Wednesday, August 17, 2011

An Awakening

The following was written by Steve Bell for Edwyn Kumar's Tribe 8 game. I'm rescuing it from the Wayback Machine since I no longer have my original Warp & Weft/Dreams of Flesh and Spirit website files.


I'm cold. I mean really cold. Not just because it's early spring and the wind still rips through the tree tops like a wraith intent on revenge. No, this is something wholly other, something deeper. The others are shivering too, but the chill they feel is insignificant compared to the glacier lodged squarely in my frail chest. They feel the breeze tugging insistently on their warm furs; they watch their breath crystalizing in front of their smug faces; they huddle closer together to ward off the shroud of mist that smothers the clearing, blurring faces and giving surreal animation to the torch-born shadows; perhaps they even feel that tingle of trepidation... no, not them, they are convinced of the righteousness of their folly. They may think they're cold, but they aren't. They don't know true cold. That unique frost which afflicts the soul. No, they stand there, oblivious, in the ruddy glow of the torches, some stamping their feet, others chafing their arms; thoughts already wandering back to the roaring fires in their hearths, the hot stew on their tables, and the warm companions in their beds. They feel the gentle nip of this outer cold but are shielded from the more terrifying inner one by their ignorance and zeal.
Alone. Standing perfectly still, my eyes, unseeing, drift arbitrarily over the sea of bright faces. But the tide has changed; slowly they turn away, dismissing me, forgetting me. I no longer exist.

* * *

The speed at which it happened was bewildering... is bewildering. It retains, even in memory, that slightly unreal quality of our worst pantomimes. Just outside the caravan's ring of wagons, I stood, faintly illuminated by the trickles of warm light from the central fire that managed to penetrate the canvas battlements of our little kingdom, those thin walls which separated us from the outside and made us one people, a family. I was working on the final stages of my role in an upcoming performance. I was to play Dahlia. Sure, it was a minor performance, unlikely to be attended by many people of note, but this was my chance, my opportunity to move to the great stage, and I had it, it was mine. I had captured the very essence of Dahlia in my dreams, and I was going to play her like no other, play her as she deserved to be played.

So there I stood, in the secrecy of a moonless night, not even the stars to betray my intent, dancing, moving, dreaming, and with each spin becoming more intimately linked with the Fatima. The distant sounds of merriment and song muffled the faintly audible swish of my fluid passage through the grasses that the night had contrived to turn a rich blue. The entertainment of my people played in grotesque silhouette across the broken curtain of the wagons while I danced, immersed in the moment, my breath marking my passage, as one's hair does while swimming, only to be rippled by the eddies of my movement. The scent of fresh wood-smoke was gradually replaced by the smell of old coals, signaling the demise of the evening's festivities. The nimbus of light emanating from the encampment paled visibly, the willows once more became looming, darker shadows against the inscrutability of the night sky. I had to return to the caravan. I would be missed.

The wagon, garish in the light of the waning fire, stood silent before me. Inside, the luminescence of one sputtering candle struggled in a valiant, but ultimately futile attempt to vanquish a growing pall of blue smoke. My father lounged languidly on the mismatched pile of cushions we used for beds, and sucked intermittently on his pipe, his eyes fixed on a mask he had used in a performance for the Thera Shebans, silently contemplative. He was not alone. Although my sister insisted on provoking him with her habitual tardiness, my elder brother did not. Infuriatingly radiant even in the dull pallor of the wagon, he stood apart: statuesque, aloof, but strangely appropriate to the surroundings. Neither acknowledged my entrance, although this wasn't uncommon or unexpected. My mother made a typically extravagant entrance shortly thereafter, and permitted herself only a slight scowl when she noticed that her audience was a member short. I had always considered my mother to be a bit of a hack. An untalented actress who overplayed every role she was given. In retrospect, though, I may have to re-evaluate this. It is obvious now that she must have known what was to happen that night, but she betrayed nothing to me, even chiding me once again for using one of the wheels' spindly spokes as a step up into the wagon. It was the best performance of her life.

Dressing groggily, I stumbled through the biting cold with my friends, my family, my people. We huddled together, little knots of humanity in the prevailing darkness, staring at each others' harsh, orange, torch-lit faces and sharing one another's warmth, as if to deny the immaculate hostility of nature. We trudged, weary, through the encircling supply wagons and beyond. Each face characterized by a forced jollity that never touched the eyes. Each mind occupied by the unvoiced question.

My eyes probed the crowd brazenly in order to divine the source of our emergency, not realizing that I would not find it around me. Others were similarly engaged, and those not in favor did their best to remain inconspicuous. We stopped, the will to push on into the unrepentant black having shriveled and finally crumbled like the fragile wings of a moth that strayed too close to the fire. We too could feel the allure of the dark's heavy brooding presence but recognized it as the death it almost certainly was. So we stopped, too wise to allow ourselves to be doomed by our instincts, or perhaps just too timid to permit ourselves that one raw culminating experience which would flare up with the brilliance of understanding and shatter the dark.
I couldn't see any of my family. It seemed that we fell into a natural hierarchy of sorts, all spiraling out in a widening gyre from a central point. The hub, of course, was Lothair, the leader of our primary troupe, while the rim was composed of the talentless and those too young to participate meaningfully in either performance or discussion. I was situated in the middle of a spoke, a position of some esteem for a performer of my meager summers.

Tobias shot me a quick grin, his impossibly cherubic face belying his advanced years. He held my gaze for a moment, then dropped his eyes and turned away. My attention was drawn to the outer ring by a shriek which momentarily overcame the undulating moan of the wind-battered trees, only to be swallowed once more by the oppressive hum of various indistinguishable noises. Petra lay prostrate, hands outstretched before her kneading the ground. Her body formed the shape of an arrow, her elbows its head. My gaze was drawn naturally along the line of her body and came to rest upon the ruins of an old structure, its purpose long since obscured by the ravages of our past. It was a bizarre building, unlike most of the others I had seen. Just beyond the jagged limits of its foundation stood two metal canisters, rusted and scavenged.

A form disengaged from that bleak stillness. The Judge had arrived. So it seemed that there may have been some reason for Petra's poor theatrics; the piteous contrition of a guilty conscience. I was unmoved by her shallow display, it is too late to repent when the headsman comes calling. But there was only one form approaching. The Judge had no executioner with her... Fear gripped my bowels and I tasted bile at the back of my throat.
The torch beside me hissed and went out, removing me from the light. The sharp rasping intake of my breath sliced through the startled quiet. Panicked, I scrambled towards the nearest respite from the chill darkness.
The searing pain in my head slowly subsided to a dull persistent throb behind my eyes, each throb accompanied by a vertiginous shift in my field of vision. The shadow of a tree loomed before me. Cursing my own clumsiness, I became aware of the harsh sibilance of whispered conversation. Great, Tobias' favorite student has just walked into a tree: I wouldn't be allowed to forget this one for a while. Just as I thought that my vision was finally clearing, the tree bent down and extended a branch towards me. The image resolved into startling clarity with a suddenness that shocked me. Stooped over me, arm outstretched, appearing menacing even in that gesture of succor, stood the Judge.

As she helped me to my feet and, maintaining a firm grip on my arm, led me towards the center of the congregation, I could not help but be struck by the oddity of my situation. Here I was, in all likelihood, about to be banished, outcast from the love of the Fatima, and yet I could not tear my eyes away from Petra. She was nothing to me: not family, certainly not a friend, barely even on speaking terms despite the fact that we belonged to the same tribe. I noticed how her tear-tracks had blackened from groveling in the dirt, how her sobs of fear had been replaced by sobs of relief, how her fresh tears glinted brilliantly in the light of the torches, how her wet eyes looked large and otherworldly.

As I was led away from her, my neck twisting around of its own volition to keep her in sight, I felt a slight tremor of fear, not because of what was to come but because they were taking me away from her. It was ridiculous, and as soon as I recognized it as such the fear passed; but still the fixation remained. I was directed, stumbling, up to Lothair. He and the Judge between them recited a long list of what I assume must have been my crimes, but I paid them no mind, they were all fabricated anyway. Petra's tears had vanished, and after the Judge struck me for my insolent disregard of the proceedings, a smug look of sanctimonious, vengeful piety spread across her face: an expression not unlike the one which must have marred my face only moments ago.

My mother, in a rage of righteous indignation, swore that a monster of such loathsome character and pernicious impulses as myself never issued forth from her pristine womb. She was in a fine lather tonight, but as always, over-played the part, and so failed to hold my attention. Petra was gazing at me with a curiously inquisitive air, her head cocked slightly to one side and the corner of her lower lip pinched lightly between her teeth. The same expression of zealous determination that characterized everyone else's faces still bedecked her's, but now it seemed more of a mask, remaining there for the sake of appearances or out of convenience, but not revealing anything of her thoughts.

I missed most of the condemnation from my peers and elders, while lost in reverie, but I did manage to catch the tail end of Lothair's diatribe: "you shall not receive shelter or aid from any member of the Seven Tribes, we as a Nation cast you out!". This shall forever be emblazoned in my memory. Not so much due to the content of Lothair's proclamation which effectively rendered my entire life up to that point meaningless, but because it was punctuated with a quizzical smirk from Petra.

The very air began to vibrate with a dull resonance, my clothes began to cling to me and my senses became preternaturally sharp. A hush descended on the gathering and heads craned about to be the first one to catch sight of her. To my left the crowd began to part and despite myself, I turned to watch her approach. She was magnificent. She glided towards me with the supple agility of a cat, and came to a quiet repose directly in front of me, which was strangely more suggestive of frenzied activity than the solid immobility it really was.
Dahlia regarded me with her mysterious inhuman eyes, a frown so slight that it was almost imperceptible rippled her features. Her eyes, locked on mine, narrowed momentarily and then a wry, self-mocking grin widened on her face, she tilted her head slightly to one side, and plunged her hand deep into my chest. . .

* * *

My breasts ache. The constant dull throb isn't so much agonizing as it is distracting. Dahlia's enigmatic, gently probing eyes still hold my own in a rapturous embrace. I see nothing save those scintillating pearls of multi-hued opalescence. Pure milky white, yet seeming to burn with such molten intensity that veins of brilliant colour shimmer through the opacity. The distant sounds of hushed conversation, of shuffling movement, and the wet swish of the dewy grass being brushed aside and swaying back, reach my ears, but I see nothing in the periphery of my vision. Just the eyes. I can feel my body trembling as though in fear, building, becoming more insistent, until I am wracked by convulsions. The spasms course through my slender form threatening to rip it asunder, just as the shaking of the earth tears great rents in its surface, but the pain is strangely removed. I am aware of the seizures but the pain that should accompany them is no more than a fleeting thought in the recesses of my awareness. Throughout all of the contortions and flailing of limbs, her beautiful yet utterly alien eyes imprison my own liquid black ones. The strain of it sears my brain but I can't look away. I am the deer that stops and stares in perverse fascination as the wolf's fangs tear out its throat.

Suddenly Dahlia steps back. Images around her swim back into focus: harsh, angular faces composed of shifting orange and black, towering charcoal trees whose leafless limbs shatter the void above. I look down in time to see Dahlia's hand slide smoothly out of my chest, a vague form held gently in her open palm. I am assaulted by a violent whiteness that burns my mind. My jaw splits open and a serrated scream shreds my throat, the cloud of my breath faintly pink. Reality shrivels up into a single point, then that too is destroyed.
I am hollow, empty, barren. The pain, now abating, echoes listlessly inside the shell of my being. Slumping carelessly to the ground my gaze falls upon the heel of Dahlia's boot. Dazedly I roll an acorn around in the palm of my hand. The torchlight glints off an ant at the end of a blade of grass. After a few tentative attempts it crosses from the grass onto the boot. It marches determinedly around in circles for a couple of minutes before crawling off the toe and back into the grass. >From there I lose sight of it for a moment, but when it reappears it is dragging the carcass of some larger insect. The progress is painstakingly slow but the ant doesn't seem to mind, it just keeps pulling. The other insect, a moth I think, becomes entangled in the thorns of a weed. The ant keeps trying to pull it free, adjusting its hold, going in different directions, but it is no use. Rather than abandon its prize, the ant industriously begins to dismantle the body. After a great deal of work a large section of the corpse is freed and the ant continues on its way, struggling with a burden still many times its own size.
Dahlia steps forward, her heel negligently crushing the ant. She reaches down and lifts my chin with her fingers, brushing away a trickle of drool with her thumb. With gentle pressure under my chin, she guides me to my feet. My eyes lift to meet hers and my body stiffens with shock. Standing before me, attached to the large composite body of the Fatima, my own face looks back at me. I stand, transfixed. Movement registers and I once more become aware of my surroundings. Her hand still cupped under my chin, Dahlia turns slightly to the side and with a sweep of her arm seems to address the entire assemblage. At the apogee of her arm's orbit, she stops. Arm outstretched, the fingers of her hand slowly curl into a fist.
Spreading like the ripples of a stone dropped in a pool, the members of the congregation begin to fall. The torches drop to the wet grass with a sizzle. They gutter there, sputtering and wheezing like the last breaths of the dying. Within seconds Dahlia and I are surrounded by the corpses of our people. They lay there, stricken expressions twisting their features, blood seeping from ears, nose and mouth, splayed out in wild disarray. Slowly, deliberately, Dahlia's head turns back to me, her body remaining utterly still. My face regards me from over her shoulder. She stares at me insistently for a moment, one eyebrow arched. Her arm slowly descends from its fixed position and she faces me directly.

I hear movement behind me and from either side of me figures slowly enter my field of vision. Gracefully gliding past me, they come. Each one identical to the others, eight Dahlia's flow by me, trailing fingers through my thick black hair, caressing, touching; all smiling tranquilly at me with my own visage. One by one they approach the original Dahlia, who still tenderly holds my chin, and step into her. With each merging, a thrill of power courses through me until at last, when only one remains before me, I hum with energy. We gaze at one another for a few minutes longer and then with a wistful, almost melancholy, smile, her fingers loosen. With her index finger trailing silkily along the edge of my jaw, I drift backwards. My feet still planted in the soft grass of the grove, I tilt ever so slowly earthward. Above me, growing almost imperceptibly more distant, stands Dahlia, arm still held before her with a slight bend at the elbow and a cock of the wrist. Her eyes hold steadily on her open hand, as though looking in grief-stricken wonder for something that is no longer there.

Floating, the air playfully rolls through my hair and across my cheeks before leaping off my nose to find other distractions. I watch the willows and elms rise up behind her as she, stationary, recedes unhurriedly. As I sink past horizontal, for the briefest of instants the entire surface of the world disappears. My world has no depth. Dahlia and the trees behind her still stand, solidly rooted in nothingness and my feet still pivot off of the tactile lip of reality, but there is nothing there. It all floats freely in an orderly chaos.

I plummet. Shrieking wind tears at my flesh and steals the breath from my lungs. My eyes dry instantly and, unable to blink, I am forced to watch myself plunge headlong into the black. The wind attacking my front is joined by a gale at my back. I am tossed around like a mouse caught by cats who have eaten their fill, but refuse to let prey escape. I am the center of a vortex, bombarded by all.

I . . . exist.

Floating in an environment without sensation, I am aware of myself. There is only me. A dull throbbing in my breasts gives me form. I move forward, not knowing how, merely willing it. Excruciating pain flares up in my abdomen and between my legs. Forms coalesce out of the ether. The body of a man, naked as I am, lays prostrate before me. The umbilical cord connecting us is wrapped once around his neck. Blind eyes stare unseeing straight through me, his open mouth forms a pleading "O". His body is swathed in numerous bandages, although one of them has fallen off, revealing a rot that is consuming him underneath. His chest heaves once and is followed by the long slow exhalation of death. His eyes drift closed and his tortured countenance becomes serene.

Horrified, I scramble backwards on all fours, trying to escape the death that is attached to me, that I can feel steadily creeping into me through that life-giving cord. My frantic struggling only succeeds in dragging the corpse belly first for a few feet before my strength gives out and I drop exhausted to the earth. I flicker in and out of consciousness, my dreams as unremorsefully harrowing as my wakeful periods.

I am jarred into lucidity by a sharp blow to the head. I am being dragged by one foot across a broken landscape, my back torn and bleeding, every inch of my body screaming. But my mouth won't scream, something is blocking it. My leg drops with an icy splash and bobs to the surface of a frigid stream, the swift current dragging it further out into the flow until my hip wrenches it to a halt at the very limit of its range, the joint straining to remain whole but steadily tearing. The corpse stands over me, its drooping lips curled into a sneer. It reaches down and picks me up by the hair, heaving me closer to the water's edge. It is a wide river of crystal clear water flowing rapidly by this ruined, scorched beach. As the corpse once more picks me up, I cough out the blockage in my mouth. The vile, rotted, pestilent umbilical cord slaps wetly on the shattered rock of the beach. My head is thrust into the numbingly cold waters. At first my mind is shocked into clarity, but soon it begins to get hazy. The water around me becomes murky and dark. As I am forced bodily into the river, my arms and chest submerging, the water takes on a cloying viscous warmth. The water no longer rushes by me but sits stagnantly, its thick syrupy weight impeding my struggles to free myself. My heart thunders in my chest, ribs cracking under its frenzied pace. My brain sings, the note becoming higher and higher until it obscures almost everything else. A lung collapses and the foul, corrupt liquid oozes in to fill it.
There is a warmth in my clenched right fist. A small solid knot of reality in the prevailing chaos, radiating heat with a feeble, yet somehow calming, consistency. My hand is now the center of my being, all sensation is lost to me except the faint flickering pulse of this new heart. The tempo of the heat waves increases with vigor and with each pulse the slag surrounding my hand is annihilated, only to have this void refilled by the same cloying putrescence. An explosion at my core sends jets of pure energy streaming out from between my clenched fingers. The heart, once a dormant source of power, now writhes and squirms within my protective grasp seeking release. Long thin tendrils probe each crack and crevice and as one, launch outward through the gaps in my fingers to what lies beyond. But immediately they recoil as if burned. The tendrils retract and the heart closes in on itself. The pulsation slows and the heat becomes less intense. Once more, it is little more than a feeble flicker of warmth, barely noticeable. And then it falters. The heart is dying. With each passing moment more strength ebbs out of this once vibrant thing. Without knowing, saline tears seep out of my eyes, ever so slightly diluting the corruption of the swamp around me.

Rage overwhelms me. This cannot happen! I gouge the palm of my hand with my nails, rending the flesh and bathing the wound in the purity of my tears. There is no change at first, but eventually a single tendril unfurls from the huddled shrunken mass and delicately explores the wound, caressing the ragged tear. The heart itself struggles back to life as the shoot penetrates my flesh and burrows deeper into my body. Tunneling through my veins and arteries the tendrils soon fill every part of me with an agony so sweet that it borders on ecstacy. My skin grows hard and rough, forming a thick protective layer. My blood slows to a crawl as my insides become dense and fibrous. My foot, jutting rigidly out of the filth, swells slightly and a bud appears, the first shoot of a new sapling. The heart, like the torrents of spring, scours me clean, obliterating all that is me.

* * *

The scent of oak trees mingled with the distinctive pungence of crushed grass was strong in my nostrils. My mouth was filled with a bitter acidity which stung the back of my throat like the liquor I once tried to make from tree bark. My chest ached, the steady monotonous throb of an old pain, not the sharp twinge of a new one. I had lost all feeling in my right arm. For a frantic moment I tried to move it, to feel something, but there was nothing there. A harsh rasping reached my ears, unsteadily it rose and fell in pitch, sometimes seeming to cease altogether, only to resume moments later louder than ever. I retched. A rank wave of bile sprayed through clenched teeth, burning my throat on the way up. The sharp, acrid stench of vomit obscured the pleasant fragrance of vegetation. My eyes fluttered open and immediately began to water. Through the tears I could make out general shapes and colours, but nothing had clarity. Through my left eye I saw only a crisscrossing of black lines on a slightly lighter background, while my right eye revealed the entire range, from blurred points of brilliance to the deepest blacks. Gradually this resolved into sharper focus.

The grass partially obstructed my view of a pair of legs which stood perpendicular to me, seeming to grow sideways out of a wall of turf. The legs were spread wide and slightly bent at the knees, as though braced in some rush of emotion. Beyond the legs a group of figures were clustered together around the radiance of two torches, huddled collusively, whispering into one anothers' ears, their eyes darting back and forth between me and their compatriots. The legs bent and straightened sharply, as if in emphasis to the throaty yelling which I heard distantly through the grating rasp. I couldn't make out what was being said, it came to me as the growling and clicking of a wild beast. I tried to move but I couldn't, my body just wasn't responding. A few of the people by the torches were shaking their heads slowly, serious expressions adorning their faces. They stood well back, seemingly aloof from the proceedings, unsure of how to react. The legs' exhortations grew louder, more vehement, and a couple of the onlookers' heads began to nod. One of the legs drew back, swinging away from me with slow deliberation. Then with blinding speed it descended upon me, expanding to fill my vision. Time then slowed to a crawl. Scenery panned across my field of vision. The foliage of trees inched into view as the congregated people left it. Centrally positioned stood Lothair, looming over me, the arc of his kick pulling his boot high up and away from my face. Stars appeared over the tops of the shorter trees, and more still over the taller ones as reality slowly rotated around me. Lothair's leg reached the limit of its range and hung there while liquid rubies continued on their arching course away from me. The tops of trees entered my view from the right side and slid soundlessly around to block out the stars. Another group of people stood on this side, appearing upside down in comparison to the others. The world then stopped, enjoyed a long languorous stretch and decided to go back the other way for a bit. Once again the people receded from view, and once more Lothair entered it, his leg just descending. I lay on my back staring straight up. A gnarled root dug into my back just as it had dug into my front before. I coughed and the air sparkled red before me. There was a warmth trickling down my left cheek and running into my ear. Then the pain hit me. My entire face seemed to be simultaneously imploding and exploding. My senses shut down and concentrated all of their attention on describing to me exactly what had just happened to my head with a vicious attention to detail. I blacked out briefly from the intensity of the pain.

When I awoke I saw Lothair standing above me, he had his arms crossed over his thick chest and seemed to exude an air of confidence and victory which was confirmed by the smugness of his expression. He was calling members of the caravan over, one by one, to spit on me. I guess he felt that he had to heap all sorts of degradation on me to make sense of it for his people. After all, a star doesn't get her curtain call in the second act. So he had to prove that I wasn't a star, that I was pathetic, worthy of scorn not pity. I had no idea how long this had been going on, but eventually my mother came before me. She had a particularly malicious look in her eyes, as if she was finally going to revenge herself of a grievous sin which had been enacted against her in particular. She spat. It landed on the corner of my mouth and dripped in, tasting foully of the tobacco she chewed. She followed this up with a boot to my abdomen before she disappeared. The last to approach was Petra. For some unexplainable reason I expected her to act affectionately, like a mother with a wayward child. But any affection she might have possessed was not in evidence here. She sneered at me; a mocking, superior look that shouted "who is the favored one now?". Snorting to draw mucus into her mouth, she let the spit dribble out of her mouth, taunting me with the dangling saliva. Finally it dropped, smacking my cheek just below the eye and trailing across the bridge of my nose. She left with a bounce in her step, leaving me alone with Lothair. He stood there stolidly towering above me, one foot planted on either side of my head; his neck bent, staring directly down into my eyes. He stood there for a long time, not moving, his face impassive. Then he was gone.

I was left alone in the woods with only the rasp of my own breath for company. Still unable to move, I lay there, watching the cloud of my breath form and dissipate over and over again. I coughed up more blood and the rasp subsided into a dull wheeze. My jaw throbbed and I could feel one eye beginning to swell closed. Sensation began to return to my hand with a painful, itchy tingle. Laboriously, I rolled myself over, and using my left arm for support, I struggled to my feet. They were still there, waiting for me. They stood a small distance away, bathed in the warm orange light of the torches. They were all there, my friends, family, the people that I had worked and lived with for my entire life and there wasn't a friendly face among them. I watched them warily, wondering what other horrors they could possibly have in store for me. Lothair approached, the rest staying on his heels like shadows from the torches. He stopped directly in front of me, so close that it was intrusive, and glared down at me through cold, dead eyes. Without taking his gaze from me, he extended his hand back over his shoulder, palm open. I tore my eyes away from him and looked beyond his hand, Tobias removed a long sliver of metal from the flames of a nearby torch and handed it to him.

I ran. Spinning away from Lothair, fear lending strength to my long legs, I bolted. But not quickly enough. A large meaty hand lashed out from the side and sent me sprawling to the dirt. Bending down over me, Lothair thrust his hand into my thick black hair and hoisted me into the air. He held me there with one arm, a few inches off of the ground. Thousands of tiny needles pierced my scalp as the hairs were dragged from their roots. Ineffectually I rained blows on his chest and face, which he took unflinchingly, before the pain became too extreme and I had to grab on to his arm to ease the strain on my head. His arm drew back, fist at head level, and remained there. I twisted my elbows to block the inevitable blow, but I needn't have bothered.  When it came, his fist shattered my feeble protection and struck me right on the nose with a crunch of cartilage and an explosion of blood. The force of the blow tore out much of the hair he was holding and sent me crashing to the ground. As I lay there, bleeding profusely and shaking uncontrollably, Lothair stooped to collect the metal sliver. Placing one boot directly on my chest, he crouched over me, instructing others to stand on my wrists and ankles. I was in no condition to struggle, but when he began to etch the sigil of the fallen on my forehead, the hot metal cauterizing the cuts as soon as he made them, my body writhed and fought against his grip. But it was to no avail.

* * *

The wind drives icy dew from the trees against my body, soaking my clothing and chilling my flesh, but I don't care. My cloak hangs open, whipping around my back and streaming out to my side like a flag. I hurt. It is a pain unlike any I have experienced, unlike any I thought could exist. Simultaneously physical, mental and spiritual, it strikes to the center of my being and once there becomes a whirling cyclone of knives, shredding my very essence. I look upon the faces of those around me, demoniacal in the flickering ochre of the torches, but they seem devoid of substance, mere caricatures of the rich and varied people that I believed them to be. Somewhere in the backs of their minds they must know that they have brought about my damnation, instigated events which led to the cruel rape of my soul. But none of them have actually considered the import of their actions. It is a fate too horrifying to consider, so they don't. They blindly follow the guidance of the Fatimas, simply because it is easier to do so than to think for themselves. They are sheep! No, they are worse than sheep, at least sheep don't allow themselves to be herded to a cliff edge and, one by one, pushed off. Sheep, at least, have the intelligence to run when the shrieks of the first victim reach them. Too bad the same can't be said of us. We revel in our roles as pawns of higher powers because, as a pawn it is perfectly acceptable to sink into the mire of mediocrity and achieve nothing. We are nothing, so nothing is expected of us. The Nation is the Fatimas' lapdog, amusing at first, but easily discarded once it becomes tiresome. It would almost be funny, if it weren't so brutal. The Fatimas, our saviors, have enslaved humanity just as surely as those they liberated us from. Sure, their grip on our destinies isn't as crushing as the Z'bri's was but let's face it, they control how the nation acts and thinks. No matter how pretty they make it, I still call that a prison. You might argue that at least they aren't slaughtering us but, in the long run, is the slow death of stagnation any better? The Goddess has a strange sense of humor, and it seems that only the fallen can appreciate it.

Alone. Standing perfectly still, my eyes, unseeing, drift arbitrarily over the sea of bright faces. But the tide has changed; slowly they turn away, dismissing me, forgetting me. I no longer exist.