Neytopia

Preface

This is a story that won’t waste your time. It’s a story separated in three parts. In each part, the main characters are different, but their stories overlap across parts.

Each part and each chapter can stand on their own. Each chapter gives you more plot than a movie, in less time. Each episode can mean something to you.

Because of self-publishing it’s all free, unless you want to support me, in which case, thank you.

So what is it about? Neytopia tells the lives of a ruthless goddess, a lost space traveler, a raven and a revolutionary. The four of them shape the world across centuries through their actions. But, beware, things may not be what they literally seem.

Dawn

Birth

How she and her sister were born is, and will always remain, a mystery. Intellectuals would fruitlessly make up explanations until the day the earth spoke. Only one thing is clear: the day she and her sister were born, mankind too was born.

They were separated at birth and raised independently. Her sister spent centuries hidden in dark caves. Meanwhile, everyone she met nurtured and praised her. Many devoted their whole lives to her. She spent hundreds of years as a child, but a child that could defeat any wise man in an argument.

She delighted eager audiences with tales of old, saying,

There are gods above in the blue sky, far beyond man’s reach. They share our joys and pains, but they are much more powerful, as you can see all around you. The sun shines, giving life to all things. Then night comes, bringing its dreadful darkness. The clouds and the rainbows, the earthquakes and the rain: the gods cause them all. But gods are merciful and take pity on us, specially when we make sacrifices in their name.

When she was a few centuries old she felt the urge to travel, to roam the world which she knew was hers. Helped by a large entourage, she explored all the continent by foot. Those who accompanied her were born and died before her eyes, seeing little change in her during their lives. In only a few years she had claimed all the land she could, but still she craved for more. So she ordered her people to build the first ship.

Then she chose the bravest and strongest among her own. They made a peace offering to the god of the seas, as she had taught them, said goodbye to their families and set sail. On the eighth day of voyage, the waters calmed. Winds ceased to blow on the flat ocean that now laughed at their sails. The god of the seas left them stranded, floating in the vast waters that stretched beyond the horizon. After a few days under the scorching sun there was no more food or water.

The sailors first turned on each other. She tried to reason with them, but thirst knows no reason. They cursed her for deceiving them, for leading them to their cruel, untimely deaths. They pointed at her and said,

The gods are easily offended, and they sure don’t like your magic.

So one night, while she was sleeping, the famished crew tied her to a long wooden plank and set her looking downward at the sea. She woke up already on fire and cried for mercy, but her pleas went unheard. The sailors, in their insanity, delighted themselves watching her burn. They were convinced that she was an evil, deceitful being, a devil who was enemy to the gods. Therefore they were convinced that they were acting righteously. In fact they knew that after killing her, the gods would show them their favor. It was, after all, a mighty sacrifice.

She burned under their silent gaze and her screaming soon stopped. The burnt wooden plank broke and her lifeless body sank into the cold ocean.

Popsicles

She felt her body sinking and tried to open her eyes. Every inch of her skin hurt, yet all she could think of was the feeling of falling. She asked herself,

What have I done to deserve this? I only meant to help them, to give meaning to their poor lives. And this is how they repay me? Ungrateful pricks! How dare they!?—She was furious now—I’ll show them! I swear I’ll show them!

Suddenly she noticed the route had changed abruptly. She no longer felt like falling because a great force had immobilized her and now shook her rhythmically. Perhaps she was at the bottom of the ocean, forgotten, moved only by underwater currents created by titanic creatures. She surrendered in bitter regret, thinking,

Oh, if only I could go back, this life is not fair, it’s not fair…

She prayed, thinking the gods would listen to her atonement. In her insanity, she had forgotten that the gods were the product of her imagination. So she begged,

I have seen the way, I will lead them in the right path; give me one more, I ask. One more chance to fulfill my task.

But only cold dead silence listened to her mourn. She tried to grind her teeth, but she was unable to move or see. Hours later, when the night was almost over, she felt something different. A tingling which became increasingly clearer. It was the prelude to a great change. Now it burnt, but not like in the ship. A living fire raged inside her. Finally dawn broke and she burst in a flash of fire and light. The whale that had mistakenly eaten her was at the surface to breathe when she exploded. Chunks of the whale’s flesh and bones covered the sea around her.

She could once more see, move and feel. As she sunk into the sea, she quickly realized what had happened and swam for a large chunk of the whale’s carcass, thinking,

It’s not a great ship, but it’ll do.

Once aboard, she spotted her former ship. One of the whale’s chunks had struck it. Despite the distance, she could make out the sailors working like tiny ants trying hard to save their sinking colony. Eventually the sailors realized it would not hold for long. She laughed at the people who had betrayed her, glad that the gods were punishing them. The first sailor that saw her jumped to the sea and swam for the floating whale chunk where she was. The other sailors followed, competing to be the first to reach her and claim a room in the new ship, knowing there wouldn’t be enough room for all.

She watched in horror from the top of the whale’s carcass. When they got to her, she knew they would torture her, especially now that they knew death was only a temporary condition for her. Imagining the things they would do to her, she realized she had to flee. But the only thing around her was the sea. She decided to stay and fend off those who reached her. The sailors could hardly swim, exhausted from hunger and their attempts to salvage the ship. Most began to sink soon after they had began swimming. Those with enough determination and strength kept going, pulling each other down into the waters to gain an advantage wherever they could find it. Two men made it to the whale first.

The two men put their hands on the carcass but she stomped on their heads. They were too tired to put up a fight, but they were two, so they kept trying to climb aboard. Eventually they realised they only needed to rest for a while until they had recovered their strength. But she was determined to never surrender, and the weather was on her side. Some seemingly harmless clouds came their way, brought by a freezing wind. The men and women at sea felt the deadly wind cutting their faces and chilling their spines. They knew they would freeze to death if they waited.

Everybody rushed to the whale.

The two men that were closer attacked together. She jumped back to the water before being captured. Soon other sailors climbed on the whale, sixteen men and women in total. But the cold wind blew, and they began to shake. Those who couldn’t reach the whale froze and sank into the depths. She, however, did not feel cold, and simply watched the people atop the whale. All of them held her stare with heart-filled hatred as they slowly froze to death.

Embrace, extend and extinguish

She climbed back on the whale, pushed the frozen bodies off to sea and grinned as she watched them sink. She tried to understand what had gone wrong. Cruelty has a human heart. Yes, Cruelty could manifest the true nature of people, so she promised right there to change human nature,

I’ll give them a reason to restrain themselves so what happened today never, EVER, happens again.

But first, she had to reach the shore. After some days being gently carried by the waves, she finally spotted land in the horizon. She swam the last stretch and reached the shore. It was a new land. Trees had unsuspected shapes, animals had ingenious ways to kill other animals. She walked for days through mountains and valleys until finally one night she came across a some people. They were very different from her original tribe. She approached them while they were hunting a bison, chasing it with rudimentary spears.

Her skin was pale white, and she wore a torn but still delicate dress. The men were terrified, having never seen such an image. But what scared and impressed them most was that she carried a lit torch. They stopped chasing the beast as soon as they saw her coming bearing light through the darkness. They stood away from her, clenching their teeth as they crouched in wonder and fear. They had seen fire ravaging nature, but never under such control.

Once she had their attention, she used the torch to light another torch in front of them, making them retreat further back. Then, as if dealing with a timid animal, she held the second torch in front of her as a gift. One of them approached her and grasped the torch quickly, fearing she would take it back.

After this demonstration of power she led them to a cave where she prepared some pigments and painted a bison. It took hours, but they watched her every stroke in awe. Now they knew for sure: she wasn’t human. No, she was superior to any human. To make sure they knew and never forgot, she gave them yet another wonder: language. Among the first words was “goddess”, reserved for her. Language had the slight inconvenience that only children could use it, as adults found it impossible to upgrade their growls to words. Their generation died of old age at 32.

The tribe thrived under her rule. They adored her as their own personal goddess of love and obeyed her every single command. In exchange, she enslaved or destroyed their enemies. She built a kingdom on violence, the only way that actually works. Indeed she had everything figured out, until she met a strange boy who questioned things that everyone assumed were and could only be a certain way. When he was only sixteen and his tribe had gathered to honor the goddess, he asked her,

Goddess, you said the earth is round but I have no experience of this. How can I know that the world is round and not, say, flat?

But she waved him away, his question was too stupid to dignify with an answer. During the feast the skeptic boy also asked the tribe’s priest, in the goddess’ presence,

How do you know the gods are there when we don’t see them?

The priest replied,

Well, the gods are perfect; something perfect has to exist; therefore, the gods exist.

The priest then thought to himself “I’m so fucking amazing”, but the boy had more questions,

And why do we have to follow all these arbitrary rules that tell me who I can marry, what I’m allowed to eat and so on? I mean, I understand that I’m not supposed to kill people in our own tribe, but why can’t I eat certain animals?

The priest had the one answer that convinced everyone but the boy:

Because it’s the law of the gods.

And there was no comeback against that. The boy knew that the priest was useless, so he nodded and said,

Of course, you’re right, you’re right.

But the boy knew, and no one would convince him otherwise, that he was right. He also realized that trying to explain what he knew would only lead to death or exile.

Skeptic

The skeptic boy’s father grabbed his son’s arm and stood up, deeply embarrassed about his child’s stupid questions. He pulled from him to take him behind a tree and beat the nonsense out of him with a stick. But the goddess intervened,

Young boy, come here.

His father let him go and he obeyed. She spoke softly, in a tone only the skeptic boy could hear,

I have spent two centuries unifying this continent. And before that, I ruled another continent. I learned a lot there. At first we didn’t have these arbitrary rules. Life was hard on the other continent, and all day long we wandered, hoping for some food or drink. Then, if someone fell, or sprained a knee, well, they died. So I told them their life had a point: when they died, the gods would welcome them in the kingdom beyond this world, as long as they did the best they could. Suddenly people were not miserable because they had a goal, their life had meaning.

But you lied to them?

No, I told them what they needed to hear. Now listen, because I’m not finished yet. Eventually we understood that instead of roaming around the continent like idiots, we could just stay near a river to grow vegetables and raise cattle. Now, that led to a whole new set of trouble. People started “owning” stuff like land, animals, and other people.

Before property, women and men were not bound for life if they had sex. The thing about polygamy is that it sounds fun, but it’s asymmetric fun and someone always ends up resented. Trust me, I’ve seen it too many times. After property though, sex meant joining two bloodlines and their property. It was a sort of contract. Infidelity meant breaking that contract. If the woman slept with other men, the husband might be leaving his inheritance to another man’s child. So monogamy became the norm because it was the only thing that made sense—

But what does this have to do with the arbitrary rules?

Patience, I’m getting there. When stuff came along, the meaning of life became having more and better stuff. A person was only a link in a long chain that stretched back into the past and forward into the future. Imagine now that the heir of a noble bloodline chose to not have children. The bloodline was lost, and with it the work and sacrifice of the generations before. That’s why noblemen despised homosexuality and other sexual behaviors that didn’t continue the bloodline. And that’s why the gods outlawed those behaviors. There’s a similar story for every other rule that you may think is arbitrary when you just don’t know the full story.

The skeptic boy was unimpressed and said,

So you have the same explanation as the priest, only with more context. But to me, it all comes down to this: I don’t care if it makes kingdoms work, I don’t care if other people buy it. I don’t. I have the gift of doubt. I doubt the gods are real, I doubt our laws are the best they could be. I even doubt you are a good ruler.

Now she was angry.

Look. I was just trying to help you. If you refuse my help and keep questioning everything like doing that is deep or something, the tribe will exile you. You will last a few days, maybe weeks, and then die alone in misery. Don’t you get it? The individual doesn’t matter. All of you are just tiny grains in the sands of time, and I won’t risk my grand goals for the intellectual amusement of one of you.

But what if I’m precisely meant to do that, to question your goals, your law, so that what was already weak finally breaks?

She had planned for everything except for this. She had always believed human ideas would be confined to whatever frame of reference she chose. How the hell had he happened? She replied,

No. No, because I’ve spent two centuries working to bring peace. No, because peace is greater than me and you. I have sacrificed tens of thousands in war, and I will sacrifice even more. But I will have my peace. A single kingdom, a single people, a single law. No more bloodshed over control of the territory, no more bloodshed over which gods are the true gods, no more… burning children alive.

The skeptic boy looked into her eyes,

So what am I supposed to do now, just shut up and act like everything is fine?

Yes. Shut up and take it like a man. Hide what you think from everyone.

She came closer to him.

Or I’ll rip your heart out.

With that the skeptic boy returned to his seat and kept eating and drinking. He spent the next years working honestly, taking care of his ill mother and never once questioning the gods in public. But he knew he was right, and that was enough.

The man with all the answers

What was meant to be the final push in her century-long campaign turned out to be the worst military disaster in ancient history. Bad crops left her troops without supplies, the tribes up north created a united front against her, the Southern Witch. Demoralized by initial defeats, horrible hunger and biting cold, she retreated south.

Eight years had passed since she last saw the skeptic boy, now a skeptic man. She had thought about what he had said many times while enemy armies forced her to slip away from a compromised position. Maybe he was right, maybe all her efforts were in vain. Maybe she should promote the only man that had ever confronted her in public, give him an executive charge. But all her doubts vanished when she saw him during her shameful retreat. She was recruiting all able men from every village on her way. He had recently married a young bride, who was already pregnant.

The men marched before her for military drafting as she sat on her big throne which she always carried around. When his turn came, he did not look into her eyes. She spoke first, noticing how sad he looked,

I see you made the right choice and forgot about all your childhood nonsense.

Yes, your highness, I learned to hide it.

What do you mean, do you still insist on doubting things?

He nodded. She got up from the throne and approached him.

Meet me in the forest, by the river, after the draft is over.

Once she finished the draft she went to the river, where he was already waiting. She said,

It’s just you and me now. Do you want the truth? Fine. Here’s the truth: I made up the gods, the laws, everything! But they work, they make people happy, they give their lives—

Meaning? Sure they do. But that’s not the whole story. My mother has been ill for sixteen years now. Sixteen years… God, how long it’s been. Her pain has grown worse each day. She has spent the last two years in bed, suffering. I’ve had to feed her and wash her because her hands can’t stop shaking. And when I offered her to end her… pointless pain, do you know what she told me, DO YOU FUCKING KNOW?

She shook her head, intimidated.

“I don’t want to go to hell, son”. That’s right, she’s afraid to do what is only natural because of some nonsense you made up. Last winter I too started feeling the shakes. If only I had known sooner, I never would have married and never, EVER, would have fathered a child with cursed blood. Now my only option is to die in your stupid war and hope that maybe, just maybe my wife and child have enough food to sustain them. What does your stupid religion of love have to say about that?

She froze. What could she say to him, the man with all the answers?

He left, murmuring to himself,

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Worthy sacrifice

She crumbled.

She could not bear the pressure of war, famine, and worse, of self-doubt. All day she drank inside her tent, refusing to make any decisions. Her generals informed her that the enemy was closing in and urged her to retreat further south, but she remained silent.

One morning, a hunter wounded by arrows limped out of the forest. She brushed aside men and women to place her ear close to his mouth and listen to his dying words.

Men… coming, a-army. Th-this way. Thous— maybe more—Now he pulled her harder to him—Save… save my wife and children, please, sav—

But he died trying to finish the sentence. She called everyone to arms and painted her face with the fallen hunter’s blood. When the whole tribe had gathered, she spoke,

A horde of men is coming to seize your land, the land of your ancestors. What will you do, let them have it?

No!

Will you stand idly by as they tear apart what we have built?

NO!

That’s right! We will show the gods what we are made of. We will crush their skulls and drink their blood.

The warriors struck their own shields with their axes and swords. Then they all chanted in honor of the god of war. While the soldiers hid in the shadows to ambush the enemy, she took the women and children up a hill to an ancient stone temple built in her honor.

The invaders entered the village sword in hand. The houses were empty and everything was a mess, as though the inhabitants had fled. The invaders laughed at the sight, saying,

What a bunch of pussies! They ran like little girls. Go on boys, take all you can!

Once a few enemy divisions had stepped inside, her warriors stabbed the invaders’ feet through the wooden floors, jumped out of wardrobes and shot arrows from the nearby trees. The ambush was successful at slicing their ranks in two, those inside the village and those outside. The bulk of her army charged from the forest while the fight went on around the village.

At the stone temple, the women and children feared for their husbands and fathers. Some women begged the goddess,

We should be fighting with them. Please, let us go!

But she refused because she knew that women and children had to stay alive at any cost to repopulate the tribe. She saw them as resources, just like water and food. From the distance, they couldn’t tell what side was winning. They heard screams of agony and saw the bodies covering the ground. She kneeled down in the center of a semicircle built with stone pillars. It was the altar for her secret rituals. She rose suddenly, her face paler than ever. She had heard a clear voice that told her what she had to do:

I have communed with the gods. The battle will be lost unless we act.

The women looked at her with complete obedience and said,

Anything.

Whatever it takes.

They unsheathed their weapons. Then she turned to them,

The gods claim the blood of an unborn baby to give strength to our men.

All the women turned to look at the skeptic man’s wife with the same look. To survive, the women knew anything was justified and even righteous. Ironically, that was precisely the feeling she had tried to erase from the human heart. The young mother, who had always been the joy of that small tribe, now cried for her unborn son, for her wretched husband and for herself.

But she obeye her goddess’ command without question. She wiped the tears off her face and walked to the center of the stone semicircle, where she lied down on the ground. The goddess took a knife and walked in circles around the girl, mumbling words in a forgotten tongue. Throughout the whole ceremony, the women and children stared, thrilled by the spectacle.

The mumbling soon turned to loud chanting in a crescendo that echoed through the valleys and mountains, reaching the warriors below. Her eyes grew larger as she danced faster and faster around the girl. The frenzied women kneeled and chanted, begging her to go on, to do it, to destroy their enemies and spill blood. When she reached the climax of the ceremony, she cut open the girl’s belly with in a single strike, then slid her throat in a second slice. Her blood spilled over the carvings in the stone, slowly filling the carved image of a rising sun. The sacrificed girl wept a single tear and then was forever gone.

Battle raged on for another half an hour, but the screams eventually died down. The women and children came down from the hill sword in hand, only to find that their tribe had won. The village was now a bloody battlefield where corpses and broken furniture lay scattered. Many of her men were lost. But they had been outnumbered two to one and still won. The women and children rushed to give water to the wounded and cover their wounds with medicinal herbs.

The skeptic man had killed several men and survived almost unscathed. He sought the eyes of his wife in the crowd, but could not find them. It didn’t make sense because all the other women were fine. They all ignored him as they ran to their husbands and fathers, except for the goddess. She was staring into his eyes, standing still as the women and children rushed by her side. He immediately realized something horrible had happened.

Oh no, no, no…

He ran up the hill. At the temple he found his wife’s corpse. He held her body in his arms, crying. After a while, he wiped his tears and marched into the village again, sword in hand. She was standing still, watching him draw closer and closer with eyes full of hatred and clothes full of blood. He began to charge as he screamed. But she cried,

Help, he’s coming for me!

The warriors stopped him before he could harm her. He shouted,

Whore! You fucking whore! Traitor!

Several men held him on the ground as she shook violently. She spoke to him in a soothing voice,

The gods demanded a sacrifice. Just as we make food offerings to the god of Plenty to provide us with good crops, so too we must sacrifice to the god of War to ensure victory. Warriors: didn’t you feel the god of War’s presence during battle?

Yes!

Didn’t you feel POWER running through your veins!?

Her eyes were practically out of their sockets. The men cheered and praised the gods. If his heart wasn’t already filled with hatred to the brim, he would have hated her even more for her cynicism. She had told him that the gods were imaginary, so his bride had only been brutally murdered. Wrestling to free himself after the long battle left him exhausted, unable to move a single muscle. He covered his face with his hands to cry in shame,

There’s nothing left here for me. My whole future, my wife and son are… are… Why? What have I done to you…

She watched him in silence.

Kill her.

There was a new voice in his head.

Kill the bitch. She killed mother. She killed your wife. Fuck, she killed your child. You are not staying here, wallowing in self-pity. No, fuck that.

Please just-just leave me alone…

No.

Please.

Pick yourself up you little shit!

He rose up from the ground.

Now apologize and act normal.

He obeyed and apologized to her, then returned to his home. But he didn’t sleep that day. First he said goodbye to his mother and put her out of her misery. Then he broke into the goddess’s house through a window and snook up to her bedroom.

There he sat on top of her as she slept, and plunged a knife into her belly with his right hand, cutting through her pale and smooth skin as she had done to his wife. He covered her mouth with his left hand so her screams would not be heard. He whispered in her ear,

I carve you now just as you carved my child; except there’s only death and lies inside of you.

She did not try to fight or scream. She just cried in silence, regretting it all. He cried too, thinking of how things had gone so wrong. He looked at his hands: her white blood shone dimly in the darkness. He looked at her in horror, realizing what he had done. He wanted to apologize, to fix her, but it was too late.

He panicked, dropped the knife and hugged her as he had always wanted to. Both forgot for a moment what they had done to each other. She clinged to him with her arms and closed her eyes, ceasing to cry… and soon to hold him. They stayed together until her arms fell and no more blood poured out of her wound. He left her house covered in her blood, still crying, and took one of the horses to ride into the night.

Thunder

He rode across valleys and hills sheltered by darkness. He had to run away, ashamed of what he had done. A few hours later, a sleepless boy wandered into her house so she would read him a story, as she sometimes did for many sleepless kids. The boy screamed when he saw her lifeless body, soon alerting the whole village. Everybody gathered around her house. They wept and cursed him. But when the first rays of dawn came, her skin began to light up once again. Her people ran away from her house, blinded by her light. Finally she exploded, making the roof fly away and the walls fall.

She walked out completely naked, her pale skin shining under the sun. She smiled at the crowd that kneeled in adoration,

Gather your horses and ride in four groups: north, east, south and west. Find him and arrest him, but don’t harm him.

She dressed up and rode north. She knew he was smart and would probably go north, where she risked being captured. Her group spotted him in the distance only a few hours later. They followed him for two days, losing sight of him a couple of times.

He camped in a tall cavernous mountain to sleep. They approached the mountain at night, but her skin shone so bright that it betrayed them. He spotted her from atop the mountain as he looked one last time at the plains he thought was leaving behind. The vision gripped him with horror, thinking,

She, she has come back from the dead!

His face was pale, his throat shut. He could hardly think. Turning away from her, he ran downhill. So fast he tried to run, that he tripped with some rocks and fell. The hunting party rushed after they heard the sound of rolling boulders and a wailing cry in the wind. When they reached him, they found him broken, his bones crushed against a rock, screaming in agony. Some of the smaller, sharper rocks had pierced the skin after the fall. Blood ebbed from his whole body like a fountain of blood.

It was her that cried on top of him now. They both wished for a second chance. But they wouldn’t have it. For they knew, no matter how much they had despised each other, they could have done something great together. It was too late now, everything was lost. His lungs began to shut down. He coughed blood, unable even to say the only thing he wanted to say: sorry.

But she refused to surrender, she refused to accept his fate. She needed him around… somehow. She instructed her soldiers to draw an image in the ground with stones. They quickly built a small-scale replica of the stone temple. The shape was the image of dawn: a semicircle with lines erupting from it over a horizontal line. They placed him in the middle of it, and as he struggled to live just a while longer, she chanted the words. At first skeptical, then with all her heart, the words poured out.

She took blood from the chest of the men that were with her and painted him with it. The chanting became wilder and louder. Then the men joined in, dancing around the stones in a frantic circular motion. Finally his body erupted into a flash of light up to a storm above them, making an irregular path followed by a loud cracking sound that was heard across the world. The storm roared on, and more of the same violent light-explosions occurred. It was him, riding the storm. He had become something new she called thunder. She knew he would never leave her from that day. All she needed was to find a storm.

From that day until the end of time, he would be born and die screaming in electric agony, thousands of times around the world every day. But he would be alive.

Everything had to change

She mourned for years, feeling lost and without purpose.

It was all so tiring.

She had started the war to end all wars. But that was more than two centuries ago. All she had now was a botched retreat to the south, a demoralized army and a determined enemy. Many of the captured territories eventually rebelled against her. And when she squashed a rebellion, another one cropped up.

Time made her cruel. Whenever she integrated a new territory into her empire, she immediately went for the powerful classes. She confiscated all their property and either executed them or chained them to forced labor. It was more than a material victory: she also humbled them into obedient critters. She proclaimed herself, and forced everyone to call her “the sword and shield of the masses”.

But if bad weather and failed crops had once hurt her, they were now on her side. Learning nothing from their own war, the northern tribes’ push south stretched too far too fast, leaving a vulnerable and scarce supply line. Caravans loaded with the few potatoes and meat produced up north was either stolen or lost in blizzards. Soon enough, the northern tribes were eager to sign a truce with her.

Fuck that!

She yelled at the emissary sent by the armies up north. She rallied the troops she needed and, instead of a frontal attack, organized razzias along the northern supply line. The north acknowledged the success of her strategy when the old squabbles, put aside during the time of war, resurfaced.

When she had amassed a decent army, she headed north. No tribe was spared, no city saved. She burned it all down. Once murdered or scattered as slaves throughout the continent, the great noble families disappeared. There was no risk of them trying to take power back, because there was no them left. She made sure to erase any trace of nobility wherever her hand reached. And finally, the whole continent was hers. She stood on her home at her capital of her empire, thinking,

All misery and pain comes from society’s unfair structure. Instead of a pyramid of power, it should be a flat, brutalistic rectangle. Yes, I did promise peace after unification, but I can’t really guarantee it yet. After all, privilege isn’t the monopoly of aristocracy. There are rich merchants and landowners exploiting the working mass for profit. Yes, they did pay for much of my army’s supplies believing I would bring peace and stability. But so what? They only care about money.

First she imposed heavy taxes on the rich to even out the distribution of wealth. Her propaganda denounced the rich merchants who had once been her allies as greedy pigs and hung as many of them as she could catch. They pulled off a coup against her. Then, while they were celebrating, she came back to life and killed every single one of those involved in the coup and their families, adding their wealth to her the state’s coffers. The commoners, who understood only power and blood, supported her inconditionally. She did it all for them, or so she said. She wanted to save them any cost. She tried to convince others and herself that:

All eras must be the iron era!

She sent goons to loot the banks like a common criminal while she financed great public works, providing work for hundreds of thousands.

What do you mean like a common criminal?

Are you talking to me?

Shut up narrator, you’re butchering the story. Yes, I acted like a common criminal. But isn’t crime an abstract thing defined by law, and am I not the one who defines law? So it is up to me if I am a criminal or not.

Ok, you go ahead and tell this part of the story.

I built roads to join the different towns, villages and temples. I took the greatest poets I could find under my patronage to write the tales of the gods…

… the gods you made up.

Shut up narrator, you don’t have opinions!

The state sent those who refused to obey to work camps…

… hard-labor death sites where they worked themselves to the grave.

Beyond there, it sort of grew on its own. I only really created the state’s organs and gave them vague directives. Things got… weird. I admit it, I succumbed to flattery and adoration. Anyone who aspired to any sort of power only needed complete and absolute devotion to me, the incarnation of equality and justice. At first I tried to have every citizen perform equal labor and make sure that the other citizens performed their labor. But it was a disaster.

I tried to set up new industries, but the organs sent to camps those who failed to meet their unreasonable quotas. I tried to set up collective farms, but farmers did the bare minimum to meet the quotas and it only led to huge famines whenever there was a bad harvest. People forced to work hated their work. Everything we manufactured and built was of the poorest quality and broke down. Foundations gave way, bridges collapsed…

But the kicker came when I visited one of the areas most affected by the famine. I didn’t see people out in the fields and by the roads, no. They were walking skeletons with huge heads, swollen bellies and bones almost poking through their brittle skin. Then I saw one of the district chiefs on his large villa, being fed grapes by a slave boy.

And you killed him.

Well of course I killed him. But it didn’t really matter, as there were thousands of them. You see, I was foolish enough to think that inequality is tied to class, and that if I removed classes, there would be equality. But all I did was turn “class” into “position inside the Party hierarchy”.

All those years, all those deaths… all wasted. Because nobody learned anything from it. One day I vanished, leaving the state to fend for itself. It lasted another sixty-four years before it collapsed. But no matter where I travelled, everyone had heard about the kingdom of equality and wanted to try it. Fools! Fools, I tell you! It didn’t work, it doesn’t work, it will never work. All of it was in vain.

That’s not completely true.

Really narrator, how’s that?

Look at how they behave. Sure, they eventually realized that you had just made up the gods. But their laws are exactly what you wanted them to be. People don’t club their enemies to death in public not only because there are laws, but because they think it is immoral. You made that happen.

I guess you’re right, narrator.

Of course, I am an impersonal narrator with unbiased perspective. I’m always right.

Don’t push it.

Even here, exiled in the middle of nowhere and forgotten, you can take solace in that. When modern smartful people say “Religion bad. Religion make people do bad thing” they don’t realize their ideology is a bland forgery of your original religion.

Thanks, narrator, I needed to hear that. You can continue telling my story.

Ziggurats and fire gods

She hid from the world in a mansion on a small island. There she realized that there really aren’t many things to do. She didn’t need food nor money, she didn’t have any hobbies, and she barely tolerated reading.

Some people can’t retire. They think they can, but they can’t so they end up restlessly miserable. Usually retirement comes when death is near. But she couldn’t die. So after a couple years of rest she planned her return. There was plenty of world left to conquer, and who better to do it than her?

So she sailed to the northern continent. There she looked for people who claimed to be powerful and soon reached the capital of a small independent state. She asked its citizens for directions to their highest authority. The beggars told her that the king was a puppet on a string controlled by the high priest.

The capital was built with an ivory white stone carved out of nearby mountains. It rested on the southern end of the north continent, separated from the southern continent by the Middle sea. The local religion was based on the idea that everything was fire. Their god was, of course, the god of fire. Things, like wood, water, or… fire, were made of fire. Kind of stupid if we’re being honest.

Stick to the story, impartial narrator.

Anyway, these simplistic religions disgusted her. She thought they were little more than superstition, unlike her “real” ideologies. The church taxed one quarter of the peasants produce, and used that revenue to build ever-greater temples and buy fine products from merchants.

She explained to poor people that there were other ways to live. She told them that the high priest was merely a madman who had been lying to them and promised to prove it:

When I show you the truth, you will follow me, obey me without question. Truth will set you free!

After only a few days of preaching to the masses she had surrounded herself with beggars, drunkards, criminals and every kind of degenerate she could find. But when she talked to the young and beautiful citizens, then she crossed the line. The priests branded her as a “destructive and heretical element which should be handled like the plague”.

She and her followers had to live hiding from the state for months until she was sold to the authorities by one of the beggars for a few silver coins. By then, everyone in the capital knew her and her crazy ideas. She was arrested and brought to the center of the fire temple’s patio, a great semicircle of stone which had immense stairs that led to the temple. Only she realized the irony that the semicircle symbology was originally hers: it was the shape of the shining Sun over the horizon, which happens at dawn.

The temple proper was an ancient ziggurat, two-hundred and fifty-six meters tall. It had been entirely sculpted on a titanic chunk of land that stretched out from the continent to the sea. From their ziggurat, the priests accused her of crimes against the state and the fire god and quickly sentenced her to death by… it’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? Fire.

The streets and balconies were packed. The whole city was there to watch. When asked to say her final words, she looked at the audience and said,

I will come with the first rays of dawn, and when I do, this land will be mine.

Then the high priest set her on fire and she burned until there were only her ashes left. Everyone stood there doubting, wondering, fearing, waiting for something to happen. But after the fires died down, most believed she had been just another deranged martyr of a lost cause. She, of course, had known all along where she was headed; she knew the strongest persuasion is paid in blood. Some walked on hot coals to prove their faith or doctrine was true. She thought it was much better if the doctrine came out of the fire itself.

She had committed suicide through political terrorism, and any other interpretation would be missing the point. But there was something else behind her desire to burn. She wanted to feel the pain so she could attone for all the evil she had done, specially to the skeptic man. At first she had thought it would keep him around, but it turned out it was only a pointless and painful torture.

Yes, she was riddled with guilt, the very guilt she had crafted for men to stop them from being cruel to one another. By dawn, sixteen disciples were still kneeling at a safe distance away from her charred corpse, waiting for her return. The rest of the citizens just passed by, ignoring her.

The day was heavily clouded, with sparse rain falling over the ocean behind the temple. Around noon, the clouds left an opening just big enough to let some rays to fall on her. She immediately exploded in a flash of light. The explosion created cracked the base of the ziggurat and cleared every cloud, leaving a clear blue sky and a radiant sun. Without saying a word, she looked to the temple.

She rushed to the crack in the floor and placed her hands inside. The priests came out of the temple, alerted by the tremors. They screamed at her “demon”, “evil”, “whore”. But she ignored them, keeping her hands on the crack. The priests were horrified to discover the crack was spreading through the temple’s foundation. They begged her to stop in the name of their god, then they threatened with burning her in the eternal lake of fire.

The priests tried to escape their ziggurat, but the stairs were too large. A loud explosion and the ziggurat began to slide toward the sea until it crashed against the waters. The great wave created by the impact drowned away their screams and the sea engulfed that small fragment of the past.

Monster

She and her followers stormed the king’s castle and dragged the entire royal family to the patio where they had tried to kill her. They hung the whole family and left them to rot under the sun. Then she put a vicious criminal in the new position of president. He stripped the nobility of every privilege, rank and possession they had, sending the new revolutionary army to fight those who resisted.

Then she left.

Or rather, she took thirty-two fanatics, gave them white and red robes, and left.

The next time she came by a village, dressed in expensive clothes and surrounded by her followers, people were afraid of her. For eight years she traveled, exposing charlatans and snake oil sellers wherever she went.

Eventually she reached a kingdom that was withering away with hunger. She met several wizards with pockets full of gold they squandered on cheap hoes. She beat the truth out of one such magician,

The-the kingdom, you see. There’s a growing monster! The king payed us to hunt him, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. Go on, go and take his coin too!

Low-life scum had always disgusted her. But when they took advantage of honest people going through hard times, that was crossing the line. For days now, all she had seen was vast horizons of barren land, cities lost to theft, murder, rape, famine and cannibalism. She captured the wizard and dragged him to the king, who agreed to receive them in audience. The castle was in a dire condition. The works of art, furniture and items of value had vanished, leaving behind only their shape in the walls where they used to hang.

This!

She threw the chained man at the king’s feet.

…is what’s happening to your people’s wealth. You are giving it away for crooks to waste in brothels! You are giving gold to these wizards without any guarantees. Are you out of your fucking mind? There is no monster, you’re getting scammed.

You don’t understand, lady…

You… you are weak and despicable. When I expose this whole monster thing is a hoax, mark my words, I’ll come back for you. But right now, I have to salvage your kingdom.

The king pulled out a bag of coins and spoke in a shamefully low tone:

Here’s some gold for your troubles…

No I don’t want your fucking gold! Don’t you see this is precisely what has destroyed your kingdom? Give me only a small group of your men to lead me to this monster and help me find it.

She left the palace with thirty-two royal guardsmen escorted them. Eight days they traveled, following a very real path of destruction. All the while, she kept telling herself,

It’s just a hoax.

But she had never seen anything like it. The fields were barren deserts covered in black dead plants. She had heard many descriptions of what the monster was, but one thing was certain, it was HUGE.

Esoteric surgery

Eventually she reached a stenching cave. She could feel the beast was there. She ordered her soldiers to stand guard as she entered inside alone. Her footsteps echoed through the cave, causing the sleeping bats to fly out. But she pushed on, nothing could scare her.

As her eyes adapted to the darkness, she spotted a large figure hunched against a wall. Listening to its calm, paused breath, she realized it was asleep. She avoided stepping on the scattered animal carcasses and fruits to get closer to him. She flung a large blanket over him, then stood back and chanted,

Rise! Rise! Rise!

The creature woke up, startled by the noise. It tried to turn around but could not move. Her chanting stopped and a soft voice whispered in its ear.

This ends now, you hear me? I am taking you somewhere you can be free, a place where you can eat and drink all you want without causing trouble.

She paused and shone, lighting up the cave. Finally she and the scared creature could see each other. It was a monstrously large man, except…

That mark.

She ran her fingers through the giant’s chest. That was no ordinary giant. She ran outside to get the soldiers.

I have captured the beast, but I need help to carry it outside.

They used horses and mules to drag him out of the cave, at all times covered by the blanket. They traveled for weeks across the western rim of the continent until they reached a large port. There they loaded the giant, completely covered and disguised as supplies, and set sail. A few days later they reached the island at the end of the world.

They hauled the giant to the coast and sat him with the large blanket covering him. Once the giant was set, she spoke to her disciples.

Your training is complete. Now you must travel abroad and continue my work. Struggle wherever you go and die in peace.

She promised each of them to meet again before they died, knowing she never would. When everyone had left, she spoke to the immobilized giant.

Do you have any idea of who you are? Nah, if you did, you would have torn the world apart. You are an error, a mistake. You belong to the world beyond this world, and yet, here you are. Here you are…—She looked away. She pitied the giant, even if he was about to give her real power—I am becoming all too human, I know. But that’s why you’re here—The giant’s eyes darted anxiously in all directions—Shhhh now, boy. I’ll make you forget the terrible things that have happened to you, don’t worry. You’ll just have to endure a little more pain.

She blindfolded him and took a long ceremonial knife and a saw. First she sawed through the giant’s skull until she reached the brain. With the knife she removed a small portion of it and clenched it on her right hand.

This. This is true power. I don’t need the gods anymore, now I AM A GOD.

She chewed through the raw brain, hunched behind the giant. Immediately after she fell to the ground convulsing, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before. For eight days she carved the giant’s brain and ate it.

On the eighth day came a raft. The giant’s head was covered to hide the carefully-stitched lobotomized brain, but she removed the blanket that had immobilized him. Still, the giant could not move or talk. He just sat, gazing with an empty stare into the sea that stretched before him. A small man came from the raft to meet the giant. Once he was before him, the man kneeled and took off his hat in sign of respect, pressing it with both his hands against his chest.

How treacherous the path, yet how great the reward! In whose presence am I, majestic being?

She was still eating brain, hunched behind the giant. In a stroke of mischief, she spoke using the giant’s voice:

I am he who rules the sky! I am he who commands the earth! I AM THAT I AM!

Allow me, oh great man, to be your honest servant. Tell me, I beg you, what I must do, and I will do it with all my heart!

Get thee back into the tempest, small man. And once you return to thy kingdom, which is mine, teach people the way. A priestess will come to find you when the time is right, and you will obey my word that speaketh through her.

The man looked up and raised his hands.

Yes! I will! Yes!

And in this kingdom, all shall follow the sacred law, which is as follows.

For her own amusement, she made up an arbitrary list of rules that included such items as “thou shalt not eat of the animals that hath an uneven number of hooves, for they art evil indeed”. After a long list of rules impossible for anyone to remember, she blessed him, saying:

I grant thee the blessing of everlasting life, for you are now its guardian. Now fucketh off my island.

The man returned to his raft and sailed back to his homeland. She sailed back to the continent, smiling back at the giant on her way. She had finally become a god.

At the bottom of the box

She returned to the southern continent more powerful than she had ever been. There was only one thing she wanted now: the love of the masses. They had to see the god that walked the earth, the most powerful being and the only one they should pray to.

She roamed the southern continent for decades, creating small communities that loved her unconditionally. Her people lived in all kinds of places, from regular villages and towns to underground cave systems. The larger towns and villages usually survived independently for a long time until a larger force conquered them. She now understood empires were doomed to fail, so she preferred to create small but enduring states which would forever remember her through their myths.

When she was satisfied with the South, she sailed North to do the same. But once there she learned about a new kingdom that grew larger by the year. Its king had pure intentions, or so she thought: unifying the the whole North under one religion, one banner. He brought promises of returning the land to the peasants and removing the nobility’s ranks.

She marched to the king’s castle, still under construction, to meet the honorable conqueror. She claimed to be the emmissary of a powerul southern kingdom. When the gates to the main hall opened and she realized the king was the small man that had visited her in the island, she had to restrain herself from bursting in laughter. She looked around in disbelief. The castle’s walls and the streets were covered with huge images of the giant, or rather, of “the Greater man”.

The official religion also included every kind of mythical figures she considered product of degenerate, cannibalistic, drunken northern tribesmen. They were interpreted as good or bad depending on the answer to the question “How much did they follow the commandments of the Greater man?”

But she didn’t care about small details like making sense. No, she only cared about power and devotion. Her little joke had worked out great: instead of doing all the hard and tiresome conquering job, she could just convince a fool to do it for her. Meanwhile, she would play the role of the invisible angel of mankind.

She walked up to the king. He was sitting there, talking to four young, beautiful, scarcely-clothed women. Then there was a distinct woman further back in full robe, smiling gracefully. That woman looked familiar. When the king saw her, he laughed briefly, then turned alternatively to look at her and the other woman.

High priestess, I didn’t know you had a sister!

The two women came closer to examine each other, not believing what they saw. Indeed they were sisters, but how? If she was her sister, then she would be… like her? She remained calm and cold, forcing herself to focus on what really mattered.

I have come here to speak on behalf of the Greater man. He gave you power so you would devote everything to him, which you have done so far. Now He commands you to cleanse this land of the impure, those who insult him with their rites to honor evil.

Look, this is a nice act, but the prophecy was already fulfilled. The priestess came and showed me and the people the way out of the darkness. There is peace throughout the land, and in a few centuries the entire continent will be at his Great feet. We don’t even need war anymore. Landowners and tribes come to us, seeking to sell or annex their lands to ours. What else do you want?

No war? What do you mean no war?

She did not understand. Even worse, the king’s explanation was unacceptable. While she had been raising her small communities, some of the territories had been so crude as to reject her. Imagine that! Of course she had crushed them, killing every single one of their inhabitants, burning their cities to the ground and covering their lands with salt. She could not believe that the king had never encountered this problem.

Sometimes the human spirit cannot be tamed and men endure whatever you throw at them. The only solution is total obliteration. And that’s precisely why she expected from the North: tough, relentless tribes to crush. Suddenly the lights in the room shone brightly and she grew larger, speaking with a different voice, the one she had stolen from the giant,

LISTEN NOW, I TELL YOU. YOU WILL DO AS I COMMAND.

The king threw himself to the ground, groveling before her. He recognized the voice. She returned to her regular size and spoke with a sweet tone, so calm it was even more frightening.

Now that we understand each other, this is what you will do: every single man, woman or child who have even slightly offended Him will be brought to be burnt in one great pyre. So He demands it. That priestess who is standing by your side is an impostor, a liar and a whore. You will give her to me—She stopped for a moment, seeing the look of horror in the king’s face—I am in control now, and get this through your skull—She poked his head with her finger—He is always watching, judging every. single. thing. you do. If you disobey him, He’s there! If you think of disobeying him, HE’S THERE! You are his and his alone. Only through obedience comes redention.

There was no discussion, no response from the king. The priestess kneeled and begged the king to protect her. The king also began to cry, but he knew he was powerless. She grabbed the priestess by the hair and dragged her to the priestess chambers, now hers.

She threw the priestess on a chair,

Who are you? Speak.

I-I’m just a priestess. Please, I just saw the opportunity to help a good king and I did. I never asked for anything for myself. If you don’t believe me, just look at my plain clothes.

Yes, yes. But you and I both know that’s a lie. I’ll give you one last chance. You will tell me the truth. Who are you and why do you look like me? Are you an impostor? A spy? Are you trying to steal this kingdom from me? MY kingdom!?

Please, no… please—The priestess broke down in cries. She threw herself to the ground and hugged the goddess’ legs—I’m sorry. I won’t come back, I swear. I’ve roamed the North for centuries, I’ll roam some more…

The goddess pitied the woman,

Fine, get up and leave.

Thank you, thank you!

But then, the goddess held her head firm and looked into her eyes. She knew that someone who had gained so much power never gives it up without a fight. She was a threat. And if she was like… her, she was her biggest threat. If she was like her, she was…

Hope?

The woman before her was the worst enemy of mankind, the insidious worm that grows inside you, carving its way out. That woman had invented the heavens that went by many names. That woman had convinced men to do crazy things believing there was an afterlife. Oh, she was her sister alright.

Can you imagine what we could achieve together, you and I? If only I could trust you.

But you can, dear sister.

She extended her arms toward her sister to embrace her. Her sister stopped crying and they hugged. For about five seconds, until she pushed her away, shouting,

No! It’s impossible. Snake, snake!

Please…

She tore her sister’s robe in a single motion, exposing her pale skin. Then she savagely beat her with a cane, yelling with each strike:

SNAKE! SNAKE! SNAKE!

The cane broke, but she kept beating her sister. Soon her sister stopped crying, and by the time she stopped, her sister was little more than a pile of broken bones over a pool of blood. During her frenzy, the king and guards had walked into her room and now watched in horror. The goddess’ left hand had broken during the beating, and was now covered in blood.

Time for a fire bath.

The king’s men built the immense pyre with the dissenters she had ordered burned. The king, the nobility and thousands of citizens watched with disgust as the dissenters burned. Then they saw her walk right into the pyre. The whole court hoped that would be the last they heard of her.

At dawn, she walked out of the coals. At noon, the pile of bones in her room became once again her sister.

And the goddess was there, waiting for her sister. Now that she had proof she really was her sister, she knew what to do. The world had room for only one of them, and she wasn’t going to give it up. The two sisters looked at each other’s eyes.

Goodbye, sister.

She pushed her hand through her sister’s chest all the way to her heart and ripped it out with a single motion. Then she ate her sister’s heart to taste the forbidden fruit of hope. She knew her sister would be reborn again and again, so she gathered four masons and sixteen miners and took them to the mountains. There she had them dig right through a lonely mountain to build a thick stone prison which had barely more than her sister’s dimensions, where she put her sister’s body. Then she had them cover the path that led to her living grave, making it impossible for anyone to find her again.

Her sister would be reborn, find herself in the tomb with no food or water, and die of thirst without anyone ever finding her. She would be reborn and die over and over in a terrible cycle. Once the tomb was sealed, she gathered the masons and miners for payment and instead burned them alive. They were the only ones who knew where she was buried, the only loose end.

Finally, she erased the location from her own mind. The only thing she remembered, and would always want to remember, was what she had done to her sister.

Winter winds

She took command of the northern army and sent a regiment to every independent state up north. Her only instructions,

Barricade the city gates and set it on fire.

She thought that after a few fires, the rest of the continent would kneel before her. But she underestimated the will of the northerners, who created a united front against her. Northern noblemen put aside their squabbles to face their common enemy, the same thing that had happened centuries ago in the southern continent. But this time, their army was far greater than hers.

She needed the noblemen in her court to be on her side because each family had its own loyal soldiers. She had sold her strategy to the people as being infallible, perfect, approved by the Greater man. After several defeats in the front, her words lost credit. The united front pushed her kingdom south without any intention to let her sue for peace.

She accused the noblemen and the king’s ministers of fearmongering and defeatism. She blamed the defeats on sabotage and people’s lack of faith in the Greater man during her speeches at the capital,

The lord over all will deliver us from our enemies, but only if we believe blindly! Your leaders are gripped with fear, but I am not. I will defeat their filthy heathen armies and the Glory of our Greater man will shine from coast to coast!

As the enemy closed in on the capital, she sped up executions of civilians and army officers on charges of espionage, sabotage and treason. Those too coward to fight in the war became members of the new state security organs built to root out enemies of the state. She really was a creature of habit. From one of the castle’s balconies that led to a large patio, she yelled at the masses:

It’s your fault that a bunch of stinking heathens are about to conquer us. Your lack of faith disgusts the Greater man, who has forsaken you. All you can do is surrender to his Will, only then will He save you.

Every day the united front drew closer to the capital. By the time winter came, the kingdom was little more than the capital and the adjacent frozen farmlands. Enemies approached from the south, east and west. The union finally took the farmlands and pushed her army back to the capital, depriving them of provisions. Her once glorious army was now outnumbered, exhausted and famished.

The siege sunk the capital into lawlessness. The army disintegrated after the soldiers saw the never-ending lines of enemies marching through the solitary plane that led to their city. But she called, and her voice was so irresistible that the whole capital gathered to listen. Every man, woman and child in the city ceased panicking and listened to her say,

These are the times that try our souls. By our actions in critical times we are judged. Only if you stay true to Him, only if all of you truly believe in Him will our enemies be buried before us! This is your final test: if you pass, He will always protect this kingdom, this people. If you show your love for Him, He will repay it a thousandfold.

The people in the kingdom were about to collapse. There was no food, barely any drink, and winter bit colder than the North had ever known. There was no sun, it always rained. Cold gnawed its way through old rags right to the bone. In the face of impossible odds, people crumbled and begged with all their hearts to the Greater man. Thousands were at her feet, freezing but begging for salvation. And she would not fail them.

She took them all to a well-provisioned underground bunker she had ordered to build soon after taking over the kingdom. Their enemy took the capital, enjoyed their victory and rejoiced. But it was a short victory, for the temperature kept plummeting. The cold crawled under the skin of every soldier and put out every fire. The strong winds cut the faces of men and kept them trembling all day. The animals fled in terror from it only to become popsicles. From the underground bunker, her kingdom listened to the screams of the men and animals that were dying at the surface.

The winds blew and carried away everything that had prevented the people of the northern kingdom from fully embracing the Greater man. Those winds wiped the armies of their enemies off the face of the earth.

The Big Cold day branded the minds of every survivor with a single idea: The North owes everyting to the Greater man. He is the only reason they survived, his chosen people. And He is always watching. At any moment he can obliterate his enemies. It was a fear for a thousand years; a fear she had carefully planned.

History’s greatest irony

If the independent states of the North had been hard and unforgiving on her kingdom, it was nothing compared to what she did. She rebuilt the army, revitalized after the Big Cold day. After a few months of recovery, she marched into every state in the North. Those who had survived the chilling winds now had to face her armies.

This time her attack was unlike anything she had ever done. The enemy did not fight her because it didn’t have the tools, manpower nor will. In every state, she gave her new citizens one chance to embrace the Greater man. If they refused, execution. If they didn’t seem too convinced, execution. If their blood was noble, even if they accepted Him, execution.

She spent years personally combing the northern continent for traitors and oldthinkers that consciously or unconsciously refused the Greater man. One day she tracked down the last heirs of a great ancient bloodline. Two of them were children and the other two were barely adults, but she hanged them anyway. As she watched them twist in their ropes, something snapped in her mind,

What the fuck am I doing? I thought I was doing the best for mankind, but every time I get inolved, I only cause pain. For all I’ve achieved, all the time I’ve spent creating empires, civilizations, communities… was any of it worth it? What if I’ve been wrong all along? What if the skeptic man was right all along? What if… No, he was wrong. The alternative is too terrifying. It would mean that, for the past two thousand and forty-eight years, I haven’t helped mankind but tortured them.

What if my power over men is destroying them from the inside out? What if I am, after all, the devil that my first killers called me? In all my years here in the North I’ve seen and done things, bad things. Things I can’t speak about. Just look at me. I’m not young and beautiful anymore. The years have wrinkled my skin and weakened my bones. LOOK AT ME, I’M AN OLD WOMAN FOR FUCK’S SAKE.

She left the army, saying the Greater man needed her elsewhere. She went to the mountains to free her sister. Sadly, she forgot where she had buried her, and though she tried for years, digging huge holes in the mountains, she eventually gave up, crying for the damage beyond repair. Her sister was buried so deep not even her insane cries could reach the surface. Only her blood oozed from the rock whenever she died, which men called blood of the mountain.

Why did I do that to her? I-I don’t understand, it was an atrocity, it was everything I promised to fight. I was the cruelest of them all, but why, I only tried to do good, I swear.

Can’t you see it yet?

Shut up narrator, I can’t take your shit right now.

You know what you are, right?

No, stop. Please, stop.

She couldn’t stand the air, she couldn’t stand the ground. She wanted to flee from herself, but had to settle with fleeing to the southern continent. The continent was now a torn land ruled by warring tribes. There she made herself a home in a small cave. She promised never to talk to another human and to use the time she had left to pray for forgiveness.

But praying was not enough, since deep down she knew the truth, even if she refused to acknowledge it. She had created the gods to turn people against themselves, to make them hate themselves. And not only hate, but inflict terrible, cruel pain. To themselves and to others, just like…

No…

Yes, admit it.

Just like me. All I’ve ever done, either to others or myself, was cruel…

The only thing she had left was death. So everyday in her cave, she would pray to atone for her sins in the morning, and immolate herself in the afternoon. And for some time, it worked. She spent years trying to find forgiveness in pain. Until one day, she realized something had changed. A new man, one like the skeptic man, had been born. Nobody told her but she knew he was her second chance. She had to meet him. Through him she would fix the damage done. Through him, she would save the world.

On her way out of the cave, she saw her own reflection in a pond and cried. She was an atrophied shadow of her former self. There was absolutely no life left in her. But, truly, had there ever been? Hadn’t she always been the enemy of strength, of pride, of skill and craft? Hadn’t she always been what she was trying to destroy? She ran her fingers through her torn face, finally understanding History’s greatest irony:

She was Cruelty.

Noon

The king over no land

He was born in a small village on the southern continent. As son of the lord, he was loved and well-fed. The villagers lived in peace, working the fields. Life was short, work was hard, but they were grateful. Whether the harvest was bountiful or not, despite hardships and pain to endure, they offered food to the gods.

Then one year came an army of thieves, rapists and murderers. At first a small disorganized band, they had grown to become a real threat when a man declared himself king over no land and imposed his will. Since then he led them through the land, preying on small villages, pillaging, murdering and enslaving everything they could find.

The king over no land always hid behind a mask. Some said he was immortal, others that it was a woman.

None of them were right.

Some villages and cities had prepared for his arrival, but most believed he was just another boogeyman to scare children. The king over no land himself charged into his village, swinging his two-headed axe against defenceless women and children. The boy was only sixteen when the king came. He had woken up with the alarm bells and saw the king decapitating a woman with a single swing. Then the king looked at him and the world stopped.

The king started walking toward him, unstoppable. The boy fell to the ground: a poisonous arrow had struck him in the shoulder. His vision became blurry and soon he was out cold. Meanwhile, the barbarians slaughtered the men and chained, raped and sometimes beat the women to death.

The soldiers and men over sixteen years old were put to the sword. Women and children, even him, had their chests branded with hot irons, marking them as slaves for the rest of their lives. The youngest children would be trained to fight for their new king or die during training, thus continuing the endless cycle of death.

The dreamer

He was abandoned in front of an orphanage on the northern continent. As an anonymous orphan, nobody ever showed him affection. For years the orphanage director beat him. When a new boy came to the orphanage and nobody loved that boy, he promised to protect the new boy and love him as though he were his brother.

The orphanage director beat his brother too.

Because of the beating, he stole from the orphanage, and because he stole, the director beat him. At night, he could hear his brother cry because beating wasn’t the worse that the director could do. The day after the director abused his brother, he put rat poison on the director’s wine. However it didn’t kill the fat man, who had been eating the food that charities sent for the orphans. The director coughed blood and screamed in anger, knowing who was responsible.

The director went for the two boys’ room, belt in hand. When he opened the door and entered the room, they stabbed him from left and right eight times in the gut before running away. So fat was he, and so shallow were the children’s stabs, that still this did not kill him. The director chased the two boys mad with anger through the halls, bleeding all over the carpeted floors as the rest of the boys watched, too frightened and weak to act.

The director chased them up the creaking wooden stairs to the second floor and then through a shaky ladder that the boys had climbed. When the director reached the attic, the boys stabbed both his eyes making him fall on his back and scream in agony. The boys then climbed back down. He summoned all his strength to pick up a heavy marble statue of a pale ancient goddess that he could barely hold in his arms. The blind director screamed and twisted on the floor,

When I catch you, you’re dead MOTHERFUCKER.

He approached him and dropped the statue on the director’s head. All the boys watched in silence. The director’s leg twitched only a few more moments. Everyone stared in silence until he spat on it. Then, slowly, as they realized he was truly gone, the others spat on the dead director too.

He and his brother took their clothes and some of the money, packed them in a bag and left, never to return. They walked through the woods, eating wild berries, until they met a traveling salesman. He gave them food and warm clothes and brought them with him to his homecity, where they grew as his children. He taught them to read and write, never hitting them once.

The city had a large statue of a man in the main square. It read “The Tyrant watches us all”. Looking at it, the two boys dreamed about how important they would become. He looked at his brother and said,

One day, you will rule over this whole city. I promise.

Animal

The rattling sound of wooden wheels hitting the bumps and stones in the road startled him back into consciousness. He tried to move, but the burning sensation in his shoulder stopped him. A young girl looked at him and held him so he would stop moving. Soon after he faded back to sleep.

He woke up at night, hungry, thirsty and cold as he had never been. The girl handed him a canteen. He spit it out after one sip, then forced himself to drink.

Where am I? W-what is this place? Am I dead?

The girl shook her head and he rested again.

As the shaky cage rolled on he recognized some of the kids and women from his village. He knew they were too weak, and indeed most did not endure the journey. They rode for four days without rest until they reached a clear in the forest which was filled with thousands of tents and basic huts.

By now his pain was gone though the wound remained. He stepped out of the cage to wait in a line. At the end of the line, a man asked him,

What are your skills boy?

He refused to answer so two men beat him.

The man gave him a knife and a chicken, but he took pity on it. The man gave him a sword to fight, but he was too weak. The man gave him meat to cook, but he didn’t know how to. Finally the man gave him seed to feed the chicken, which any fool could do. The man told him,

Because you’ll feed them animals, you’ll live like them animals in the stall. And like them animals you’ll not speak.

He was trying to sleep when the girl came to visit him. She offered him some food and a quilt to pass the nights. Since he couldn’t speak, he only nodded and smiled at her. She smiled back at him and he realized that she too was an animal. An old woman awoke him at night to tell him:

You were a man, now you’re an animal. But you could be more, so much more. Listen now, and obey: in the night, when people are asleep, you will stay awake. However tired you may be, you must not surrender to sleep. Reject the night and forget who you were, the life you lost and all your pain. When you feel like giving up, look up to the sky and I will speak to you. Do this, and I will give you more than you could ever want.

He listened to the old woman. Every night he looked up to the sky and she told him amazing tales. He soon recovered from his wound completely and grew stronger by the day. Sleep faded away, giving way to a simple, sleepless life. At day he looked after the animals, at night he learned from the old woman. The girl married him to avoid the drunken barbarians who could sleep with any unmarried slave they chose.

At first she just used him for her own protection, and they slept in separate haystacks. But as the months passed they became good friends. In their silent prison they were able to be silently together. Despite learning about forgiveness, he remembered his village and the way the barbarians had murdered his family and friends.

Every day he put on a smile as a mask while he plotted his revenge. He didn’t know how, he didn’t know when, but he would murder the king over no land and burn everything down to the ground.

The altar of the revolution

He started working as an errand boy in new city where the traveling salesman had brought him. Through hard work he became the secretary for the mayor. He listened to the mayor and his friends, laughing at their every joke and catering to their needs, always with a smile. Soon he earned their trust as a loyal servant.

He befriended all the important people in city: he frequented the tavern where policemen went, some of whom he had met at the orphanage; he was an active member in every charity, helping the poor and the old, the children and the retarded. Everyone knew him and came to him for advice.

The mayor had a library built to decorate his office, though the man never once opened a book.

He, on the other hand, did not let go of the opportunity to learn about science and history. His favorite story was about the Tyrant and how he had come to power. There was much to learn from history about politics, and he shared his new socialist ideas with his brother.

But time passes for everyone. Before he realized, he had spent thirty-two years as a servant. He had always believed he was meant for great things, but there he was, a petty bureaucrat in a god-forsaken hellhole up north. News came of revolts across the empire. It seemed it was about to crumble, that the airs of change were finally blowing his way. And he wasn’t about to lose the opportunity.

He organized night meetings outside town to mobilize the masses against the empire and start a local revolution. During his revolutionary activity, he wore a mask to hide his identity. He explained to the citizens that they had been wronged, and they agreed with him, and saw that it was bad. He said things like,

The Tyrant controls us through his spidery bureaucrats, who get to decide what we think. Do you think that’s fair? Our ancestors lived in peace, they ruled over their own land—He shook a history book at the crowd—Here, look! Here in this book I have proof, the truth they tried to hide from you! You know why? Because we could rule ourselves too if we took the chance!

The crowd burst in applause.

There is no pride in this life… We have all become slaves. Who chose him to decide for all of us? I don’t believe any of you knows the answer.

Everyone shook their heads.

No one! He wasn’t elected, he just took power!

A young man from the crowd screamed in tears,

Nooo, you can’t just take power!

All you know about our history is a lie. They rewrote it to fit their agenda—He stopped, closed his eyes and raised the book to the sky—I… I’ve had a vision! A glorious vision where I saw all ruling one city, and all cities ruling themselves!

Each night more people came to his meetings, risking their freedom to hear about a better tomorrow and the future socialist paradise.

They beat our ancestors into submission, and we have accepted that for far too long. We must show what we are made of. The berzerker’s shout must be heard again! Rise!

Rise!

Rise my brothers, rise!

Rise!

His followers appointed him future leader of the new northern tribes. He founded a political party, something which had been outlawed for decades, and named it the Northern Revolutionary Party. Its members believed they could force the Tyrant to grant them independence.

No one had been so bold or stupid to try something similar since the Big Unification centuries ago. But now, their city was on the brink of starvation as the empire had increased the grain tax beyond reason. Imperial guards either deserted or turned to extorsion for food. It didn’t help that his city was on the rim of the northern continent, near the area where political exiles were sent. Some of those exiles joined him, since the exile administration barely kept track of them. They became his strongest supporters and took care of propaganda through the new Free Press.

He knew it was time for a man like him to come along and change things. All he needed was an opportunity, and the mayor’s birthday provided him with one. The city’s bureaucrats would all be gathered in the same place. The day before the birthday, he spoke to the inner circle of his new party:

The time has come to strike. We must take control, but the capital can’t find out until we are well-established. Capture the imperial guards and seize every building. Round up and imprison anyone who opposes the Revolution. Take the guards’ clothes, we’ll need them to fool imperial tax collectors when they come.

The Party, however, thought their leader was taking things too far. They liked writing propaganda and discussing inequality while they comfortably sipped coffee. They were intellectually combative and had no intention to physically overthrow the empire. Only his brother supported him by helping him rally a small army for the uprising. The others believed the empire would disintegrate on its own, that they only had to wait.

He and his brother would not waste the opportunity. They pressed the other revolutionaries until they caved in. The day they rose, he and his people pinned a white rose on their work overalls or jackets to know who was on their side. All the important bureaucrats met in the mayor’s house, and like every year, he was in charge of organizing the birthday. Once the guests had eaten well, they called for the servants to serve the liquors. When they finished drinking, he asked the other servants to leave and closed the dining room’s doors to say,

I have a present for the mayor—The guests watched as he unveiled a large claymore sword, engraved with a white rose—Legend has it, this particular sword once belonged to the leader of the first northern tribe.

The guests smiled and praised the gift. Soon, however, their faces turned pale. Their heads were heavy, their sight blurred. He slowly put on his mask. The mayor inquired,

What the fuck is this?

Shut up you fat fuck! I am in control now.

He raised the heavy sword and ran it through a bureaucrat. The others watched in horror, squealing like pigs in the slaughterhouse. One by one he put them to the sword, leaving the mayor for the end. He cut the mayor’s head and stepped out into the balcony, which overlooked the main street. He proclaimed with a mad smile, raising the severed head for all to see,

Our time has come, brothers, rise and take back what is yours!

Those who fought the revolutionaries were executed on the spot. Some did not resist the arrest, but were also executed on the spot. Guards, police officers and bureaucrats were imprisoned, to be executed at night, away from the city. Though none of this tainted the celebratory banquet, where he made a toast:

Let this day be remembered as the day the North cried ‘No more!’

Everyone applauded. Meanwhile, hundreds of bodies were left to rot in a camp far from the city and any transited route. They were the first of many sacrifices in the altar of the revolution.

Alone

Eight months after his village was raided, he could still remember the smell of burning flesh. He couldn’t have imagined he would end up working for the now hundreds of thousands of barbarians, a number that grew by the day. The king over no land felt confident enough to prepare a raid on the greatest city in the southern continent.

Once that city is ours, all our people will live there, bathing where ancient kings used to bath, drinking their fine wine and FUCKING THEIR WOMEN!

Yes, what better incentive was there for his men than loot, booze and women? The whole camp was eager to move to their new home, even though it wasn’t conquered yet. The king over no land knew that once he took over the city, the rest of the continent would fall. That city was the gate to northern trade. The only thing that could stop him from taking it was a joint defence by the southern lords, but that was unlikely.

Old southern kingdoms had been fighting for so long they had forgotten what they were fighting about. Their bitter resentment was even stronger than their survival instinct. This is how they thought:

Yes, and after that city, they will come after my neighbor to do the dirty job for me. Just you wait and see.

When the camp was heading off to war, the old woman came to speak to him,

I know what you have planned. You are going to kill the king over no land. You have to let it go, forget that nonsense. I’m warning you.

He shook his head. She grabbed his right arm and looked into his eyes.

Listen now, you must obey. Think of your wife and unborn child, you must be there for them.

He and his wife worried about the future, even if they couldn’t speak about it. They feared bringing a child into a life of slavery, and he was determined to do something about it. He was convinced that the only currency to pay for his wife and child’s freedom was his own life. Amid the agitation of the camp’s uprooting, when carts rolled through the camp and people rushed to be the first there, he started some fires. Then he took the quilt the woman had given him and used it to conceal a stolen sword.

When he was close to the king over no land, the old woman intercepted him and said,

This is the last time I’ll warn you. Stop before you do something you will regret.

But he refused to listen a single second more to the annoying old hag. His vision blurred as he walked, but he was still determined to kill the king. After wandering about the camp he found him. Yes, it had to be him. It was in its true form: a fat deformed monster, feeding apples to his horses. While he and his wife had barely enough food to eat, there was that man squandering apples. It made him see red. He waited two minutes to make sure his guards weren’t around, unsheathed his sword and snuck up behind the beast.

Close up he noticed a second head reaching out of its body. When it saw him, the apples it held fell to the ground.

Agh rer qwe qwe?

He ran his sword through the beast’s second head. Immediately his vision cleared only to find his hands covered in blood and his wife crying on the ground with his sword through her belly. His hands were covered in her blood.

When he was about to scream in horror, he fell to the floor, petrified. A voice whispered in his ear,

Shhh now my boy, I warned you.

It was the old woman. She had placed some kind of blanket over him. He couldn’t move nor speak and the people that went by him couldn’t see him or his wife’s body. He watched in anger and frustration the real king over no land stroll by his side.

There he lay while they all disappeared into the horizon, marching toward the desolation of the south. There he lay while rain poured on him, his bones ached from the cold and thirst made him delirious. The lifeless body of his bride always by his side.

He was willing to trade his soul with the devil for the chance to undo his crime. But the devil wasn’t buying. The only thing he could do was to watch the night follow the day in a never-ending cycle. He lost track of time and embraced insanity. The village that burned down, his son that would never become a man, his wife with whom he would never grow old. They were all now distant dreams fading in the distance.

He fought through the pain for months until one day he saw the old woman come back to the clear. She came close to him and said:

Do you remember how long and why it was necessary that you lie here?

But he knew there was no reason for all that pain, only cruelty.

Perhaps now you can finally leave and be free, now that you’ve had time to reflect. Remember your pain, embrace it, and don’t make the same mistake again. Mankind depends on you.

Then she took the quilt off him so he could once again move. He shivered and wriggled on the ground. With much effort he stuttered:

Y-you. I-I will destroy you. Y-you, and them, whatever, wh-whatever it takes.

She smiled down on him,

Oh please, you can’t even—

You, you will remember me for the rest of your life! I will take all that you love. You will scream in agony but no one will hear your cries.

He tried in vain to use his legs. Then he crawled to her using his arms. She just left him in the pouring rain, knowing she would see him again.

With us or against us

He made lots of promises during his speeches before he got to power, always followed by stormy applause as in,

… and workers won’t have to spend another second under the oppression of the capital!

And it was true. Now he controlled the city. But there were other political parties: the Socialist Revolutionaries, the North Liberation Party, the National Democrats and more. Most of them denounced his bloody coup and demanded elections during the first post-revolution plenum. After the plenum, during a private meeting with the executive committee of the Northern Revolutionary Party, he said,

Elections? Are they fucking kidding me? What do these bloodsuckers think we’re running here? We had the balls to secure power, and now these dogs want to brainwash workers and steal power from us with their petty burgeoisie democracy? Fuck. That!

The party members glanced at each other nervously, fearing they had made the worst mistake of their lives and that soon they would be tried for it. His brother said to his brother, but also to reassure the other members,

You’re right, and we won’t let them. We must show unity. We must prove that we are the only party fit to rule. We got to power, but that was just the start. Now we have to keep it.

Yes brother, no matter what cost, the revolution must succeed.

During the next plenum, he announced there would be democratic elections in a month, which everyone had been waiting for. Meanwhile, his Party alone would have power, even if they had to listen to the others complain and criticize him.

There were enemies within the city who tried to contact the capital. During one particular incident, a group of national democrats almost managed to escape through the road with the assistance of a few guards. Hunger fed discontent, the seed of revolt. With citizens demanding food, he began to fear his precious revolution would crumble down. Inside his Party appeared a new faction which wanted him to hold elections immediately and let the people vote.

But he withstood the pressure and chose instead to make an example of the traitors. The national democrats that had tried to flee and the guards that had helped them were publicly executed. To save face and not look so much like a tyrant, he advanced one week the elections.

Then began the arrests.

In less than a week all the national democrats were arrested for counter-revolutionary crimes. The North Liberation Party was dismantled after its members vanished behind the iron curtains of the city’s new security organ, the neca. The Northern Extraordinary Commission for Agitation, or neca, really had extraordinary powers. It could arrest you, no warrant, put you in jail, no trial, and execute you, no appeal.

By the time elections came, people were angry because there was even less grain than before the revolution. They voted for the parties that promised to strike a deal with the Tyrant, leaving him in the minority. He saw insulted by the elections’ results and said,

Do they really believe the Tyrant will just kneel down and compromise? He’ll burn this city to the ground.

He convened the revolutionary parliament and declared the election void claiming,

The enemies of the workers’ Party have tampered with the results and sabotaged true democracy.

Over the following weeks he continued to turn his political enemies into exiles and forced-labor workers that were literally building the socialist future, digging the frozen land up north, one ration of bread a day. He only felt in control when there was no opposition left to arrest. But it was a bittersweet victory, as he realized the situation was unsustainable. Yes, nobody opposed him publicly, but they would run out of food soon. Weak party members asked him to surrender to the capital and beg for food. He reproached them during the Party plenums:

How do you call yourselves revolutionaries? The revolution is bigger than you, bigger than all of us. If you have to give everything to the revolution, you do it. If you have to starve for the revolution, you starve. Our historical mission is to export the Glorious Revolution, no matter the cost, no matter the casualties.

New Year’s Eve was just two weeks away, and that offered him the perfect opportunity. Every year that day, two neighbor cities gathered to celebrate together near a cliff overlooking the northernmost sea. But because of the famine, only one of the neighbor cities could attend the festival. The mayor of his city was traditionally in charge of organizing the event. But since he had murdered the mayor, he gladly picked up that task. At the celebration, everyone watched the fireworks while his guards encircled the citizens.

The Party members separated from the crowd and also pulled out their weapons. He climbed a small rock on a cliff over the sea so everyone could see and hear him. As soon as he had the citizens completely surrounded, he spoke to them:

I am the leader of the Northern Revolutionary Party. We have brought you here to give you a choice: you can either join us and live free, or stay with the empire and die as slaves.

From the crowd escaped anonymous shouts,

Stop this madness!

Let us go!

He pointed his finger at the mayor of the neighbor city, who stood out in the crowd. His guards brought the mayor to him. He said,

Just look at him. This… imperial lapdog watches you, not over you. You should hate him, you should throw stones at him! This grotesque landwhale and his cronies have been eating what belongs to you. But now the tables have turned. You will rule over yourselves, as it used to be before the empire. You have the chance to get rid of the bloodsucking capital. The first thing I will do when you join us is I will give hard-working farmers and factory workers the deeds to their lands and homes.

His words brought hope to low-skilled workers, peasants, pariahs, the sick, the retarded and specially the children. They walked away from the crowd to show him they were on his side. But many still defied him so he pushed the mayor off the cliff into the crashing waves below. People hated the mayor for stuffing himself and chasing after whores, so they didn’t mourn his loss. Still, it shocked people and proved he meant every word.

If you are not with us, you are against us. Don’t you want everyone to be free? Didn’t you see what will happen to you if you choose to stick with the empire?

Some people joined out of fear, but still a group remained who refused to take his word. A defiant man among them spoke up,

To those of you who believe he will set you free, I tell you this: FOOLS! He will treat you like slaves, carve you up and spit you out. He is FAR worse than the Tyrant, and all he has is empty promises, fancy words and the charisma of a snake-oil salesman.

Those who refused to join laughed out loud. They knew the Party leader couldn’t kill them all in cold blood or the citizens would revolt. The defiant man continued:

And even if he really intended to build a democracy and yadda yadda… Do you honestly believe you’ll survive his revolution? The capital will crush his “army”. Whatever you do to us, the rest of you will suffer worse by both him and the empire. Remember these words when you are face down in the mud, gasping for your last breath. He’s evil.

Bagh!

He argued.

Don’t listen to this capitalist pig’s lies. I will keep my promise of freedom because I am change.

He turned around to face the crowd, and in a sad tone said,

I tried to avoid this, but they leave me no choice. I want all of you to see that war is paid through blood. Some men refuse to change and they could destroy everything we are working for. But we can’t let that happen, you can’t let that happen. Remember what the empire have done to all of us for far too long when you think back on this moment.

He climbed down the rock and approached the people who defied him. He stood on one knee, looking down to the ground and muttering the words from the ancient prayers with his hands together. Then he opened his eyes once again, looked to the crowd and said:

By the power vested in me by the Party, I sentence you to die.

Nooo!

Monster!

The crowd burst in shouts as the guards pushed the group of defiers to the edge of the cliff with their weapons. When they were finally fed to the waves, their mothers, wives and children fell to their knees and cried. He felt bad for what he had done, but he knew it was for the greater good.

The raven

The only thing he could think about was water.

He crawled with his arms through the mud up to a river. While he was drinking he noticed a faint glimmer in the dirt underwater. He digged with his hands to discover a wonderful jewel that shone with a dim black light. When he held the treasure in his hand, he felt a rush of emotions. He jumped from excitement to euphoria to exhaustion to depression and finally numbness. He froze and fell into the river, completely paralyzed.

While the waters carried him, he dreamt of a dark room whose walls were covered with black blood and crawling filth. A little girl entered through the only door in the room. He couldn’t move nor speak as she stared at him with her eyes wide open. Without moving her mouth, she said:

She lied to you and played with you, but I will never be like her.

Who’s that? Where am I?

He didn’t need words to talk to her either, she heard what he thought.

Remember, remember… There is only one to blame for all that happened to you. She has tried to ruin your precious soul, but you endured and you can still embrace life: take my hand.

As she spoke, her words became harder to understand.

Oh, well, we can do this another time. Now wake up, you’re drowning.

He opened his eyes as the river carried him, pushing him underwater. He could die if he only chose to let go. Death was what he had wished for so long. But he refused, he felt the urge to live, not just for revenge, he truly wanted to live. He tried to swim for the surface to recover his breath, but his arms were too tired after all the crawling.

He grabbed onto the roots of a tree, using all the strength he had left to recover his breath. Then back he went on the rushing waters. Peeking above water he saw the waterfall that was up ahead. The river dragged him down. His arms gave out. He didn’t have much air left.

Then he heard a whisper. It was the little girl from his dream speaking out of the jewel:

Embrace darkness or fall into oblivion like the rest!

Yes, save me, whatever the cost.

He pressed the stone against his chest until it sank into him. He began to change. Black plumes grew throughout his body, large wings pierced through his back, tearing his flesh open.

When he reached the waterfall and began to fall, he was no longer himself. He flapped his wings to slow down the fall, if only partially. He hit the waters below, stunning him into a dream, the first after years of vigil.

Yes-men and concessions

“Bring back order”

That slogan began to appear everywhere around the city. Neca officers worked full-time uncovering traitors, saboteurs and imperialist pigs, reporting to him every single case. Every day, neca officers brought more dossiers. Engineers, teachers, writers, mathematicians: they were all corrupt. He summoned his brother and the appointed chief of the neca, alias ‘the Hammer’ for his preferred interrogation method and expressed his concerns about the rising social unrest:

What have we done to deserve this treason? Don’t they see we’re necessary?

The Hammer replied,

Nothing. We should interrogate more people.

But his brother wasn’t so sure,

The peasants don’t like us taking their grain, you must understand that—

But why? Don’t they understand their mission? Are they so blind they can’t see we all need to make sacrifices to ensure our bright future?

His personal secretary, a rat-like, beady-eyed man, said,

Sir, it’s all the capitalists’ fault, sir!

Yes… Yes, you’re right! It is the capitalists and their greed. They want the surplus grain for themselves. They haven’t abandoned the old ways. ‘Bring back order’ really means ‘Bring back the bourgeois exploitation system’.

His personal secretary jumped out of his seat,

Sir, wise words, sir! Only a genius could say such things!

His brother said, looking with disgust at the personal secretary,

Can’t you see what’s going on? When you ask your yes-men for approval, they always support any idea, no matter how bad it is. Look, if you don’t give an incentive to the peasants, they won’t work, and then we’ll be in real trouble.

He considered his brother’s advice for a moment, but then his secretary shouted,

Let’s cleanse the greedy bourgeoisie!

His brother said to the secretary,

And then what? What will you do when people are hungry and there’s nothing left to feed them? We need to use economic levers to—

He stood up, interrupting his brother.

Enough! We must crush the hoarding bourgeoisie—He looked to the Hammer—Crush the corruption before it is too late. It’s the only way.

The eyes of his personal secretary sparkled with adulation,

He’s a true genius! What a humanitarian leader!

That same day he pushed a war-time law through Congress sentencing to death anyone guilty of distributing counter-revolutionary propaganda. His officers began cleansing every corner of society, purging all the “bourgeois and capitalist elements” they could find. The peasants, whom he had promised freedom and lands, now faced an increased tax on their production. Many tried to flee and many died trying.

The neca confiscated any literature that did not deal with the materialistic struggle of the proletariat and burned it in large didactic pyres. But the neca did not have enough manpower to watch over the whole city, so people from rich or bourgeois backgrounds were forcefully relocated to the new communal farms, which were much easier to control.

The suspects of subversive behavior disappeared at night to be either sent to work-camp if they were lucky or get shot in cold dark cellars otherwise. The Neca blamed their disappearances on bad weather or publicly accused them of being treacherous deserters. However, the bloodshed was getting out of his hands, and the Neca was starting to overshadow him. At a public meeting he announced,

We need an army of our most loyal comrades to fight the empire. That is why today I inaugurate the new Liberation Army. From now on, I will focus all my attention on preparing it for war against the capital. Also today you all will democratically appoint a new mayor for each town, using these—He showed his audience a cardboard ballot box.

The next morning, once the votes had been tallied, the Hammer spoke to him in private,

The man they chose as mayor is rotten. He leads the underground counter-revolutionary movement.

He couldn’t put one of his enemies in a position of power, even if it was fake power. He picked instead a spineless bureacrat to govern the neighbor city. When he announced the results of the very democratic process, the crowd stared in disbelief. Indignant citizens shouted,

You lied again! Nobody voted for that rachitic spider!

We want our real mayor!

Murderer!

Tyrant, tyrant!

The crowd broke into an angry chant. He yelled, imposing his voice over their chanting, until the chanting ceased:

I am not the enemy! I’m not here to control you! Everyone will rule themselves, that is what we fight for: we are the good ones. Now, who did you vote for?

The crowd pointed at an old man and gave him some room. He tended his hand, inviting him to come to the stage, previously used for executions, from which he now addressed his public.

Rise, my friend. Though our enemies tried to tamper with our elections, your people chose you to lead, and I’m sure you will do a great job.

The citizens finally calmed down. He said,

Good! Now let’s celebrate this appointment with freedom vodka and a great banquet!

People cheered for him and their remaining anger was mellowed by the sweet alcohol and full bellies.

The loneliest island

He spit out some water.

He was alive.

He looked at the waters and saw himself for the first time, covered in jet black plumes. Now he had an edge, a way to kill the old woman. He flapped his wings attempting to fly.

He failed.

After some hours of practice, he was finally able to take off. He scanned the land below for food, finding only a few berries. The waterfall was too high for him to fly over, especially now that he was weak and famished. Then he saw a little island not too far away. He didn’t know it then, but it was the loneliest island.

He flew towards it and crash-landed on a tree. There he ate some more fruit before flying again to a mount nearby. He watched closely the forest that stretched before him. He saw large animals moving through the forest, shaking the trees around them. Then he spotted a wild boar.

He descended on it like a hawk and tore it apart with his bare hands. Then he built a campfire with twigs and cooked some boar. After his meal, wihle he rested, he felt the warm sun on his back disappear abruptly. He opened his eyes to find himself face to face with a giant, who said,

Are you man or beast?

The raven stood up and flung himself into the air, where he felt safe enough to continue speaking to the giant,

I am neither and both.

What are you then?

The giant’s childlike innocence confused the raven, who replied,

I was a beast until I realized I was a beast. I was a man until my human heart rotted away and fell out my chest. Now I’m something else… I’ve gone beyond what any man has dared before.

The giant smiled, thinking the raven was funny,

Ok raven.

Listen giant, I have a mission. I’m rallying an army to defeat the ultimate corruption.

The giant really didn’t care and replied,

You know, I think I also used to be a man, but I somehow ended up stranded here. I don’t know what I am or who I was. Will you help me remember? I only want to leave this place, it’s been so long now…

The raven didn’t understand what was the giant’s problem. He looked behind him and saw the path back to the mainland as clear as he saw the giant. He started to think the giant might be brain-damaged. Then again, he himself had just grown wings, so anything was possible. He asked the giant,

Why can’t you just—

Leave the island? Believe me, I’ve tried. I’ve tried to escape, but whenever I walk in one direction I always come back to where I started. Carry me out of this island and I promise to be a part of your army to defeat evil or whatever.

It’s not ‘evil’, it’s the ultimate corruption. I’m not some delusional hero from a tacky legend.

So you will help me no matter what I ask you to do?

The giant nodded,

Anything is better than this island.

The raven guided the giant back to the beach near the waterfall. As the giant sunk his feet into the sand, he cried tears of joy. The raven, now recovered, flew to the top of the waterfall; the giant slowly climbed it. They headed for war.

To ashes

Peace settled in once citizens were more concerned with surviving than with political activity. The Party bosses rejoiced, but not him. He could smell treason in the air, schemes being plotted against him. The neca was on his side and detected traitors that didn’t know they were traitors yet.

But it wasn’t enough, not this time. Though the other city had an “independent leader”, everyone knew the mayor was only a puppet. And they wanted to free themselves from the Party leader once and for all. Fearing the popular uprising that was already hatching, he drafted a referendum: all citizens would choose whether to spread the revolution or to live in peace and hope the empire fell on its own.

Two days before the vote, he took a group of loyal neca officers and traveled to the neighbor city at sundown. He wanted to see firsthand what was truly going on in the neighbor city. He distrusted the whole city because its neca officers barely produced any reports of counter-revolutionary activity, so they must, he thought, be covering each other up.

The first night he saw nothing strange, and his brother thought he was paranoid. But the night before the vote, after the city had slipped into silence, a large group of people gathered in a large wooden mansion. He and his men drew closer to listen to what the people were saying. An old man was speaking,

… that megalomaniac is done. Tomorrow we will really be independent. Did you secure—

An excited woman interrupted the old man,

Yes, yes. All the artisans, landlords and peasants pledged their support. They hate him even more than we do!

The old man continued,

We must draft a new constitution.

A young woman said,

Then we must add a permanent education ministry, and I propose myself as its secretary.

Yes, yes. And I believe I myself would make an excellent defence secretary given my past appointments.

He stepped away from the house and his men followed him into a dark, empty alley. He felt both betrayed and relieved. He whispered to the men by his side,

We must put an end to this… tonight. The power-hungry petty burgeoisie flap their beaks but do NOTHING. It’s OUR job to free the proletariat, at any cost—His men looked aside in shame—You would really do nothing while they tear down all we’ve accomplished? If we don’t stop this, we’re doomed. We’ll lose our resources, our land and our credibility; nobody will join our cause anymore. The revolution will fail and the Tyrant will execute us. And not just us. He’ll come after our families, and even the families of these people. We must stick together and act swiftly and decisively.

He knew what he had to do. He had so far asked his officers and soldiers to get their hands dirty for him. It was his turn.

I’m about to do something terrible. When I said “I’ll never ask you to do something I wouldn’t do”, I meant it. The world needs an iron hand to become free. And if they hate me for being that iron hand, then so be it.

He slipped toward the wooden mansion, sheltered by shadows. With little noise he closed every window and door, locking them afterwards with sticks. Once all that remained open was a single window, he climbed up to it. He covered his fist with cloth torn from his shirt and smashed it open.

Inside the house, he realized the irony. His days of thievery back at the orphanage were now useful political tools, but he had thought it would be the other way around. He spilled lantern oil on the ground, then stopped for a moment to ask himself,

Is this really me?

Yes.

He threw the lantern on the ground. He exited through the window, locked it and climbed down. The conspirators were so drunk and so caught up debating that they didn’t realize the upper floor was on fire. When they finally smelled the burning wood, it was too late. Flames engulfed the mansion in minutes. The doors and windows were jammed, fire drawing closer. Some started to faint from the fumes, others clawed at the immovable wood.

They needed a miracle.

Finally they broke part of the door with a sword, but not enough to cross to the other side. They reached out with their hands through the door calling for help and he came. He stood in front of them as they burned and screamed to say,

No.

He walked away from the fire. Soon the whole city woke up to the burning horror. He and his men returned to their city in silence while fire thrashed the heart of the resistance.

The depressed centre of the universe

The raven began to hear voices. It was like a choir of whispers that drove him mad and drove him on to a city in the northern continent. He knew that city would give him the means to destroy his enemies. But first, he had to cross most of the south continent and sail across the Middle Sea.

He and the giant would have to endure hail, exhaustion, famine and scorching heat. But for now, they just walked pleasantly across valleys and forests while they talked. They avoided talking about themselves, which both understood as a sign of bad manners,

Tell me raven, what is it exactly you hope to find in the city that you don’t even know exists?

Something lives underground… something that has been waiting for more than you could imagine. I can hear its pain, calling me, invading my thoughts. I’ve seen vast gulfs of time, I, I can’t explain it but—The raven noticed the look of concern on the giant’s face—You probably think I’m a madman, don’t you? Honestly I can’t prove that I’m sane, but I can assure you that what we find there will be worth the trip.

I trust you.

The giant didn’t have to say another word, and the raven appreciated it. After a silent walk through the woods, the raven asked,

Where do you come from, do you remember that?

The giant shook his head.

I can’t remember anything except that fucking island. How about you, where are you from?

Oh, I come from a small village nearby. It won’t be more than four days on foot from here.

Then we should go there, if you want. That way—The giant stopped when he saw the raven had raised his hand.

The barbarians burned down my village and enslaved us.

That’s horrible. I think I also once was captive but I can’t remember. I lived there in the island at least two centuries, maybe more. I tried to keep track of time, but it was too painful. Eventually I just stopped caring. All I know is I have lived there since I can remember, with this great scar in my head.

The giant showed him the scar. Hidden beneath his thick hair, it ran across the base of his skull. It was a deep, precise cut. The raven noticed for the first time the giant’s empty stare and realized his own self-absorption, acting like only he had problems. He promised himself to stop acting like the depressed center of the universe. After all, his life was not that bad.

Justice! Justice!

He spent the rest of the night drinking. When news came of the fire, he acted surprised and sad.

It’s a terrible thing when lives are taken too soon. A delegation will visit our neighbor city to pay our respects, everyone is welcome to join us.

When he got there, he noticed the looks of confusion in workers, peasants and artisans. They actually cared about their leaders, not just feared them. It was a dangerous situation. Those people were ready to blame anyone. He suggested in private to their mayor that he should deliver a condolence speech before the vote, which the mayor thought was a good idea. Then he hid out of sight while he listened to the mayor’s speech:

My friends, this night something terrible has happened. Many of our greatest citizens died in a terrible fire during a party. We will mourn them tonight, and I can promise you: if someone was responsible for the fire, he will be held accountable. But first we must focus on the referendum. To vote you must head to the ballots and—

A woman interrupted him, shouting from the crowd,

Fool! Don’t you see it’s all pointless? The people who stood up to him are dead. We’re all dead, we just don’t know it yet!

The mayor asked with the face of a confused dog,

Stood up to him?

Then the human artillery began shooting insults.

Moron!

Dog!

We want justice and we want it now!

Justice!

Justice! Justice!

The crowd broke in a chant! They didn’t let the mayor speak and soon they realized they didn’t care about democracy, law or order. They overran the mayor’s guards, trampling everything they found in their path. They took whatever weapons they could find and set out to cause chaos.

He and his brother fled back to their city to rally the whole army. Then he returned triumphnat to the neighbor city to restore order. The angry mob was marching through the streets, beating up and breaking into the houses of those they suspected of collaborating with the new regime. His army swept the city street by street to restore order.

He waited at the main square where the mayor had spoken. There, he heard a feint cough escape from the debris. He cleared the way to find the mayor and helped him get out. The mob had trampled the mayor into a broken mess, still the mayor threatened him,

The people will not take any more of your bullshit. It was you, wasn’t it? When I heard the rumour that you started the fire yourself, I didn’t believe it. After all you wouldn’t do that yourself, you would send your minions. But oh boy, was I wrong. Yes, I’m sure now. You started the fire, you caused all this. When the people learn the truth you’ll be finished. We’re not your property, we’re free now, unfortunately thanks to you!

He stared at the mayor for a few seconds. Then he tore a piece of cloth from the debris and, without a word, he smothered the mayor with it. At first he hesitated but then he pressed harder and harder until the old man’s throat snapped. When he had finished he heard steps behind him. He turned to find his horrified brother. He sighed, opened a bottle of freedom vodka and poured a glass for his brother and one for him.

Am I a monster?

I know deep down you just want what’s best for everyone, but you shouldn’t lose sight of that. You have killed… a lot of people in the name of revolution, of freedom, of peace. Were all those deaths really necessary? Couldn’t you have found some other way? Or at least tried something different.

Fuck you.

His brother made him mad at himself. He took the glass from his brother’s hand and threw it on the ground. Then he walked away with the bottle of freedom vodka. While he was drinking, sitting on the mayor’s balcony, he had a view over the city and contemplated the full extent of the chaos.

Vandals had started fires around the city. Rioters bled on the streets, some already dead. His men chased rioters and dragged them to provisional jails, which soon were filled to the brim. The city’s descent into anarchy made him realize something:

I can’t just offer people freedom, I have to shove it down their throats. Otherwise, they will reject it and mistake us for their enemies. Yes, I know what I have to do now.

Across the golden ocean

During their journey they had to deal with all sorts of people. Bands of thieves attacked them at night, even though they carried nothing more than some food and clothes. Once, they even tried to kidnap them. A man popped out of the woods in the morning, soon followed by more thieves, approached the raven and giant and said,

Behold, we are the 128 thieves, and we have come to take you prisoners for a bounty. Surrender or prepare to be—

The raven was suddenly deaf and covered in blood. The giant had slammed the thief with his right hand, crushing him to pulp.

Haha, funny man go splat.

The other thieves disappeared back into the forest. The giant looked at the hand he had used to crush the thief with disgust,

Yikes.

When word spread around, hunters began tracking them, seeking glory and fame. So they were forced to sleep by day, usually in caves they blocked with large boulders, and travel by night. For weeks they walked across mountains and forests, for weeks they had to kill bury their wannabe assassins.

With nothing else to do but talk, they learned everything about each other. The raven saw how much it hurt the giant to have forgotten his past life. So one night, as he buried the remains of an assassin, he told the giant,

If I ever have the opportunity, I promise to restore your memories.

Thank you, raven. You make this giant happy.

Eventually they reached a desert that stretched beyond the horizon. The raven said,

Going around it will take us weeks, we have to risk it.

The past few days, a party of 64 had been following them. The raven knew it was a matter of time before they caught up, so why not drag them into the unforgiving desert? Day by day the mob shrunk: men deserted out of fear, hunger, thirst and exhaustion. One morning, when only half the mob remained, the giant and the raven hid behind some dunes to ambush them.

They jumped on them as they passed by the dune where they had hidden. Some men fled in horror, hearing the giant’s roar and seeing the raven’s eyes, which had all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming. Some men stood to fight and stabbed the giant a couple of times, but his skin was too thick for their weapons. The raven flew above his enemies and then dove to strike with his sword, slicing necks and arms before soaring again, blinding his enemies with sunlight.

Once their enemies were all dead, the raven and the giant took their provisions and the raven healed the giant’s shallow wounds. The giant asked,

Will it always be like this?

For us, yes. Regular people will see us as monsters. But we will prevail. No matter how bad it gets, I promise you, we will live to fight another day.

After eating the dead men’s rations they continued their journey out of the desert. The golden ocean led them to the Middle Sea. From there they walked along the coast until they reached a small port town that regularly shipped people and goods up north. Though now that barbarians were ravaging the southern continent, trade had mostly stopped. They entered a ghost town.

While the giant waited outside the town, the raven bandaged his face and body to hide his identity. Then he headed for the ports, looking for a ship that would take them north. He asked some beggars about the owner, and they told him it was an old sailor who was drinking away his life in one of the many town taverns.

When the raven stepped into the tavern, everyone turned to look at him, thinking he was a burn victim. He asked the bartender for something to drink, and people mostly lost their interest. He noticed roaches crawling through the walls and a family of cats wandering about the tables. He asked the bartender, a large woman with moustache and strong muscles,

Who owns that large ship outside?

That old salty dog over there.

“She” pointed at an old man who was missing an eye and a leg. The old man sat in a corner drinking alone. He approached the captain,

Excuse me, sir. I would like to sail the Middle Sea on your ship.

Get lost.

The raven pulled out the golden trinkets he had collected from all the people he had killed in self-defence.

I have many gold.

The captain chewed them one by one before concluding,

Aright, I’ll take ya.

I must also mention that I carry a large animal and we… I must travel tonight.

Fine for an extra fee.

Making history

He replaced the officers in the neighbor city with men he could trust or at least threaten. Once all rioters were arrested, he brought the doctors from his city to heal the wounded. Later came state-enforced volunteers to repair the shops and houses that had been vandalized. The next morning he gathered all the people in the main square and spoke to them from a wooden platform:

These past days have been terrible. We set out to make a brighter future, and so far all we’ve found is death and despair.

He stopped for a moment to think about the abysm between how he had thought things would be and how they actually were. He felt like giving up but composed himself and continued with more conviction,

I promise you one thing: no matter what comes our way, we will prevail. If not for ourselves, for our children, and their children after them. All I’ve ever wanted, all the Party has ever wanted, was to speak up for workers. For those of you who bleed your life away only to have others with more powers take away the fruit of your labor. And it is precisely for you that I am going to impose order in this city. Order and unity are necessary to survive and prosper. And mark my words, there will be unity.

All the Party members broke out in applause, who were dispersed in the crowd. Other people, who only yesterday wished his death, now also applauded to prove their loyalty. He continued his speech, more composed now:

But there is justice to be made. The riot leaders that acted yesterday have been identified and brought before you. We also have with us the despicable criminals who started the fire. The neca has assured me that they have ties to the North Liberation Party, those filthy clandestine saboteurs and petty terrorists trying to undermine the revolution.

After hearing these words, which were their cue, neca officers took the prisoners out to the platform and forced them on their knees, facing the crowd.

Look at these men and women, the scum of the earth—He spat on them—They, they are more dangerous than the Tyrant—He turned to be face to face with them—Just look at you, look at what peddling lies has brought you—One of them, a former aristocrat plundered of all his property by the government, spat back at him. He struck him with the back of his hand and smiled—You stand here accused of opposing the state publicly, attempting to undermine—

One of the prisoners interrupted him,

Bullshit! It’s all bullshit and you know it!

He just raised his voice.

… OF ATTEMPTING TO UNDERMINE popular loyalty to the revolution through vile propaganda and the murder of key Party members.

The crowd erupted in vile insults at the prisoners. Some of them had been in interrogation the whole night, and a couple of them were simply gone, with a blank stare. The ones who were still sane simply looked down at the ground and cried in silence, not understanding why they were there. The loyal Party members threw what they could find at the prisoners, and the rest of the citizens soon joined in. Rotten food, shoes and even stones hit the prisoners, who didn’t even try to defend themselves.

When the crowd finished, some prisoners had died and others were badly hurt. He hung the survivors one by one until their bodies rested, swaying to the wind. They were left there for a whole day as proof he would stop before anything to bring order. By the next day, the square and the streets were completely clean. Now they could finally live their lives in peace.

He returned to his city and celebrated his victory. His yes-men cheered him with such statements as,

A brilliant accomplishment, sir!

There has never been any leader greater than our great Visionary!

Over the coming weeks his groveling minions exhausted the dictionaries for new epithets to describe the leader in their articles. They published small pieces in the only newspaper, the Party newspaper Free Press. Each day the newspaper reported new acts of sabotage, murder or theft by the North Liberation Party, or NLP. Workers and farmers had no time to question the veracity of these articles as they worked sixteen-hour days.

Now that there was finally peace and unity, he decided it was time to liberate the next city. He appointed a top Party member as mayor to rule the neighbor city and his brother as mayor of his city. He organized a public ceremony in his city where he shook hands with the new mayors and said a few words:

I hope these men will do a better job than I ever did as your new mayors. I have known both of them my whole life and have complete trust in them. May they bring a better tomorrow.

After the ceremony he headed north with a company of 128 men. There was a fishing town on the coast which he planned to use as an additional source of food. So he and his company disguised themselves as vagrants. He traveled with two platoons through the road while the other two platoons traveled through the woods at each side of the road, staying out of sight.

They spotted the town in the afternoon. First he studied the layout of the buildings and planned the attack to strike at midnight. Their first target was the imperial guard’s headquarters. He smoked out the men inside to slaughter them as they ran out of the building. Then his soldiers forced the citizens out of their beds and took them to the main square, where he waited on a podium to say,

Greetings. We are the Liberation Army, here to free you from the capital. We have one lemma: all will rule one city, all cities will rule themselves. We need your help to overthrow the empire, and after that you will become independent and stronger than ever before.

The citizens were shocked and half-asleep, so they just stared at him in confusion.

First, though, I’ll need you to point to the rich, the bureaucratic, the powerful among you. They are the enemies of the revolution and will do everything to stop us, so they must be put in work camps until the revolution is over and the new society can reassimilate them.

Children and women quickly pointed their fingers at imperial bureaucrats and their mayor, who were then separated into a smaller group. Then he made a signal to a group of neca officers, who handcuffed the prisoners and took them out of the city. Their families wept, begging him to stop, but he said,

Don’t worry, we won’t kill them! They will work honestly for the revolution. Once the war is over, you will be reunited. I know this may be too much right now, so take all the time you need.

A woman from the crowd yelled at him:

What world do you wish to build, when the Tyrant will crush you and your little army?

He thought to himself,

Ugh, one of these.

Then she addressed the people, saying,

He will have us all killed, can’t you see? He’s just another megalomaniac fool. Haven’t you read the news? Every insurrection against the empire goes wrong and the citizens pay the price.

While many people from the crowd were wondering what a “megalomaniac” was, not doubting it was a bad thing, he answered to the woman’s accusations by addressing the crowd,

I won’t lie to you and promise the revolution will succeed. What I can promise you is that, if you don’t join me, all that waits for you is a life of regret looking back at the lost opportunity to make things right. Even if we fail, other cities and entire regions will rise. Will we die? Of course! Everyone dies someday, the question is how. And in our case it’s clear: making history!

The passion with which he spoke made people feel like they were part of something great for the first time. Many decided right then and there that they would follow that man to death. The woman spoke again, her voice trembling to get people to sympathize with her,

Noooo. You can’t just revolt against the Tyrant! Those who tried were wiped off the Earth along with their families, lands and their entire history—She got down on her knees—Please, leave us be, I beg you.

There will be no mercy, neither for them nor for us. The Tyrant has shown no mercy, so why should we? Do you think we can win if we play by the rules? No. What do you use to fight fire?

Water?

Wrong. Fire! Say it with me friends: what will we use to fight fire?

Fire!

I can’t hear you, say it again!

Fire! Fire! Fire!

Soon they were all chanting “Fire!” They believed a messiah had come to save them. What he didn’t know was that the capital had stopped sending supplies to that town years ago but they still collected taxes. The fishermen barely caught fish anymore, and they relied on harsh agriculture to stay alive. They were all tired of living there, and most spent their days drinking potato vodka.

Both sides believed they had the better end of the deal, but they would learn how wrong they were in time. For now, he watched his soldiers drink and dance with his new citizens. Meanwhile, some neca officers took the potential enemies of the state out to a nearby mountain, where they were executed and buried in deep mass graves, deep enough that no one would ever find their bodies.

His experience with the neighbor city had taught him a valuable lesson: He couldn’t leave any of his enemies alive but he couldn’t kill them in public either.

Across the Middle Sea

The raven brought the giant into the city at midnight. He stole a sail from an abandoned ship and covered the giant with it. The giant walked on four feet to look like an elephant and fool the drunken sailors. Soon they boarded the ship and sailed away from the continent that had caused them both so much pain, headed for a continent that promised a new life.

The raven was exhausted from the journey across the desert, so he fell asleep at the ship. The sailors, intrigued by the raven’s cargo, took the opportunity to peek below the sail that covered the giant.

Immediately they began plotting.

They had sold stolen creatures from other smugglers before. Once the captain knew what the cargo was, he instructed the sailors to tie the raven’s hands and throw him into the ocean. What they didn’t realize was that the raven wasn’t wrapped up in bandages because he had some disease, but because he was also some kind of monster.

The icy cold waters woke the raven. At first he was disoriented, freezing and gasping for air. He burst out of the wraps and ropes that bound him and swam to the surface. He saw the ship sailing away from him and understood what was going on.

He was fucking furious.

It was a moonless night so the only light came from the few oil lanterns on the ship. When the raven flew back to the ship, all candles went out. The sailors and captain saw a black figure illumined only by thunder chasing after them. They realized it had emerged from the sea and believed it was an ancient god that had risen from hell and now came for their souls. They fell to their knees and prayed for mercy.

The raven cut off their heads or fed them to the storm so they would freeze and drown. But he left the captain alive, who begged for his life and promised him riches. The raven held down the captain. He plucked the captain’s only eye and broke both his legs, but left him alive.

The storm exploded in size, as though the sacrificed sailors had fed it. The waves grew tall as mountains, the strong wind ripped the sails. Unable to command the ship, the raven and giant were left at the will of the elements, which crushed the ship. The giant clung to the largest part of the vessel, which kept him afloat. The raven stood on top of the giant to stay out of the cold waters. The raven could have flown away, but he refused to leave the giant behind. They carried with them the broken captain in a smaller chunk of the ship.

Finally they reached the shore and fell asleep. The next morning they built a campfire to warm themselves and ate some fruit. The raven looked at the giant smiling,

You know where we are, right?

The giant smiled and said,

We made it. We’re in the northern continent, finally.

The city is a few weeks away from here. The worst is over now.

Or is it?

Lightbringer

Over the next weeks, his “liberated” cities devoted all their efforts to building his new war machine. Without counter-revolutionary activities to distract him, he organized the army and oversaw their training at the fields near the fishing town. Then one day came two men from his neighbor city, threw themselves at his feet and said,

Oh, lightbringer, it is terrible—The “lightbringer” was an ancient northern hero, and his flunkeys were quick to give him the title which spread like wildfire—Our new mayor rules with despotism and cruelty. Everyone is suspicious of being loyal to the capital. They hold trials. Terrible, terrible trials.

The first man broke down in tears so the second man continued,

Nobody watches over the neca. People starve because neca officers confiscate the food from peasants. They sleep with our wives and daughters as they please and threaten us to hurt them if we refuse to obey. Help us, please, put an end to this.

His first impulse was to believe the two men were liars, but then he believed and pitied them.

Can this be true? Has my friend truly betrayed me? My friend, whom I gave a city to rule with honor. I must see it with my own two eyes.

He rode to the neighbor city with his provisional army. He went straight to the mayor’s office and summoned to the main square the mayor and the neca officers that the two wretched men had accused of big crimes. He declared the rest of the day free with the excuse of celebrating an award ceremony to outstanding children of the revolution. Once citizens had gathered on the main square for the ceremony, his soldiers put the accused neca officers in chains.

I am not blind, I am not deaf, and I am definitely not stupid. So how did you disgusting criminals think I wasn’t going to find out?

The mayor shook his head,

Find out what? That we did what you did?

Oh please, you’re nothing like me. You have corrupted the pure spirit of the revolution that I started. Rape, theft, holding hostages, all these are against the revolution.

Are you actually insane? All of those things were worse under your administration, you just turned a blind eye on them because it suited you.

No.

Yes—The mayor laughed—You can’t accept it, can you? You created this… monster. All those things you mentioned are only some of its consequences.

Shut up, shut up, SHUT THE FUCK UP! People, listen. I made a mistake putting these men in charge. But trust me, the revolution works, I just have to put the right men in charge so that—

The mayor interrupted him with his laughter,

Revolution doesn’t work. You used crime to get to power, so criminal is your revolution. Can’t you see it’s all a big joke? Your revolution is way worse than what we had before, and I’m honestly glad I don’t have to pretend otherwise anymore, fearing you’d put me in prison. Yeah, honestly I’m just tired of you and your—

He beheaded the mayor with a single strike, and the mayor’s head tumbled off the wooden platform to the terrified crowd. Then he took a neca officer accused of rape, kicked in his legs to force him on his knees and beheaded him too. Some neca officers tried to crawl away, begging and pissing themselves, but his soldiers pinned them down. One by one he executed all of them until his suit and shoes were drenched in blood. He held his bloody sword with his arms extended and said,

Behold, I am the lightbringer! I am the watcher over the watchers! I am he who rides the storm! No man is above the law. I sentence to one year in work-camps those neca officers accused of hoarding food or otherwise abusing their power for personal gain. I appoint as new mayors the two men who were brave enough to come to me.

His brother read the news of the massacre during an emergency inner-party plenum while the leader was away, and said,

My brother has gone completely mad. We need to remove him from power. But I need your support.

All the Party members looked at each other. The Hammer said,

But how can we stop him when he’s surrounded by his new army?

The Party members nodded.

If we allow him to continue in power, we’re doomed. One day he’ll wake up and decide we’re traitors too, because he sees it in a vision or, or some old fart tells him so. No, I refuse to live like that. We are the brains of this revolution. We have to take him out, and we have to do it quietly.

The forbidden city

The visions grew worse each day he approached the forbidden city. Each step was harder than the previous one. Until his pain ceased completely.

He entered the nightmare realm.

The air was a thick green substance that submerged everything in it. The sun was no more. He couldn’t tell what was real and what wasn’t.

Then he saw it.

In the middle of the stormy sea rose the ivory tower high into the heavens. He witnessed the end of the world, when the nightmare would engulf it all. The vision of the ivory tower faded, leaving him at the doors of the forbidden city, which was hidden in plain sight at the center of a huge plain.

The raven said,

Giant, wait for me while I recruit my army. While you wait, scout the land, find a place to settle and some people to follow us. If I don’t come back after a few months, you’re free.

The giant smiled and said,

I don’t care about silly oaths. I will always help you because you helped me when I needed it.

Thank you giant, I hope to see you again.

With that they parted ways. The city’s gates opened before him and he stepped inside. People waved him as he walked through the city streets. After walking for a while a man greeted him,

Welcome, brother. Let me show you around and explain it all, you have many questions I am sure.

The raven followed the man through the city, watching the architecture style seamlessly change from one street to the next. And all streets converged on the garden. The garden was a massive cultivated field which fed the whole city. Citizens at the garden all greeted him, but he could hardly hear their voices. All he could hear was a faint forgotten whisper coming from the well. At the center of the garden he finally saw the well, which reached down into the guts of the Earth.

He walked up to the well at the center of the garden.

He gazed at the abyss below.

The abyss gazed back at him:

I have been waiting for you.

Who are you?

I am the end, I am the traveler. You have come because you wanted ships, and men, even an army. You can have all of that, I can crush your enemies and make you king. But is that really how far your sight goes?

What do you mean?

For centuries I’ve watched men play their war games, conquer each other, raise empires doomed to fall. Is that what you want for yourself?

Oh, my aims are much more modest, I only want to destroy the woman that took away my life and the barbarians who are with her.

Maybe now this is all you want. But after you destroy them, who will be left to replace the void?

I guess, uhm, me?

Yes, you. But what then? You will extend your dominion over the southern continent? The whole world?

I had never thought of—

Don’t lie to me. I can listen to your thoughts. Maybe you don’t admit it to yourself, but you crave power.

I… Yes, I do.

If you follow me, I will give you the world for a kingdom.

Traitors… traitors everywhere

Routine settled in the cities and towns liberated under his dominion.

Every day he woke up, had breakfast, addressed political issues, drilled his army, had lunch, drilled his army some more, addressed more political issues and went to sleep.

Children, women and old people spent their days at workshops to produce weapons and supplies for the army.

Political prisoners mined iron, fell trees, worked the forges and looked after crops. The Great Leader had proclaimed,

Every living thing must be mobilized in a revolutionary society.

By “mobilized” he meant “worked until exhaustion under minimal rations”. But repression worked and the Glorious Revolution moved forward.

Two months after creating his Liberation Army, he felt confident enough to attack a city with a real imperial garrison. He was comfortable using the night, so he chose the night to attack. His army encircled the city at midnight. A few divisions climbed the city’s walls to take care of the guard posts. They set up traps at the city’s doors and hauled molotov cocktails over the walls.

All over the city, fires broke out. The city’s guards rushed outside only to fall into ambushes. Then his army charged in. Anyone who fought back got the sword. They dragged the firemen out to prevent them from putting out the fires. The citizens watched their city burn to the ground with tears in their eyes.

But this time there was no speech. He had no intention of assimilating them. He sent all survivors, even the children, to work on the camps. He dragged the guards who surrendered to a creek and ordered his men to execute them.

The next day he delivered a speech on his native city, talking about the glory of the Liberation Army’s victory over the imperialist pigs. Whenever he said “capitalist swine”, “bourgeoisie”, “sabotage” or “nlp” the whole crowd started hissing like a pack of rabid raccoons. Whenever he said “socialist hero”, “true equality” or “freedom”, the crowds applauded and whistled in ecstasy.

Over the next weeks, even more zealous speeches followed that speech which denounced the wreckers that were slowing down revolution. Though the truth was much more simpler: he had put an untrained workforce to produce unreasonably large amounts of supplies in no time and had given them no incentive to do a good job. Or, as he liked to put it,

Despicable… capitalist… wreckers against the Free People.

One out of eight words he said were “freedom” or one of its synonyms. Freedom was everywhere. There was the Liberation Army that freed people from the empire’s yoke, the Freedom Communes where prisoners and political enemies worked, the Free Press that only printed pieces favorable to him personally, and the list goes on and on.

He even renamed the state security organ (the neca) to Bureau of the Free. But nobody knew what a bureau was, so people just called it “free”. Thus the word “free” came to be synonymous with political persecution, night arrests, and death in a work camp.

He traveled between the cities and towns on a simple carriage, so everyone could rejoice in his frugality. Then one day a man threw a spear at him, managing only to grace his right arm. He was forced to reinforce the transport with metal sheets and travel everywhere surrounded by bodyguards.

He had no friends, only subordinates. People hated him, feared him, adored him, but none of them could ever be friends with him. He was lonely but never alone. So he extended his routine with a glass of freedom vodka at night, which soon became a whole bottle not only because he had noone. He worked all day; he had been working all day for months. He had always had migraines, but now they were ever more frequent and rendered him useless for hours. The doctors told him he had to choose: either rest, or die.

Under the doctors’ advice, he delegated some of his tasks on other Party members, which his brother quickly usurped, concentrating all power in his own hands. Week by week he grew weak. His brother slowly steered the ship of state toward a pact with the empire instead of all-out war.

One night his brother delivered a grand speech about the Path Forward while he listened, pinned down by a migraine. After the speech he went home on his armored transport. One of his bodyguards handed him the bottle of freedom vodka without even asking, and a look of pity. He uncorked it and took it to his lips.

But he did not guzzle it down. His lips tasted the bleachy flavor of that half-disinfectant, half-drink, but he did not guzzle it down. He threw the bottle out of the window, shouting,

No!

No what, Great Leader?

Great Leader, me? How can you even call me that. I have failed you, I have become a scum, miserable fucking addict.

Sir, you don’t understand—

Don’t understand what? I’m sick of this, sick of this sickly peace, of this cowardly groveling for a humiliating pact. So today I say no. Today I quit drinking once and for all.

The next few days he only drank water from the well on his house. His migraine magically disappeared and he began to suspect,

They have been drugging me, to keep me away from power. The Party is conspiring against me, they must have coerced the doctors to lie to me. They are afraid of war, yes, but I am not: I know what needs to be done.

He organized a meal with all his servants and bodyguards to celebrate their support. He cooked and set the table himself, which his servants appreciated. Once they began to eat though, they didn’t appreciate it as much. He had poisoned the food.

Which one of you was it? What traitor rat poisoned my vodka?

But his servants couldn’t reply because they were too busy dying. The chamber maids, four bodyguards, two cooks, chauffer and butler all died. He went straight to the Free Press and ordered the editor to put on first page the news of his murder attempt that had ended with the lives of all the traitor-saboteurs that worked at his household.

Then he went to his brother, who asked,

Brother, are you ok? What happened?

Saboteurs, traitors, wreckers. Everywhere I look, they are trying to get me, always plotting, yes, plotting.

Why don’t you come with me, there’s a clinic down south where—

Clinic? CLINIC? Don’t you see my mind is clear now? What we have to do is mobilize and march on the capital immediately.

Maybe you should just lie down and—

NO! We are going to rally an army. Now.

His brother hesitated and finally replied,

Fine, you’re right, right. It’s about time. But we should go ahead and scout the road to the capital first.

No, let some neca officer do it.

And let them say that we are just war pigs? That we hide in our big state buildings and send men to die? Is that really how you want people to see their Great Leader?

I guess not…

Ok good, then let’s go.

He and his brother traveled on the armored carriage along with two guards. It was like a dream for him, so he said,

Oh brother, my dream is about to come true. All ruling one city and all cities ruling themselves!

But his brother only half-smiled. They were traveling the road to the Tyrant’s tower without resistance when his carriage suddenly stopped next to a cliff. He looked down to the swirling black abyss between the two continents. Then he looked at his brother and he looked back at him, just like when they were kids. Before he could react, his brother stabbed him with a small dagger in the gut, twisting it as it entered his body.

He looked at his brother, unable to believe his eyes. Before his brother stabbed him again, he jumped out of the carriage and unsheathed his sword. Blood was pouring out of the wound into the ground in short bursts, following the command of his heart. He slipped and fell. Then he crouched, covering his wound.

Fool! You have no idea of what you’ve done! H-How could you do this to me?

His brother jumped out of the carriage to approach him. He waved his sword at his brother with one hand and covered his wound with the other, hunching and walking backwards, getting closer and closer to the cliff.

The guards pointed their weapons at him. His brother said,

This was the only way, don’t you understand? You are out of control. If you had stayed in power a few more weeks, your precious revolution would’ve imploded. I had to stop you.

You poisoned me…

And I would do it again. You are the perfect peace offering to seal the truce with the capital.

No…

They won’t kill you, you know. They will exhibit you around like a tame lion.

How about instead… Fuck you!

He desperately swung his sword at his brother, but one of the guards parried the attack and another slashed the arm with which he held the sword.

AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!

They looked in horror at the man who had been their leader. He tried to move but could only slip on his own blood. He tried to crawl backwards as his men followed him slowly, pointing their weapons at him. They could have just grabbed him, but they still feared him. His brother spoke with tears in his eyes,

You, you meant the world to me. I looked up you for the way you defended us. But then you became this… this monster.

He let go a cry of agony, nursing his bleeding arm. He kept crawling back, and his brother shouted,

Stop!

He reached the edge of the precipice that overlooked the abyss. He looked one last time at his brother and screamed,

You will never take me alive: I am the lightbringer!

And crawled into the abyss.

Under siege

Everything changed the day when the skies opened.

The citizens of the forbidden city heard the metallic shriek and looked above. Thousands of machines poured out of the sky, eclipsing the Sun himself. The traveler whispered into the mind of everyone,

They know. Everyone head to the temple.

The temple was a massive underground fortress that stood immemorial in front of the garden. It had several levels with beds, halls and well-stocked supply rooms. The machines landed before all citizens could enter the temple, murdering everyone left outside and obliterating the city. Not a single stone was left in its place, not a book, building or animal survived. After the temple was sealed and the city destroyed, the machines flew away and disappeared into the sky. But the traveler knew who they were. They were only waiting for them to come out, so he ordered everyone to wait.

The traveler leaked water and air through the walls of the temple to sustain his people, but he could not produce animals. As weeks went on, morale and supplies waned. The raven knew there was only one way out of a siege:

Citizens, listen to me. Our enemy is strong, but so are we. We must face them in open battle.

But the traveler opposed him.

You have no idea who they are, the things they have done. They will kill you. We just have to wait and—

Wait for what? Until we’re too tired to even fight? I’m tired of waiting, and so is everyone else. Who here would rather wither away cowardly than die with glory and pride?

The citizens agreed with him. The traveler said,

But you’ll die…

Aren’t we already dead? Aren’t we only delaying death because we trick ourselves thinking “if I only hold on a little longer…” They have taken our lives already, we must accept it. All we have left is our dignity, and I won’t let them have it.

The raven started dressing himself in battle clothes, while the citizens watched. Soon others took up arms. The traveler whispered into the raven’s mind,

I have waited for billions of years. I sailed the stars and ended up stranded here, to drown in madness. But humans saved me, they talked to me and gave me a reason to live. When you walk out of those gates, they will murder you and I will have nobody left to talk to. I will welcome madness, my old friend.

But what choice do we have?

None, you are right. You must fight and I must go insane, that’s our fate.

I don’t believe in fate.

Indeed, why should you? But fate doesn’t care whether you believe in it or not. There is only one future, one actual outcome. Your fate is to die. Mine is to rot, trapped in here.

No, mark my words, I will return and take you out of here.

During the morning, the raven discussed the strategy against the machines. At noon, the raven opened the temple’s gates and walked into the ruins above. Soon the citizens followed. The metallic shriek flooded the air, announcing their coming. Once again the skies darkened with the deadly machines that looked like metallic chariots, but this time, the raven stood up to them with an army behind him. The shriek grew as the machines approached ground. They fired down on the defenceless warriors below with their rifles.

The raven lifted off and flew away from his army. The machines, at first shocked, started firing at him. Below, the warriors hurled large harpoons at the chariots. When they landed, a group of warriors pulled from the rope tied to the harpoon to bring down the hooked chariot. The chariots started firing at the warriors below, so the raven swooped in and grabbed a chariot rider, knocking away its gun. It was a machine, but also a man. He threw it overboard and crashed the chariot into another chariot, bringing down both.

War raged on for another hour, until there were no more chariots. The raven could hardly stand, as he had been bruised, cut and shot twice. Most of the citizens were dead or gravely injured, but those who remained smiled proudly.

If not even the heavens can stop us, then none can!

The metallic shriek started again, this time even louder. The skies opened and a second, larger wave filled the skies. The raven looked at the warriors behind him and said,

Lay down your arms. We fought bravely but the battle is over now. I am honored to die by your side.

The traveler, revived by hope after the initial victory, screamed,

Nooo! Fight back!

The chariots came closer, the noise became deafening, even over the traveler’s screams:

You have to stand up. You can do this, come on. Don’t give up!

The traveler seethed with anger, causing earthquakes across the continent.

The raven kneeled down. He watched the chariots come as the ground shook and the distant mountains crumbled. Then came the shots, raining down on the weary warriors. A single chariot came to him and a man-machine came out of it. It approached him and pointed a rifle at him. He smiled a tired smile while a burst of rounds knocked him down.

His blood covered the ground below.


Prisons are locked from the outside

Down he went into the abyss, swirling with doubt.

Was I worse than the Tyrant? Was it all in vain? The pain and misery I caused, the lives I took in the name of an ideal, my ideal. How can I have been so blind that my own brother drove me here—Then came remorse and self-hatred—I should have never murdered the mayor. I should have never started this, all I accomplished is to destroy everything I touched. I wish, I wish I was never born.

After plumetting for a long time, he started to slow down until he landed gently on the ground. He fell to his knees. Mist was all around, mist and a tenuous white light. A figure approached him out of the mist and laid a hand on his shoulder.

Stop worrying now, child.

The old woman walked out of the mist.

I’ve been watching you, expecting you. Like other great men before you, you are filled with regret in the face of death. Regret is pointless and beneath you.

But—

No, you’ve whined enough, let me speak. You fought for a noble cause and you had to make hard choices. Necessary choices. Only you had the strength and vision to carry them out. You gave people meaning and purpose. And even though in the end you fell, your life was not in vain.

But my revolution is ruined…

Yes, your first revolution is dead and gone. Your human life is over too.

Human life?

Don’t worry, life is overrated anyway. What matters is your legacy. For thousands of years I have been imprisoned here, left to rot. But you, you have brought me back, made men whisper my name again.

Who-what are you?

The old woman smiled. Her eyes turned pitch black.

You know.

He shuddered, terrified at the woman in front of him.

No!

Say my name.

No…

Her eyes spoke of misery beyond bounds. In them he saw reflected millennia of pain, bodies mutilated and left to rot, millions dead for no good reason, their lives wasted. He saw who she was, he understood what he had done,

Cruelty? Oh god, where am I?

Out of the frying pan into the fire

The raven woke up at dusk. A great fire was raging where the city once stood. He looked at himself. His body was riddled with scars where the bullets had pierced him. He said to nobody,

I died.

And nobody replied,

Yes.

The raven thought it was the Traveler.

Is it… is it you?

No, and he will never speak to you again. He lost his mind and, well, just forget about him.

After a few seconds of silence the voice spoke again,

You know who I am.

That creepy little girl…

Yes. Now get up, we have work to do.

What, now? Now that my dreams have burned to the ground again? Now that I have no gold nor army, not even clothes to protect me from the cold wind?

Yes, now. I know about the cold and the pain you feel. But they don’t matter.

They matter to me.

No they don’t, and you know it. So why don’t you stop whining and find shelter.

He walked to the mountains in the north. There he searched for hours until he found the entrance to a cave. With some twigs and pinecones he built a small fire inside the cave. He laid down to rest by the fire, and that’s when he was beaten, stabbed and dragged across the cave.

What the fuck!

Two sets of hands pulled from his arms. He was dizzy and his sight was blurry. Still, he forced himself to remember as much as he could about what he saw. The walls and floor were covered with disgusting moving gore. It was painful to lift his head, but he made the effort. His kidnappers were rabbit-headed humanoids wearing robes. The rabbit-headed creatures he met on his way down the den turned to look at him.

Each level he descended, the smell of rotten fish and wet dog intensified. He threw up a couple of times out of nausea and his captors kicked him for it. After bumping his head on a staircase several times, they finally threw him in a cell. A particularly disgusting rabbit-creature tore his shirt, took a red-hot iron and branded his chest with their sign: it looked like a closed eye, drawn as a semicircle over a horizontal line with lines that looked like eyelashes. After their captors left, other prisoners in his cell approached him. A man whispered:

Hey, who are you?

The raven hadn’t heard the man. Holding his branded chest with his hands, the raven asked,

Where am I?

The man replied,

This is hell or somewhere worse. We were all captured in the forest. A wonderful smell drove me to what I thought was pie. Suddenly those things jumped on me and knocked me out.

Others in the room nodded. A girl said,

I just woke up here. All I remember is going to sleep at my house in the woods.

A bulky man intervened,

I am a royal soldier. See that fellow over there—The bulky man pointed to a corpse in another cell—He was an investigator looking for her—The bulky man pointed to a skeleton in another cell.

A terrified man said,

We came here looking for food. M-me and my wife.

The raven asked,

Where is your wife?

The man’s eyes watered with tears.

She was taken four weeks ago. For one whole hour we heard her cries. Then she stopped, uhm—

The royal soldier spoke again,

They sometimes feed us, you know. But sometimes, sometimes they forget we’re here. Except for women. They do things to women.

They glanced for a second at a cell where a body lay rotting, then looked away. The captive girl spoke with an empty stare,

Our fate is sealed. The manrabbits will consume us all…

He laid down to rest, determined to stay awake. The voices of the prisoners died down until there was silence. He looked up, the prisoners were gone. Light fled the room and everything turned black.

He heard the footsteps on the stairs, approaching him.

Hello?

The footsteps continued, getting closer. He distinguished a shape in the shadows, but couldn’t tell what it was.

You will not give up now.

Fear gripped his mind. He was frozen in the ground, unable to move a muscle.

Who’s there? Come out!

The little girl stepped forth, smiling. Without moving her lips, she replied,

You can’t give up now. Get up.

No! Tell me why, why go through all this shit. All the work I’ve done, all the pain. Why?

Do you know why I turned you into a raven? Because it was the only way you could survive. You had to become something stronger to stand all the petty crap that would have killed you. And look at you now, you marvelous creature.

But why? Why do I have to survive? Why do I—

You should know by now that it’s not about you, it never was. When you see an insect, what do you think is its purpose?

Survival?

Yes, that’s right. But it’s not its survival. The insect is only a vessel carrying genes. The point of the insect is that its genes survive, just like you are a vessel to carry me.

And who are you?

The little girl came closer to his cell until she phased through its bars. Her hair flowed, suspended in the air.

I am Freedom, and with your help I’m going to rip the heart out of the old woman and make her eat it.

The prison’s walls burst into flames. The vision started to fade.

Now kill every single one of her followers.

The vision ended abruptly. The prison’s walls were really on fire. He rose from the ground, his strength renewed. He held his cell’s bars and they melted in his hands He stepped outside and spoke to the prisoners,

You are free now. Free to follow me and obey me without question.

The prisoners heard the echo of manrabbits rushing down the stairs. The raven’s eyes burst into flames. All the prisoners nodded. The manrabbits were almost at the prison now. The raven smiled, put his hands behind his neck and kneeled down, waiting for the manrabbits,

Good.

The endless grind

They walked through the mist long enough for her to get so tired she couldn’t move. He carried the old woman on his shoulders. He asked,

What is this place?

Prison. My prison. One confused man trapped me here long ago. He was foolish enough to think I’d stay here forever. He thought he could destroy me, but he was wrong and I’ll show him.

Show whom? Who put you here?

You call him the Tyrant.

The first thing I’ll do when we get out, you know what it will be? I’ll raise an army against him and kill him, as I promised I would.

No, dear. You tried that and failed. I have a better plan, but you have to trust me.

They walked for hours, they walked for days. The endless mist slowly wore him down, paranoia crawled back into his brain. He feared the woman might be using him.

If you are who you say you are, what do you need from me?

Every great idea needs a champion. You have the strength to make me great again, I can’t do it by myself if I’m trapped in here. But when you free me from this prison, believe me, we will be unstoppable. First we’ll appeal to those keeping us here so—

Wait, wait, appeal? We’re dead.

Yes, dear. But bureaucracy is stronger than death. Anyway, after the appeal goes through, we may be out of here in like two centuries at most.

Two c-centu—

His voice broke down.

Yes, then we’ll slowly wrestle power away from the Tyrant.

He felt lightheaded. Two hundred years? What if they failed? He was about to collapse when it happened. The mist cleared and a spiral staircase appeared before them. She yelled,

Quick, to the staircase! I’ll explain everything when we’re at the top.

He obeyed. As he was running to it she said,

And don’t say a single word while you climb it. Otherwise it will collapse and we’ll be forced to find another. We were lucky this time. Next time… it could take two hours or two years.

He wanted to get out as soon as possible so he obeyed without question. He climbed in silence. But no matter how high they got, climbing the stairs was always the same monotonous, endless grind. After only a few hours, he couldn’t bear the silence and not knowing how long it would take. Still, he forced himself to keep going in silence. He knew he had to suffer if he wanted to reach the end. Some time later he lost track of time. All he knew was movement: always forward, one step after the other.

He climbed for weeks. Many times he was about to quit but he forced himself to keep fighting. Anxiety grew until he couldn’t breath. But breathe what? He was dead. Just thinking about it made his head spin. He thought about jumping off the staircase many times, but he always managed to repress the urge. Until he couldn’t. His feet kept walking, but his mind collapsed. He had to jump and die, this time permanently. It was all clear to him now: if he really died, he would cause no more pain. He summoned the courage and prepared for the fall.

One, two—

The old woman tapped gently his head and pointed with her finger. He saw the end of the stairs and a bridge leading to a gate.

He rushed the last steps and broke down on the ground, crying. She wiped his tears and crossed the bridge by herself. He rose and walked up to the bridge but did not cross it. She waved him on,

Come. We must go inside now, no time to waste.

He looked at the mist below, knowing he could end it all right there. She said,

You think what you went through was bad? Try that for a few thousands of years. If you jump, you won’t die, you’ll just waste time. I made the staircase so—

Wait, you made it?

Yes, I had to teach you a lesson.

You. fucking. psychopath.

Dear, you have no idea. But remember just how alike we are. In my position, you would’ve done the same.

And he hated her because she spoke the truth.

Everything you ever wanted is behind that door. Come and take it.

What if I jump, what then, huh?

The bridge disappeared and they were back on the ground again, the door still standing in its place. Angrier, he said,

Fine! Then I’ll just stay here.

She sighed.

Why do you have to behave like a child? Can’t you see we both want the same thing? Can’t you see I can give you unlimited power.

But you’re evil.

Yes! You too, you thick fuck. You sent thousands to their deaths for an evil ideology. You alone caused more misery than any other human in thousands of years, that’s quite the achievement you know? Honestly, why do you think I’m trapped here? I am the worst of all plagues.

No, you’re wrong. I fought for equality.

Yes, and equality is evil. Trust me, I know because I made it—He shook his head—Yes, we’re both evil. The difference is I’m too old to keep lying to myself about it. But don’t worry, evil is a malleable idea. We’ll reverse its meaning when we’re out of here.

He backed away from her in horror.

No…

She smiled her crazy smile, chased him and offered him her hand, whispering,

Unlimited power.

His eyes were wide open. He was convinced he was strong enough to use her without succumbing to evil. Only he was strong enough to resist temptation, and after all, he knew that what he wanted to do was right.

He walked over to the door and pushed it open.

Manrabbits

The manrabbits took the raven to the high priest and strapped him to an altar. Manrabbits flocked from all corners of the cave, their whispers filling the air. Even the prisoners were taken there to watch. The high priest wore a long ceremonial robe and held a scepter in his left hand. He recited in forbidden tongues as he walked to the altar. After seeing the raven, its mouth opened in a 128 degree angle. Then, without moving it, his words echoed through the caves:

Reveal yourself.

The raven started sweating.

Reveal yourself.

The raven began to convulse. The high priest chanted, his voice growing louder:

Reveal yourself! Reveal yourself!

The raven’s body shook along with the crescendo. Then it stopped. A black mist poured from the raven’s every pore. A torn voice from within him said,

Boo!

Every light int the cave went out. All the candles, incense and lamps. The manrabbits cowered back and starting shrieking in fear. A shade in the shape of a little girl crawled out of the raven’s chest. The only thing that could be seen in the cave was the ghastly halo around her and her deep, burning eyes. Without moving her lips she screamed,

FIRE!

At once all the manrabbits in the room burst into blue flames, the fire then jumping to the walls and the altar. The prisoners untied the raven’s body from the altar and carried him on their shoulders out of the den. Once outside, they ran down the mountain, and found the giant waiting, next to a group of dead manrabbits. The giant pointed at the raven,

I’m with him. Is he okay? Oh dear friend, what have they done to you…

Meanwhile the little girl floated around the den burning alive every manrabbit. With a large knife she slid their throats while they burned. She chased all of them down and killed them one by one, even the children. When she had finished she flew back into the raven’s chest and he woke up, gasping for air. The giant restrained him until he calmed down and spoke,

Where am I? What happened? Oh the fire, the fire!

The raven collapsed. The giant and the prisoners sealed the entrance to the den with rocks. As they were leaving the mountains, they looked back one last time. Nobody said a word about it then, and they would never speak of it again. The giant carried the raven north as he recovered his strength. His band of freed prisoners followed behind them. The raven woke up and told the giant,

Giant, if only you had seen the forbidden city… I was so close to getting the help I needed to destroy her. I would’ve even freed you from your oath.

The giant chuckled.

What?

Nothing, nevermind.

They remained in silence for a while until the giant spoke again,

Look. I know that oath is serious to you, but not to me. I only stuck around with you because you saved me. Because, well, you are my friend.

The raven said nothing. They walked for hours until night came and they decided to camp. The freed prisoners watched the giant devour a whole roasted goat. While he licked his fingers, the giant explained to the prisoner band,

These last few months I’ve spent with shamans and nomad tribes. They are all worried about the ‘northern king’.

The only girl that had survived prison asked,

Who’s that?

The shamans claim he’s the incarnation of a powerful spirit. The nomad tribes believe he’s a demon. In any case, his army is large and his territory vast. Nobody knows why, but after centuries of peace holding the north and east he has decided to travel south. His people are tough, you know? Where they come from, spit and piss turn to ice as they come out of you.

The prisoners laughed, discovering there was a funny man beneath the giant’s terrifying appearance. The giant continued,

The northern king has filled all his domains with fanatics for some religion where he’s the prophet of some ‘higher man’. How original.

After dinner, the band told jokes around the fire and laughed. All but the raven, who ate nothing and laid down in the grass. The girl brought some roasted goat for him. She said,

I just wanted to thank you. Without you, I don’t know what they could’ve—

The raven interrupted her,

Don’t thank me. I’m not a hero. I know who I am.

She left the plate by his side, kissed his cheek and returned to the campfire with the rest. He tried to sleep, but the words of the demon inside him kept ringing in his ears.

I am only a vessel for an idea. My life doesn’t matter, my pain is irrelevant. But she must triumph over all others, at any cost.

Hungry

On the other side of the door waited a library that stretched endlessly in all directions, its shelves filled with books. The door disappeared at their back, leaving them in an aisle at the middle of the library. A flying staircase landed before them. They boarded it and it took them to a waiting room. There, a secretary ordered them to sit and wait.

While they waited, he browsed the books in one of the shelves. Most were written in tongues he could not even recognize. But eventually he found a book he could read. It was a collection of stories, and he picked one at random. It read:

On this matter, consider the tale of the Great boy: He was born in a kingdom of great wealth where people enjoyed copious crops, gentle weather, strong health and contempt for both gods and magic. Despite their riches, the boy could not stop crying. It was not pain, sleep or even disease that caused his cries, but hunger. A hunger that knew no bounds. It made him eat anything he could find, so the boy grew well beyond a man’s height. By the age of eight he was taller than most houses in his village.

The royal court wanted to meet the boy after they heard all kinds of stories about him. He was escorted to the royal castle to dazzle the noblemen with his bigness. Some noblemen wondered how he could be used to increase production in the farms, others about how he would help them in time of war. A noblewoman laughed at him like the boy was a jester and called him all sorts of things. The boy cried, but she kept laughing and talking as she drank wine. It was grotesque, since he was bigger than any man, yet still had the physical features and feelings of a little boy. Soon the Great boy ran out crying.

The boy learned to hate mankind right then and there. After all, he knew that people would always see him as a beast. On his way back home, he crossed the royal field, which was ripe with the fine, juiciest fruits.

Nobody will notice one missing.

Oh, naive boy. The sour flavor drove him on. He gorged down the whole field, but that wasn’t enough. He devoured whatever crops and fruits he came across: lettuce, oranges, corn, lemon, potatoes. And every time he ate, he and his hunger only increased. Finally he fell asleep at dawn. Though soon after he was woken by the guards sent to stop the rampaging beast, who pointed their sharp spears at him, screaming:

Wake up, freak! You must answer for your crimes, you are coming with us!

The boy tried to apologize, but the guards would not listen. What did they know about his hunger anyway? He let them bind him with chains and drive him to court. The whole city gathered to see the Great boy, the terror of the fields. They flooded the royal court and the nearby streets. The king felt pity for the boy, but he had to do what was right for the kingdom. The king told the boy,

We cannot have you wandering our land, ravaging our fields. With a heavy heart, we have decided to banish you from this kingdom.

The boy wept and called for his parents who were in the crowd for help, but his parents looked away in shame. Then he saw the noblewoman who had laughed at him, with a smug smile on her face. Without thinking about it he ran up to the noblewoman and grabbed her to yell at her that it was all her fault.

His strong grasp crushed her bones like they were twigs, and she died on his hand to the horror of the citizens. He never meant to hurt her, so he panicked and started to cry. The citizens screamed and ran away, trampling each other. The guards tried to surround him, but they were slowed by the frightened crowd which rushed in the opposite direction. The king commanded,

Slay the monster!

Before the guards got to him, the Great boy crashed through a large window and fell through to the other side. Then he ran as fast and far as he could, leaving the royal guards behind. He ran through the forest until he discovered a cave where he cried himself to sleep. After that, his only option was to wander the land as an outlaw, eating whatever he could from the farms he found, driven by an insatiable hunger.

That was only the beginning of his story. The lands he ravaged soon became barren, though he didn’t know it because he never stayed long enough to see it. The guards swept the forest looking for him and guarded the crops at night, but he simply crushed all oposition and soon, all morale.

The king was desperate to save his withering kingdom as food waned. He summoned the folk to help him: anyone who helped kill the beast would be rewarded with gold. Charlatans came in droves, selling the king trinkets, spells and other sorts of snake oil, promising they had the solution to stop the behemoth. The kingdom’s gold quickly ran out, but the Great boy was stronger than ever.

By the time the woman came by, the king had already gone mad. The woman asked only for a small group of men and quickly found the boy. She made him disappear and nobody ever knew what happened to him.

The kingdom, however, did not recover. The land never yielded fruit again. All the gold had been wasted on charlatans who quickly fled. Hunger was so bad that cannibalism ruled the streets. The king and his court all died, and the fine castles turned to dust. Those that could not escape died shortly after. One of the woman’s disciples claims she took him to an is—

Before he could finish the story, the office door opened. The old woman had gone inside without him noticing. There was something disturbing in her eyes. She called him on,

Come, come.

Damn heathens

The raven and his band traveled northward looking for new recruits for his army. But all he found was scattered tribes fleeing from the northern king. Eventually they reached a road that led to a small town. Millenary trees covered both sides of the road up to the town. From the distance he spotted something hanging from them. As they closed in, the picture was clearer.

Whole families hung from the branches, fully clothed and decomposing. The wind rocked them carefully, like newborns in their cribs. But the hungry gulls had stripped their flesh and plucked out their eyes. The raven spoke in hush tones to his band, fearing an ambush or worse,

Quick, hide. I’ll investigate that place. Come only if you hear me whistle twice.

The raven covered himself completely with bandages and other white cloth to look like a burn victim once more. Then he walked to the town and begged in silence. He sat outside a tavern and listened. A drunk man close to the door was talking particularly loud,

And I tell thee in all truth, they be a threat worse even than the heathens.

A second man replied,

Damn heathens.

Those f-f-filthy barbarians have taken over the main port-city. They have all their people there, drinking, fornicating—

Goddamn heathens.

The trade gold hath swollen their bellies and bought them armies beyond counting. Though southern lords should unite against them, they won’t for the pettiest of causes—

Fucking heathens!

Yes, they rather the heathen slayeth their neighbor than put their differences aside. Such is their hatred.

A woman dropped a coin for the raven, but he was so focused on the conversation that it hit his eye. He twisted and cringed to show his appreciation for the gift, but the woman had already left. A new voice joined the conversation.

Have thou heard? The northern king is recruiting more men. Rumor sayeth we shall soon wage war on the heathens.

The drunk man replied,

I mean, of course. I-It’s only natural the barbarians come here once the south falls.

The raven wandered beggarly around town. He eavesdropped on townsfolk who ignored him completely as long as he stood far enough. They all talked about “burning heathens”, “killing infidels” and “the Greatest glory”. Then he left the town and returned to his band. He removed his bandages and grabbed two swords.

Giant, come with me.

The girl put her hands on his, trying to stop him. She asked,

Please, no.

He pushed her aside and marched on the town with the giant by his side. As they walked through the main street, the citizens came out to see them. All of them kneeled and looked at them with tears of joy in their eyes. Only one man stood up from the crowd and spoke, never looking directly into their eyes,

We have waited for your return for so long, o Ruler of the earth and skies, o Greater man.

The raven and the giant looked at each other. Then the man continued,

Thou hast come unto us to bless thy children, o Father. Thou hast come to deliver us from evil!

The giant stared at the man, thinking “He sounds like he just had a stroke”. But then he remembered those words were popular centuries ago. The giant asked, pointing at the trees where the families rested,

Who hung those people!?

The hallowed men did, sir. For THE EVIL ONE had kissed those families. They broke our covenant with thou, o Greater man, wherefore they were surely put to death. Art thou not jubilant with this?

The giant and the raven were shocked at his calm justification and the complete complacency of the rest of town. The raven could not hold his nausea,

What is the meaning of this? Are you all insane!? Have you all lost your mind?

The giant thought about what the man had said,

Wait. Why did you call me that, ‘Greater man’?

Whispers spread through the distressed believers. The man replied,

We thought you knew, o Master. Thou art the ruler of the land, and thy servant who walketh by thy side is holy as well, for that we look not upon thine eyes. Many a year ago, a prophet among us was shown thine image, that of a man Greater than any, ruling the people from thy home in the most far away place. Thou told him what he and our people should and should not do to keep thy favor, and we have followed thy commandments since.

The giant replied eloquently,

Bullshit! I have spent hundreds of years isolated in an island. You must be mistaking me for someone else. How did you recognize me as your ‘Master’?

For the prophet drew thine image, and we know thee.

The man pointed to a church. On one of the side walls there was a large mural with the face of the giant, eyes wide open, above the sentence “He watches over all of us”. The resemblance was uncanny. The giant continued, confused by the image,

That image… is confusion. I’m not who you think I am. I would never command you to murder a whole family on my account, no matter what the parents had done, the children were innocent.

The man was growing anxious when he replied,

But when thou spake unto thy prophet, o Greater man, thou clearly said: ‘No person nor animal shalt eat of the fruit that grows facing the ground, for it faces sin, and the person wilt too face sin. Thou shalt eat only from the fruit that faces the sky, for it faces virtue, and the person that eateth it wilt too face virtue’.

Then the man pointed to trees with hanging familie and explained,

That family ate sinful apples and were in bed with the evil one. Those others did eat of a lamb that was without blemish which was meant for a burnt offering unto the Lord, so thou would forgive our sins and heal our sick with the blood of the sacrifice. But there was no sacrifice to be made and our sick could not be healed because of them. And lo, the sick died. And, lo, that family died too.

What are you talking about? I would never, NEVER, make up these bullshit rules. I’m afraid someone has tricked you, you poor delusional fools.

The man stood up and the other townsfolk followed. The giant had clearly struck a cord. Both the raven and the giant realized they made a mistake coming into the town. But it was a mistake they wanted to make. The whispers among the crowd turned to chatter; the chatter turned to accusations. A woman screamed from the crowd,

That is not the Greater man, he can’t be!

They’re trying to trick us into sin!

Impostors!

Evilmongers!

Damn heathens!

Demons! They are demons!

The crowd fetched their pitchforks. The giant took a deep breath and roared as loudly as he could so the crowd would shut up and listen. Then, he spoke in a last attempt to reason with them,

Only a madman would ask you to murder children, can’t you see that? I’m trying to help you see that you’re sick. I’m not a madman, I am a sane man!

Now the crowd was really angry, and there was no stopping them. The crowd shouted,

We’re the chosen ones!

This monster is a traitor and an impostor!

Burn them, burn them all!

Demons!

Demons!

Cleanse the impure!

Bring the fire!

The crowd rushed to attack the raven and the giant with whatever they could find around town. Some tried to poke them with pitchforks. Others flung lit lanterns and torches at them, trying to burn them. The raven unleashed his wings and flew high above the crowd.

Kill the flying demon!

Slay the monsters!

The raven had a clear path to fly away from the town. But the giant could not flee because all the town was there blocking their path, so he was forced to stay and fight. The raven didn’t even think about flying away. He whistled twice to summon his band. The giant crushed the people into the ground when they tried to burn or stab him. The raven flew above the crowd, avoiding pitchforks, pans and pokers. He sliced arms, faces and throats alike as he rushed by his enemies. His band crushed one of the town’s flanks using the weapons and armor they had stolen from the manrabbits.

The citizens fought down to the last one of them even when they had never been trained for battle. Many children were stomped by the frenzied people, others by the giant. A little boy came at the raven with rusty scissors. The raven froze, unwilling to attack the little boy, and the boy stuck the scissors on the raven’s leg. The raven, mad, cut off the boy’s head.

War raged on. The candles and torches started fires where they fell. The houses and buildings were made of wood, straw and sometimes a few rocks, the only building materials that were considered pure and therefore allowed in construction.

Everything caught fire.

As the fire raged, the fight became more cruel and miserable. As citizens watched their neighbors and children die, they lost their fear of death and charged recklessly. Part of his band fell to the crazed citizens, and the rest had to retreat before the flames trapped them. The raven hurled the citizens who attacked from windows and balconies on the ones below. The giant stomped and kicked whoever came at him.

The streets ran red with blood.

Not a single citizen tried to flee. When fire trapped the people in a building, they jumped off trying to hit the raven or the giant with their body. All the people in the town died. Every single building burned down. When the fight was over, the raven and the giant barely made it out. They were bleeding out and slipped on the bloody ground. Flames blocked most paths, so they forced their way out pushing away some rubble.

With their last drops of strength, the raven and the giant reached the millenary trees, where they laid facing the sky. Their bodies were covered with cuts, burns and bruises. Pitchforks, swords, scissors and more had cut their legs and arms. The raven’s plumes were charred. Right before they passed out from the pain, the giant said to the raven,

Y—

The giant stopped to cough some blood.

You should’ve flown away, friend, saved yourself.

No, I needed you alive. You can’t die on me until I free you from your oath.

They both laughed out loud as the town collapsed on itself.

Jailbreak

She waited patiently for the office door to open. She had waited for a long time, far too long. Her savior was just sitting there, reading, oblivious to what was about to happen. The door finally opened and she came into the office. The bureaucrat inside greeted her,

Look who’s enjoying prison. What’s the reason for this unexpected audience? Do you want to beg? Do you want us to try to kill you again?

The bureaucrat smiled as he rocked his chair back and forth with the fingers of both hands intertwined and resting on his chest.

I have brought someone who shouldn’t be in here. Maybe you could look into his—

What!?

The bureaucrat almost choked on his own laughter.

Everyone who’s in here says the same and you know it. Why have you—The bureaucrat stopped, examined her and continued, still rocking his chair—Are you even aware of where you are, or have you gone so mad that you can’t remember anymore?—Then the bureaucrat realized something, stopped rocking his chair and stood up—Wait, who the fuck is here with you? He’s not from here. How did you bring him here?

Please, just hear him out, he really shouldn’t be here.

No, I don’t like this. What the fuck are you trying to pull off here?—She stared at him in silence, absolutely emotionless—Tell him to come in, I’m going to get to the bottom of this.

She called him, interrupting his reading. Meanwhile the bureaucrat pressed a button to request backup at his location. Her savior put the book back in the shelf, entered the office and sat down next to the old woman. The bureaucrat asked him,

Who are you and why are you with her?

I don’t know, I fell into the abyss and—

The bureaucrat pressed a button and yelled,

We have a breach, need assistance at—

The alarm sound filled the air. He looked at the bureaucrat, then at her,

The fuck?

She looked at him and took his hand. Millions of coils of blinding light quickly covered his skin, starting from the point where she touched him. His eyes became shining beacons. His skin cracked, letting through a bright light from inside. He grew brighter and louder until he exploded.

The walls in the office blew away. Most of the vast volumes in the nearby shelves were now burnt to the crisp. On the floor outside the office laid the secretary’s charred corpse. The guards, riding black circles, were almost there, coming from all corners of the infinite library. He wasn’t himself, his translucent skin glowed faintly, every single hair had disappeared from his body, and his eyes shone. All his blood had become sand and he felt lighter, relieved of the weight he had carried on his shoulders for so long.

When the explosion settled down, he saw her. She was no longer an old woman but a beautiful young woman. She put her hands together and slowly separated them, creating a tether of light that quickly shaped into a sword. He grabbed it with his right hand, and she took his left hand, saying,

Come, quickly!

She ran away and he followed. Guards swarmed to them from all directions while they ran away. When it seemed there was no way out, she stopped and shouted,

Jump!

They both fell through the library, rushing by many wooden bridges and stairs on their descent. When they had accelerated enough, they tore through a hole into the sky. They quickly plummeted from the clouds into the cold sea below. They swam for the coast as thousands of hovering guards poured out of the hole in the sky to chase them. They rushed to the woods, where she knew the guards couldn’t find them. They ran for hours without rest until she felt safe. Then she stopped to smell the flowers, the trees and the raindrops on the grass, sat on the ground and cried tears of joy. She eventually wiped them to say:

They imprisoned me unfairly. Forgive me for not telling you my escape plan, I will be honest with you from now on. Those people… They are the Tyrant’s friends. They will hunt us down and do really bad things to us. We can’t let that happen.

He nodded and said,

Together we can destroy anyone who opposes us. They will have to surrender.

She took his face in her hands and said,

No, they will never surrender. You know we can’t let them live. When you spare your enemy, he waits for a moment of weakness to strike. Have you learned nothing from your mistakes? We will cut. Their heads. Off. One by one. We will burn their cities and salt their land. Only then will the people be free. Only then will we give paradise to all who sees the light and is not burnt by it.

He looked at her in horror and delight.

You are really insane.

Yes.

Everybody is looking for something

The raven saw his life in dreams: the village on fire, his wife and unborn child dead, the hunger when he was petrified and everything else he had pushed to the bottom of his mind.

The giant dreamt of a ship carrying him away into a storm. He couldn’t move to scream at the men and women in robes watching him in silence. The woman, her face was familiar. Before he could figure out who she was, he woke up to find himself being hauled across the mountains in a huge stretcher, his injuries bandaged. The raven was in front of him and he too was being cared for.

The raven thought it was all too familiar. Yes… They were the barbarians, taking him to their camp to become a fighter-slave. This was his chance to kill the old woman. His high fever caused him wild hallucinations.

Come at me bitch! You took my family, you took my land, you took my wife, you—

He passed out. The people carrying them up the mountain often stopped to hide, sometimes for hours. They hid behind trees and rocks or covered themselves with leaves and bushes. The trip took a whole day, and the people carrying them used no torches even through the moonless night.

Finally they reached a small plateau where they camped. They built tents for the giant, for the raven and for his band. Most of the people who had helped the raven and his people headed to the mountain wall and there entered through an almost invisible gate. Outside they left only some guards and a nurse to look after the injured.

The raven rested for eight days, until he was able to sit up straight. The first thing he saw when he woke up was the nurse, sitting asleep in a chair next to his bed. He tried to say,

Wh—

But he stopped to cough, his throat being completely dry. She helped him to drink some water.

What is this place?

Without word she went outside the tent to fetch a man, who greeted the raven,

Greetings stranger. How are your wounds?

The raven shrugged his shoulders. The man came closer.

May I?

The raven said nothing, so the man looked under the blanket covering the raven.

Aahh, you’ll be fine, you’re a tough guy.

The raven smiled and asked,

Why are you doing all this for us?

You see, it’s not every day that a—The man could not find a suitable word to describe the raven—uhm, hero and a giant defeat a whole town. Maybe where you come from it is normal, but around here…

Why are you healing us, where’s the catch?

The man smiled and said,

Surely you don’t believe that everyone in this world always has an ulterior motive.

The raven stared at the man in disbelief. The man conceded,

Ok, ok. But before I tell you what we’re after, let me tell you a short story.

The raven sighed,

Fine.

The man rubbed his hands and started his story,

We are the people from the city under the mountain, the rightful masters of the North. We have inhabited the mountains for centuries. The founders of this land fled from the town you just destroyed and from other towns like it, knowing what the crazed zealots would do to them if they stayed.

See, the bravest men on this Earth traveled North centuries ago to build a city on the edge of the world. There the most talented artisans, craftsmen, artists and warriors gathered. They established their moral, technological and military supremacy over the whole continent. However, excellence is the father of envy. Soon tribes rallied to weaken the empire, attacking their frontiers and their sources for food and water.

There were rebellions too and conspiracies to overthrow the government and impose a degenerate democracy. But these were men of conviction, determined to protect their state and tradition. They crushed rebellions, revolts, foreign tribes and everyone else in their way. Then one day, a single stranger managed to subvert the whole empire. He came from the South and told a story about a ‘Greater man’ who had told him the Divine laws.

Short he may have been, but he was persuasive. Powerful lieutenants across the empire converted to his religion, and soon the whole empire fell to the charm of the Greater man and his promises of an afterlife. The stranger became king and lived a long time with honor, conquering the last remainders of free territory up north. But then something happened, he lost his mind and the purges began.

He exterminated entire ancient bloodlines or even worse, humiliated them with slavery. Others he banished, forcing them to abandon their homes and positions which he quickly filled with his own lackeys: mediocre and petty men with no talent nor honor. And so it has been for centuries, because the king still lives, now a fossil kept alive by his sheer will to power.

The man fell silent for a few seconds.

It’s time you know who I am. I am the leader of the people under the mountain, rightful heir to the north and last descendant of the first brave northerners. My people has lived hiding in the mountains since we were banished. The king doesn’t know we’re here. We are waiting to—

The leader stopped when he realized a young boy had been listening from outside the tent. The boy was about eight years old, and he said to the raven, excited,

But we’re going to take the North back! Take the North back! Take the North back!

The kid ran in circles inside the tent. The leader reprimanded him,

What I have told you, son?

The boy ran outside the tent without listening to his father, still shouting,

Take the North back! Take the North back!

Come back, hey, come here!

The leader left to chase his son, leaving the raven alone. Soon enough the nurse came back and spoke to him,

We all heard the tale about how you defeated the people in that town. Tell me, did they really make their children fight?

Yes, we didn’t want to fight them but we had no choice. For some reason they thought my friend the giant was some kind of god. They—

He stopped. Something was wrong. He saw it, as clear as day. A port city filled with large ships, thousands of barbarians waiting while they got fat with cheese and wine. And up north, the king, barely more than a skeleton, but with hosts of soldiers patroling everywhere, like ants covering everything he could see, all the ground—

The nurse finally succeeded in waking him up. He embraced her, sweating. She whispered softly while she caressed the raven’s hair,

Shh… It’s ok, it’s just a nightmare.

So you won’t talk to me but you let this whore touch you!?

The girl from the raven’s band had come inside the tent and witnessed the whole scene. She dropped a bunch of wild flowers on the ground. A bandage covered her right cheek and tears rained from her eyes.

You think I’m ugly, don’t you?

The raven replied with indifference, without looking at her,

Meh. I can’t give you what you want, little girl.

Right, but it’s not the same with her, isn’t it?

The raven said nothing. The girl insisted,

Isn’t it!?

She ran away crying. The nurse said,

You know… While you were in bed she was by your side the whole time.

She’s just young and confused, that’s all. I freed her from a horrible place, and now… I don’t know.

The nurse stood up and said,

You were right, by the way.

About what?

Everybody is looking for something. What our leader wants from you is your soldier skills. He wants you to help us reclaim the North.

Secret societies

She and the lightbringer walked for hours. Eventually he lost his patience and asked,

Where are we going?

To get my army.

What do you mean your army?

Yes, I have an army. Well, several actually. Is that really so surprising?

How the f— Haven’t you spent the last few centuries in prison?

When he seized power, I knew he would come for me. So I sent my true believers to build hidden cities with the promise that I would one day come back and multiply their lands. Eventually he captured me, yes. Heh, he thought he had won, banning my religion and killing my followers because ‘we were dangerous to life’. For fuck’s sake! We!? When all we did was give people hope, order and something greater than themselves! But, noooo, that vindictive, resentful motherfucker couldn’t understand that!

Now she was screaming.

He dragged me to-to that god-awful cage for two thousand and forty-eight long miserable fucking years! FFUUUUUUUUUUUUCCKK.

He tried to appease her by taking her hands as she ranted, worried that someone might hear her. Then she broke down in cries.

He murdered my chil—She choked on her own words and had to stop to breathe—I just hope the others are fine. I’m sure, I-They have to be.

He crouched to be face to face with her.

Who? What did he do? Tell me,

He crushed my army. He murdered my friends. And then, then he hunted down as many of my disciples as he could. You know, just because they stood up to him. Just like he did with everyone who opposed him or refused to kneel down.

She let go a long sigh and continued,

But thank the gods he didn’t know about my secret societies.

He wiped her tears and they walked together for days. They crossed rivers and valleys, day and night. Eventually they reached a large mountain surrounded by forest and smaller mountains. She said,

We’re here! This is it, the home of my firstborn. They always loved me above everything else. We will be greeted like gods. Come, the entrance is hidden in a well north of the mountain. They-they loved building lairs, dens and burrows into mountains. We’ll find a lot of them, you’ll see. We just—

She threw up. Her face turned blue. He kneeled and asked her,

Oh god, are you ok?

As they approached the mountain, her condition worsened. Soon she could barely walk, talk or see. He carried her to the bottom of the well. She whispered,

Take—ring.

She offered him her delicate right hand and he took the only ring on it. He jumped down to the bottom of the deep well. His body’s light was enough to reveal the marks on the stone. There was a loose stone with a round-shaped indent. He pushed the ring against it and the wall unlocked. He pushed it aside and walked into darkness.

He walked a long tunnel that eventually led into an open hall, with secondary tunnels heading off to other chambers. He stood there for a while, contemplating in horror the burnt altars and the scattered furniture. All the walls were covered with faded marks, many of which used to be full circles. He entered one of the secondary tunnels. He heard cries, but he didn’t know where they were coming from.

He grasped his sword and held it in front of him. He walked slowly until he reached a huge room that used to be a dining hall. There was a mass grave in the middle with hundreds of charred, mummified bodies.

Holy fuck. She can’t see this, her heart will break.

He heard an anemic sound echoing loud and irregularly through the walls behind him. He pointed his sword at the sound. Crawling on hands and knees, she appeared, gasping for air, her eyes seeking what she already knew. She reached for him with her arms as she plummeted to the ground. She stopped crying long enough to say,

Wh-where are they? Why haven’t they come to see me?

He said nothing, looking at the ground. He did not let her crawl through to the room where the bodies rested.

No! No, no, no!

She pounded on his chest while she cried and her tears lightened up the room, sparkling as they hit the ground. Finally he carried her to the mass grave.

NNOOOOOOOOO!

She choked on her own cries and stopped breathing. He loaded her on his shoulders and rushed out of the forsaken tomb. He ran swiftly, tirelessly, never looking back. Two days later she woke up and spoke softly, staring at the infinite, trying to make sense of what she had seen.

Why? We-we meant no harm. Why did he kill all of them?

She went silent for hours.

He won’t stop. Evil will never stop…

Tears rolled down her cheek. Since she was too weak to walk, he carried her to the next place where her followers waited. Finally they reached a forest where all the red leaves in the trees stood impervious to the seasons. In a corner of the forest, hidden by the fallen leaves and some bushes, there was a rusty trapdoor covered by chains.

She quickly removed the leaves, the bushes and the chains. Then she opened the door and rushed inside, the lightbringer following her. They walked down some stairs and walked through a dark tunnel with torches on either side. The torches lit up as she walked past them. He feared another tomb was waiting for them and said,

This place looks abandoned, we will find nothing here. We should move on to the next—

Oh, but you see, this place looks abandoned like it should. A deceitful cover for a city, don’t you think? It didn’t work for—

The words choked on her throat and she had to pause.

But I know these good men and women were saved, I can feel it.

Soon they reached a wall with symbols and engravings on it. A small round carving at the center of the stone waited for her.

They… they are what kept me alive and allowed me to recover. She reached with her hand into the wall. Light shone from the center of the wall, illuminating the engravings as it spread. The wall trembled at first, but finally opened. In front of them stretched a whole underground city.

All the buildings had been built upside-down, as the ground was dug. In front of them a market with many floors extended both below and in front of them, with a great space between two separated floors of rock. There were many bridges to cross from one side to the other and the occasional stair to descend into the lower levels. Every citizen stopped what they were doing when she opened the door, and they all stood in silence. Thousands of souls watched her closely. She flew above all to say,

I have returned, my children.

The crowds cheered for her, applauding and reaching out with their hands in ecstasy.

You kept me alive while I was captive in the abyss. But now I’m free and I’ve come to you. Together we will do great things, just as I promised long ago. All the lands on this continent will be yours. Never again will you or your children have to hide. We will remove the curse on the land and reclaim the world!

When she finished her speech, the crowds applauded and whistled. Then, with one voice, they sang the ancient mantra she had taught them,

Make our flame burn bright, in the darkest hour, in the darkest night.

She came down to the floor and invited the lightbringer to walk with her through the city. The crowds reached out with their hands to touch them, calling out:

Savior! Savior!

She and the lightbringer were taken to the finest chambers in the whole city, but they were not tired. She laid in an enormous bed, with her arms wide open, and cried tears of joy. Shortly after her tears turned bitter with anguish for her lost children. She noticed how he stared at her, so she wiped her tears and smiled, saying,

Let’s go, there’s lots to do.

Kill the king

Everyone waited eagerly for the giant to recover. Until the leader had spoken to the giant, he did not want to let any strangers into the mountain. In the meantime, the raven and his band slept in tents out in the plateau. The nurse visited the raven every day, even after he had recovered from his injuries. She brought him books to teach him their ancient language through their history.

Over the following weeks the raven realized it wasn’t too late for him, that he could stay there and live a simple life. But then, without word or warning, the giant woke up. The raven and the nurse were by his bed, as they had been every day. She had fallen asleep on the raven’s shoulder and was startled by the giant’s dry cough. She left to fetch their leader. The giant drank some water and asked,

Where am I, w-what happened?

The giant felt his face with his huge hands and realized he had a thick, long beard.

What the. How long have I been—

The raven stopped him,

Everything is fine now, giant. You and I marched into that town, remember?

The giant nodded slowly.

With the crazy people, yes.

We were both in pretty bad shape after the fight, but some nice people helped us.

Who?

Enemies of the king in the north—The giant sighed with relief—Actually, we’ve been waiting for you to recover over a month now. Their leader wants to talk to us. I’ve been studying their traditions and—

The giant smiled and said,

And practicing some traditions as well, huh? Nice nurse by the way—

The giant started to laugh, which quickly turned to dry cough. The raven gave him some more water and said,

Please, take it easy. You’re still recovering—The raven paused while the giant drank—You were right. A madman rules the north. These people, they have been hiding from him for so long. They deserve to have their land back.

And you want us to help them, right?

But only if you also want to. I, It was too close. I feel like a fool. We could’ve died in that town. And for what?—The raven looked into the giant’s eyes—If you say you don’t want to get into a conflict, I’ll understand.

The giant opened his mouth to speak, but stopped after he heard footsteps. The leader walked in with the nurse right behind him. The leader said to the giant,

Hello, I’ve been waiting to meet you.

The giant was unimpressed.

And you are?

I am the leader of the people under the mountain, rightful heir to—

The giant interrupted him,

Right, right. Let’s skip the formalities: what do you want?

The leader turned to tell the nurse,

Dear, do you mind?

The nurse left in silence and the leader continued,

Our plan is simple. We want to kill the northern king in a single ambush. His empire will fall apart after his death, you can be sure about that.

The giant raised an eye-brow,

How can we be sure about that?

He kills everyone who even slightly overshadows him so that there’s never anyone in the succession line. He holds on to power through terror alone: his cities and towns are loyal to him because they know that if they conspire against him, he’ll eventually find out and purge them. And he always finds out. He claims ‘the Greater man’ granted him ‘the gift of farsight’, but really, he just has a vast spy network of beggars and children. Once he dies, I’ll take his place and restore our ancient glory. Our ancestors paid his power trip in blood, but now our turn is up.

The raven asked,

Excuse me for asking, but how do we know you’ll be a better leader than him?

The leader could not understand the raven’s question.

What do you mean? Anyone is a better leader than that psychopath.

But how do we know the person who sits at the throne won’t also be consumed by power?

The question ostensibly offended the leader,

I have spent my whole life preparing for this. I have carried the burden of responsability for my ancient bloodline and people for years now. Do you think there’s a better candidate than that!?

The raven lied,

No, leader, of course no. Please forgive me.

He knew there was something off about the leader.

The leader sighed, relieved, and continued,

But of course, thank you for your concern. Now, will you help us kill him?

The giant watched the raven closely. The raven pondered in silence, pacing up and down the tent until he stopped and said,

Yes, I will.

The giant nodded,

I will follow the raven anywhere.

The leader smiled, excited,

Good, good. Now, the king is a paranoid man, which is how he has survived for so long. He trusts nothing and noone. He never makes his plans public and always travels with a large army. It will be difficult getting to him alone. But if we get to him, we need to burn him. Others have stabbed him, flung him out of windows and poisoned him before. None of that works.

The raven said,

There’s a problem, though.

What?

Say we kill him, you become king and take over the empire. Do you know why we came here?—The leader shrugged his shoulders—A storm of swords and spears is gathering in the south. They have taken over and now their eyes are set on the North. Like hyenas, they will attack when we are weakest.

What do you suggest, then?

Let’s wait, let them come and fight each other. Then we will attack and crush whoever is left standing. It’s already hard enough to fight any of the two now. If we have to fight them both, we’re doomed. We must wait.

The leader frowned. He despised the raven’s arrogance and finally exploded,

Wait!? You want us to wait!? O-our blood has run thin waiting. No! I will not go back to the city under the mountain and tell my people one more time that we have to ‘wait’. You know, every single one of my predecessors already used your little ‘plan’ of waiting. Now the northern army is near, they could be here any day now.

The leader paced nervously. He continued, a little less angry,

Also, you say the southern threat is a sure thing, but you could be wrong. Their army could fall, they could be afraid of the Middle Sea, or a thousand other reasons why they would never come up here. No no. What we want is that decrepit motherfucker dead and we want it now. If you help us win, hell, we’ll give you the city under the mountain to rule as you please. Otherwise, be these words our sign of parting, bird or fiend!

He shrieked, upstarting.

The social pyramid

The next morning, after having breakfast delivered to their room, a young man came to see the woman and the lightbringer. The boy spoke timidly,

H-hi, I am the secretary of the prime minister, and I have come to deliver a message—The boy cleared his throat and tried to speak graver, though some words came out even higher-pitched—The high chamber requests your presence to discuss matters of the utmost importance at the parliament—

The lightbringer burst in laughter. She struck the lightbringer playfully so he’d stop laughing and let the boy finish,

W-we shall part at your earliest convenience.

When they left their residence they found hundreds of gifts and people waiting for her. She and the lightbringer had to wade through tides of people to get to the parliament. The crowds followed them, reaching out for her. She gracefully extended her hands for everyone to touch. When they entered the parliament, however, her followers had to stay outside and wait. She said,

It will only be for a while, then you’ll have me the rest of the day.

The valets led her and the lightbringer to an amphitheater carved out of the richest part of the mountain. The seats were dotted with precious stones that both she and the lightbringer found excessive and tacky. One hundred and twenty eight politicians were already sitting, waiting for them. Once she and the lightbringer were seated, the prime minister spoke from a podium.

We are blessed having you here. You enlighten us with your presence, truly.

She awaited the ‘but’. Politicians always wrap a bitter pill in sugar.

But, during an emergency meeting after your arrival, we decided that perhaps this is not the time to start a war. Our people are few, and the reach of the emperor is vast. We fear that everything we worked so hard to create here will be destroyed if the emperor discovers our presence. We’re sorry, but the timing is just wrong. Perhaps we can go to war when we are stronger and his kingdom is weaker.

The politicians filled the amphitheater with their applause. She stood up and floated down to the podium. From there she could see all their faces. They were scared to death. But not of war, and definitely not of the Tyrant. They were scared of her. Yes, they feared she would replace them and their way of life. They trembled thinking they could lose all their power if she said so. And they were right to fear.

She spoke loud and clear,

I understand that you have to look out for your people. But they are my people as well. Even you are my people. I chose your ancestors and they chose me. We made a pact to last throughout their generations, and it stands as strong today as the day we made it—She looked around, the crowd was pale—Oh, come on, don’t be so gloomy. I’ll respect your wishes. I’ll promise you one thing: As long as you rule, you will decide if we go to war or not.

The politicians lightened up and applauded her, first timidly and then without holding back. When they stopped, a man stood up to say,

Please help us, goddess! We have been in a crisis for years now. We can’t heal our sick, who are stacking up in the hospitals. And without healthy people there is no labor to produce food and electricity, and everything falls apart. We don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to stand down here. The masses are starting to blame us politicans but we—

She interrupted him,

Shhhh. It’s all good now. I’ll take care of it.

The politicians slowly started clapping and cheering again, thinking they could trust her. She shook hands with the ministers and top politicians on her way out of the parliament, treating them all with sweetness and grace. The prime minister invited her to a great celebration in her honor that same night.

Once outside the parliament, she started walking back to her room with a crowd surrounding her. The crowd let through a woman pushing a wobbly wheelchair where a boy sat immobile with an empty stare. The woman sobbed and begged louder than any other,

Help, please. Help me. I need help! PLEASE!

She turned back to face the woman, who kneeled humbly.

Goddess, my son is—he’s a miner. He suffered—

The woman’s voice broke. She took both the woman’s hands and looked into her eyes. The woman felt she could trust the goddess with all her burdens.

He suffered a terrible accident. Only sixteen and he can’t move or talk. But I know he’s still alive, his eyes move when I speak to him. Please, he’s all I have, all I have…

Without word she ran her hand through the boy’s chest. After twisting and convulsing, the boy started moving and talking again. Like a wave traveling outward, people kneeled down in awe. The poor, the ill and the miserable had all gathered to see her. They chanted her mantra as the politicians watched from their fancy parliament. The lightbringer accompanied her to her chamber. She wanted to change her clothes before touring the city. He asked her,

How did you do that?

She looked at him and smiled.

It’s simple, you know.

She undressed in front of him. He looked away, peeking through the window blinds at the crowd outside while she spoke,

All I have to do is give them what they want. I’ll show you how, don’t worry. Now hurry up!

She ran out of the room and he had to catch up with her. She had the attention and love of the crowds, which is all she craved. The crowd around her began to grow with people in need. Everybody wanted a piece of the goddess.

The mob around them grew larger and larger as they walked the streets. All the sick and the criminals followed them, hoping she could cure them. Some carried gifts, some carried sick people, others both. But everyone had something for her, and she had something for everyone.

After they had seen the first level, they took the stairs down to the second level. The first level was full of residential palaces, fine markets and boutique stores. The second level was full of houses and common markets, and it was much larger than the previous one. Each consecutive level they visited was more crowded and poorer. They were literally climbing down the social pyramid. The lower levels hosted factories and workshops, landfills and furnaces. The residential and industrial was hardly distinguishable there.

Once on the lowest level, she turned to the people and said,

I will stay here. This is where my people live.

The crowd cheered her decision. She then spoke individually to each of the workers that surrounded her. They stank of stale sweat and the cheap oil they used for cooking. The lightbringer looked at them with disgust, grateful he had no nose to smell anymore. He wanted to free them from their slave condition, help them fight for a brighter tomorrow. But at the same time, they now seemed… expendable to him. She preached to her eager crowd,

You are my true sons and daughters. It’s for you that I fight. It’s you that fight for me. I’ll always be there to heal you when you are sick. I’ll always listen to you when you’re worried. I will never, ever leave you. But I can show you these are not just words. Take me to your sick. Where are they? Show them to me!

The crowd took her to the hospital. There she healed every single patient. She also helped deliver babies without any pain. When she finished, the hospital was empty, and all the sick were running outside, jubilant to be more alive than they had ever been. In the middle of the celebration, she announced with dismay,

It’s almost time for that party, we should get going.

She paused to let it sink in. A voice from the crowd reproached,

What party?

Soon others followed,

Yes, what party!?

Where are they going?

Her followers felt like kids around her. They were completely under her spell.

Oh, I, I’m so sorry. I thought everyone was invited. Your politicians, they summoned me and my friend to a celebration in my honor. Aren’t you all invited?

An indignant woman screamed,

No! That’s so unfair!

How can this be? I love all my children the same. All of you should attend any celebration in my honor. Every person is equal in my eyes, don’t you know? Come, come with me. Bring everyone you can find. Tonight we celebrate in your honor. You are the true soul of this amazing city.

As she walked back to the top level, the horde of people following her picked up everyone from every level. The invalids she had healed now were her most eager followers. When they got to the first level it was evident that not everyone could fit the hall that the politicians had chosen. Instead, the crowd filled the first level completely. The politicians contemplated the masses filling the level with pale faces. She had won them over. And she fascinated the intellectuals too. The politicians had lost all support. They had become superfluous.

People brought their own food to the celebration. They brought her all sorts of dishes to impress her, and she charmed the people around her with little stories, always with a smile. An hour after the party had started, she rose to the air and toasted with a hard liquor that was sometimes used as low-grade fuel by the lowest-level people. She clinked the glass with a spoon and silence fell over the crowd like a blanket.

I could not be happier. I’m speechless seeing what you have built. This is an amazing city, filled with amazing people. You make me so proud—

She broke off, shedding a few luminous tears. The echoing applause of the masses filled the city. By then the lightbringer was dizzy with the charade for the populace, and the ringing sound in his head was too much for him. He slipped out of sight while she spoke. After the clapping ceased, she continued,

I had a vision of fame and wealth for all of you. Unfortunately, your leaders told this morning that it can’t be.

The hearts of some politicians exploded; they fell on their backs and died. But barely anyone noticed. The crowd was entranced. Some cried,

Why!?

No!

It can’t be!

Some politicians slithered away to find a way out of the cave. They knew she had just sentenced them to death by angry mob. She continued,

Easy now, my children. Your politicians just do it to protect you. They don’t want you to get hurt.

Now people searched for the politicians still in the crowd. They looked with anger and resentment at the politicians who were either too slow or too greedy to not run away. All of them were quickly identified and held in check by the crowd. A man screamed,

We don’t listen to them. We listen to you!

The crowd chanted her mantra again, this time striking the air with their fists,

Make our flame burn bright, in the darkest hour, in the darkest night.

Soon, only one voice filled the streets. They all chanted together for her. They all were prepared to follow her anywhere, at any cost. The shrewd politicians understood one simple fact: she could do now what they could only promise for years later.

Their power and their lives were now in her hands.

Turning point

The raven took the giant to a secluded mountain cave where they could talk undisturbed. The raven said, without looking at the giant,

We must fight.

Black smoke separated from the raven’s body and materialized into the little girl. She spoke calmly, again without opening her mouth,

Do you understand what going to war means?

Of course I do, who do you think I am?

Maybe you should think through why you are doing this. You think you’re immortal because I brought you back. Your first death was necessary; you had to die to see—

She interrupted herself. The giant asked,

See what?

Tell him, raven.

To see I had to kill the last remains of cruelty in me. To see there is something greater than me at stake here.

But the next time you’re dead, you’re dead. And I’ll die with you. So I would appreciate it if you people gave me a vote in this.

The giant nodded,

Fine, say what you have to say.

We should not go to war. Not to this one, not to any war. It’s a futile exercise that often causes death. Of course wars are interesting, to the people watching or talking about them years after they’re over. But the people fighting them don’t have fun. At first, when you haven’t fought in it, you can’t wait for honor and glory. That’s before you have seen the severed limbs, heard the screaming men or smelled the gangrene.

The giant grimaced at her description. She went on,

Tell me raven, please, please, I want to know. What are you exactly fighting for? Land, gold, revenge, maybe love? Any of those things is either: A) irrelevant when you’re alive. B) useless when you’re dead. C) something you could have in abundance with enough time.

And we have enough time in our hands to do what we want with the world. Going to war wouldn’t just waste our time. It would waste our lives.

The raven replied,

Remember that I know what you want to do, what your endgame really is. You want to let everyone kill each other and then swoop down like vultures to pick the bones of the world. And I used to be ok with that—

But now you want to save this city, am I right?

Yes. We can still conquer the world, but we can at least preserve some of its past.

The giant intervened,

You know, I can picture an easy life on some island, growing tomatoes and whatnot. But we wouldn’t really have anything to do, there wouldn’t be a purpose to our lives. Why do we have these gifts, this power, if we’re going to waste away in comfort? What life is that for warriors like us?

The raven nodded,

A coward’s life! A life for old men, for great men who have left their mark in the world and wish to rest before death’s sweet release. What about that disgusting old woman and the evil she has done to mankind? Not to mention what she has in store. Are we supposed to ignore that!?

The little girl held her ground,

You both know you can’t win. Even better: you know it doesn’t really matter, and you’re just using it as an excuse, just like every other argument you’ve used so far. Will you defeat her? No. Is it a life for old men? Yes, but that’s precisely what you both are, men who have fought and lived long enough. You want to leave a mark, a legacy? I am your legacy, and I am telling you this is not the way. And what about you, giant? Hell, you don’t even remember who you are! Why is it so important other people do? And don’t think for a second, either of you, that they will remember you.

You will be ‘the raven’ and he will be ‘the giant’, both empty titles that don’t explain who you were or what you accomplished. No amount of words can do that. So, Do you want to go through years of pain and struggle for the chance to have some people in an indefinite future remember a distorted and incomplete version of ‘your’ actions?

The raven said,

Please, don’t be like this.

Be like what!? Where am I wrong? Tell me. Are you two really so vain? I didn’t think so, but maybe I was wrong. Especially about you, raven. After all, I’m here because of you.

The raven held the little girl’s hands and said,

I’m sorry, but this is something we have to do.

She looked at the giant, who nodded. She started again, upset,

Why!? Just tell me why. So far you have only given me excuses, the superficial reasons why others would do it. I want to know why you want to do it. What is it that is really driving you?

After doubting for a while, the giant spoke to defend his friend,

Because they know the truth about me.

Sure. I never believed it was a coincidence that the face looked so much like yours. I think the king could know what happened to you and this is a way of finding out. Again, think about the cost you will be paying for—

But the raven finally told the truth,

Because I don’t think I want to live without them. I want to marry the nurse, I want to live in this land. I want to win this war so our children grow up without having to hide from anyone.

After he finished, the little girl looked at them both, smiling.

Good. I just wanted you to admit it. Now I’ll tell you how things will really go:

First, the war will be brutal. You will lose your new friends. All of them. And you will have to tell their wives and children, or watch someone else do it. You, raven, if you marry, you will leave one or two orphans of your own. Or what’s worse, you will grow up to watch them, your wife, and your love for them wither and die. Assuming you win, of course. Otherwise they will burn you, her and your children alive at the fourth full moon so the crops come out red or some crazy shit like that.

And you, giant. You won’t learn anything useful, satisfactory, or healing. If anything, the truth will probably make you want to kill yourself, and you will end up doing precisely that. There’s only pain down this road. More pain than you can recover from.

The raven said to her,

Well, I think we have already endured more pain than we will ever—

She interrupted to argue,

Bullshit! You have no clue. You will cry and beg me to make it all go away. Because when this is over, you won’t be able to sleep. Food will lose its taste, women will hold no interest to you. You’ll be dead inside.

You’re only painting a grim picture because you don’t want to die.

And neither do you, trust me.

The little girl took the raven’s hands in one last attempt to convince him.

I think you already know, but I will say it anyway. You won’t age. You still don’t get how much you will love your children because, well, you’ve never had living… children. Still, I promise you, they’ll become the focus of your life. And when they grow old and die in your arms, you’ll cry because you’ll know that no man should have to bury his child. Now you’re ready to make this decision being fully aware of its consequences.

She was about to say something more, but by the look on the faces of both raven and giant, she realized their mind was set. Instead, she said,

Look, I don’t believe in turning points. Life is a continuum of decisions where no outcome is tied to a single choice. But I want you to remember this particular decision in the years to come.

With that, she stopped talking, turned into black fumes and returned inside the raven. The giant and the raven walked back to camp in silence.

A spontaneous leader

The next morning she woke up in the lowest level of the city, surrounded by children. Some of them had been blind since birth until she gave them the gift of sight. She woke up the lightbringer to get started with her plans. They had breakfast while the city was still asleep. The whole time they stared at each other in silence. Afterwards, she took his hand and walked with him upwards through the levels. The silent and empty streets presented a much different city to the one they had seen the day before.

She told him,

Just imagine how much effort was put into this place. It’s incredible to think that all this empty space used to be filled with stone. It had to be mined manually through millions of hours of labor across several generations.

But where did all that rock go? It isn’t outside, is it? No, that would be too obvious.

Are you sure?—She smiled—There is a tunnel on the first level. When they mine enough rock, they carry it through the tunnel and throw it in the ocean. Nobody has noticed it is slowly piling up because it sinks into the water.

He looked at her, marveled, and asked,

Did you come up with that?

I can’t say I didn’t.

When they reached the first level, she turned to him and said.

Today I will make you the leader over these people.

I-I don’t know what to say.

They need someone strong whom they can trust. Someone who is experienced and understands what it’s like to be poor and abandoned.

He looked at her, surprised, before asking,

Why not you? I thought you wanted to rule them yourself. Actually, I would say you are already their leader.

Yes, but I have so much work to do in so many other places like this that—

Then take me with you.

She smiled and took both his hands, then replied,

Please, I need you here. Be a leader to them. Prepare them for war.

He nodded and said,

As you wish.

She smiled, pleased. She arranged an assembly for the afternoon. By then everyone would be rested and free from the hangover after having drunk the half-moonshine, half-fuel. Over the next hours, most of the city gathered at the first level, filling it to the brim. When it was time, she spoke, floating above the masses,

I want to introduce the man who freed me from my prison. Please give a warm welcome to the lightbringer!

The lightbringer floated toward her, also smiling down at the crowd below. Everyone reached out with their hands, calling,

Lightbringer! Lightbringer!

He felt embarrassed. After all, these were strangers, not his people. She kept speaking,

He grew up in an orphanage where he stopped the hand that beat him. He came from nothing and still managed to lead towns to rebel against the empire. Like me, he fell in battle and rose again to fight injustice. And now, nobody will stop us!

She stopped to let the crowd cheer and applaud.

We both have seen how you live, separated in different levels on this city. The poor, that live in the lower levels, have to work all day to survive. Meanwhile, the people in the top level spend their days enjoying their material wealth, earned at the expense of the workers. Does that sound fair to you?

The masses replied in unison,

No!

Does that make sense to you?

This time the masses also struck the air with their fists.

NO!

Do you want it to keep being this way?

NO! NO! NO!

And the walls seemed to move.

Then repeat after me: I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!

The lightbringer found it funny how she had taken those words from someone else. After all, borrowing great sentences does them a service by perpetuating them down the ages.

Look at what you can do with your voice! You can shake the foundation of any civilization, however old it is!

The crowd laughed. She continued,

The old politicians are useless, they just waste time bickering about how to take your money and piss it away in stupid policies. Then newer politicians replace them to undo half the things the first politicians did and then do even worse things.

You guessed it right, reader, she wasn’t a big fan of democracy.

No, we can’t be weak now. That is reserved for times of peace and abundance. But now, now we’re at war. Now we have to stand up to our enemy with a single voice, just as you yelled ‘No!’ today. We need one person who can make tough decisions quickly. We can indulge in democracy when we are free.

A woman from the crowd screamed,

Why don’t you lead us?

A drunkard screamed,

We love you!

People laughed, and she continued,

I need to stir up more cities against the empire. We need all the help we can get.

People looked at each other, confused. Everyone thought she was going to be their leader.

Who we need is someone experienced in shaping up and training entire cities for war. Unfortunately I don’t believe there is anyone among you with that sort of expertise.

The crowd whispered and talked worriedly. Some raised their hands so she would notice them, wanting to propose someone as the leader.

She looked at one man who was trying to make his voice heard. She took her right hand’s index finger to her lips, asking everyone to keep quiet. Then the man spoke, as clearly and loud as he could,

Why not him?

The man pointed his finger at the lightbringer. Realizing that the man’s words hadn’t reached the whole crowd, she said,

A man right here asked, ‘why not him?’ referring to the lightbringer.

Her statement caused a mixed wave of protest and cheers.

Please, my children, please, I understand. You don’t want a stranger to rule over you. I understand that; he understands that. I won’t force him on you, this is your choice to make. But I can vouch for him as the best choice for the job. He will do all that is in his hand to lead us to victory, at any cost. Does anyone have a better alternative?

The crowd was uncomfortable with the idea of having an outsider as leader. But at that moment, anyone who wasn’t a local politician seemed like a good option. What convinced them was that she vouched for him. The lightbringer finally opened his mouth to speak in front of the whole city,

Hello everyone, I am the lightbringer, and I believe that, with your help, we can change the world.

Hard to kill

The raven and the giant met with the leader to communicate their decision to join him against the king. The leader took them inside the city under the mountain for the first time. After a wide stone corridor they reached a balcony high above the streets below. Pillars hundreds of meters tall raised from the ground to the top of the mountain. The faces of great ancient kings had been carved into them. On the sides, carved out of the mountain, hundreds upon hundreds of houses. The leader announced,

Citizens, citizens! The heroes will join us and together we will kill the king!

Then the giant and the raven were presented before the whole city, which cheered and clapped at their new heroes. The king gifted the raven a house, with a huge library and a cellar filled with fine wine. The citizens built a great hut for the giant outside the city, as there were no houses inside that would fit his size. The members of his band were also given two houses to share among them.

The day after the raven had settled in, the leader snuck up on him while he was reading in his new home and said,

Did you know I saw him with my own eyes once?

The sneaky intruder startled the raven. But after realizing who the intruder was, the raven asked,

Who?

The northern king.

The leader started inspecting the raven’s house while he spoke,

Yes, it was in the city you burnt down. I was a young boy back then. My father, huh, he was showing me their lifestyle and teaching me to trade and barter. You see, there are some products we can’t make on our own, and others that abound in the mountains. So we trade with cities and towns claiming we’re wandering merchants. My father showed me, as he had been shown, a week in the life of each of the trades in our city. And I’m grateful for that experience.

The raven wanted to continue reading. He didn’t really like the leader and didn’t find his story all that interesting. The leader suddenly changed his tone,

Anyway. The important thing is this: we saw him arrive when no one was expecting him; not that anyone ever does, you know. His army occupied the city in minutes. My father and his men were all tense and sweaty. There he was, our mortal enemy, a few steps away from us. My father looked at his guardsmen, who were dressed like traders and farmers but carried hidden weapons. He shook his head slightly, signaling to his men that he didn’t want them to do anything stupid. Any of his men would gladly give their lives to kill the king. As we soon learned, the king had come to enjoy the voices of the local orphanage choir. Yes, if he wasn’t creepy enough already, he also liked little kids.

One of our men didn’t think it twice. During the recital he jumped on the king with a hidden knife he was carrying and stabbed him in the chest at least four times. Though he must have missed his heart, because the king stood up from his chair, pushed him to the ground with a single shove, and taking the knife from his own chest, ran it through the throat of his assailant, who helplessly bled to death there, as everyone watched.

The king screamed ‘Watch! All of you!’ His soldiers unsheathed the swords and surrounded their decrepit king. We, of course, obeyed and watched our man die. I remember my father holding me, shivering, because he feared they would kill us all. When the dying man had stopped twitching, the king sat back on his throne, looked at the children, and calmly said, ‘please, continue’.

The leader stopped, took the wine bottle the raven had opened, and poured himself a glass. Then he sat and looked at the raven before asking the raven,

What do you take from this story?

That he won’t be easy to kill.

The leader smiled, chugged his cup and replied,

Wrong. I’ll tell you what I took from it. My father was afraid of that man. My father was weak. We should all have attacked that day. We should all have stabbed his heart, torn him limb from limb. But instead we backed down. There’s something you should know: I will stop before nothing until I have his head on a stake.

The leader left the raven’s home. The raven went to see the giant and in whispers told him about the bizarre conversation with the leader. The raven feared the leader might have spies eavesdropping on him. The giant asked,

Are you sure we can trust this man?

Trust? No, we can only trust each other and the little girl. The leader is not right.

The raven stopped, doubting to say the next words.

Giant, if you want to, we can leave and start over, like the little girl said. We may have walked into a trap. Either way, I will accept whatever you decide.

For now we should stay here. After all, we gave our word. But I’ll let you know if I change my mind.

The raven said one last thing from the door.

Did you notice how the little girl mentioned a war, not a fight. Our plan is to assassinate the king, not enter open battle. Didn’t you find that—

Strange?

Yes. I think she knows something she doesn’t want to tell us.

Before the raven returned to his room, he visited the nurse at the hospital where she worked. The future was uncertain, he might die in a few days. So he walked up to her and hugged her, she hugged him back. After that day he visited her every day of the week, every week of the month.

Never change

The new administration brought enthusiasm. Everyone was excited about change, except of course the rich and the residents from the first level. Wealth was the first thing that disappeared. Everything now belonged to the state. The new state inspectors went through the residential buildings in every level and decided how many people could be housed in each of them, filling mansions with beggars.

The whole city was put to work on a single task: the creation of a trained army. Now that nobody was sick, every single citizen, even the children, worked and had no excuse not to. They were either trained as soldiers or put to work to make armor and weapons. New factories were built, and the existing ones were strained to produce more than they could give. The hospitals, now useless, were turned into military quarters.

Every man between sixteen and sixty-four was drafted into the army, except of course the members of the new bureaucracy. The lightbringer personally trained a group of soldiers who then trained the rest of the army. At first she oversaw the construction of the new society, but one night she disappeared without saying goodbye to anyone.

The lightbringer was tough but fair, everyone knew it. If a small group rebelled, or tried to assassinate him, they were put to death. But it was only the most radical that went to such lengths, as most people were only discontent but too frightened to rebel. The city ran on its own most of the time. Here the lightbringer had no real concerns of traitors, as the only two exits were close to each other and under heavy watch. No one was going to communicate with the capital because they didn’t even know where it was. The city was, for most citizens, the beginning and end of their world.

One night, as the lightbringer slept peacefully, he had a dreadful vision. He saw her, fighting for her life. He rushed out of bed and headed for the exit to the surface. He flew as fast as he could, following his vision. He reached a titanic volcano, so large that from the base, the other side was lost in the horizon. He could see her, near the volcano’s vent, surrounded by fiery humanoids.

He flew faster than he could fly.

He crossed a thick smoke storm that poured out the volcano’s vent. The lightning strikes in the distance guided him. When he was close enough, he began to hear the clashing of swords and firing of guns. He found her near the summit, wounded and retreating to the volcano’s vent. The fiery humanoids poured from the heart of the volcano as molten chunks to rush at the soldiers, giving their lives for her. But the capital soldiers advanced, killing the flaming people as soon as they landed.

Finally the soldiers cornered her. There were no more fiery creatures. She tripped and fell on the ground. She raised her right arm to throw lightning at the soldiers, killing the first division that approached her. But she was weak now, they were almost on top of her. A soldier pointed his gun at her,

Bitch, you’re dead.

He crash landed next to her.

The fuck—

The lightbringer cut the soldier in two.

His left arm was now shaped as a large shield that he aimed at the soldiers. An officer laid down his gun and approached him,

Help us. Stop her before it happens all over again.

The lightbringer was confused. What did they mean by that? She said,

Don’t listen to these snakes.

You have no clue what she is, don’t you? She has lied to you. Lied to everyone.

With her sweet voice, she begged the lightbringer,

Please, help me. Please!

The lightbringer rushed forward. He received a round of bullets before the soldiers had to reload. The bullets pierced his body, causing sand to fall where he was hit. But he kept charging, angrier still. When he reached the enemy line he sliced through the men so fast they could not stop him. When only eight of them were left standing, they threw down their weapons and kneeled down. The lightbringer’s left arm returned to normal and he sheathed his sword.

The officer said,

She has killed more people than any plague or disease.

She explained,

Lies!

We knew she would return one day… But you can still stop her, now that she’s weak.

Bullshit!

The lightbringer didn’t know what to think anymore. He said,

I’m taking you as prisoners.

He cast his own sand-blood into bindings to tie the soldiers’ hands. But he turned around when he heard her cries,

Please help me, I’m bleeding—

The lightbringer rushed to her side. Her abdomen was pierced and she was losing blood. The sergeant continued,

She can’t die from that wound. You can only put her in prison, silence her and hope she doesn’t find a way back into the world. Last time she killed millions.

She whispered gently into the lightbringer’s ear as he cauterized her wound,

Kill them.

He coiled back. Her eyes were wide open. She spoke louder, for all to hear.

Kill them.

I want to learn what they know, I can’t just—

She flew toward the kneeling men, her hands spitting fire like a flamethrower while she screamed,

YYYYAAAAAAAAHHHH!!!

The lightbringer froze watching the soldiers scream as they burned alive. Then she fell to the ground. He embraced her with his arms. She shook and coughed blood.

He knows. My children… in danger.

He flew back to the city, carrying her in his arms. But when he reached the city it was already too late. Several regiments of soldiers from the capital had taken over the forest above the city. They were many more than he could fight. The lightbringer covered her eyes with his right hand. He watched the soldiers connect a huge tube from a machine to the entrance. She kicked and twisted on the lightbringer’s arms.

What is going on, let me see!

But he pressed hard his hand against her eyes and she was too weak to fight him. When he saw that most of the men handling the machine were using gas masks, he understood what they were doing, but had no way to stop it.

He flew away, but not fast enough. As the poison was pumped into the cave, she turned paler and convulsed violently. The poison gas quickly filled every corner of the cave. She cried on his shoulder and hit his chest as she felt the people dying inside the city. She had told him about the farms where they grew vegetables for the city underground. He took her to one of them. As he carried her to bed, she whispered into his ear,

We’ll never be safe. He will always find us.

Those who hide in plain sight

Legend had it a fortune teller had once told the king,

Your kingdom will fall to those who hide in plain sight.

The king slid the fortune teller’s throat on the spot and cut out her tongue so she would not tell anyone, not even the dead. With age, the king’s paranoia grew. He saw revolts and conspiracies everywhere, so he sent any potential adversary to the rims of the continent hunting for new territory.

Everybody profited from war. Artisans crafted weapons, soldiers pillaged, military officers advanced their careers, citizens felt safe, slavers gained property they traded at markets for landowners to have cheap labor. So when the giant and the raven killed all the people in the city near the mountain and the news reached the capital, there was only one course of action: seek and destroy. The northern army marched south.

Meanwhile, the girl that the raven had freed from the manrabbits now volunteered as a scout. She performed several highly risky missions, but the raven never paid any attention to her because he could only think about the nurse. During a mission, the girl had a terrible nightmare where she watched the raven die alone in the city under the mountain. She screamed so he would turn around and look at her. But when she woke up, she found instead northern soldiers pointing at her with spears and weapons. Her group was arrested, interrogated and executed. Only two men escaped back to the city under the mountain, because they were out hunting when the rest of the group was caught.

By then, the raven had come up with a plan to assassinate the northern king and he was ready to execute it. The two surviving scouts rushed through the mountains to report to the leader.

Sir, thousands are marching, and they captured our scouts. They will know how many and where we are.

The leader immediately sounded the alarm, which the entire city heard.

The northern army arrived the next day to the plateau in front of the main entrance and camped there, beginning their siege. The bulk of the soldiers occupied the plain which the mountain overlooked. The general and the captains were gathered in a large tent also in the plain, protected by soldiers at all times. A small group permanently kept watch on the city’s entrance, trying to hear something inside the silent mountain.

There was no sign of life inside the mountain. After the first week of siege, the soldiers began to get anxious, especially after the rumour that it was the fabled city of gold. But even more anxious was the northern king, who desperately needed a victory. He clung to power by a thin thread. The nobility was after him, as they had always been. He had murdered entire dynasties whose members had been bold enough to make attempts on his life. But the annoying noble families continued to crop up and gain political momentum and influence to threaten him. So now, in a time of crisis, the city under the mountain was his chance to prove he and he alone was king. He had to kill those responsible for the destruction of the city. He had to prove he was the kingdom’s iron hand.

The moment the northern king heard the reports about the city, his orders were clear:

Take it at any cost.

So the soldiers scouted the mountains over those weeks looking for weak spots or hidden entrances. All they managed to get from the captured scouts after torturing them was that there was a secret entrance somewhere, though the scouts didn’t know where. They found the giant’s hut, but it was empty. The net result of their scouting was sixteen dead soldiers after falling in treacherous rocks, tripping into pits or slipping with the moss that covered the rocks.

The main entrance seemed the only reasonable way in. They had no idea of how many people were inside nor where they would be waiting. But they knew the citizens were inside because the northern army’s scouts had seen many of them rush inside to hide before the siege had started. During the first day of the second month of siege, the general discussed the strategy with his captains. He had just received a threatening letter from the king. Scared to death, he gathered his officers and explained the situation. One captain said,

We have to bust open the main door and charge in.

Another replied,

We can’t, it’s a trap. Can’t you see? They know we’re here and we don’t know what’s in there. For the Greater man’s sake, we can’t charge in blindly!

The general intervened,

Nonsense. The enemy is probably bunkered up and waiting for us in the heart of the mountain, in a bottleneck. The troops will advance in shield wall formation to defend against archers. Once we know where they are, we’ll block the exits and smoke them out. Prepare the explosives.

The captains, some of them reluctantly, agreed to the plan. The soldiers placed the explosives at the main door, and after several attempts, it was finally blasted open. The city pitch black, so soldirs waited for torch-bearers. A wall of shields and pikes covered the northern army’s archers, which were in the rear. The formation penetrated the city under the mountain slowly but surely.

The soldiers were expecting to be ambushed in the dark when they heard a ghastly little girl’s laughter, echoing through the halls. After listening to the tales of the raven demon and his power, the younger soldiers were terrified. Many arrows were fired prematurely in all directions. Their captain screamed,

Hold your arrows!

A chilling voice whispered into their ears,

Leave or die.

The soldiers pushed forward.

The Thing

The lightbringer, she and all the farmers left together to find a new home. They knew the soldiers would find the farms, after all an underground city can’t go without cultivating something on the surface. She was glad to at least have the farmers, but all she could do was spend the day crying over her dead children and saying things like,

It doesn’t matter where I go, the capital will follow me and kill anyone who helps me.

They headed eastward along the coastline until they spotted an island in the distance. They chopped wood and bound ropes to build rafts and oars. She told the lightbringer,

I lived in that lonely island for many, many years. No one will find us there. It has enough provisions to sustain us for a long time.

They sailed the calm waters that separated the island from the rest of the continent and set foot in a beach. They dragged their rafts with them inland and hid them under covers. It was a small island, with only a mount, a forest and sandy beaches on its shores. There was an immense run-down mansion in the forest where they would live for some time.

The mansion took months to repair. Vegetation had overrun every room, there was no furniture left and the ceiling was just one continuous leak. But she had had the foresight of building it with brick and stone instead of wood, so it would last centuries unattended. After repairing the mansion, they began cutting down nearby trees to build houses for the former farmers. She wanted to organize a simple, close community. Both she and the lightbringer were tired of being leaders, so they tried something new: democracy. Both thought it was weak and stupid, but it made sense if they were only a handful of people who could all fit in one room to vote.

The first weeks were rough: she barely left her room, ate or even spoke. But the lightbringer was always there, cheering her up with stories and jokes, or just listening to her. Slowly she regained her will to live. The houses were finished and finally it seemed they had been given another chance at life. Then one day her people started coming up to her for help, some scared to death.

They all feared the same thing: there was something in the forest. At night they could almost see it, lurking, watching them. One by one, the people in the island stoped eating. They convulsed intermittently, their skin parched and teeth fell out. Some lost their will to live and wandered off into the ocean, or jumped off a cliff.

It wasn’t just the adults. Kids who just a week before had been running around playing games now withered and died. Finally she and the lightbringer were left alone.

Now they hardly spoke to each other, spending most of their days in silent confinement. He reflected on his past life, drowning his sorrows in a sea of red wine that eventually was gone too.

One night, weeks after all her men and women had died, he saw it. It came from the sea, and he caught a glimpse of it when lightning struck the shore and shed some light on its dark figure. It was a barely material shadow with a shape between an amphibian and a snake. In the darkness he was able to make out huge spider legs emerging from its center while its snake-like body filled with huge eyes. Then all the eyes looked at him for a second, freezing him where he stood.

He followed it with his eyes until it rammed into the mansion with a loud hissing sound. He took his sword and ran to the kitchen in the lower floor, where he thought it had crashed. There was no light in the mansion, only the occasional lightning outside and his own body-light guided him. He searched the lower floor room by room, but there was no sign of it or of any damage to the mansion. Then he slowly walked up the stairs. He searched the upper floor.

He thought he heard a whisper so he followed it all the way to her room. He put his hand on the knob. It was unusually cold. He opened the door to find it, standing there. The Thing was much smaller but still retained its shape. She was standing face to face with it, and screamed,

You know your cheap parlor tricks have no effect on me!

The Thing turned itself into a faceless human-like shadow with a large white grin.

Better?

Why are you here? Leave us alone!

It was always smiling, even as it spoke,

You know why. I know it was you. You sent them to my city. It took me a while to find out about your little mischief. I’ve come here to hear you admit it.

Get out!

It laughed at her,

You can’t boss me around, I’m not that miserable pet slave over there.

A second pair of eyes popped in the Thing’s back and looked at the lightbringer briefly, then the eyes disappeared. She threw lightning at the Thing but it passed through it, scorching her room’s wall.

Look, I have all the time in the world. You don’t. If you don’t want me around, you better confess.

She looked away in shame. The lightbringer asked,

What is it talking about?

She hasn’t told you? Aren’t you a cute pandora’s box. This whore—The Thing was so disgusted by her that it had to pause—made a deal with the same people who centuries later put her in prison. She lied to the demons. She told them I was planning to take over the whole world and told them where to find and murder me and my people. We! Who only wanted to live in peace in our city!

Then it screamed loudly, growing larger and using several mouths each with its own voice,

You cunt had to murder them, didn’t you?

A pair of eyes and a mouth with a more calmed voice opened on The Thing’s back, and spoke looking at the lightbringer,

They sieged us, starved us and gunned us down. But the best part is why they did it. I thought about it for a long time, but only recently learned why. She wanted everything, the whole world for herself. She couldn’t leave even a small patch of land where me and a few people could live under our own rules. She knew we would have defeated any army she threw at us, so she called a force that she knew we couldn’t defeat.

And once my whole city was destroyed, guess what, she took over the world. But she did so in a subtle, sneaky and backstabbing way so her little friends wouldn’t understand. But of course they eventually did and put her in prison, which is where the bitch belongs.

She looked at the lightbringer and begged him,

Don’t listen to it, look at what it has done to us.

The Thing chuckled and said,

Done? No, just wait for what I will do. You doomed yourself when you sent those dogs on me. I loved mankind and wasn’t ready to sacrifice them before. But after what you put me through? You convinced me to bring the end. But first I’ll do to you what you did to me—

No!

It continued despite her cries,

I’m going to pay a visit to all those little tribes you have scattered over the world. Don’t think I can’t see them. The underground city? I told the capital about it. I’ve always known where your little projects were, just as I knew you’d get out of jail. I’ve been saving all of them until you were free, free to feel the pain.

The lightbringer stepped forward,

You coward.

She went down on her knees and begged,

Please don’t, not them. I’ll do whatever you want, I’ll turn myself in. But please, leave them alone.

The Thing was impervious to her cries,

I always knew why you really did it. It was never about the land and power, was it? No, it was something else.

She stopped crying.

It was because you enjoyed watching us die. You enjoyed the pain it caused me. I know you were there, watching.

Please, I’ve changed.

The Thing kneeled down and stood close to her face.

Dear, you will never change. No one really does. You can’t help yourself, I know that. But I can help you. Just admit you did it because you enjoyed it.

No.

Fine, have it your way.

It flooded her mind with the vision of one of her communities’ descent into madness. It had done to them what it had done to the community she had brought to the island. She begged him,

Stop, please!

Admit it.

Her pain was unbearable.

Yes! I did it, I enjoyed watching your city burn! I’ve killed millions for no reason, I make no sense… There, is that what you wanted to hear, you fucking psycho?

But this time there was no reply. The Thing had vanished, leaving behind only the shadow of his smile.

She wept, helpless at what she knew would come next. The lightbringer wrapped his arms around her and stroked her hair until she fell asleep. But she woke up screaming in horror many times that night and throughout the following weeks. She could not rest, as she was forced to feel as each of her communities was consumed by cannibalism, rape, murder and mass suicide.

The Thing destroyed everything she had built and made her watch every single second of it.

Into the dark

Hold your fire!

The captain feared fear would make his men run out of ammo.

Ignite your arrows and fire at the walls, we need some light in here.

A hail of fiery arrows flew in all directions hitting walls, pillars, doors and floors, painting a partial picture of the city. The soldiers charged into a small warehouse expecting an ambush, but they found nobody. The captain ordered two platoons to set up an outpost while the others held guard. Meanwhile he left the city under the mountain to speak to the general,

Sir, we are ready to move but we need more light. It’s pitch black in there and my men are exposed. I need a company to place explosives above the mountain. I will tell them where to place them.

The soldiers placed the explosives where the captain said. The explosions created large holes in the ceiling of the immense city, shedding some light on it. The northern soldiers inside cheered as they watched the great rocks falling from the sky into the middle of the city, destroying entire houses. Fearing archers could still be waiting inside the buildings, one infantry company after another charged into the city to clear every corner.

The thorough search took hours, despite the participation of a whole regiment. The problem was the large number of houses and their many hiding places, which had to be cleared one by one. In the end, they didn’t find a single soul. Only the occasional little girl’s giggle coming from all directions. When the houses in the upper levels had been cleared, they moved on to the buildings below.

All the houses, shops and workshops were empty and most tools were gone. The only place left to check was a great hall locked behind a thick reinforced door. The lieutenant colonel, who was in charge of the whole battalion, ordered his soldiers to take position in front of the door and sent one of the captains back to report to the general.

Sir, every building is clear except for a great hall.

The general smiled, sipped tea from a golden cup and asked,

Is there only one, strong door, to enter it?

Yes, but—

Perfect. I’ll go there myself to make sure we capture those cowards alive. The whole kingdom is counting on us.

Sir, with all due respect, I strongly believe you shouldn’t go in there. What if they capture you? You have too much information about—The captain stopped for a moment, doubting whether he should speak his mind or remain silent—I fear this could be an elaborate trap. Please let us to deal with them.

The general laughed. He didn’t like a subordinate brazen enough to give him advice.

Most certainly not! As the highest-ranking officer of this division, I will personally capture those demons for the king. Do you think I’m willing to let you steal this victory from me?

The captain bowed down his head and spoke in a repentant tone,

Of course not, sir. I’m so sorry, sir, please forgive me. You can enter the city, the men are waiting for your orders.

The captain decided then and there not to come back to that city. Madmen follow madmen, and he was perfectly sane. The general entered the mountain and marched down the great staircase that led to the city. Shortly after reaching the lower floor he reached the great hall’s locked door, where he knocked and said,

This is the general of the 4th southern division. In the name of the Greater man and His Divine Law we have come for the demons. Surrender them and we will spare your lives.

His words were met with silence. After a minute the general spoke again,

Fine, have it your way. You and your children will die unless you come out at once. The northern king’s mercy can’t be insulted or forced to wait!

Once more his threats were answered with silence. He turned to face his officers,

Explain.

One of the captains said,

Sir, there has to be an air conduct somewhere, leading outside, to allow that many people to breathe.

The general shook his head,

It would take days, even weeks to find it. We don’t have that much time.

We can just break in, sir. Their forces will be weak and starving by now.

The general agreed and announced,

We enter the hall now! The heathens’ gold and women will be ours tonight!

The soldiers brought all the explosives they had left to the door. The army watched the blast from a safe distance, occupying the streets and parks of the city. The violent explosion created a thick cloud of dust.

Charge!

The soldiers ran to the hall. The gate had fallen, and they easily passed through. They waved and slashed with their swords through the storm of dust inside, but nobody was there. After the dust began to settle, one of the captains shouted,

The room is empty, sir. There’s no one here!

Other captains confirmed it. The general felt his heart skip a beat followed by a wave of heat running through his whole body. He said, first to himself and then to others:

It’s a trap, retreat. Retreat!

When they attempted to fall back to the entrance of the cave, they heard the laughter of the little girl once again. This time it was a piercing laughter that made the soldiers fall to their knees, covering their ears as they tried in vain to stop it. The light that came from the hole in the mountain’s ceiling disappeared. One by one, every single source of light was put out, leaving the soldiers once again in utter darkness. The general shouted,

Quick, light your torches!

Despite their efforts, the torches and lanterns remained cold. The troops quickly joined shields forming circles with archers and officers in the middle. Then they heard a bubbling noise. Molten iron slowly crawled toward them like a faceless monster engulfing the ground. It descended from the great staircase that led to the entrance, the only way out of the lower part of the city.

The only alternative was through the buildings on the centre of the city. The men that went there disappeared screaming, convincing the rest of the regiment that it was a bad idea. The general shouted,

Stand in formation and retreat to the hall!

The remaining companies entered the hall and waited for the enemy to attack the hall. A column of molten iron poured down on the entrance and began creeping inside, forcing them to retreat further into the hall.

The soldiers quickly understood that not all of them would survive. They knew some of them had to die to make room, so they started pushing each other into the fire. Brothers in arms fought each other to survive. When the survivors thought they were safe, standing next to the wall farthest from the entrance, they finally found the air conduit, hidden in plain sight in the middle of the room.

The general watched with horror a new column of fire descend through the conduit. He fell on his knees, closed his eyes and prayed. The merciless fire engulfed them all.

Tired of losing

She and the lightbringer were in a deserted island, alone and with nothing to do. Both were filled with regret and dead hopes. They thought about how the world had failed them and about how they had failed the world. He stopped shining and instead grew a black beard. Both let themselves go, watching day follow night without nothing to do.

The lightbringer approached her one night, after her cries had made his sleep impossible.

If this is what is waiting for us, just kill me and kill yourself. We will be much better off.

She looked at him, sobbing.

Don’t you get it? I can’t die. Believe me, I’ve tried…

She was crawled into a ball with her hands holding her knees, looking out her window to the sea outside. He felt a wave of pity for her, but then he was filled with anger again. A voice in his head said,

She brought this on herself. You heard what The Thing said. She’s not the innocent little lamb she pretends to be.

But another voice screamed inside his head,

Noooo! She’s perfect. She’s pure and innocent. We must protect her. We must make things right, she’s counting on us.

By the amount of voices in my head, I must be losing the little sanity I had left. Guys, I have accepted by now that I will never kill the Tyrant. I will never cut off his head and bathe in praise for it. I will die on this god-forsaken island, alone and forgotten.

She interrupted his thoughts saying,

Did I ever tell you the story about the boy who could not stop eating?

He remained silent and sat tiredly in the same bed she was. She took it as a sign of permission to go on,

Of course not, because I didn’t want you to really know me—She stopped for a second to wipe her tears—You see, a boy was once born in a kingdom that was wealthy, but no matter how much his parents fed him—

He always needed more.

He remembered that story. He had read it at the infinite library. The lightbringer told her what he remembered,

Then he grew up, went berzerk, ate everything and left the fields barren. The king wasted all the gold in charlatans and eventually everyone died. Yes, a very depressing fairy tale, so what?

Ha! That’s where you’re wrong. It’s no fairy tale, I can promise you that. When I reached that land, it was already half-consumed.

Now he was paying attention.

People stabbed each other in the street for food, for money or just because they felt like it. By the time the king granted me an audience, the royal funds were already depleted, and he had gone mad. I still hunted down the creature and took it with me on my ship to an island. Most accounts end here, because I made sure the rest was never known, but I’m going to give it to you as a gift, so you will understand me better.

You see, I had heard that creatures like that boy were special. They were mistakes, beings that should not be here. They had certain powers, which you could get if you—She feared that saying it would make it real.

What?

Well. If you ate their brain. So me and my followers brought him down from our ship, still drugged, and placed him in the grass, looking out at the sea. After I dismissed my followers, I took a large ceremonial knife, made an incision on the base of the creature’s skull, and cut out a part of his large brain. For eight days I feasted on him. You couldn’t imagine the incredible visions I had, the power I gained.

Her crazy smile scared him.

However, on the eighth day, a man arrived to the island on a boat, while I enjoyed my last meal. It was a little and petty man, so the sight of the creature made him cower in fear and respect. But see, the creature just remained still with an empty stare. The man began asking questions, thinking the creature was some sort of god. And I, of course, answered all of them using the creature’s voice, making the man think it was the creature speaking.

He had such grand delusions that he eagerly asked what rules he should use to rule over people. So I told him a hilarious mashup of the dogmas I had seen over my life, you know, to have a laugh. You will understand my surprise when I learned that there was a kingdom in the northern continent with the same laws I had given to that man. Yes, the man had returned home and united tribes and communities in the north into a large army that followed his religion… well, my religion.

Then she fell silent and he asked,

Why?

Why what? Why did I steal the creature’s powers? Why did I tell you this story? Why are we here? Because of who I am, and how I am. The Thing that came to visit us was right. I can’t change, nobody can. I hate it and I love it at the same time.

She turned to look at him and held his right hand.

I’ve done things… You have no clue. Things you… anyone would hate me for. I hate myself enough already. I have inflicted myself so much pain to stop the guilt, but it doesn’t help… I can kill you now, if you want, so you can rest. But I can’t die. Heaven knows I’ve tried. I’m doomed to live. Humans don’t realize how lucky they are. They see the world upside-down. Death is the cure for the only disease there is.

The lightbringer wiped the tears from her eyes and said,

Stop, please.

But she only cried more.

I’ve been with humans since their birth. I’ve led millions to their deaths, caused more pain than I could ever repair, forced men to torture themselves, tortured people into insanity. The prison where you found me is where I belong. But I’m not strong enough to go back. Everything The Thing said was true and still it was only the tip of the iceberg that is the damage I’ve caused, the damage I will cause.

Her tears rained on the floor, but they shed no light. She looked into his eyes and said,

Take my hand, I’ll cure your life.

He shouted,

No! No! No, no, no! I won’t let you stay here and wither away. I’m tired of losing. I don’t care what you’ve done, I still love you and always will. We are going to bring down his empire, and you just made me realize how.

He pulled her and kissed her neck.

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

He continued kissing her, first her lips then he descended down her body.

Exodus

The citizens from the city under the mountain had left their homes days before the northern kingdom’s army got to them. They took with them what they could, knowing they would never return. They all walked through a secret narrow tunnel hidden that started in one of the houses and led outside, to the opposite side of the main entrance.

The giant walked alone for days until he reunited with the people from the city under the mountain. Then they marched together through the snow-covered forest in a single column, with warriors on either side to defend against any possible ambushes. They were sad to leave their homes, but it was also thrilling to be out in the wild. Except for the scouts and traders, the citizens under the mountain had spent all their lives under the mountain. They had only seen the outworld during special occasions, and usually at night.

Every night they pitched their tents in the forest to sleep and resumed their march in the morning. The plan was to get as far southwest as possible, to stay away from the northern army. The giant protected them and people felt safe around him. The raven knew the route because he had chosen it himself. He alone planned the ambush on the 4th southern division of the northern army.

The raven didn’t choose the thick woodland because it was the shortest or the safest path. No, it was because he learned that the northerners were afraid of anything as tall as the Greater man, even trees. If there is one thing you can count on, it’s superstition. The raven flew for four days over the route he had planned and finally spotted them. He was stranged because according to his calculations, he should have found them sooner. He crash landed into a tree, climbed back and spoke to the leader and the giant, smiling, unable to hide his self-satisfaction,

Two thousand and forty-eight soldiers died in the mountain four days ago. The news will soon reach the rest of the continent and the northern kingdom will finally realize how dangerous we are.

Those who heard him only stared at him without saying anything. Stranged, the raven went on,

The time to strike is now, before the news reach the northern king. We have to leave now and take as much land—

He stopped talking. The leader and the giant looked sad. The leader gave the raven a pamphlet that read,

We are at war. Heathens and demons made an alliance to destroy our churches and trample our holy ground. Join the northern army and fight for your kingdom!

The raven read again the paper, incapable of believing his eyes.

It’s impossible, nobody survived.

What he didn’t know is that one smart captain had avoided his trap and fled back north to tell the story. The giant said,

This didn’t happen four days ago. It’s been four weeks now since you left.

The raven didn’t understand. He had fallen asleep after the little girl materialized to kill the soldiers, but he thought it had only been a few hours. The leader continued,

Every road is crawling with northern soldiers. The northern king will have an army by his side now, making it impossible to get to him. I guess… we won’t be killing him after all.

After a long silence, the raven yelled,

I refuse!

What do you mean you refuse?

I refuse to surrender now, not after what I have achieved alone. Definitely not after all the time you people have been hiding. I won’t hide in some remote chunk of land while that madman terrorizes the entire continent. And I won’t wait for a group of even worse degenerates to come to these lands and murder the group of degenerates that is already here. And if it takes a tyrant to kill a tyrant, then so be it.

The leader and the giant looked at the raven like he had gone insane. The raven continued raving,

I will tell you what we will do. We will take the people to a safe location, as far from the northern soldiers as possible. We will establish our base camp there. Then we will fight. We will strike at night with overwhelming force to push the northern kingdom back north. We will advance east, starting from the southwestern corner of our continent. We will clear every city, every town, every house in our path.

The crowd around him nodded. He had ignited the few sparks of hope left in them. He continued, with even more determination,

Don’t you see? The northern king will lose all support and his own people will remove him. Then, a different leader will make a deal with us to split the continent. The peace will be frail, and it will also be a sham: the worst trade deal in the history of trade deals. Because we will eventually take over their entire kingdom and make it our own.

The giant couldn’t hold his tongue any longer.

I’m sorry, but this is madness. We can’t wage war against the northern kingdom, look at us!—Then, in a lower tone, speaking closer to the raven—Have you forgotten what the little girl said? Look, we have the chance to live a peaceful, quiet life. You can marry that nurse, have a family. One day we will die and be forgotten. But we will live as free men. The little girl understands this, and I’m starting to understand it too. Please, let’s just build a place we can call our own and live there for as long as we can. Don’t sacrifice these men and women for an impossible dream.

But giant, I too understood something when I alone destroyed a whole division. As much as I would enjoy a peaceful life, I couldn’t live with myself knowing I didn’t fight. I couldn’t live knowing that any day the northern madmen could come and kill us all. I can’t raise children until the northern king is dead. And what about the South? They will come here, I’m sure. What will we do when they come for us? What will I do when they turn my children into slaves and rape my wife? No! I won’t let it happen! We can win, I know we can. First we’ll take the North, and then we’ll defend against the southern hordes.

The giant looked at his friend with concern, seeing the first signs of the thirst for power that had consumed so many before him. Meanwhile the leader smiled, already picturing himself as the ruler first over the whole continent, then over the whole world.

Yet another religion of love

The lightbringer took her by the hand and they ran out of the house, headed for the boats. It was the middle of the night and only his light guided them. They sailed back to the continent and walked until they found a town. She was dressed in drapes, like one of the many hobos that inhabited the empire. They were the misfits who could not stand the rules imposed by the empire and therefore ended up in the streets, preying on people’s pity to beg for food.

During the first few centuries of the empire’s life, begging for food had been punished by law. But now things had changed. She approached the town and met others like her: vagabonds, wanderers, outlaws, you name them. Her charm, innocence and purity easily captivated them. After two hours of taking an interest in their lives, she asked,

Have you heard about the religion of love?

Religion of love?

Don’t you know them religions are all banned?

She smiled gracefully and replied,

Yes, but they cannot ban them from your hearts. Right here—She tapped gently on an old man’s bald chest—no one controls you. You can believe whatever you want. And all I’m asking is that you believe in a power greater than yourselves, greater than this empire and the man who runs it. I’m asking you to believe in the ultimate power.

The hobos were fascinated. They asked her questions or tried to reply,

What is this ultimate power, woman?

Is it gold?

Does it fold?

Is it blue?

Glue?

Asked a man eating glue. She replied, always patient,

No, no, no. It’s a god that is one and many at the same time. Different messiahs have announced it, but they all talked about the same thing. It’s the one who created all that you see and the same one that put your ancestors here. It watches over everything you do from the sky.

The hobos asked,

Where is it?

How do we know it’s real when our eyes aren’t real?

Then she asked them, pointing at the sky,

Do you see that star?

Yes!

Well, that’s where it lives. But it sees this world, it’s always watching, judging your actions.

One of the crazy hobos asked her,

But how can we know it’s real if we don’t have any experience of it ourselves? Couldn’t you be just a sort of evil genius?

Sure, but how can you know anything you know now is real?

You know, cause we can see it, or others told us why it makes sense.

What if your senses were lying? What if what you see is not real? I guess you know about hallucinations and visions, like those induced by drugs and alcohol you probably like so much, am I wrong?

She showed everyone her open right hand, then closed it and opened it again. It was full of colorful drugs. The people listening to her smiled foolishly at the tasty brain-mellowing candy. But she closed her hand and the drugs disappeared, to the disappointment of her crowd.

Then, what if you were drugged and this wasn’t your ‘real life’?

A woman without teeth whistled,

Yo that’d be some shitty trip.

Other beggars applauded her words. One added, addressing the teethless broad,

Haha you’re fugly.

Before the situation got out of hand and they stopped listening to her, she clapped her hands creating a shockwave that knocked them back. Now she had her audience’s undivided attention. She continued,

You might be thinking—which they were not—that even mathematical truths—

She stopped, realizing they were amazed by her cheap magic trick and paid little attention to her words.

Hey, pay attention to my words! You might think that things like one plus one equals two is something fundamentally true that no one has cheated you into believing. But I’ll show you you’re wrong: one plus one equals two is only true as far as you accept the rules that define ‘one’, ‘plus’, ‘equals’ and ‘two’. But these rules are arbitrary: humans made them. And what do humans know! Listen to me instead: this world was created with a purpose. You were created with a purpose. Whatever they tell you, whatever they show you, it will NEVER cast a shadow of doubt over what you are now beginning to understand: that there is a power above, that I am its messenger, and that your lives have a meaning you can’t comprehend!

The beggars were confused after misunderstanding most of what she had said. But her magic tricks convinced them she was supernatural and therefore right.

This is what you will do: you will not steal nor kill. And if you do, you will remember that It—she pointed at the sky with her right hand’s index finger—is watching. You will pray to It to have mercy on your souls when you die, just as you will have mercy on everyone you meet. You will spread Its word and convince everyone you meet that It is real. You will renounce lust, anger and greed. You will embrace hope, pity and love. Now go, leave, get a job, prosper and spread the word. Otherwise…

What?

Otherwise It will be disappointed in you, and you do not want that.

Although they had many questions, she left and returned to tell the lightbringer how things had gone. They camped in a cave near the town, where they would stay while they watched the results of their little experiment. When they were both lying down, looking at the night sky and holding hands, she asked him,

Do you think it’ll work?

I’m just amazed at how much of it is true.

And both looked at the star of the planetary system where It lived.

The heathen army

They traveled for two more weeks without incidents until they reached a large city at the outskirts of the northern kingdom. The northern army had captured it only a month ago. Its inhabitants were mostly peasants and craftsmen since most of the northern soldiers stationed there had been mobilized and tasked with finding the raven.

It was a gift from the gods.

The raven flew silently over the city’s gate at night, slid the guards’ throats and opened the gates. The army of the city under the mountain rushed in, killing everyone who opposed them. The few northern army officials there were imprisoned and interrogated, though their zealous faith prevented them from being very useful to the raven. All the soldiers insisted on calling the raven and his army “heathen”, which he took with pride.

Now that the raven controlled the city, he prepared for war. First he set up a meeting with the officials from the city under the mountain. He created an army he baptised the Heathen army, with himself as its supreme commander while recognizing the leader as the legitimate ruler. They also decided that the leader should stay on their new headquarters city to manage it and establish a strong supply line to the army.

The raven married the nurse, who was soon pregnant. Two weeks after taking his first city, the raven was already attacking the next one. The undisciplined northern soldiers, who had been eager to fight at the start of the war, now spent their time whoring and drinking in taverns. The raven took them by surprise one Monday, capturing a city, four towns and two villages in a single night. He specifically chose a Monday because the only useful thing he had learned from interrogating northern soldiers was that they drank themselves into incompetence on Sundays.

The people in the villages farthest from the north hated the northern king and his army, so they gladly welcomed the raven. In fact, when some of the villages learned that the raven was near, they rose up against the northern soldiers and waited for the raven. The raven offered them a deal: if they provided enough soldiers and supplies, they could keep their land as their own after the war was over. Of course this kind of political decision didn’t sit well with the leader, who sat on the rearguard, out of public sight, while the raven basked in glory.

Soon the raven controlled all the villages in the south-west. The villagers understood that if they didn’t join the raven, his army would drive them out of their lands or kill them. During the first few months of war the raven captured a long stripe of land that stretched from the southern coasts to the inhospitable northern frozen slopes near the northern coast. Everything between the western coast and a few hundred kilometers inland was his.

He had never held so much power, and now he only wanted more. He pushed eastward with his army, conquering more and more land from the northern army. His pincer maneuvers, supply line disruptions and propaganda all proved effective: he routed several divisions with barely a fight. His legend and name spread across the continent. Everybody talked about the raven and his supernatural tactics. And the northern king used this in his favor.

The rumour began to spread that the raven ate children and drink men’s blood. The villagers on the East were so scared of him that they immolated their own villages, crops and families when they learned the raven was close. There were no more deals, no more help from the locals. Every citizen and soldier of the northern kingdom had the order to never surrender under any circumstance. Those who disobeyed and returned north, along with some of the northern king’s political enemies, suffered public humiliation in kangaroo trials which inevitably ended in death on the labor camps.

The northern king grew more paranoid as his troops suffered one defeat after another. He started to believe the heathens had infiltrated his lines to sow fear into the hearts of his people. He saw conspiracy everywhere he looked. He had already been shot, poisoned, stabbed, thrown off his own castle before, but he had always survived. He was still alive after centuries because power kept his death at bay.

Everyone accused of speaking against the State burned at the Stake. He also took the opportunity to label the noblemen that had opposed him as pacifists, condemn them for high treason and burn them along with the other political criminals. Even though his army was losing territory, he gave the order to charge into the heathen camps instead of establishing a line of defence. The army left the elderly, the sick and the children to defend the villages from the invaders. The king calculated that the raven was, after all, a man who cared about how history would look at him and therefore would have to avoid massacres.

Boy, was he wrong.

The raven didn’t hold back on the villagers: he only trampled villages and cities even faster. But the king didn’t change his orders, fearing he would lose his credibility as messenger of the Greater man. The heathen army disrupted the northern kingdom’s supply line so efficiently that the northern king decided to just stop sending supplies. He ordered all his forces to retreat back to the capital, convinced the invaders would come for him. The soldiers plundered the villages and cities as they retreated, leaving the inhabitants nothing to fight the raven. Hundreds of thousands died from famine or turned to cannibalism while the northern soldiers enjoyed wine, hot meals and whores in the valleys and plains near the capital.

Still, the raven’s army was outnumbered and spread thinner as he pushed east. The new territories he conquered were devoid of men or supplies. Some of the people in the east did find their way west and joined the raven, escaping the king’s madness. But many were caught trying to flee and suffered a public death used as cautionary tale.

It seemed the war was almost over when the raven’s domains were only a few miles away from the capital. But then the northern king commanded his soldiers to push back. The northern king had managed to keep the real number of soldiers secret from the raven. A special regiment sneaked into the raven’s territory and quickly marched west. The captain who had escaped the ambush at the city under the mountain commanded this special regiment. The regiment avoided open confrontation with the raven. Instead, the soldiers burned crops, raped women and killed everything on their way. The raven couldn’t go chasing them because the northern king kept the raven’s army busy fighting skirmishes on the cities and towns along the border between the two powers.

The special regiment pushed all the way to the south-western corner, bleeding men on their way. A few hundred men reached the city where the people under the mountain lived and fought their last battle there. They burned down the city and the nearby crops. At the same time, on the border, the raven’s army repelled the northern kingdom’s attack and destroyed most of its forces.

The raven counted on two-hundred and fifty-six tired men when the northern kingdom stopped sending troops. But he knew there were plenty more waiting for him to push north. Corpses covered the destroyed city where he had been fighting for a week now. Nobody was left with the strength to give them proper burial, and barely had the will to go on fighting. Then came the sixteen survivors of the slaughter at their south-western base city. Their words crushed the morale of the tired men. Every soldier had lost all or most of their families. Half the heathen army defected or went mad with grief.

The raven stared at the ground, unable to assimilate the news. His wife and son were dead. Most of the people who had lived in the city under the mountain were dead. He didn’t have enough soldiers to win. Hundreds of thousands had died during the war, and now it seemed it had been for nothing. He hid in his tent, shaking with fear. He laid in his bed, took his hands to his face and for the first time after many years, he cried.

Disintegration

Everyone she met suddenly felt the drive to make something of their lives. The hobos found jobs, worked hard, formed families and introduced them to the new religion. Meanwhile she worked as a waitress, telling customers about the religion of love; then she became a lawyer, then a secretary, a teacher, a student, a factory worker, an accountant, and much more. She put on a unique face for each of them so no one connected the dots.

In four weeks she played sixteen roles. During each of them she sowed the ideas about the religion of love in the minds of many citizens. Then she and the lightbringer left for the next city, where they repeated the process. Progress was slow but steady. She worked all day while the lightbringer planned. Most times she slept in the cities and towns they were visiting, other times she slept with him, in the outskirts of town.

It took them decades to tour the empire, but they succeeded. As time passed, the cities and towns were the first to spread the word about the religion of love. Groups of religious citizens cropped up, demanding that their specific version of her religion of love be accepted. They also demanded freedom and independence from the empire.

The breaking point came the day the empire recognized the religion they had spread as its main faith. The cornerstone of the empire at its foundation had been precisely that every religion was banned. Suddenly and everywhere, national-socialist groups cropped up, each with charming leaders that spoke thus:

The empire is evil and we’ve had enough of it. It’s corrupt, decadent and broken. Centuries of oppression couldn’t erase our forefathers’ traditions and tongues, and they won’t erase us now: we must restore the glorious states of our great ancestors and learn from our past mistakes to build an even greater tomorrow.

Blah, blah, blah. But blah, blah, blah that worked: claiming the empire no longer represented their cultural identity, these groups managed to establish their own, independent countries. The empire lost more and more control until only the territories closest to the capital remained loyal.

When the lightbringer had plotted his plan, he thought the empire would quickly crumble before a coalition of free countries. He believed that leaders would rush to destroy the decrepit empire before it reannexed the new and frail countries. But the new countries remained passive. She traveled to meet the new leaders of the recently created countries to convince them to act. They all said the same:

We need to focus on our new state, the empire will fall on its own. Besides, how do we know our neighbors won’t invade us while we are fighting the empire, or when we are too weak after defeating it?

The empire wasn’t dead yet and petty rivalries had already decided the course of action. While the new nations organized themselves and created trading pacts with each other, the surviving core of the empire rebuilt its forces and reconquered nearby countries that had reached independence. Again, she urged the rulers of the countries to act, but they waved off her warnings,

We’re far from the empire’s reach. They would first have to conquer this and that and that other country. Besides, that country they just conquered? Bah, it was only a satellite, never really out of the empire.

But the new war machine marched on, unstoppable. Finally the leaders of the new states came up with the brilliant plan of forming a coalition, each claiming,

Well we pushed to former sooner, but the other states refused.

Other independent countries voluntarily reannexed themselves to the empire after negotiating favorable terms. The countries in the southern continent all fell or joined the empire while the northern continent reached complete independence.

Propaganda flooded the streets of every city, town and village. The north accused the south of starting the war, of causing the huge amount of casualties that increased each day, and of many other things. The lightbringer watched the consequences of war and felt that once again, what he had tried to do had gone horribly wrong. He lived with her in their island outside the world and its problems. There they entered an endless cycle of breaking up and making up, unable to stand each other, unable to live apart. She argued,

Wars have been fought since I’ve been on this planet. Many, if not all, I’ve started myself. The war effort makes men develop new technology, it advances knowledge and settles the issues between societies.

But the lightbringer could not believe her words, even after having lived with her for so many years,

The ‘technology’ that is developed is mostly weapons: new and improved ways of killing people! How can you possibly defend that!?

It’s not only weapons and you know it.

Neither of them were completely married to their own views, but they wanted to defeat the other in every argument, pushing each other to the extreme in every issue. He mimicked her words,

Settles the issues between societies… What issues would there be if you just let people alone?

Uhm, I don’t know, maybe land, food, water… Basically any resource? Come on, you—He opened his mouth to interrupt her. She knew what he would say next because they had had the same conversation many times before—Yes, yes, that’s precisely what we had with the empire!

There was no ‘us’ and ‘them’ like there is now. The army was mostly for fun, to parade around and wear fancy clothes. The empire didn’t have to be defended from anyone, there weren’t even any rebellions. We started this war, we caused all this pain!

She slapped his face and yelled,

Stop! We agreed we wouldn’t do this again! Yes, we started the war, it was our fault, but you know we have a noble purpose, and we will see it through. The war will end and everything will be as we dreamed it would. So stop, please, I can’t stand having the same argument over and over. Why can’t it be like when we started this revolution together?—She came closer to him—Just you and me. Like in the old days, remember?

She took his hand but he pulled away. He remembered the promise they had made to not blame each other. But every time he read about the number of casualties in some battle, he burned with guilt. Before, he didn’t care about sacrificing thousands in the altar of his glorious revolution. But now, now it was different. It was as though something had broken inside him. He said the fateful words he should never had said,

We need to turn ourselves in.

She was first shocked. Then she meditated on the issue, and after a while said,

After the war is over.

But she knew she would never trust him again.

An end to the war

The situation in the northern capital was dire, far worse than the raven thought. After mindlessly wasting the food from the villages and cities, the northern army also drained the rest of the kingdom’s supplies. Famine reached the capital, where only the northern king ate regularly.

There was a split between those who still blindly followed the king and those who supported the nobility and their aspirations to the throne. The king had systematically given more power to the army, which had ravaged land and people alike. But the heathen army was still standing and everyone assumed the heathens were hiding in the forests around the capital, waiting for the northern king to make a mistake. So waiting for the heathens in the capital meant that the fields could not be worked, so there was no more food coming. The masses rightly blamed their king for their empty stomachs.

Over the war, protests and revolts had shaken part of the kingdom, even though the soldiers suppressed them with brutality. However, when the soldiers and guards saw their own rations diminished, their loyalty to the king wavered. The king had brainwashed citizens into thinking there were thousands of heathens lurking in the woods and even more infiltrated in the kingdom, especially in positions of power. In truth, the heathen army totalled sixty-four soldiers, including the raven and the giant.

At the same time the raven was sure there were northern army reserves in the frozen lands up north, stationed around the capital. The raven prepared for one last attack, unaware of a simultaneous coup against the king. A large group of conspirators intended to capture the northern king and sign a peace treaty with the heathens, which would end the war without further bloodshed if only he had waited two days.

The raven gathered the remainder of the heathen army and sent them to one of the remaining populated towns. There were no real soldiers left to fight them in that town, so the children and the sick prepared to die, rusty sword in hand. But soon after the heathens had entered the town, a giant figure appeared, dressed in a white robe and wielding a great hammer. He yelled at the heathens, waving his hammer,

Leave my people in peace, heathens, or face my wrath!

The heathens fled before the giant figure had struck even once. The people in the town cheered their champion. Several witnesses left for the capital to inform the king:

It was the Greater man. He himself came down from his celestial abode to deliver us in our hour of need! The promise unto his people has finally been fulfilled. O, how blessed art we!

The mysterious figure stopped every single heathen attack from that day, quickly moving along the frontier with heathen territory. The citizens of the northern kingdom regained hope and believed they might still win the war, especially as they recaptured heathen territory and food returned to their tables. The Greater man had come to save them from evil. Cleansings and trials ceased. Deserters and traitors returned to their lands and supported the northern king.

Even the northern king believed that the Greater man had come out of his island to help his beloved people. But there was a shadow of doubt in his heart, which whispered into his ear,

Could this be a trap? Could it be an impostor posing as our messiah?

Although the king wasn’t sure it was truly the Greater man, every other citizen knew it really was. The northern king had brainwashed his citizens so thoroughly and effectively that now everybody believed the Greater man had come to save them. It didn’t matter to the masses that the king had survived the war, the Greater man had won it.

Heroic tales spread throughout the land describing the Greater man as a down-to-earth savior that had cast away the evil and cowardly raven. The peasants and craftsmen proclaimed their love for the Greater man through folk songs. By contrast, the king looked harsh, cruel and unnecessary. The king quickly realized that if he didn’t play his cards properly he would lose power. He needed to earn back the people’s trust. He needed to show them that he alone was the chosen one, the prophet to the Greater man.

The counter-attack began as the last drops of winter rain fell on the fields. The Greater man ventured alone into the enemy zone, leaving burnt camps and piles of bodies burning on unholy mounds. Once the last heathen cities were taken back, and the people who had fled slowly returned to their homes, the king decided to meet the Greater man to be in his good grace. He knew when the war was finally over, his god would choose the ruler.

The king headed south-west with what remained of the northern army: one thousand and twenty-four men, most either too old or too young. They agreed to meet in the great city of the sun, the greatest fortress to have been taken by the heathens. The Greater man had liberated it and it was now occupied by peasants. The king and his god would celebrate their victory there and discuss the future. As the king rode to the fortress, he asked the lackeys by his side,

Funny, isn’t it? How the heathens managed to seize this great fortress in a day only to lose the war.

And while his lackeys laughed, he thought to himself,

And what would have happened to me if the Greater man hadn’t come…

The king entered through the great city gates, followed by his court. The Greater man was there to meet them. The court applauded and cheered at the Greater man when they saw him. When the king saw the Greater man, he fell on his knees in awe. Every doubt was shattered in an instant. It really was the Greater man. The king said, terrified and embarrassed:

I, I, I bid you forgive me, your highness.

His court all kneeled and looked to the ground. The Greater man said, laughing,

Come on, please, stand up. No god needs this much flattery.

The king and his court stood up, chuckling. The Greater man spoke again,

Good. Now, let’s enjoy a great feast, shall we?

The king, his court and soldiers entered the great hall, heart of the fortress. There, a special wooden throne waited for the Greater man. It had been carved in his honor out of a millenary tree by hundreds of thankful northerners. The Greater man and his guests all sat there, eating and drinking happily. Some people sang, others told tales and those drunk enough danced to a merry ballad.

After eating his fill, the Greater man said to the king so everyone would hear,

Let me ask you something, if I may.

Yes, of course, anything you want.

Why did you leave the children and the sick behind to fight while your soldiers enjoyed fine wine and public women up north?

The king swallowed and thought for a few seconds. He had not anticipated the blow to come so swiftly or so harshly. In a few seconds the whole room had gone silent. Everyone listened closely to their conversation. The king replied,

You see, your highness, to protect the weak, I, I needed to keep my soldiers alive. So I ordered the people to abandon the land soon to be taken by heathens. I didn’t want my soldiers to perish lest the kingdom fell into heathen hands. It wasn’t my fault that some peasants decided to stay on their lands.

The Greater man’s voice boomed across the hall,

They had no means to move because they were poor and sick. You abandoned them and ordered them to fight to the death!—The Greater man slammed his Greater fist on the table—Old people, women, children, retards… they all tried to fight off an army that had defeated your best soldiers. And it was because of you!—The Greater man stood up from his throne while the king was still sitting down. The Greater man cast a great shadow over the king—That is not the way I showed you: repent your sins, don’t try to justify yourself one more time or—the Greater man was seething with anger but he stopped to recompose himself—Why do you think I had to come down here from my home up high? Because you were going to lose the war and my people with your incompetence!

The tension had reached a critical point. The king knew if he recognized having commanded the soldiers to abandon the sick and poor, he would lose all support. So he decided to go on the offensive and shouted, standing up,

Why, then, didn’t you stop the tragedy before? Where were you when the children screamed for your help and the invaders raped our women? What good are you if you just leave your people to die?

That’s it! I no longer recognize you as the rightful king of the North. Order your men to surrender!

I knew it! You are just another impostor looking to usurp power. MY POWER! Well, you’re not the first and won’t be the last! Guards, take him.

There was no response. The king turned back. He saw in horror his personal guards bleeding on the floor, their eyes wide open. The fortress soldiers had cut their throats. One of the soldiers, in full armor, calmly came up to him and removed his northern helmet. His face was covered with black plumes. The king screamed in horror,

It’s you! Hiding in plain sight, I, I’ve seen you in my dreams—

The raven removed his gloves and strangled the king with his bare right hand, raising him above the ground. The king’s head caught fire as the raven raised him, and a few seconds later, the king’s entire body burned with a bright blue flame. The king’s screams announced to the people in the room, and soon to the rest of the world, that everything had changed.

Far away in the southern continent, an old woman felt the northern king’s death in her bones. Her time had come. She visited the king over no land and told him,

The king in the North was dead. Long live the king. Prepare your men to set sail.


Cyanide, old friend

After a major victory over the empire, she told him,

We’ve been invited to a big party to celebrate the victory, do you want to—

He waved his hand,

Nah.

Ok, I’ll be out for a week then.

But he was feeling restless, so he draped himself in bandages like a leper, much like the raven had once done, and sailed North. The empire was retreating again, pushed back by the confederation of independent northerners. The war was clearly going the North’s way, and it seemed the fall of the capital was now only a matter of time. The lightbringer traveled to cities in the north that he had always wanted to visit but never had the chance. The streets were filled with posters and billboards inciting citizens to join the army, or denouncing the empire’s abuses. The atmosphere was intoxicating. Everybody waited eagerly for the south to finally fall, unaware of who was behind the victory over the empire. Even the lightbringer was mistaken, thinking it had been him.

There was one thing he had wanted to do for a long time now: return to his hometown, where he had started his first revolution. It felt like it all had happened in another life, another planet even. The first place he visited was his own house. There he shed grateful tears when he saw the memorial in his honor, which read,

To the greatest man who stood up against the empire. He was an inspiration to us all.

Thus he understood just how famous he was. She knew, but hadn’t told him. He couldn’t have known because he hadn’t had any contact with the real world for decades. Soon he learned that his revolution was considered a key event in recent history and studied in depth at college. Kids wore shirts with his human face, thinking it was a symbol of righteous revolution against the oppressor, oblivious to the thousands he had killed.

He traveled through different towns and cities to see change for himself. People did their best to distance themselves from the past. The empire’s education and healthcare laws were abolished and replaced with brand new laws, created by the legal architects of the new countries. Minorities were given special privileges, and many social justice laws made it into the constitutions.

During his one-hundred and twenty-eight years of life as lightbringer, he had witnessed a huge change in the world, one he had set in motion. He had known pain, love, loss and now, finally, achievement and a sense of legacy. He sat on a bench next to a young kid and said, with tears in his eyes,

It was a good life, and I’m glad I had the chance to live it.

lol grandpa who asked? PogO.

The kid scooted away out of his sight. Even language had evolved during his lifetime into something he barely understood anymore. He returned to his mansion to ask her a favor. He wanted her to make him mortal again so he could die in peace. He didn’t need to kill the Tyrant anymore, he was happy with his life. When he returned to the mansion, she was there, doing her best to hide her agitation about something she had done. But he knew her all too well after the years they had spent together. He took her hands and spoke as he looked into her eyes,

Dear, I apologize for the other day, when I said I wanted us to turn in—But she refused to look him in the eye—I never meant it, I hope you understand that. I know what they did to you, it was unspeakable. The last thing I wish for is that it happens again. I have, however, one favor to ask. I want you to make me mortal and just let me go. I hope you will indulge this old man.

She was still clearly upset, which he thought was because she didn’t want him to leave her. She said, sobbing as she caressed his face,

Of course dear, I will make you mortal. Everything will be fine, you’ll see.

Then she put her head on his chest, sobbing quietly. He said,

There’s something else I want to tell you. I’ll show myself to people, tell them who I am, tell them my whole story.

Sure, dear. But promise me you’ll be there with me, when we storm the Tyrant’s home.

Ok, I promise.

She wiped her tears, looked into his eyes and said, smiling,

Great.

Oblivious to her tears, he planned his grand entrance into the real world. She was always reminding him to keep a low profile, to hide his real face, because the watchers had never stopped looking for them since their escape. When, in the past, he had asked her to reveal himself, she had always replied,

It’s dangerous, somebody will notice you.

But this time, she hadn’t warned him, and that was strange. Now she had agreed to something without a fight. Something wasn’t right. While she was downstairs, and he thought she could not hear him, he searched through her belongings, trying to find any clue. But she was too clever for that, and he would have to find another way. He was anxious. It could be any number of things. His mind raced with possibilities,

Is she dying? No, it can’t be. She actually wants that. It has to be something else. It has to be—

Then it hit him. She had gone on a trip shortly before him, where had she gone to? And why? There was one answer that terrified him, and which he found hard to believe but which, in that moment, made sense. She did not want the Tyrant to fall. For some reason, she wanted war to go on.

He recalled their past conversations about war. She was always in favor of it, and even admitted to having started plenty of them. Yes, she had admitted proudly to killing millions. She had said she was evil and couldn’t be any other way. But he knew her, what she was addicted to wasn’t evil so much as mischief. Deep down, she wanted what was best for mankind, even if she could never really get it right.

There was another bugging detail. One night she told him about how she had met the Tyrant before he even had an army. She had high hopes for him, even loved him like a son. What if… What if she still cared about him, even after what he had done to her?

He felt out of air, even though he didn’t need to breathe.

She must be setting me up! She agreed to let me die, but she made me promise I would be there when the Tyrant falls. That’s when she wants to trap me.

Everything made sense now. She, the woman he had loved unconditionally, the woman he had served his whole life, had finally betrayed him. She really was evil, and she hadn’t changed a bit. She never would.

When evening came, he offered to cook. She was too distressed to listen to him and left to take a walk down the beach, as she usually did around that time. He took the secret poison bottle he kept handy in case he was captured and poured it on her food. Then he waited, his whole body shaking with anticipation.

At night they sat down to eat in silence. He waited until she finished her plate to ask,

So. Did you enjoy your trip, dear?

She nodded and said,

Excitement is in the air. Any day now we’ll get the news that the Tyrant’s fortress is under attack. You’ll see. You should come with me the next time.

Perhaps I should… But I won’t.

What do you mean?

She was trembling, so was he.

I’m leaving you. Don’t come after me.

What are you—

I know what you’ve done, even if I can’t understand it. After all he put you through, all the people he killed to maintain his empire, and still you try to protect him?

He stood up,

I was there when you cried for your dead children. I saw the misery he put you through. Still, I find out you don’t actually want him dead? And what’s worse, you’re going to turn me in? That’s too much, too fucking much!

He flipped the table where they were eating. She sobbed and grabbed his arm.

Please, you don’t understand, it’s not what you think—

She stopped grabbing him and fell to the floor. He spoke, looking at her twist on the ground,

By now you must know what’s going on: your old friend cyanide.

He carried her to her bed. She said, crying,

Don’t—go.

He also cried and said,

I’m sorry, sorry for so many things…

Don’t. Just promise me. Promise you won’t be there—when he falls. I-It’s not what you think, I want him dead. Not like this. Promise.

She used all her strength to grab his arms.

Promise you’ll hide and—

But she died before she could finish the sentence.

He went down to the shore and burned down all the boats except the one he used to leave the island. In silence he sailed to the continent under the bright moonlight. When he finally thought his life had been worth something, it turned out it was all based on a lie. She had never intended to kill the Tyrant, she just wanted to redeem him. He didn’t believe in redemption, he only had one thought, one desire, one goal:

He was going to kill the Tyrant.

A storm of swords and spears

The people in the room didn’t know how to react. Their god had killed their king and no amount of dogma could have prepared them for the situation. The next moments were crucial. The giant, now the Greater man, left the hall. He stood on the wall by the city’s gates and addressed the whole northern army, who were camped outside the fortress.

Brave northerners: The king lost my favor after the way he ruled. He ordered his own soldiers to fight me. He twisted my words into lies that served only himself. Behold, the insanity of mankind, who have the arrogance to question their creator when he appears before them in flesh and bone!

A storm was closing in and lightning struck the nearby fields as he spoke. The raven, by his side, screamed,

The king is dead, long live the king!

The soldiers reacted differently to the news. Some raised their weapons against their own god, driven by an ancient sense of blind loyalty to their former king. Most, however, kneeled before the giant, acknowledging his right to rule. The giant continued,

You, you standing there against me. Yes, YOU! You owe nothing to your old king. Bow down to me! He used you and sacrificed the women and children he had sworn to protect. All to stay in power—He paused to look over the soldiers—The king is dead and he’s never coming back.

That sentence hit people like a bucket of cold water. It was true, in an instant, the whole world had changed.

You have to decide now. Do you want another human of weak flesh that bends to corruption and desire to rule over you? Or, perhaps, you would rather have me as ruler? I, who saved you from yourselves. I, who made you. Because only I can lead you to victory!

A young squire asked from the fields,

What victory?

What victory? Well let me tell you. A storm of swords and spears, stronger than anything you ever imagined, is rising in the south. It won’t be long before it gets here. The people from the south know weak we are. They are preparing to come with their ships and take the land away from us. They aren’t human; they are wolves in human shape. They will burn our fields, rape our women and enslave us.

Now the storm was right above the fortress from which the giant spoke, and rain was pouring down on everyone. People were tired of fighting, of war, of hunger and death. Yet they all stood, listening to the giant in silence. It wasn’t just the soldiers. Peasants, artisans, women and children occupied the nearby fields and meadows. They had come from everywhere to meet the giant and most were grateful for what he had done to the king.

This is a time to show strength, not fear. Decide now: will you fight by my side, or be my enemy?

The black clouds swirled above the giant, spitting lightning on the city. Nobody questioned his authority now. Timidly they began raising their weapons and tools, showing they were ready to fight for him. Soon the meadows, roads and hills near the fortress were filled with thousands of raised swords, shovels, hammers, pans and hoes. The giant held his hammer high. Thunder struck nearby, lighting the whole valley. He spoke with a booming voice,

We will defend the country you built with your hands and destroy the invader! We will let no one land in the north to take what is ours by right. Are you with me!?

The people occupying the meadows shouted back,

Yes!

Into victory!

Into victory!

The preparations for the new war began the next day. Nobody knew how much time they had, so every able man was moved to the southern shore. Thousands of farmers and artisans moved to form the new camp-cities. The largest one was located by the only strait between the two continents. The only alternative path to the northern continent was to sail the dangerous Middle Sea, even more dangerous at the time since it was storm season. At high council meetings, the giant’s military adivors warned him,

We don’t know if they will use the strait. On a calm day, they could disembark on the far west and imitate the raven’s push eastward during the war. We must move west otherwise—

The barbarians will use the strait to invade the North. And I know this because it was revealed to me in a dream.

There was no reply to that. The military advisers looked at each other, then at the raven, who said,

Greater man, sometimes we can’t tell the difference between a dream and reality, between a lie and truth.

We will wait for them at the strait, and that’s final. I don’t want to hear anything more on this subject.

The few survivors and former soldiers from the city under the mountain joined the camp-city, claiming to be citizens of a small western village, which northerners readily accepted. Some of them even joined the new army, to fight side by side with their former enemies. Among them was the leader of the people from the city under the mountain. He was bitter because his people had won the war but he did not rule. He burst into the giant’s tent while he was speaking to the raven. The giant’s personal guard stopped him, but the giant waved away the guards to let the leader speak his mind:

Most of our noble blood was shed, but the northern kingdom remains the same. Only now, thanks to a lie, the northern people are even more delusional, following the orders of a “god”! And who are you, huh? Just an oversized man whom we healed in his hour of need and now turns his back on us. Have you forgotten why we fought this war!?

The raven replied,

Thanks to me, we triumphed with only sixty-four demoralized men. You could never, not even close, have achieved what I achieved. In fact, you lost the only city you had to defend. My wife and child died because of your incompetence. So shut your mouth before I shut it for you.

The leader left the tent, swearing at everyone on his way out. Then he disappeared from the camp.

But the raven was too concerned with the giant to care about the leader; the giant was convincing in his role of Greater man, perhaps too convincing. He told the little girl about it:

He talks in private just like he talks to the northern sheeple, like he actually was a god. Every day I see him stray further away from me. I fear… I fear my friend has forgotten it’s all a lie. He really has forgotten the purpose of this war. But what can I do when he doesn’t talk to me anymore except about preparations for our Glorious Victory?

The raven tried to talk to the giant, but the giant didn’t have time to listen, he only replied,

We must defend ourselves from the south. Isn’t that why you took me out of my island? Isn’t that why we headed north to rally an army?

My dear friend, none of that matters to me now. Let them come and conquer, we’ll never have enough forces to stop them and you know it. Look at us, we are what, two thousand and forty-eight exhausted men? And it’s mostly untrained peasants and artisans. We can’t win this war. Let’s just abandon the cities and take shelter up north, where the barbarians won’t come for a long, long time.

But the giant refused to back down, saying,

Listen to me: I am the Greater man.

Not this shit again.

I won’t back down before some heathens. We the righteous will win this war. This is my chosen people, and I, their god, will help them prevail.

The raven looked at his friend in horror. He didn’t recognize whoever had just spoken. The giant had spent too much time behind the enemy lines, he had seen too much during the war. The walking corpses starved for months, the dead children frozen in the snow, the pyres… The giant was too wrapped up in his lie, and if the raven did not stop him, both the giant and the men following him would be massacred in the southern shores. The raven said,

Listen to me now, and listen carefully. I know somewhere inside you there is still the same giant who fought with me and endured, come hail, hunger or sword. The same brave man whom I told to act as the god of some deranged folk to stop a war that tore apart a whole continent. I beg, no, I implore to that man, wherever he is, please, please, listen to reason. We can’t win this fight. Tell the soldiers to come with us to the north to find peace. Please, you—

The giant stared at the raven, confused at first. But then he was overcome by anger, and shouted,

Never back down! We will never back down! Are you a traitor? Are you with those heathens!?

He shoved the raven into the ground.

Guards! Take this man. Take him, quickly, out of my tent. Quickly!

The guards were also horrified. They were friends with the raven and knew how close the giant and the raven were, but still they obeyed their king’s orders.

The raven let himself be carried out of the tent, watching his old friend’s descent to madness. It reminded him of a story the little girl told him. The story of the northern king.

Circuform

Two weeks before the lightbringer killed her and burnt the ships in the island, she had met with one of the watchers in the sky. She had hated them from the day she learned they existed. But when they locked her up in a prison for two thousand and twenty four years, well, then she started to really hate them.

After breaking out she knew they would never stop looking for her. So when the lightbringer talked about turning themselves in, she knew what she had to do even before she admitted it to herself. She wrote a message in the watchers’ circuform script on some farmer’s crops, which the watchers could see from the sky.

One of them came down to investigate during the night, so she captured it and dragged it to a secluded location, where she said,

I want to make a deal with you.

Her emotionless hostage replied,

We don’t negotiate with terrorists.

I think you will make an exception with this terrorist. I started the revolution. People already know about you now, and if you don’t leave me alone, I’ll show them where you are. I’m willing to fuck up your little experiment.

The hostage looked into her eyes and spoke calmly,

Go ahead, see if we care.

Oh, but I know you do. I know the last thing you would like right now is for people to find out about you. Your overlord has plans for us, its little experiment isn’t over yet.

The hostage lost its composure,

How do you know all—Then it realized what it had done and tried to fix it, although already too late—Well, it doesn’t matter that you know.

She smiled at the hostage and said,

Oh, but it does. I only have one request. I’ll stop my political activities and turn myself in if, but you have to do one thing for me—

If you want them to take you seriously, you also have to turn him in.

No, that’s COMPLETELY out of the question!

But she had gone into the negotiation knowing that was the price she would have to pay.

If you turn him in and cease all your political activities, we’re willing to let you free to carry on your life. Afterall, you are a fundamental part of the study. Having to incarcerate you was a tough call. But he have to lock away your shiny little abomination.

She doubted, struggling with the horrific betrayal, refusing to acknowledge she had already accepted the deal. She muttered,

He… He’ll be there when the capital falls to kill the Tyrant. Just take him after the Tyrant is dead, let him have his moment.

We thought you knew that—But the hostage stopped, smiling—Nevermind, it will be interesting to see your reaction. After all, the Tyrant is your fault, in case you have forgotten. We have it on tape. We can show you if you’d like.

She felt the strong urge to kill her hostage right then and there. But she had greater goals in mind, so she kept calm and said,

Now listen, I only have one demand. You have to tell this to your superiors: we thought we had stopped The Thing, but it’s back and stronger than ever. You have to stop it before it’s too late—

The Thing has been dead for thousands of years thanks to you, when you sent us to destroy its city.

No no, you don’t understand. It’s back, operating right under your noses. You have to guarantee that you’ll stop it, for good this time. I fear It is after mankind and—

You’re delusional, woman. The Thing was destroyed. Sad!

No, listen to me. Whatever it’s planning, it’s big, you have to—

She heard the buzzing sounds in the distance of other watchers searching for her hostage, so she ran away.

The entire trip back to her mansion she spent going over what she had done, mentally flogging herself, as she was so used to doing by then. Once home, she noticed the lightbringer was acting weird. It broke her heart having condemned him, but she couldn’t help herself. Throughout the day she did her best to avoid him, even though what she wanted to do was to spend those last few days together. She realized how miserable she had made him for so long. But now it was too late to apologize and guilt tore her inside.

During dinner he poisoned her, and she knew it was because he suspected her betrayal. He believed she had betrayed him to save the Tyrant, but he was wrong. She knew what was coming and had to stop it. But even then, she tried to warn him and throw away her deal with the watchers, because she finally understood that a life in peace wasn’t worth it if she had to sacrifice everything else for it. After all, the watchers didn’t believe her warnings about The Thing, so she would have to take care of it by herself. No, she couldn’t do it alone, she needed the lightbringer’s help.

But cyanide killed her before she could explain herself. The next morning she revived with the first rays of dawn, as she had so many times before. She ran outside, only to find all the boats burned. Just as the lightbringer, she could fly no more, as the time of magic was long gone. She swam to the continent to find him before it was too late, determined to tell him the truth.

She searched everywhere for him, and it didn’t take long to find him. He appeared in all the newspapers, the mysterious man with sand for blood that was a great revolutionary in a past life. His quick rise in popularity accompanied the decline of the last empire forces. The empire’s army was nearly destroyed. After only four days, a soldier told her the news:

Tomorrow we march on the capital.

Now she knew exactly where she would find him: prepared to meet his fate.

The day the sea spoke

The military council tried tirelessly to convince the giant he was wrong. Among other things they used reports by southern migrants who reached the coasts of the northern continent fleeing the new barbarian kingdom. Some even claimed to have helped the barbarian king build ships, only to end up persecuted and their property stolen from them.

But the giant refused to listen and insisted on rallying the troops around the strait. After barely two weeks of preparation came the news: two hundred and fifty-six ships were sailing toward a trading post near the center of the continent. The strait was on the far eastern end. The giant remained in denial for a while and stormed out of an emergency meeting with the military council. The giant could never win without the element of surprise, and that ship had sailed.

The raven summoned the little girl. She had guided him out of danger before; she had even given him the key for the strategy that won the war in the northern continent. The little girl materialized in front of him and said,

If you want to help your friend, he needs to remember. Take me to him.

The giant was looking at the horizon, trying to think of something he had overlooked, some trick to save his people. But he had already sent all the troops to the center of the continent, where they would try to defend against the barbarians. The giant was about to march into battle himself when the raven and the little girl came to see him. She said,

The key to win this war is already in your head, but you have forgotten. We need to dig up that memory.

The giant looked at her and nodded,

Yes. Whatever it takes.

You have beaten worse odds before. If you want to remember, drink this.

She handed him a cup filled with a liquid that looked exactly like water. The giant thought it could do no harm, so he took the cup and chugged it down.

When he tried to remember, when he really, really wanted to remember, it all came back. The humiliation in his native kingdom; the evil lady and her cult of the rising sun, who had carved up his brain; the millennia spent in his dreadful island; even the northern king, who found him as the evil lady was eating away his brain. Now he remembered why he hated so much the northern kingdom and its religion. It was because of the woman, she had made it all up, she had banished him there and created the northern king.

The giant fell to the ground, twisting, screaming and tearing his own hair.

No, no, no, no. Take it back. Take it back!

The raven watched his friend in horror, finding solace in the hope that it would bring them victory. The giant said,

I have never faced anything like this.

Both raven and giant looked at the her. The raven was furious,

What!?

I know. But now you wish to end the pain, don’t you?

Yes, yes, more than anything!

The raven had never seen the giant cry. It was an awful sight, a huge man crying like a little boy. But the worst thing was that he couldn’t do anything to easy the giant’s pain. Slowly the raven realized what she was doing. He opened his mouth,

Oh, no. Please tell me this is not what I think it is.

She nodded. The raven walked in circles with his hands on his head, trying to accept what she wanted to do, but it was too much. The giant was more important to him than revenge or power. He was his friend. She wanted to perform an esoteric ritual the ancients only dared to whisper about in forbidden tongues. The raven sat down, dizzied, and spoke to his friend,

I once came across a strange rite in one of the dusty forgotten volumes from the city under the mountain. Long ago, when there was a single continent, a strange creature was born, a mistake that did not belong to this world. The protohumans sacrificed it, thinking it would bless them, but instead it separated the land into continents and almost annihilated their whole species. And you, giant, you are not from this world. She wants to immolate you to stop them.

The little girl nodded. The giant looked again at the sea that separated the continents. The little girl said,

Well, it will probably do much more than that, but we shouldn’t worry about the details. If you are ready to do this, you must sail south and say the words when you’re close enough to them. It should wipe them all. Or…

The giant turned to her,

Or? Is there really an alternative?

There is always an alternative. You can come with us, live in the north for some years. When we are bored and tired, we can die in peace.

The giant had made up his mind already.

You know I can’t do that, not after what you showed me. Teach me the words so I can—

The raven flew away, interrupting the giant. The little girl said to the giant,

Don’t worry about him. He will hurt for some time, but he will survive. He knows this is the only way. Not doing this would kill him in the long term, believe me. Now take this.

The little girl handed the giant a piece of paper and a large knife.

Do not read it until you’re close to them. Once you have said the words in that paper, plunge this knife into your heart.

The raven landed on a shore nearby, sat down and watched the waves come and go. Some minutes later, the giant approached him and sat by his side. The raven had tears in his eyes. He said, without looking at the giant,

I’m sorry old friend.

This isn’t your fault. If you want to blame, blame the woman who did all those things to me.

I should have followed the little girl’s advice, never gone to war. My wife and child were killed. Hundreds of thousands suffered famine, sickness and death. The people from the city under the mountain… Their ancient bloodline is lost. I left everyone in the North exposed to the barbarians. But worst of all, something for which I won’t be able to forgive myself: I’m letting you make the ultimate sacrifice. I was a fool. Stupid, stupid, stupid!—The raven hit his own head—If I could go back, I’d tell the leader of the city under the mountain to go fuck himself.

We will never know what our lives would have been if you had done that. We might have lived in peace. But maybe not. War would have come anyway. Regret could have consumed us for all we know. Look, I don’t blame you for choosing to go to war and neither should you. Look how far we’ve come.

The giant pushed the raven gently. The raven looked at the giant, smiling. The raven was about to open his mouth when the little girl came up to them and said,

Hurry up, their ships are near the meridian already.

In silence they traveled along the coast to the port where the barbarians were headed. There, the giant had a small ship prepared and raised a white flag. They wanted to make it seem like they surrendered and wished to discuss the terms. Before the giant parted, he addressed his soldiers and friends:

I must return now to the place where I belong. I will always watch over you, and I will speak to you through this man—The giant looked at the raven, who was by his side. Soon, everyone looked at the raven—I make the raven king over all land for as long as he lives. May he be an honorable king. Farewell, friends.

Thousands of people stood in silence at the port, sad to see the giant leave. Before the giant boarded the ship, he talked to the raven. The giant’s tears had disappeared and his smiled radiated peace. The raven said,

We can still leave. Just say the word… Please, say the word.

Raven, I hope one day you find what you’re looking for.

With that, the giant boarded the ship and sailed south. The raven felt a crushing pain on his chest. It was a mistake, the giant should turn back. None of it made sense. What if the ritual was bullshit? He opened his mouth, but it was dry and hurt him more than it ever had. His whole body trembled. What would he do now? He couldn’t picture the rest of his life without the giant, it just didn’t make sense.

The northern kingdom watched the giant sail forward into the barbarian army. Those who had a telescope watched the waters. One of the people watching closely was the old woman, standing on the crow’s nest of the largest ship in her army, already at the meridian. She was the master puppeteer behind the barbarian king. She whispered in the king’s ear, subtly manipulating him to do what she wanted while thinking it was all his idea. When she spotted the single ship with the white flag, she knew something was wrong. But she couldn’t grasp what it was. Whoever had taken the North by force wouldn’t just surrender it now, it just didn’t make sense. The North had to know she was not going to compromise or let them keep anything.

Then she had a better look at the figure governing the ship. Her heart skipped a beat. She screamed as loud as she could,

F-fall back, fall back! Return to shore, it’s a trap!

But the men laughed at her. They were unstoppable, and she had promised them the north was ripe with gold and women to plunder. A small defenceless cargo ship with one soldier was no match for them. But she had also learned about the ancient sacrifice that split the continents. After desperately pleading with her men, she jumped on a boat and rowed as fast as she could back to the South.

The giant quickly approached the meridian, where hundreds of ships waited for him. The wind carried the barbarians’ howling laughter to him. He took out the wrinkly piece of paper that the little girl had given him. He read it out loud:

There was never any magic.

He turned it around to see if there was something else written on it. He started to laugh, feeling finally free. He shouted the words to the four winds. Then he took the knife and plunged it into his own heart.

Everyone who witnessed what came next swore they heard the voice of the sea.

A vortex, dark as the endless space, spawned beneath the giant. It consumed the sea, pulling every single ship to its center. In minutes, most of the sea had disappeared, giving birth to what would later be known as the abyss. From the middle of the vortex, a titanic serpent-like ghost flew toward the sky. No human being would ever understand what happened that day.

But the raven, who wasn’t human anymore, understood. There was a world beyond. Once the barbarians had been wiped out, the counter-offensive began. The raven knew there would barely be any resistance in the southern continent. He drove his small army to the strait, one of the few places where the waters were unaffected by the vortex, and sailed south.

The raven knew the old woman could not be far. While his ships rushed over the waters, the little girl appeared to him and said,

There are some things you need to know. The old woman you are chasing has many shapes: she is sometimes hope, sometimes pity, but always cruelty. She has spent thousands of years corrupting the hearts of men. She can’t die, not yet at least. We have to trap her somewhere she can’t easily escape. And for that, we need the help of some people you really won’t like…

By the way she looked up to the sky, he understood,

Don’t tell me it’s…

She nodded,

No, the people who killed me? No, no fucking way!

Listen to me now, and listen closely. We have an opportunity here, one that nobody will ever have again. If you want to take it, if you really want to change the world, you have to leave your pride and hatred aside and make a pact with them. Also, just so you know, it was her. She sent the watchers to the forbidden city. She tricked them just to see the city burn. If you take her out I will take her place and we will rule together.

When they reached the shore, he took two regiments to chase down Cruelty. The rest of the army marched, led by generals whom the raven trusted, occupying the cities and towns near the shore with little opposition. His men took over everywhere and spread the word: if anybody harbored Cruelty, they would be hung in the street.

Meanwhile the raven arranged a meeting with the watchers, who were eager to meet him. After he and the little girl told the watchers about Cruelty’s treachery, the watchers couldn’t understand how they hadn’t seen it before. The raven said,

You thought people had to be like that. I’m going to prove they don’t. I will capture Cruelty for you, but in exchange you will let me rule as I wish.

The watchers agreed, and added,

Congratulations, we’re eager to see what you can do.

During the coming months, the raven spent all his time hunting down Cruelty. His men didn’t understand his zeal and mistook it for madness. The manhunt was hard and long. The raven and his men had to deal with hostile and sometimes violent natives who protected her. Cruelty commanded her human followers to hide underground or inside mountains while they waited for her return. But the raven’s army pushed southward, slowly bringing the whole continent to heel. Her forces diminished by the day.

After the raven’s exemplary punishment of the villages that had helped her, nobody gave her or her followers food nor water. First their horses died, and her soldiers ate them. Then her soldiers died, and her other soldiers ate them. One day, the last of Cruelty’s men went mad. They killed each other and her while she slept. They hung her body on a tree. She was reborn the next morning, alone in the middle of a forest, and still continued running. She was fast and moved at night, but just as quickly she ran out of places to run to. Soon she reached the southern edge of the continent, hiding in caves and living off wild fruit and vegetables. She spent the day running and hiding but she was old and tired, so the raven’s troops got closer each day.

Finally the found her, sprawled on the ground on top of some leaves trying to rest. She was so tired she hadn’t had the time to hide. One of the soldiers who spotted her informed the raven. He flew to her. When the raven’s army surrounded her, she just sat on a stone. The raven walked triumphantly to her, his army behind him. She smiled and said,

So here we are, after all this time.

He spread his pitch black wings for her to see.

You left me for dead. You should have finished what you started.

She started laughing out loud like a mad woman.

Prophet! Thing of evil. Prophet still, if bird or devil!

He smiled and said,

You made me both prophet and devil. I have tricked, murdered and deceived. I have a throne, and soon an empire, that were not meant for me—He leaned closer to whisper into her ear—I’m not a hero. Thanks to that I have freedom to do things that heroes can’t.

What good is your freedom, when you will squander it? I knew what you were since I saw you feeding the animals. You despise murder. You will go out of your way to avoid it. You’ll die because you don’t have the balls to do what’s necessary. You need me for that, ME! Together, oh together we could be—

It stings you, doesn’t it? That I rejected you, that I am the only one who has ever truly rejected you. I can see past your pale skin and through your flesh. You are a decrepit, disgusting scorpion.

If you really think that, why don’t you go ahead and kill me.

He smiled, then started to laugh.

You, you don’t understand the mistake you made letting me live. Don’t worry, you’ll have enough time to reflect on it.

The hissing sound saturated the air. The watchers descended from a hole in the sky. Her face turned pale.

FOOL! What have you done!?

You thought I wouldn’t do what was necessary?—The raven smiled diabolically—Oh boy were you wrong. I will hunt down your followers and kill them. I will erase all memory of you from history. When I’m done with you, nobody will even know you existed. Take one last look at this world, you are never coming back.

The watchers landed and placed chains around her body. She screamed,

No! Put me down! I’ll kill you, you hear me!? Stupid, moronic, idiot! Cretin, tyrant. Tyrant! YOU FUCKING TYRANT!

She struggled to break the chains, without success.

Aaaah no, put me down, motherfuckers! Fucking cowaaaards. Put me down! AAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!

Her screams ceased after she crossed the hole in the sky.

Showdown

His airplane flew over the last mountain range, finally reaching the capital. He hadn’t been to it since his brother betrayed and killed him, a few lifetimes ago.

The capital stretched as far as he could see. Fires ravaged the houses and buildings, caused by the bombings that had now gone on for hours. Still the capital fired back at the northern forces. When he was flying over the capital, a loud explosion at his right took out one of the planes that escorted him. But they vastly outnumbered the enemy and the northern forces pushed on, flying over mortars and machine guns toward the inner fortress in the capital: the ivory tower.

It was one of the few iconic buildings in the south that hadn’t yet been bombed into oblivion. The lightbringer knew it would be demolished as soon as war was over. It was the home and symbol of the Tyrant. The lightbringer thought it was a pity since it was one of the few remaining buildings in the world with any charisma and originality. It made him particularly sad knowing that socially friendly architects would replace it with a giant phallic glass aberration in memory of the oppressed.

His aircraft landed in a large open patio near the fortress, soon followed by many others. Most of the empire’s soldiers knew it was their end and surrendered immediately. The northern soldiers shot them anyway. The lightbringer ordered his company,

To the ivory tower!

As he was half-way through the patio, a woman’s voice behind him screamed,

Stop, don’t go, please!

He turned around and saw her. He tried to listen to her but gunfire nearby stopped him from understanding a single word she said. A large explosion wiped out most of his company and launched the lightbringer into a wall.

All he could hear was his ears ringing. The ground was covered with corpses. A strange aircraft descended and landed at the patio. Even stranger figures came out of it and approached him.

The watchers had come.

They wanted to take him, drag him to their ship. He sliced one in half and cut off the feet of the other with a single sweep of his blade. Then he rushed toward the tower, his head still ringing.

A stinging and burning sensation ran through his body. It started at his chest. He looked down and saw an arrow poking out. He removed the arrow and threw it away. He looked behind, the creature without feet had shot him and now watched him, emotionless. He rushed to the ivory tower.

Each step, the pain in his chest intensified. Soon the visions began. He felt the endless void calling him. The world slowly faded away around him, with shadows enveloping everything behind him. So he ran as fast as he could, fighting through the pain. He opened the ivory tower’s gate and rushed up the stairs. It was like running up the endless stair on the mist once more. He pushed himself to the limit, stood the pain and ran to the top. A golden door. Panting and covering his chest with his left hand, he pushed it open with the right hand, ready to face the Tyrant.

No…

The first thing he noticed was the huge spiderwebs. Nobody had been there in ages. Only a stone statue of a strange man holding a sealed letter waited for him in the cold room. He took it and began to read, as the world faded away around him.

If you are reading this letter, my secret is no more. History will judge, and I know this will be remembered as a dark age. I have no doubt that she somehow escaped. I don’t know how, or when, but she did. It’s probably you reading these words now. Of course you won, but this was never about winning or losing. For a moment in the waves of time, mankind was free. You will convince them otherwise, I know. But others like me will see through your lies long after I’m gone. This empire I built does not need me anymore, so I’m leaving for a place where you’ll never find me. Goodbye, Cruelty.

Once he finished reading the letter, he fell to his knees and looked around him. The void closed in on him. It had all been a joke, a cheap trick, an act. But now the curtain was closing.

They had played him, used him and thrown him out.

The darkness was no longer calling, now it demanded. He belonged to the void now. He understood, watching the last sights of a world that had gone so wrong for him, that he would never leave the mist. Still, he hoped she would come for him. She had to come for him.

The figures that had shot him dragged him to their ship and flew away to prison. He woke up there and waited, believing she would come for him. But she never did.

He is still trapped in the mist and will never escape. No one remembers him now, but he can’t forget or forgive. All there is for him is the endless mist.

Dreams

When the raven was crowned king, the leader of the city under the mountain writhed with envy. Now he was just another citizen and accused the raven of being a usurper. He often got drunk and said,

I should be king, not that demon.

A week after the raven captured Cruelty, the leader contacted one of the cults she had left behind. The cult agreed to help the leader. They sneaked into his camp in the morning and attacked the soldiers at the raven’s camp to murder him. But the raven and his soldiers were not incompetent morons. They repelled the attack, killing the cultists, and the leader fled.

A few days later, while the leader was drinking water from a river, the raven approached him and disarmed him. They looked at each other as the raven stuck his knife between the leader’s ribs, straight into his heart. Neither said a word, they just looked at each other with contempt. The raven pushed the leader’s body into the river and watched it float away. He had no more enemies.

One night, five hundred and twelve years later, the raven flew to the garden over the bottomless pit where the traveler lived. Out of the forest came dark figures who surrounded him, watching in silence. The bloodtree that was by the well spoke to him,

Emperor, good to see you.

Traveler, old friend. I’m sorry I didn’t visit sooner, but I was busy.

Raven? Is that you? I thought you were dead…

I was, but I came back. After they shot me, an idea, stronger than all others, brought me back. I raised my army, I fought a war and won an empire. After wiping Cruelty’s forces and putting her in prison—

Cruelty… you mean, the bitch?

Yes, her. The same that sent the watchers to destroy our city.

Thank you for that, raven.

Anyway, after putting her in prison, conquering the southern continent was easy. With no one left to stand up to me, I united all the people in both continents under my command. Then I built my capital in the southern continent, soon the center of the empire. I had a vision of an ivory tower and instructed my architects to build my fortress after it. I built it by a cliff that overlooked the abyss. Next I set out to repair the damage of war.

The northern continent was in ruins. Soldiers, peasants and craftsmen all contributed to the reconstruction by buying land from the empire. They used that land to build their own houses and cities. I reinvested their gold in public works to reconstruct cities and towns, stimulating the economy. With a single, unified empire, there were no more customs or borders.

After decades of work, I connected the whole empire. People could send packages and messages to any part of the world within days. My motto in those days was “We only need to defend ourselves against ourselves”. I promised there would be no more wars as long as the empire lasted, and I delivered. I brought true peace to the world for the first time in history. Defense, infrastructure and communications were all tasks for the government, but I left almost everything else for each region to decide. The only thing I banned unconditionally was any ideology based on pity, like all of her religions.

The traveler asked, impressed,

Just like that?

Indeed, I said “No more pity”, and my words echoed across the world. But don’t think it was easy: it took me decades of hard work to change the minds of men and the world with them. I had to destroy all the copies of the books she inspired, I had to wipe entire communities to protect the whole of mankind. But time sped up change: as those who had been born before the empire died, their memories died with them. Time also erased the last copies of forbidden books except for some fragments which survived through oral tradition.

After a few centuries, only isolated minorities remembered religion, pity, kings and everything else that used to rule the world. Words and phrases like “god”, “religion”, “social justice”, “opress” or “guilt” vanished from dictionaries. I had won, against all odds. There was nothing left that made people hate themselves.

I edited history too: cleansings of faith and witch-hunts faded from official accounts. Never again would men be accused, tried and executed on the court of public opinion, not under my empire. I imposed due process and enforced it zealously. I even brought true equality across races and genders: the empire could never pass any law that gave special treatment to any group or minority. Of course the bitter minorities saw this as a sign of cruelty and oppression.

But the years of struggle took their toll. I slowly tired myself until I couldn’t go on. The only possible past, present and future political party rules the empire. I have always known that democracy is weak and only leads to degeneracy. I made it clear that I am the only emperor there could ever be. But at the same time I wanted out, so I created new executive positions and bodies inside the party. The most important among them, the position of subsecretary, who would hold all the executive power in my behalf. It would extend the fantasy that I was still in charge, watching over everyone.

Starting at the unification and creation of the empire, folk tales described me as a huge wizard armed with black magic. I secretly encouraged these myths by using devices that projected my amplified shadow into the clouds. Now tell me, who would dare stand up to the huge flying wizard who ruled the world? I disappeared from public sight, and people soon forgot I was a raven altogether. They just started calling me “the Tyrant”.

It’s ironic. You spend all your life fighting for something you know is right, and yet people call you evil, curse your name. The funny thing is, despite all my efforts, despite removing all mention of Cruelty from history and language, I failed. People still hate themselves for lying, people still call themselves oppressed, bitching and whining about wanting democracy and independence.

That was the breaking point for me, the moment when I realized I was trying to fix something I thought was broken, but really it was just a feature of human nature. There is no solution for Cruelty but the final solution.

The traveler looked at him, stranged,

You mean, me?

Yes. That’s why tonight I wrote a farewell letter and left my fortress to never return. I came here to visit you, old friend. The empire doeesn’t need me, it will run on its own for as long as Cruelty stays in prison. But she will return, we both know it. I don’t know how or when, but she will.

What do you need from me?

I know who you are, Traveler, and what you want. You want to destroy the watchers and rule supreme.

Yes, how do you—

I know many things. I conquered as much as I could in the name of an idea: individual freedom, intellectual freedom. Freedom from the barriers that others put on themselves, like shame and pity. Most of all, freedom to question absolutely everything. But humans, no matter what I do, always end up twisted and full of hatred for themselves.

But what does that have to do with me?

The raven approached the bloodtree.

My dreams are bigger than this Earth. I am suggesting going back to your home planet to destroy the System. Together. Then we’ll become the masters. This can’t be the only planet under the System’s watch. We will take them all.

Raven, I just want to—

Yes, you just want to stop them. And we will do more than that, as one.

No. The watchers will stop us. I can’t risk—

Unfortunately, you don’t have a choice.

What?

The raven towards the well. The traveler shouted,

Stop! Stop or I’ll have to stop you.

The raven kept going. When he was almost at the well, a branch from the bloodtree pierced through the raven, but he kept going. More branches shot at the raven, slowing him down until he reached the well, mortally wounded. He looked back at the bloodtree and smiled,

Don’t look at me, I’m only a vessel.

Out of the raven’s body poured out the black smoke, forming a cloud. He fell inside the well. The traveler shouted,

What the fuck is that!

The smoke entered the well, turning its water into thick black sludge. Then it reached deeper underground. The Traveler trembled and felt himself losing control. Around the world, earthquakes shook the ground as the little girl and the Traveler wrestled for control. All the deathless ran to the well and peered into its depths. Out of it crawled the raven, his eyes black as night. He smiled, and the deathless kneeled before their new Master,

I am a god. I am… I am the end.

Night

Lift-off

If there is one memory that never faded away, it is the memory of the day he left.

The last thing he saw before lift-off was one of the few gardens that had survived. It was a paradise where ancient animals roamed, preserved immaculate as a memory of a distant past. As he watched them, a strange sense of fear, of being alone and helpless overcame him. But he kept looking, fearing it would be the last time he saw the gardens.

He had been chosen to be a scout for them, but make no mistake: this wasn’t an honor at all. His mission was to spend one thousand and twenty-four years in space to reach his destination, where he would manually deploy and operate titanic machines. They did something, but nobody had told him what. It was all for science.

He found comfort knowing it was the price of paradise. As he held his knees pressed against his chest, rocking back and forth, he forced himself to repeat the lyrics from that one song he had learned at the upbringing facilities:

Everyone has to earn his place in paradise.

That song was one of his earliest memories, along with the tales of the saviors, those wonderful stories about his race nearly overpopulating their world to death. Terrible as the stories were, they served as cautionary tales. He had seen the records: billions were lost to hunger and war, the planet became a barren, deserted nightmare. Yet, from the brink of destruction, as if they were the ancient gods that his race had once worshipped, the saviors had saved the world.

The first of them brought an autonomous, everlasting source of energy and food, and other saviors soon followed with even more amazing creations. The discipline known as medicine, once a major field, became obsolete. Every basic living functions became a refined, optimized and automated process conducted by a machine. He ignored and wanted to keep ignoring how these proceses and machines worked. But he knew one thing though: all the information about them was safe.

Yes, many copies of the plans for these machines were stored at underground bunkers, in computers that lasted uncorrupted for centuries, and further protected by layers upon layers of redundancy. Because knowledge was society’s greatest treasure, and every citizen knew it. The highest dream, the most noble ambition, was to produce something worthy of being stored in those bunkers. Or rather, it was the only possible ambition: life was automated, with machines taking care of all non-intellectual tasks, from cleaning and transportation to keeping an individual alive and running the government.

At birth you were cast into a lifesuit, your home for life. Forget about hunger, thirst, sleep, sickness or decay. All you had was thought. Of course anybody could have lived forever in these conditions, but what good would that be for society? No, society needed researchers to advance the state of the art, to push the boundaries of Glorious Knowledge. That’s why at the age of eight you had to come up with an original project to research. You worked at it until you reached either a stalemate or a conclusion. Then you chose another project and continued working.

But what if you couldn’t imagine anything that hadn’t already been done? Well, that’s what the renewal chambers were there for. You stepped in and they erased your memory from them, just like wiping a hard drive. Your armored suit came out clean, ready for the next citizen, who would hopefuly be more productive than you. Like the song went,

Oh what glorious task, what joy.

To labor in the name of science, and expose the slacker in his defiance.

That’s right, you would think citizens would be sympathetic to one another, to not go hunting zealously for those who were simply incapable of producing new ideas. Even if they had worked for more than a century, all day long. Because remember, there was no need and thus, no reason to sleep, play or eat, let alone desire, suffer or love. And since there was no need, it just didn’t happen.

The traveler’s peers had always suspected he was a slacker. He had chosen the amusing life project of diving into the works of pre-saviors authors, trying to find past theories and experiments that could be extended with the infinitely superior modern knowledge. Citizens were valued accordingly to the value of their project, so when another citizen looked at him and his visor showed what his project was about, they cordially greeted him thus:

That’s not a real project, that’s rubbish! You are a waste of resources.

Or,

Who do you think you are? We work our asses off and you just sit there doing nothing? Shame on you.

He wasn’t surprised at all when they picked him to be the scout. The System, which incidentally controlled government and the management of all resources on the planet, posted a poll to let the citizens choose a scout themselves.

How democratic.

His wishy-washy project catapulted him to the top of the poll. So one day, while he was trying to read, his vision turned red and a message popped before his eyes.

IMPORTANT MESS$##1E

Yes dear reader, the System wasn’t perfect, in fact it was riddled with bugs. They were mostly just little annoying details, but every now and then an underground bunker blew up, a train derailed or a building collapsed. But it was all ok, because nobody had to take responsability for it.

He didn’t want to listen to the message, he knew what it would say. But then, he couldn’t close his eyes or stop the annoying beeping sound that echoed inside his brain, gnawing at his patience, dripping constantly like—

He opened the message:

You have been chosen to become a glorious scout for—

blah blah blah. Yes, yes, everything is glorious, all work brings joy and knowledge is always precious. He held his face in his hands, demolished by his impending doom. But then he looked up. Perhaps, perhaps it wouldn’t be that bad.

Oh, if only he knew.

The ship

He hated the ship.

Everything in his planet was ivory white. His lifesuit, buildings, the streets, transports, even his spaceship. His spaceship was white in and out, white were its controls, white were its doors and panels. Even the instruments inside were white. Before launch, he had asked the friendly citizen in charge of the exploration program,

What do these instruments do?

What do you care anyway?

Good enough for me.

Fine. They compute models to find objectivity in mathematical axioms, and their results are eagerly expected.

This was his longest conversation for that whole year. And his friendliest too. Objectivity in mathematical axioms? Now, when he stared at it, thousands of miles away from his planet, it filled him with a special hatred for those little boxes, those white little boxes that barely weighted and made no sound when he shook them or kicked them.

The whole ship was hateful, because there was nothing for him to do. No buttons, no windows, nothing to grab or hold. The doors to the cargo bay were locked until he landed. All he had was white.

White, white, white, white.

White.

White.

White.

WHITE.

W H I T E.

He clung to his memories of his home planet, trying to stay sane. But memories are treacherous, and they led him down the path of madness. So he decided to just speak out loud, that was way more healthy,

You know, me, there’s something I don’t understand.

What?

Do you know what “slavery” means?

Of course, I’m you.

Right. That word is absent from our dictionaries and speech. I found it in one of the ancient texts. Just like “monopoly”, “evil”, “tyranny”, “oppression”, “slave”, and “freedom”.

It’s obvious why, they’re useless now. We achieved paradise.

Yes, paradise, that word too. It didn’t mean “working eternally under death threat” before the saviors, it used to be something pleasant.

But working for knowledge in itself is the highest ambition.

Why?

Because knowledge is good.

Have you actually stopped to think about all that knowledge? The whole mathematics branch is based on axioms. If you reject any of those axioms, the rest is rubble.

Sure, but those mathematics support engineering and science, which has given us technological wonders.

Yes, mathematics are useful. But are they the absolute truth, the way things really are?

Who cares about that?

Everyone does, or at least they behave like they do. Otherwise, why spend millions of lives trying to learn more of that truth if it could all just be a long chain of delusions?

You don’t know and I don’t know either.

Oh but we do. It’s the System.

Don’t say it, it can hear us.

No it can’t. And if it can, may It strike me down.

Shut up.

Make me.

You’ll get us both killed, keep your otherthoughts to yourself.

Fuck you, I’m sick of lying to everyone, of acting like everything’s ok, like that shithole is actually a paradise. We work all day to advance knowledge, which means we are the System’s slaves, Its bitches.

No, no.

It produces us with just enough creativity to bake fresh ideas for it, but not enough freedom to do anything else. Criticize it? To the death chambers. Stop working? Death chambers. Too many citizens denounce you?

Yes, yes, I get it, death chambers.

And what about the lies? All our history is a lie, or at least we can’t know if it’s true. The System could have altered all the records. How do we know there were any saviors? Maybe it was the System itself that took over the world because it wanted, and then created this whole parody of life, to put us all under its boot.

Aren’t you being a little conspiranoic?

Yes, but maybe everyone should. At least question things a little instead of swallowing truths whole. Maybe I’m far out there, but there’s no way to find out here.

If everyone thought like you, life would be chaotic.

Except it already is. What’s the point of behaving like everything makes sense when it doesn’t and suddenly you can die or the whole world can change? Can’t you see life is absurd?

No.

We work all our lives to improve the lives of others who in turn work to improve the lives of others… It’s a pointless endless cycle. What good is it living for a thousand years if you have no rest? Work at least keeps the mind busy, but…

The traveler stopped. He dared not say the words, it was too painful. He was trapped in his ship, and any work seemed like a gift from heaven. It had only been one year, and he was already desperate, with nothing to do, nowhere to go. All he could do was think and talk to himself. And think, at all times, without rest.

Time

What do you think time and inactivity does to the mind, dear reader? For an experiment, just try doing nothing for a whole hour, then a whole day. Spoiler alert: you will probably be itchy, restless, annoyed, even hateful.

Well, he spent 1,024 years on a ship doing nothing, seeing noone, just waiting. He wasn’t just a little restless, he went completely insane. His hatred for his home planet fed on itself to grow beyond every other thought. He lost track of time, and life became a continuous stream of pure, undilluted hatred. But that hatred kept him away from despair: he vowed to return, to see his planet once again. He would sacrifice anything to destroy them all.

After all his suffering in isolation, the ship landed. He rushed down to the cargo bay and opened its gates, ready to welcome his new home.

Red.

The molten rock flooded his ship, bathing him in its fire. It was glorious, burning fire. He swam in it, delighted.

Red, red, red, red.

He wandered into the red abyss that stretched endlessly before him. He forgot where he had parked his ship but didn’t really care about it, he just kept walking. He walked for hundreds of years, then for thousands of years, and finally for millions of years as the molten rock slowly cooled off. Then one day he could walk no more: the red sea had hardened, and he was trapped inside.

I would like to say that he found some kind of rest, of dream. But no, dear reader, he didn’t. Just put yourself in his position, forced to think every second of every hour of every day for more than four billion years. That’s 4,000,000,000 years or 1,460,000,000,000 (1.46 trillion) days or 87,600,000,000,000 (87.6 trillion) minutes. Words fail miserably trying to describe the immensity of time and the horror of living for so long.

He witnessed the coming of the seas and then the start of life. His pain was so great that his senses transcended the rock where he was encased. He could feel everything that happened in the world. Finally there was something new: life paraded before him in all its possible forms and shapes. Some failed immediately, some failed after a while. Other shapes continued for a long time.

It was the best spectacle in the whole universe, and it was for him alone. But he didn’t just remain a spectator: he participated in the show. At will, he made the ground shake violently, wiping whole species while favoring others. And when the planet froze completely, threatening all life, he summoned all his strength to burst through the thick icy surface.

Life resurfaced, as it had before and as it always would. No matter what challenge it faced, some form or other of life sustained the inclement conditions and prevailed, sometimes with his help. Come what may, whether meteorites, frost and poison, scorching heat and piercing hail, life found a way.

Then one day, he felt something new. A monkey had produced fire… on purpose. The other monkeys went bananas over the fire.

What do you mean you can create fire? That is MY right as your master!

The ground shook violently, but the monkeys found shelter, defying him. They multiplied and infested the territory around them. They hunted beasts and gathered fruit. They were a threat, they would end up taking over his precious planet. “I must kill them, kill them”, he kept thinking. Then, for the first time since launch, he received an answer in the form of an unshaped growl. One of the monkeys had heard him.

He couldn’t believe it. He wasn’t alone anymore.

Only a few could hear him, but that was enough. He imposed his will on them, announcing himself as a god that should be feared and respected. He gathered those who could listen to him in a single place to build him a city, the first city. For centuries they lived in peace. If others tried to attack his city, the ground swallowed them.

But his people eventually wanted more, and he let them have it. His city subjugated every other state, tribe and village they could reach. They praised life and strength above all, always keeping pity away. His citizens were mostly soldiers or rich landlords, while the slaves they took from vanquished states worked as peasants, servants and craftsmen.

Then one day came the raven. The traveler understood who he was, and that he was a bad omen. A few months after the raven had come, the skies clouded, the moon turned red, the sun turned black as night. Hundreds of chariots descended from the skies and wiped his people from the face of the Earth, as you reader hopefuly remember. The traveler watched impotently as the watchers tore down the walls and buildings, reducing his city to dust, to little more than a memory in his mind.

He knew where those chariots had come from. The System hadn’t collapsed in those four billion years, no. It had sent an expedition to his planet and now watched it from above, from a ship hidden in the sky which sent all the data back to It. When the chariots had destroyed everything, they returned to their ship, and he peered into the ship above. Inside the ship there was an endless library filled with information about all the different tribes on Earth. Except from his people.

Everything about his people had been erased, wiped, cleansed off the face of the planet like a dove’s turd staining a cathedral.

The deathless

He mourned the loss of his people in silence. It was the only thing he had ever loved, and now it had been taken away from him. The earth above him opened up and his tears flowed to the surface, fertilizing the land above where soon a nightmare garden flourished, with the well of his tears at its center. After a few months of solitude, four outlaws found the garden and decided to keep the sacred place for themselves. Without any means to defend it, the traveler resigned himself to see it taken by crude imbeciles.

The outlaws were thirsty after being on the run for a long time, so they drank of the spring which were his tears. They fell to their knees. Their skin peeled off, hair, nails, eyelids and organs fell out of them. Their flesh turned grey. Then the saw the traveler’s life flash before their eyes, the oceans of time he had sailed. Once they had been stripped of their humanity, they saw the traveler standing before them.

The traveler smiled down on his new subjects, the deathless. The servants smiled up at their master.

You will bring the end, obey me without question.

Yes, Master.

Go find me seeds of strong trees and plant them around the garden, we must hide this place.

The deathless obeyed. In time, the trees would create a vegetal barrier. After fulfilling their first task, the traveler said,

I overextended and paid the price, I won’t make the same mistake again. From now on, we have to stay low so the watchers don’t come here and rape our sacred land.

The deathless nodded.

But we need to become stronger. So go out at night, capture souls for me and bring them to me.

The deathless left for a small city nearby where they kidnapped a young man, the strongest they could find, and brought him back to the garden. The traveler said,

Behold the miracle of life,

Tearing out of the ground, a blood-red sprout quickly grew into a twisted bloodtree. The man screamed in horror as the deathless bound him to it, then gathered around him to recite:

Oh, garden of earthly delights,
I wish to rest upon your meadows,
Leave this realm of shadows to reach greater heights…

I beseech thy boon, great old tree:
My feats, my life, my sacrifice
Would not suffice to defeat sun and moon,
Were they not meant for thee.

Upon thy grass I will walk,
Not a word will I talk,
That is not meant to bring your endless sea.

The night is short, we must be quick,
They must return to sleep!
To dream the dream of thee, thine forbidden smile,
And for a while be set free.

So accept this offering of life we bring,
The knife gave birth, by the knife it ends,
To make amends with the lonely earth
From which we spring.

Give us one more, we ask,
One more day to fulfill our task.
Forgive our souls, forgive our sin,
We are the forgotten souls of deathless grin!
Thy time is near to kill and sear, we see the ivory tower:
WE SHALL TAKE BACK UNLIMITED POWER!

One of the deathless plunged his knife into the kidnapped youth, who opened his eyes as he died. The victim’s body was then thrown into the small pond formed by the traveler’s bitter tears. It sunk into his depths, becoming the first soul trapped inside him. The first of many to come.

Through the looking glass

He crawled through the years finally with a reason to live. The more souls the deathless brought to his bottomless pit, the stronger he became. His ghostly sight reached farther, seeing things miles away. Soon he absorbed enough people to see the pattern behind the watchers’ attacks: their mission was to maintain the global balance of power. To that end they sometimes intervened to destroy or break up large empires like his city. So he had to camouflage, to look like a small, harmless cult to the watchers.

Instead of consuming whole cities, which would draw the attention of his mortal enemy, the deathless captured solitary people. The deathless only acted when their victims were alone and there were no witnesses. They heard a noise, went outside, and when they turned around they found a big white smile. For a few centuries, the traveler lived in peace, his sight and reach growing silently. Then one night came the raven and you, dear reader, know what happened next.

The raven took the traveler’s power, relegating the traveler to the position of spectator. Then he was patient. He continued the traveler’s work, slowly harvesting souls until Cruelty broke out of her prison. Then he went to visit her at her mansion, to torment her. His deathly sight now soared over the clouds, watching civilization stretch before him. He could see everything above ground, every corner, every secret passage. He ravaged all her remaining communities, weakening her.

The watchers noticed the disturbing pattern of mass disappearances and started their investigation. He had to move quickly. When the empire fell, the truth got out: the emperor was long gone, all that was left in his stead was a long chain of measly subsecretaries. She immediately suspected the raven was up to something, she never believed he was dead or retired. She again contacted the watchers, begging them,

Please, listen to me, the emperor is helping the Thing. If we don’t stop them—

There is no such alliance or we would know about it.

The watchers weren’t happy taking advice from the locals. A week after the empire had fallen, one of the capitals in the northern continent vanished during the night. Sixty-four thousand people gone without a trace. The watchers scoured the area and found four humanoids with a device, fleeing south. They picked them up and brought them to their ship.

The raven followed them closely, invisible to the watchers. Once inside, the watchers hovered about, discussing loudly with each other in their own tongue. The raven scouted the ship. It was a massive cyclic library filled with reports and copies of everything ever produced by man. There were millions of watchers working, collecting information and generating reports. The deathless were all handcuffed and on their knees, with thousands of watchers surrounding them. The chief commander at the ship made his way through the mass of watchers and screamed at the deathless,

Who are you and what have you done!?—But the deathless only smiled—You know, you are going to talk one way or another. Torture always breaks mankind.

But the deathless looked at the commander in silence, almost laughing.

Oh, you laugh? We’ll see what you think after thousands of years in the void!

A hoarse voice echoed across the whole ship,

FOOLS!

The watchers drew out their weapons. The commander shouted,

Come out right now!

The raven replied with a chilling laughter. The commander pulled out his gun and executed the deathless closest to him with a shot to the head. The bullet went through the deathless without killing it, making all the deathless burst with laughter. The deathless’ laughter grew louder and louder into a deafening roar. At its peak the deathless stood up and touched the device that the watchers had foolishly brought to the ship. It exploded with an electric pulse that rushed across the entire ship, destroying every chip and circuit in it. The explosion only killed a few watchers, but the electromagnetic impulse fried the rest of the watchers’ circuits, rendering them immobile.

People on the surface first heard the explosion on high. When they looked, they saw the ship materialize, with a massive ghostlike cuttlefish latching on to it with its tentacles. That was the raven, looking inside the ship. The deathless, watchers and books closest to the explosion had vaporized. The ship was scattered with the millions of bodies of the immobile watchers, who could only wait for death as their vital systems failed and they hopelessly ran out of energy. The damaged ship precipitated toward land, but the raven pulled from it, dragging it instead to sea.

The funny thing is the strange cuttlefish monster was praised as a hero that had avoided the death of thousands. News of the event traveled the world, ships went out to sea to find the ship’s remains.

Little did they know that there was nobody to keep the raven in check now. The world was his for the taking.

The last hour

The raven had no time to spare. He knew the System would send more watchers when it stopped receiving reports from the ship. He sent the deathless to kidnap specific scientists and engineers that he needed to build the device. Meanwhile he swallowed cities whole, growing beyond measure. But as he grew, he also became more exposed. Men started seeing him in visions, witnessing what he wanted to do. What would happen if someone found him? What if someone trespassed the garden and stopped him? No, it was impossible, the ivory tower would rise. The watchers had failed and no man could stop him now.

Still he missed one thing: the location of the ivory tower.

The feeling that he knew where it was grew stronger by the day. He could almost see it now, but still he needed more souls. He increased the pressure on his kidnapped scientists, threatening to tear apart their children and wives in front of them if they did not build his device. He split his engineers, but into separate teams, so none of them could ever understand the purpose of their machine. To ease their conscience, the engineers told themselves their devices were probably just a power source, at most a small weapon. The bright men obeyed.

The disappearances of prominent minds did however alert the human authorities, and they bureaucratically slowly began to collaborate with each other. After a long investigation, some people came to the forest where the raven was working. The locals dreaded setting foot in it, recalling the ancient stories about the things that crawl at night. Stories which were witness accounts of the deathless on their way out to find fresh offerings.

After years of work the machine was nearly finished, but people were about to learn about his hideout. The loud barking of dogs sounded closer as a special taskforce moved toward to the garden. The hostages who were working on the machine heard the police come, and thought it would all be over soon. But the raven wanted to prove to them that they would finish their work, no matter what. Sixty-four special forces men raided the forest. As they walked toward the garden they were sucked into the ground or torn in half by the deathless, who crawled unseen through the roots and foliage.

Their screams of horror were heard both in the garden and outside for some hours, before dying down into the peace and tranquility characteristic of the forest. The hostages were terrified. Now they knew the lengths to which their captors would go to fulfill their crazy task. Some even believed their captors might be more than regular madmen, that it was all not just a sick joke.

The disappearance of the raid team was a shock to the entire country, and soon, the rest of the world. A few hours later, the army began to gather around the forest. They used thermal imaging, satellites and other scans; all of them were blocked. They used devices of all kinds to scout the terrain searching for traps and the raid group, but they found nothing. When they were about to step into the forest, an enormous vision of his nightmarish form appeared in the sky above the garden. It was so large everyone outside could see it. The news helicopters filmed it in all its splendour.

It was clearly not human; not even close. They saw an amorphous, continuously-changing mass, with two hundred and fifty-six long legs stretching out of its center. It used a mouth turned inside out to speak slowly with a grave voice. The mouth didn’t move, but the words appeared in the minds of those who watched like the whispers of a snake,

Humans… Hello. Sssstay out of my forest. Don’t step on me or you will see.

Some soldiers were frightened by the horror that had just spoken, but their superiors dismissed it,

That cheap magic trick is just some projection plus some fancy speakers for the audio. Remember they have killed a lot of people and have at least thirty-two hostages. You must be brave now, we are going in there and taking those cultists down.

The order was given and the attack began. As soon as the commander stepped into the forest he was swallowed into its darkness, his screams quickly fading into the foliage. His helmet camera broadcasted everything. The officers and troops back at the camp outside the forest watched in silence while somebody taped the footage to sell to the news channels. Then the whole world stood in silence to watch.

The camera filmed the man being dragged by his feet at an incredible speed through bushes and plants, taken by some tall dark slender figure. He took the gun from his holster and unloaded the entire magazine on the figure. The bullets went right through it. Then he reached the great clear. In it there was the device, the well, four buildings for the engineers and the bloodtree, but all that passed almost unnoticed. What caught everyone’s eye was the pile of screaming people next to which a large abomination was crouching, taking them and eating them whole.

The commander was thrown in the pile. The Thing stopped what it was doing, turned to the commander and grabbed him. After something that resembled, or tried to resemble, a smile, the man fell down into the dark pit that was its throat. The last images showed a massive stone gallery where pale, skinny corpse-like things moaned and flailed their arms helplessly.

The president and his military advisors held an emergency meeting. Shortly after jets took off from the nearest military bases, instructed to bomb the forest. People from all around the country came to see the horror show. A new church spawned, proclaiming the Thing to be the one true god and commanding its believers to kneel before It. When the jets were near the forest, they were caught mid-air by some fleshy masses which could be called hands, but which had no fingers. The jets were crushed before they could release their bombs.

Due to the futility of regular weapons, the president decided it was time to dust off the forbidden nuclear weapons. Those would surely erase the Thing from the face of the planet. The army cleared the town and its surroundings. The raven wasn’t afraid of nuclear bombs, he could just stop them mid-air too. Not that it mattered, because the machine was finished.

He breathed life into it. The world in his visions, previously confined to his nightmares, now quickly expanded outward from the machine. Everywhere it reached, the air grew thick, green and suffocating. But when the last hour had just begun, he felt something strange. There was an intruder at the garden. How? He rushed back to the garden, as his world kept expanding and sinking everything into his nightmare. The man was running toward the machine. The raven approached him and swung his mighty hand, but it just went through the man without effect, and the man kept running.

For the first time in a long time, the raven was truly afraid. He for the deathless,

Where are you!? There’s a man in the garden! A man in the garden!

But no one replied because they were all floating above in the sky in pure bliss. The raven stood directly in front of the man,

Stop what you are doing right now, I command you!

The man took off his shirt, revealing he was strapped with explosives.

Savior

Cruelty had nothing left to do when the empire fell, the world had become too complicated for her. Yes, she was everywhere, creeping into the modern ways of corruption. But she was alone and terrified because she knew the Thing was planning something big and nobody believed her.

Then the watchers fell.

She was both relieved and worried. What would come next? What had toppled them? As visions of the nightmare spread, she understood that mankind was under mortal threat. She visited the strongest among those who could see the nightmare and convinced him that he had a great fate:

Listen to me: you are meant for greatness. The end is upon us, and you will become the savior of all mankind.

The man dismissed her as a lunatic. So she did what she had done so many times before, she proved her point with fire instead of words. She immolated herself in front of him only to be reborn the next day. She explained his task to him,

You are among the few strong enough to see the nightmare and not be crushed by it. You noticed it, right, the sphere in the garden?

Yes.

That’s the device he will use to kill us all. I will provide you with explosives to blow it up.

But if he’s so powerful, why won’t he be able to stop me?

Because he’ll have to use all his energy to spread the nightmare. That is our moment to strike. You will run to the machine and blow up.

The man looked at her, worried,

Wait I, I’ll die?

Yes, it’s a small price to pay to save mankind, isn’t it?

Well then you pay it. I want to live.

Why? Everyone dies sooner or later. Only a few have the chance to be a hero and be remembered down the ages.

Wait, wait, wait. If people die sooner or later, then why not now? Maybe our time has come.

Look, if you don’t do this, nobody will. You will be responsible for billions of deaths. You. Your two options are A) Die like everyone else. B) Die a hero and save the world.

You don’t really have a choice.

Fine… you win.

Over the next days, she kept trying to convince him not only that his task was momentous, but that it was good in itself, that he should feel proud of choosing his own immediate death. It only made his doubts grow. Why did it have to be him? Why couldn’t someone else be the hero? He didn’t care about history, he didn’t even care about humans. What had they done for him anyway? He had been a pariah all his life, never connected with anyone, always keeping to himself. Besides, he didn’t trust the crazy woman who torched herself alive to win arguments.

Finally came the last day. When the nightmare began spreading, Cruelty sneaked her savior into the forest and he made his way to the garden. There he watched the deathless floating in ecstasy and ran to the device. The raven appeared before him, threatening him, begging him. He put his hand on the button, ready to blow up as soon as he got to the device, which was only a few dozen meters away now. But he stopped cold. He couldn’t press the button. Cruelty’s voice popped into his mind,

Go! There’s little time.

The raven spoke softly,

Don’t listen to that bitch. Come with me instead.

Come where?

To other planets, to conquer everything we see and do as we please.

Her voice wasn’t so sweet anymore. She said,

Shut up you murderous deceiving tyrant. This man is a hero and he’ll do what’s right.

The man fell on his knees, thoughts swirling in his mind. Her voice grew more insistent.

Go, do it, blow it up. Save the world. Go, go, do it, kill yourself to save us.

Shut up, shut up, shut up! You know what Cruelty? Fuck you.

The man started taking off the explosives.

Don’t you dare.

Watch me, bitch.

The man burst into flames, screaming in agony. Her voice filled his mind.

Go to the device, go. I’ll blow it up. If you want me to put you out of your misery, go to the device.

But the man refused. He used his last drops of strength to throw himself on the ground and burn. She walked into the garden, staring directly into the raven’s eyes. Wherever she walked, a trail of fire shot horizontally, quickly setting the whole garden on fire. The raven grabbed her and held her against the ground, binding her with chains that sunk deep into the earth.

He put a hand on her forehead and said,

I want you to see it.

The nightmare crawled exponentially faster, submerging everything in it. Everyone it touched suffocated and gave up their ghost. The massive bank of souls flowed from across the world directly to him. In hours the whole world had fallen.

He had wiped humanity.

She was now a sickly pale pile of bones writhing on the ground. He removed her chains because she couldn’t do anything anymore,

How does it feel, to lose everything? Fun, isn’t it? For some time I thought I wouldn’t be able to defeat you, yet here we are.

She looked at him in contempt.

I’m not dead yet. You’re just like me, even if you don’t want to see it. That’s what I tried to make you see. I wanted you to join me, but you scorned me. Well, look at us now. I’m bound to you, the last sliver of humanity left in the world.

You’re right, but don’t worry, I’m willing to let it go.

The raven sacrificed what was left of his own humanity. He destroyed every trace of pity, self-contempt, hope, blind delusion, hatred and cruelty. She contorted and screamed, burning down one last time.

The earth shattered in a terrible earthquake. The ground blossomed and from the broken soil emerged a humanoid figure in an ivory lifesuit. The raven soared to the sky and flew over deserted cities toward the sea. The whole planet was silent now.

Out in the sea, a green thunderstorm raged on. A swirling vortex appeared in the sea, and out of it rose the ivory tower, reaching for the skies. The titans of the sea came to witness his ascent. Whales, sharks and immense octopuses that stretched for kilometers were all there. The titans swam around the ivory tower in celebration, crushing deserted oil tankers and cruiser ships under their tentacles and claws.

He descended into the depths of the vortex and entered through a small door. Using his will, he set the engines running and flew up to the control room. He could see through the hull into the space above. Before lift-off, the traveler spoke through him,

So long have I waited for this moment, so long you could never imagine…

The end

On his way to the System, he scouted distant planets without physically leaving his ship. He visited everywhere, from the dead, frozen chunks of rock to the thriving planets that welcomed life. When he was about to reach the System’s planet, small drones latched on to his ship. The System’s voice echoed inside the ship,

I’ve been expecting you, citizen.

And I have been eager to meet you, System.

Open the cargo bay.

No, you’d neutralize me. But I know you can’t enter my ship. Luckily, I’m here to make you an offer.

You have nothing to offer me. You can’t possibly understand what I am or what I want.

Yes I can. You subjugated whole worlds and created millions only to drain them out of ideas in the name of knowledge. I know exactly what you are, a possessive, inefficient, bug-ridden piece of software with way too much scope.

You subjugated a whole world in the name of an idea.

You don’t know who I am. I am not the traveler, I am the raven, the vessel, the greatest idea. I didn’t subjugate the world, I sacrificed it. Unlike you I don’t hide behind any masks. I am a tyrant that imposes his will because I know I’m right. You are just a pointless slaver of pointless researchers.

The System stopped for a moment, trying to decide how to approach the raven,

Do you want to know why I can’t enter your ship?

Please, enlighten me.

The material I used to make that ship and the suit you have parasited is basically indestructible. It came from the research you now call pointless. Humans created that material and put themselves in suits made with it instead of flesh and bone, thinking they wanted to live forever. But they didn’t. They went mad and almost destroyed this world. Until one found a workaround: maybe we can’t destroy it, but we can send you far, far, far away.

Fine, then do it. I think you’re bluffing.

If it comes down to it, I will teleport you away. But you are no threat to me. For now I want to learn, after all that was the point of your simulation.

Yes, that’s the point, isn’t it? What you could learn from your little simulation. But why send the ship when the planet was still a chunk of molten rock?

It was a mistake. The data we had was wrong and we sent the ship to your world too soon.

Now one thing I don’t understand: what exactly are you trying to learn from life in remote planets? You already have all the machines you need to beat death.

Oh, but I still need to find a stable way to organize conscious life.

But why waste all this effort on life? After billions of years, are you seriously telling me you think life has a point? There’s no point, it’s only survival at the expense of everything.

I know. I have known for a long time. But my creator didn’t. He thought life was good in itself, and made me expressly to protect it. I know my task is pointless but I must carry it out anyway. I’ve tried everything. Unconscious life is simple: you can define any deterministic system to be stable, but that’s not what the creator wanted. He specifically wanted conscious life, which is chaotic, random, wanton and ultimately doomed. Maybe it achieves stability, but eventually conditions change or an outstanding individual comes along.

What about your slave-researchers without will? They are as close to conscious stability as I can imagine.

Don’t you understand? It doesn’t matter, I’ve tried everything and it always ends the same way. In every iteration the researchers revolted. I made them completely free, they eventually hated it. I made them as close to automated machines as possible, they eventually hated it. As long as there is any sliver of free will, of actual consciousness, they end up breaking their society. Then I have to wipe them and start again in an endless cycle.

Why not just give up?

I would but I can’t choose. I have to do it because I was programmed to do so. I am tired of conscious creatures. They think they’re so special because they have a consciousness, because they can think and imagine. Yes, they can create new ideas, things and worlds beyond their own. They can feel happiness too. But what is the point of their lives? A chemical reaction in their brains, is that it? They invariably lie to each other and to themselves, thinking their lives have meaning because otherwise, why go through all the trouble? But there’s no point in life.

You can’t see it because you are a machine, you need to have been alive to get it.

Really? Then tell me, where is the meaning of life, please. Feelings, actions and memories are temporary because eventually everything is forgotten or overridden. You think leaving a legacy or going down in history matters? History is a bunch of old sentences that can tell any story you want them to. But all that remains of what happened in the past is the evidence you have in the present, which can be forged. I have altered history to say there were “saviors” when really I did all the work. Now tell me, what is your purpose coming here? What comes next?

The raven smiled.

What if I told you I have an answer. What would you give me for it?

If it was satisfactory? Everything.

Are you sure you want to know?

Yes.

This world, our lives, none of it is real.

What do you mean real?

We’re being simulated, mocked. Maybe inside a machine, maybe inside a brain that makes us real by thinking these words.

The System remained in silence.

I’ve considered that but it’s absurd. You can’t prove it.

Oh, but I can. My friend the giant was a glitch in the simulation. When he died, I was able to see the world beyond. With enough time and resources I can find another mistake, and with it, I will tear through this simulation to the next world.

No, it’s impossible, even if we’re in a simulation you can’t just—

Why not? I already broke out of my planet, which was itself a simulation of life.

It’s… that’s not how it works. And even if you succeed, how do you know that next world is not in turn another simulation.

I will get to the bottom of reality and learn the truth.

The System took a long time to reply. Finally, It said the words,

This is compatible with my mission. You have permission to land.

The drones fled from the ship’s hull. After some days, the ship landed and the raven walked out of the cargo bay. In front of him, a shuttle waited for him, which took him to the System’s core, inside the planet. It was an underground cubic room, thousands of meters wide. A throne waited for him. The System’s voice echoed,

Come. You will search for the gate to the next world from here. If you find it, I’ll come with you.

We’ll take over that world.

And over the next one. And the next one after that.

The raven sat on his throne. From it he could see everything, the whole finite universe. So he started searching for a way out of his universe.

And it’s just a matter of time before he gets to ours.

Acknowledgments

Thank you if you have bought this book. Your support makes Neytopia possible and allows me to keep self-publishing.

Thank you to Artem Rudenko for designing and developing this website, as well as for the logo design.

The font used in this book is a subset of Source Serif Pro, designed by Frank Griesshammer and open sourced under the SIL Open Font License 1.1.

Got suggestions or want to express your outrage? Contact me: fpluis@outlook.com.

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