests? Seek them 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 anxious demon’s eyes shift towards me first. Next the mage, now the paladin. Expressions slide. The golden-scaled one reaches over-ready fingers for his spiral-hilted sword. I elect to match time as they understand it. By that pace, all eyes come to rest upon me with a swiftness they shall later call uniform. Now those eyes seek each other, darting that by counting others each may assure themselves they witness the same visitation. The glances that began alone drift back to me together.

To witness sound-waves quicken as I subside amuses me also. They billow from the golden-haired human mouth’s with spittle and hoppy runoff: luminescent sine-spheres. His sounds smash against table edges, roll along his companions’ flesh, splinter through their fabrics, and become faint glimmers where they pass through my shadows. Within roil intent and energies. Will transmutes pure meaning and shapes altered tides.

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. Behind the planar fabric I feel the current ripple under her touch. So many meanings unfold from her words. How does one keep distance? I answer by will. Space wrinkles converges on this black-veil body, and all it clasps wrinkles with it. Latticed walls, wooden beams, untaken tables and abandoned tankards stretch and fold inwards around the event horizon. Fearful cries mask a lone goblet’s clatter against the bowl-warped floor.

“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 response to unknowable wonders. I let the warp subside. Frantic eyes seek anew, darting sight to assure panicked hearts that the patterns they call reality are still there. Patrons shuffle their feet. Slowly, drinking and muttered talk return.

“Calm, Mulreg. It was 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 shared 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,” the anxious demon says.

“Ichril’s right,” the golden-haired 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? Look at that! She melts into the darkness and it oozes her out again. We don’t even know how much is flesh and bone under her skin. She could be hollow inside.”

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

“We’ve heard things like this 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’re planning on staying. So instead of leaving us to guess, why don’t you tell us yourself: who or what are you?”

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

“But never mind my answer. Your companion decides already,” I say. “I am sure an answer found so swiftly has no flaws. Naught compels me to persuade you otherwise.” To the prodigal demon I give my longest gaze. He returns it without words. Turns and canted shifts twitch my head about until my wait becomes fruitless. I look past the golden-haired human and his attendants to the proprietor. “You call this place an inn. I may stay?”

“Say no,” Ichril says. Tottering steps carry him side to side beneath the platters. Has he forgotten that he carries them? Perhaps. His triumvirate eyes would surely pin me where I stand if they possessed such power. “I can’t even sense her. It’s like…” He gulps down spit. I have never comprehended why this act brings calm. A sympathetic magic to literally eat one’s feelings? “It’s like she’s not there, and she took the whole front of the inn with her. All the auras are just… just gone.”

Ah, yes. That must be worrisome.

“Well, we’ve learned something else Ichril can’t do,” the golden-haired human says, and spews his laughter into the stagnifying air. “Feel a woman!” Other throats at other tables rank their mirth behind his. Why must denial be such a clamorous waif? “It’s been a long day and 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? Inns and their keeping comprise 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, and you will show them due respect if you stay under my roof.”

Convergent forces reach their crisis point: the platters balanced over Ichril’s horned head slip inward. A lucid psionic should meet no trouble—but of course, a lucid psionic would never allow this coincidence to occur. Ichril flinches, destroying his posture and what fragile balance remains. Anguished clatters and cutlery shrieks spin out on the smoke-laden air with the scents of beer and a soon-wasted roast.

I elect intervention. Now I stand beside Ichril. Heat-haze vibrations thrum for a breath while I burn the fall’s velocity into warmth and will resettles the meals on their trays. No gratitude answers. Instead a shared 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 Vanguard’s meals onto their table. They reel 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 this context and its ways. I am accustomed to…” I twitch my head sideways. Then I remember how these tics read to unfamiliar souls, and straighten. “To elsewhere. To other ways.”

“Calm, Ichril,” Gerakaeto says, though he grimaces and laces his space with a jittering, something cold and acrid. “It’s nothing we’ve not experienced before.” His words sing truth, though he hopes for deceit. They guide me to remember another truth: about places. About the ways their people fill them. The emptiness I bring needs its own space. Elsewhere, this brought advantage. “I do need you to cease playing 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. How should I name myself here? I tap my lips, blotting shadow-puffs and refilling the divots with more shadow still. Vacillation’s displays seem to ease the other patrons. I sustain them, pacing 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 sets his shield down beside him and slumps into a chair. His back-spines rattle and knock on its back-slats. “Perhaps there’s some of your Earther tradition in what she says?”

“An Earthling?” I ask. “That explains much.” I stir shadows with a dismissing wave. “Never mind that. I have known Earth. My yearnings carried me long since into other ways. 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. All patrons lean away from me when I pass. Some scrape chair-legs against the floor in hasty retreat. The umbral blade levitates free at my bidding and poises mid-air beside my seat when I claim it. My shadows spread out around me, seeping along the table’s crevices and running in foggy streams on the aged floor under my sabatons. Premonition bids me speak to the innkeeper.

“Food and drink bring fulfillment through their flavors,” I say. “Name your price.”

He taps the menu above his head. “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. Will coalesces new matter as a golden disc between my fingers. “Let the mage test this by her arts if you mistrust me. Will a gold piece suffice to justify an evening free from calculation?”

“Give me that,” Mulreg says, snatching the disc. The current behind the fabric ripples and pours first through her flesh’s fibers. I see its irradiant potential shed colors and dull 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. When they mean something, that something meant manifests itself by paths equally vibrant. A hundred divided by a million, a thousand times ten to the eleventh power… for me, these alone hold no savor. Multiplication matters to me when matter underlies it to multiply. 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 lie 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, and stamp it out before it can grow under my skin.

Gera, for I find Mulreg’s shortening suits him better, embarks on what his mind-sight deems a grand epic. His passion reverberates with every word. I know it well: the resonance of one who loves to hear themselves speak. In isolation I begrudge that little. A soul must exist for itself first. But here Gera exceeds me. When I unchain myself, I forget that other souls meet me. This man with his golden hair and golden beard—this man remembers them. He remembers, and his memory tells him they exist for him. Why else, it whispers, would they listen?

He sweeps his arms and projects his voice and thrashes his body about as though to fill an animate continuum with frozen afterimages, and so enlarge. I resist my impulse. I do not tell him that one doesn’t do that with words.

Gera speaks about a quest into the southwestern heaths upon this plane. I glean more from what he implies than what he says. He takes it for granted that the more distant regions have landscape-tears, but also references day and night as cyclic periods. It follows that my technique has brought me into a realm unfinished—or a realm deliberately punctured. Without knowing the ones who first wrought it, who can say whether it’s desirable that a mortal wanderer might plummet through a rift into the abyss?

The warrior—he styles himself a master swordsman, and I decide it would be uncivil to peel his skin for his arrogance—mentions “the beings that live inside the rifts.” This intrigues me more than anything that follows. Once his tale follows the journey away from such tantalizing notions, I remember a familiar fatigue. A far-flung village. A panicked headsman. A monstrosity prowling. I do sit straighter when he mentions missing children. Sentences later I learn that they were hiding somewhere else for an unrelated reason.

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

The phrase “meanwhile, Ichril had” occurs often, nearly always linked with its earlier cousin, “we told Ichril to.” I infer that Ichril did a great many things which Gera excused himself from remembering. After all, Ichril did not do these things where Gera could see them. So the tale continues until its climax with the battle 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 mine, 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 my response. Perhaps he remembers more from his emotions at my entrance than he likes. Perhaps, as I now remember humans often do for reasons they assume are true, yet are too terrified to admit they hold against those they imagine have given them, he simply doesn’t like me. Whatever the reason, he twists suddenly to me and says, “What tale have you to answer that, mystic?”

This stirs out laughter that I sense it would be wiser not to understand. So I look within and consider. My most recent journey, the course that brought me here, seems obvious. Yet I recall what it means to speak before an unsympathetic audience. And besides, I carved that path through the Dread Enemy’s dregs. To mention them before the uninitiated… why should I not? Oh, yes. I remember now. That would be a slow and craven mass-murder.

I never forget that I name murder an evil. I merely forget that my desires might bring it.

This meditation spurs me into my decision. I offer a retelling of the numberless days I spent warring 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 intended to convey that by the recitation’s course,” 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 coiling around it swiften and contort. “Please, seek not to force my past’s metamorphosis with your present like shifting tense. I carry the onslaught within. 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. Each day adds another to the numberless tithe.”

“Ichril?” Vletru asks, his eyes crossing.

“Word salad,” Ichril answers, his head shaking.

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 now, which means the battle had a finite, measurable duration.”

“You give utterances against claims I never made,” I counter. “Does it convey a dire struggle’s spirit to say, ‘it lasted two weeks?” Of course not. A battle transpires one step, one stroke, one slaying at a time. Each phase bonded to the others by emotion and action surging and ebbing. 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.

“All we’re asking is for 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, nor do we have any mutual friends to vouch 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 paladin, 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 those are not the tales I wished to tell. 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.

The darkness coils up behind me. Again will claws the space around us inward, this time as eight striated spokes of intermixing darkness and light. Distance and scope bend under 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 into fractured nova. My sigil manifests in its heart as a gouge of umbra through the core of light. Overhanging twin fangs melded with skeletal cheekbones above a spearhead chin’s impression, framed by six bladed horns, with two incisive sockets running up and in rather than sideways that 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 seeing 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 over of his own accord, for 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 movement 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, paladin,” 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. For all that your town of liars has spurned 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 from 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—my phantom outlines receive a great halberd’s thrust with a half-swording bind. By a full-out lunge from the haft’s other side, I 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 final word has no true translation in 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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