The Aenyr Language

What follows is some of the work I’ve done (plus notes) on the language of the Aenyr people.

As a preparatory note, I’ll be using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for description of phonemes but will later shift to other symbols (with a guide) to depict how I intend to write the language within stories in Avar Narn. The language will have its own alphabet, but currently does not.

I’ve been using a combination of Mark Rosenfelder’s The Language Construction Kit and my own linguistic research to inform the choices made below. I highly recommend the book. I have a few similar ones on my shelf, but his is the one I usually start and end with.

A little bit of introduction–the language of the Aenyr is an ancient one, seldom used in the Avar except in remaining place names and its influence on subsequent languages (such as the Altaenin tongue). As I post more about the history of the Avar and of the Aenyr people, you’ll see this fleshed out.

To begin, I needed to decide on the sound of the language. I found the following quotation on the Wikipedia page for “cellar-door”: “it at once brings to mind a word from one of those warm-blooded languages English speakers invest with musical beauty, spare in clusters and full of liquids, nasals and open syllables with vowel nuclei–the languages of the Mediterranean or Polynesia, or the sentimentalized Celtic that Lewis and Tolkien turned into a staple of fantasy fiction.”

I used the quotation as something of a guide in selecting phonemes for the Aenyr language. Following Tolkien, I first looked at Welsh and Finnish, but I also looked to Sanskrit, Serbo-Croatian and a few other Earth languages in the process.

First, I satisfied the guidepost of the above-written quote by adding the liquids: /r/, /l/, /ɹ/, /ʎ/ and the nasals: /m/, /n/, /ɲ/, /ɳ/ (the latter two being influenced by Sanskrit). I added in the other consonants mostly based on some of the words that I already had that I’d decided came from the Aenyr language. The same with the vowels.

Aenyri Phonography

Here’s where, for me at least, things got interesting. I had made a decision (mostly for ease of vocabulary building) to use the agglutinative aspect of Finnish (suffixes may be added to a noun core by standardized rules to create a number of other nouns). I had also decided long ago the meaning of “Avar Narn,” Aenyr words approximating the “the world reborn.”

So, it was time to engage in a little reverse engineering–I needed to make those words mean what I wanted them to mean, and this provided the start of the language.

Before I get too far into this, a note on (current) pronunciation. Here is a little chart of my current pronunciation notes for vowels:

Aenyr Vowel Sounds

Our starting place, with some pronunciation guidance: Ävär Närn.

I took “är” as the core word and made “Äv-“, “n-” and “-n” prefixes and suffixes in agglutinative style.

To get where I needed to go, I decided that “är” means “to be born, to come into being.”

“Äv-“, then, became a prefix to create a noun from a verb, specifically a noun meaning “the place where [verb] happens.” This gives us “Ävär” = “birthplace.”

“n-” then became a prefix for a verb equivalent to English “re-“, while “-n” became a suffix to form a past participle/adjective, making “Närn” = “reborn, resurrected.”

Breaking down the prefixes and suffixes, and adding some more, yielded the following list:

n-           “to do again”, “re-”                                                                   När = “to be reborn”
-n            to create past participle/adjective from infinitive           Ärn = “born”
-tälё       “an agent, one who does [verb]”                                          Ärtälё = lit. “birther,
mother”
Närtälё = “necromancer”,
“resurrectionist”
-ёnyn     creates adjective from verb                                                  Ärёnyn = “fertile, arable,                                                                                                                      productive”
-vё         creates noun meaning a master of the verb                       Ärvё = “midwife” or
“matron”
-tön        “without, lacking”                                                                    Ärtön = “unborn,
inanimate”
Ärtälёtön = “motherless”,
“orphan”
-ys         an instrument or tool used with the verb                          Ärys = “birthing chair”
-yr         a (general) collection or group                                              Aenyr = “the Aen people”
Äryr = “the born, the
living”
Ärtälyr = “mothers
(general/abstract)”
-ёn        to pluralize a noun                                                                  Ärtälёn = “(the) mothers”

That’s a lot of mileage from two original words! There’s a lot to be continued here (declension of nouns, verb conjugation, grammar, regular/irregular words, etc.) and I’m sure I’ve made some mistakes that will have to be corrected, but I feel like it’s a good start.

Here’s one particular issue I’m trying to wrap my head around: I’ve already used some words with vowel clusters in them (“Aenyr”, for one) where the vowels elide together (that should have a long “a” sound at the beginning) and others (“Ellembaё”) where the vowels are pronounced separately. Not sure what I’m going to do here, but there are a few possibilities: it may be that the orthography of the language solves the problem (when written in its own script the “Ae” is a single letter corresponding to the “(aɪ)” phoneme) or it may be that I have to go back and start respelling that word to fit in with a coherent pronunciation scheme for readers.

I don’t intend to go so far as to create complete working languages–I have neither time nor skill for that. Instead, the languages of Avar Narn will be used to create names for places, people and things with consistency and immersion.
 

 

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A Minor Update

The ideal I’ve set for this blog is a minimum of one post a week. Unfortunately, reality seems to indicate lulls combined with bursts of posts rather than a regular and predictable publishing schedule. The past two weeks have been one of those lulls, so I thought I’d give you a glimpse of what I’m working on right now so that you know that I’m not just being lazy and I have goals set to keep me from being a lazy writer.

Here’s what I’ve been working on in the background:

Writing
(1) A short story (“The Cost of Doing Business”) and novella (Shadowgraphy). Both are finished first drafts but need extensive edits and rewriting before I’m ready to share them.
(2) Large-scale editing of the Avar Narn setting. I’m going back and making significant revisions to the world’s history and legendarium, conlangs and other aspects of setting. This, I hope, will put the setting where I want it to be for the long-term. I’ve posted some small things related to this process (my post on modern mythopoeia, for instance) and I imagine that there will be some additional posts on this front soon–mostly to vent my frustrations (constructed languages are difficult and its easy to get analysis paralysis and decide you’ve spent two hours on ultimately fruitless pursuits). I also intend some posts expounding on the Avar Narn setting, eventually to become a setting bible or wiki, I hope.
(3) I’m beginning to outline not one, but two novels:
(A) The first will be the first of a series (I’m currently going to call it the Coin War series)
(B) The second is a standalone novel–the Avarian version of the classic fantasy quest. Many of the characters from the “Siege of Uthcaire” are involved and I’m focused on a more “realistic” version of the lives of fantasy adventurers–less “embrace the wonder” and more “embrace the suck.”
(4) As I often do–particularly when setting building–I’ve been kicking around rules for an Avar Narn Roleplaying Game. I’ve made several attempts at this in the past (none resulting in much I’m happy with), but I’m looking at options for this, so there will likely be some posts as I hash out ideas.
(5) I’ve currently got two theology posts half-written. Will likely complete them soon.
(6) Returning to a rewrite of my first theological book (Children of God: Finding our Place in Creation) is on the horizon, but not yet underway.

Reading
I’m currently (slowly and sporadically) reading The Lies of Locke Lamora. I’ll review it when I’ve finished.

Research
(1) I’ve recently finished reading K.M. Weiland’s Structuring Your Novel and have started her Outlining Your Novel. I’ll review both together when I finish the latter.
(2) I’m halfway through a (30+ hour) Great Course called “Great Mythologies of the World.” I’ll have a review/some thoughts about this when I’ve finished.

I hope that this gives you something to look forward to in the near future. I’d like to say that I’m working as fast as I can, but that just doesn’t feel true. I’ll try to work faster.

The Siege of Uthcaire

Tirasi stared down at the miniature walled town on the table, hands resting as they often did on the sword and the warhammer suspended from her belt, face dour. I watched as she searched, not the maps or crude tokens marking units and positions, but the battlefield itself, her mind stretching over all that she had surveyed as the siege had begun. On the other side of the collection of intelligence, charts and equipment ledgers paced Lord Doraen, awaiting some answer from the woman.

I stood silently in a corner of the tent, nestled between two of Doraen’s servants. Together, we had become part of the furniture.

The tent flap opened and in blew the screams of men and the deep bellow of intermittent cannon fire. Along with that gust of life and death entered a soldier; he doffed his sallet in respect and inclined his head to Doraen.

“M’lord; ma’am—“ the soldier began.

“Do not ‘ma’am’ me; I kill people for a living,” Tirasi spat back, her Altaenin accent slightly coloring the Ealthebad words. I could not see her eyes as she turned to face the man, but I knew her expression well: hard, but not aggressive, sure and unchangeable as mathematics and just as disheartening.

The soldier’s eyes widened briefly. He was a boy, perhaps eighteen, hastily thrown into armor when Lord Doraen mustered his troops. His sword hung loosely at his side, the scabbard’s metal chape scratched with the evidence of bouncing along the ground as he walked. His cuirass already showed signs of rust; the journey to Uthcaire had been mostly in the rain. Even now, a light drizzle could be heard during lulls in the shouting and shooting.

The boy continued to stand dumbfounded in the presence of a mercenary captain of the Seven Sisters. His eyes moved across Tirasi, from her blackened demi-plate to the stubble of close-shorn hair atop her head and the scars on her face. He might have thought of the Aenyr as he looked upon her, her visage at once beautiful and terrifying. I had thought that when I first saw her.

“Well, what is it?” Doraen asked, ceasing only momentarily from his pacing.

“M’lord, our scouts ‘ave returned. House Meradhvor’s coming to relieve Uthcaire. Lord Koradh leads them, sir, and they’re ‘bout a day’s ride out and as many as four thousand souls.”

Doraen slammed his gauntleted fist on the table, the model of Uthcaire bouncing and the unit markers toppling from their positions. He looked to Tirasi, anger in his brow but fear concealed within the corners of his eyes. “So, mercenary. I hired you to advise. Advise,” he said, waving his hand in dismissal of the soldier as he spoke.

“Abandon the siege and fall back to favorable terrain on which to meet Koradh’s forces. Meradhvor is an Artificer House; they will bring mechanica with their soldiers, perhaps even an airship.”

“We have mechanica.”

“You have two drudges, one clipper and one siegeman which had to be carried here in a wagon because you lack sufficient power for it. Do you know who does not lack power? Meradhvor. Abandon the siege.”

“I will not.”

“You’ll be outnumbered and beset on both sides. If you break Uthcaire, you’ll have to massacre its defenders to have any surety of position. Do you want that reputation?”

“That was already my intent, Tirasi. Uthcaire has violated its charter by building a standing army. A violation of the charter means the town is mine by right.”

Something welled up within me, and I had to fight to keep it down. Uthcaire’s “standing army” consisted of about two-hundred men raised only when an influx of bandits and predatory creatures had made the countryside too dangerous for travelers and merchants.

“Let us say that you do take Uthcaire and slaughter its defenders to a man,” Tirasi began, “Meradhvor is still set against you, and we have been unable to breach the Uthcaire wall these past days because the local guild of thaumaturgy has devoted itself to the town’s defense. These are not enemies it is wise to have. Even if you win this battle, can you win the war?”

“You think me a fool? I’ve a compact in place with the other lords. All of them want to see the Artificer Houses put in their place. If we take back the chartered towns and cities, the Houses will be forced to deal with us on better terms. We’ll control the venture companies and the Houses will have to go through us to get any recovered Artifice.”

Understanding washed over me, and I clenched my fists. This siege had never been about charters and feudal rights. I knew now that Doraen could not be convinced to abandon the siege. He saw his very livelihood at stake, and better to gamble it on one glorious endeavor than to watch it be consumed by the passage of time. I hoped that Tirasi had realized this, too.

She had. “Fine, but I am ending my contract after the siege is complete. I have no desire to remain in a conflict with the Houses. That you can do on your own.”

“You can’t walk away from your contract!” Doraen growled, again pounding his fist on the table, bouncing the figurines farther from where they had fallen.

“Nyssë,” Tirasi said, snapping me from my reverie.

I searched momentarily her purpose. When I thought I’d discovered it, I began, “Contract clause twenty-three: ‘If the scope of conflict changes unexpectedly or new parties are added to the conflict, Captain may give one day’s notice of withdrawal from the Contract and shall be entitled to compensation for all services performed thereunder. If an engagement is imminent or exigent circumstances exist, the notice period shall be abated and shall begin to run only at the cessation of an immediate threat.’”

Doraen glowered at me, and I tried to fade into the canvas of the tent wall. Still looking at me rather than my captain, he said, “We’ll talk about that after. In the meantime, advise on how to proceed.”

Tirasi unsheathed her dagger, its bare blade glinting in the flicker of the torchlight that illumined the table. With the dagger’s tip, she traced an irregular semi-circle around the siegeworks, adroitly navigating around the figurines that had fallen in the path of her line. “We build another line of defense here, facing outward. Motte-and-bailey style. We will shift the majority of your soldiers to the outer defense.”

“You really think that’ll work?”

“The tactic is described in military memoirs from the Ealthen Empire and has been used to great effect. It is the best option under the circumstances. You have two repeating ballistae—they are of little use against the town’s walls compared to the cannons, but they will prove helpful against troops advancing in the open. I will lead my company to break the siege, supported by a few units of your troops—”

“So that you get the best plunder.”

“Naturally. Nyssë.”

“Contract clause twenty-eight: ‘When—“

“Okay, okay,” Doraen muttered waving me off as he had the reporting soldier. “Continue,” he said, turning to Tirasi.

My captain moved her dagger along the map, crossing over intervening terrain and figurines without attention, until it arrived at a forested area outside of the defensive line she had earlier traced. “You will withdraw your bodyguard and cavalry to here. No fires, no signals, no unnecessary talking. If you are discovered you will be enveloped and overrun. However, from this position, you will have the opportunity to withdraw if things go poorly for us. Otherwise, once Meradhvor commits its forces to the attack of our defenses, your cavalry will attack them from the rear, specifically pushing toward Koradh and his thaumaturges—the last thing we need is a large-scale thaumaturgical attack. You have an elderly court thaumaturge and two journeymen newly minted from university. They will not stand against hardened House war-thaumaturges.”

“It will take some time to arrange our attack. What if thaumaturges attack before then?”

“Nyssë.” Tirasi stated, as if my name itself were answer enough.

I stepped forward, timidity in my stomach but confidence in my voice, for this was my area of expertise. “The town’s thaumaturges have been maintaining their protection against our cannons for days now. They’ll lack the resolve and focus for any significant attack. House thaumaturges are indeed another matter, my lord. They should be considered additional artillery: they will require time and preparation before they unleash their attack, but it will be devastating if completed.

“It is unlikely we shall see such a thing in the vanguard. Meradhvor battle doctrine advises sending in the mechanica first and resorting to thaumaturgy only once mechanica has failed. To use both at once risks too much flux, and that can be as disastrous for them as for us.”

Doraen turned back to Tirasi, his face expectant.

“Koradh is cautious, Doraen,” she said. “I do not think that he will break with standard doctrine.”

“And what happens after our charge? We’ll be stuck in and the horses will be no good.”

Tirasi looked back to the map, focusing upon it, seeing the men and women arrayed in battle colors moving across it in scale, visualizing the battle as she spoke. “In the chaos that follows an attack to the rearguard, our outer defenders will sally forth to meet the Meradhvor soldiers in the field. We will be an advancing anvil and you shall be the hammer.”

His face relaxing, Doraen turned away as he spoke, indicating the conclusion of the conference. “Very good, Tirasi. I will summon my commanders and give them their orders.”

With the slightest nod of the head, Tirasi excused herself. I quickly curtsied and followed. We pushed our way past the tent flap and into an unexpected calm. No screams of dying men, no thundering cannons, no clamor of battle; only the acrid, hellish perfume of gunpowder and the heavy artificial fog that accompanied it, clinging to the earth like a desperate lover. A lull had come in the siege while everyone attempted to catch his breath. And not choke on the fumes.

Doraen’s command tent lay outside the range of the town’s defenses. Tirasi knew the layout of the siegeworks intimately; she navigated them without the need for sight through the smoke of battle. Despite her armor, my captain stepped lightly on the muddy fields while the foul quagmire stuck to my boots until I had balls of wet avar for boots.

Before long, we came to the encampment of the company, distinguished by the black of the tents, the lack of Doraen’s livery, and the symbol of the red skull on the black banners. As usual, the men and women of the company had a relaxed air about them despite the conditions. Some threw tattered playing cards on an overturned barrel, laughing and jostling one another as money changed hands from round to round. Malten, a large Rukh and one of Tirasi’s sergeants, harassed the newest recruits as they cleaned harquebus locks, polished barrels, measured matchcord and filled powder horns. Despite my youth and inexperience in battle, my status as the company’s only thaumaturge spared me such abuse.

Only six months before, I had graduated from thaumaturgical studies at the University of Ilessa. The day after completing my studies I had signed on with the Company, fully cognizant that thaumaturges not subject to the Conclave and willing to serve in a mercenary outfit were few and far between and that Tirasi would not—could not—turn me away.

I had enjoyed participation in the privy meetings of the officers, as Tirasi had made me her adjutant in addition to my other duties. This gave me insight into the personalities of the Company leaders beyond the stern demeanors they wore for the newer soldiers, simultaneously an honest attempt to prepare them for the stress of war and Company hazing ritual.

For this reason, I knew that Malten had two selves. When at drill or—as we were now—at war, he was hard, his muscled physique accentuated by his laconic style of speech, readiness to dole out criticism to his charges, and reluctance to give praise that made those in his command so willing to strive for it. Away from the men, however, a different man came forward: a lover of poetry, a great jokester, a philosopher amused by his own cynicism but unwilling to let it go.

Malten’s appearance hid his second self well. He towered over the human men and women, at least a head taller, face angular, nose aquiline as if an arrow pointing to his pronounced canines—the lower of which protruded just slightly over his upper lip, ears pointed, long grey-white hair and beard a mane to frame and accentuate the leathery hue of his flesh. Together, he had the demeanor of perpetual snarler, the man who wished to speak often with deeds and rarely with words.

Just as Tirasi’s foot crossed the invisible barrier between the Company camp and the rest of the siegeworks, her soldiers jumped to attention, saluting with the combination of practiced discipline and graceful nonchalance earned only by hardened veterans. She waived them to ease.

“Shovels and shoulders, axes and asses. We’re building a trench and a wall. Malten, get Doraen’s officers to round up infantry to assist. Nyssë, gather the engineers and requisition the Lord’s mechanica for the heavy labor. Bring water and leave your armor; we’ve got a day and a night to build an outer defense. Make ready the harquebuses. We’ll work in shifts and those resting will stand watch.”

Months of drill outside of campaign season obviated the need for additional commands. The mercenaries collected the necessary gear and formed up around their corporals. Within minutes, they were on our way to the site of the would-be barricades, having stripped down to the bare necessities of clothing, wrapped their legs as additional—though futile—protection against the mud, and gathered weapons and tools. The digging of a ditch and the felling of nearby trees commenced in short order.

I was delayed by nearly an hour as I waded through the muddy sludge that had become our home in search of Doraen’s engineers, followed by twenty minutes of bartering that earned me only a single drudge.

The mechanicum and its handler followed me to where I found that Tirasi, too, had removed her armor and stripped down to her breeches and shirt to dig with the soldiers. She tossed me a loaded harquebus and an ammunition pouch, ordering me to keep watch while she worked. I took my position on the small ridge of packed avar that slowly grew on the inside border of the ditch, a quantifiable measure of progress. Up and down the line on either side of me stood those of my brethren awaiting their own turn to work.

As the drudge stepped into the shallow ditch alongside my captain, some of the men began to sing a bawdy marching song, timing the action of digging with the lyrical rhythm. The whirring and thud of the mechanicum’s digging nearly drowned out their voices; Tirasi and I soon gave up on trying to join in.

The drudge beside her was built for hard labor, not for war. The first of its kind had been employed in the loading and unloading of ships, speeding the process over the usage of muscle, ropes and pulleys. The machine stood over six feet high, broad and squat in proportions and covered with shaped metal plates crudely approximating the human body. Under this whirred the cables, winches, pulleys and other Artifice that made the thing move.

Occasionally, a small blast of warm air would jettison from the mechanicum’s arm servos, conveniently buffeting Tirasi about the face. She glared at the device’s sculpted visage, possibly searching for some intelligence within the glow from the faceplate’s eyeslits that might recognize her consternation. Whatever animated the mechanicum focused only on the movements of the shovel and stood oblivious to all else around it.

I tried on several occasions to take Tirasi’s place and work a while, but she would not allow it, telling me that she needed me fresh for as long as possible. So, I provided what conversation I could, which mostly meant telling Tirasi about my youth in the Seven Sisters—she remained reticent about her own. All the while I cradled Tirasi’s harquebus in my arms, shifting it nervously from side to side but trying to maintain an illusion of nonchalance. Thaumaturgical or not, illusion has never been my strong suit.

A few hours after the digging began, Doraen and his horsemen galloped by—or rather over and between—jumping the trench between diggers and throwing soft mud indiscriminately. The air displaced by a horse passing only inches from my side disheveled my hair and caused me to wince. The riders moved swiftly toward the forest, where other soldiers were cutting logs for the barricade. Closer to the town walls, the cannons resumed firing, the leaden projectiles still crashing themselves against thaumaturgical abjurations, unable to touch the ring of stone that defended the city.

“How long until their thaumaturges break?” Tirasi asked.

“Depends on how many there are and the shifts that they’re working. They’re generating Flux faster than they can dissipate it, so it’s only a matter of time before they make a mistake in the working or the Flux itself gets them. They’re desperate to be using so much thaumaturgy at once.”

As if on cue, a sound like ice breaking could be heard even over the din of the cannons. A surge of hoarfrost rushed from the town walls and covered the ground.  The dirt, which had softened under the recent rains, now took on a light but definitive crunch when the shovel hit. This lasted for only a moment before the ice melted, adding just enough moisture to the trench that puddles collected in its nadir. Tirasi could hear groans from her soldiers as they fought with the mud, suction now fighting against each pull of earth. The singing had stopped as the work dragged on. Tirasi looked up, expecting an answer from me.

“Flux.” I said, “They won’t be able to hold their thaumaturgical protections in place much longer. This is why Doraen should have brought more than an elderly crone of a court advisor and a couple of babes; he should have hired a dozen thaumaturges and he’d be able to do something about this defense.”

“He hired us. He couldn’t afford both and he made a decision. And it was not so long ago that you yourself were in your infancy, so to speak.” I blushed slightly at this, scanning the horizon watchfully to avoid meeting Tirasi’s gaze. I had joined during a long stint between contracts for the company and this siege would be my trial by fire. I remained as yet untested, possessed of a mercenary’s bravado but not having earned it.

I called the first alarm. “Captain,” I expelled suddenly, my body suddenly coming alive with the tingling of nerves. I raised my hand to point toward the horizon, where, just between the rain clouds and the tree tops, an airship gracefully floated, its blue and strangely-shaped sails being drawn up as it descended.

Meradhvor must have taken Doraen’s attack quite seriously to have sent an airship. We knew that the enemy would not risk the ship’s loss by bringing it within the range of cannons or gonnes. This meant only one thing: the delivery of troops for an early attack.

Tirasi pulled herself out of the ditch—by now waist deep—and climbed the mound and half-built barricade to join me where I stood. With a quick command, she summoned Malten and the other sergeants. She sent the officers to take those who had been working the ditch back to the camp to don armor and gather weapons while those who had been resting and watching now occupied what defensive positions there were.

The ditch remained shallower and thinner than it should be, and large gaps perforated the defensive structures. The repeating ballistae had been moved to makeshift redoubts in the line, but it would not be enough.

My captain waived for me to follow her and we made our way down the muddy line of the trench to where Doraen’s own soldiers had been working. There we encountered Craith, one of Doraen’s lieutenants, and Tirasi hailed her.

The dour woman approached slowly and deliberately, never taking her gaze off Tirasi as she did. A soldier in the stereotypical sense, Craith was purpose and determination, fire and fury without subtlety or finesse; she made no effort to conceal her displeasure at having to treat with mercenaries.

The fighting men and women around them continued to work in the ditch, hardly looking up. They had made greater progress than in Tirasi’s section of the line, but the men had been working in their kit and neared the point of collapse. They would be of little help in the fight to come.

Doraen’s lieutenant spoke first, as if in hopes of heading off a conversation altogether. “Captain. I have seen the airship and I’ve spoken with the other officers. We’ll be ready by the time they arrive.”

“With all respect, lieutenant, I need your men to stop working. Your men will need rest if they are to be of any use to us.”

Craith’s frown filled the entire opening of her barbute. “Very well, Captain.” She turned slightly, what light that pierced the clouds above glancing off her polished cuirass, and passed some signals to her sergeants down the line. Shouts and insults pulled the men out of the ditch; some only made it far enough to sit on the cusp of the trench before loosening armor straps and searching for waterskins. When the orders had died down, only the occasional percussion of artillery fire punctuated the silence of men exhausted.

Tirasi turned momentarily in the direction of the cannons before locking eyes once again with Craith. “I unfortunately do not share your optimism, Lieutenant. If Meradhvor has dedicated an airship to their campaign here, we must assume that they have spared no expense in the other aspects of Koradh’s force. We should expect that we will not have an easy time of it when his advance party arrives. I need you to have some of Doraen’s cannons repositioned so that we may use them against our attackers.”

“I cannot do that, Captain,” the lieutenant replied. Was there the hint of a curl at the edge of her mouth, a satisfaction at defying Tirasi’s request?

“Why not?”

“My lord’s orders, ma’am. We are not to delay or interfere with the bombardment of Uthcaire under any circumstances.”

“That airship has a limited cargo capacity. They could have dropped no more than a hundred men, and an infantry assault of that size could not hope to succeed against us.”

“You argue against your own request, Captain.”

Tirasi now felt a wave of anger wash over her. Anger at the foreseen result of this argument, anger at the shortsightedness of Doraen’s officer. “I do not,” she said slowly, deliberately. The words fell like hammer on anvil, and Craith struggled not to reveal her surprise at the aggressiveness of the tone. Apparently, the lieutenant did not often have her pronouncements questioned.

She continued. “Koradh is a fine commander. He will not commit his troops to certain death except in the direst of circumstances, and not for the slight benefit a small infantry assault would buy him as the rest of his force advances. Therefore, it stands to reason that he has not sent his infantry. He has sent artillery. A few cannons battering us in the hours before his arrival will put him in far better stead than a handful of infantry. If we can answer in kind, we may be able to turn back his assault.”

“The cannons remain where they are,” Craith said bluntly.

“Then our best option is to send a force to meet them before they arrive and unlimber their artillery. May I borrow some of your soldiers?” The tone of Tirasi’s voice had changed; this had been a true request given in the manner of someone without the authority to simply command. I had never heard her speak in such a way before. It made no difference; the tactic had come too late.

“We have our orders,” the lieutenant stated to no one in particular. She had already turned away from Tirasi and toward her men. “My lord has given us his command and we will not disobey.” There would be no further discussion.

We made our way back to our camp hurriedly. “What’s that about?” I asked as we slogged through the mud.

“This is not the Sisters, Nyssë. Mercenaries are not held in high regard in the Tatters. The people here believe there is only honor in obeying the bonds of an oppressive nobility; they miss the importance of choosing to serve.” Clearly, my captain had seen this behavior before.

“But why did Doraen not tell his forces to heed your commands?”

“Because he thinks his blood makes him smarter than he is. Even he does not fully trust us because he pays us for our service. He struggles to hold on to a dying tradition of right and prowess by birth, even as it slips through his clutching fingers. Have you not seen that that is the reason that he sends his own men to die and condemns the people of Uthcaire?”

We walked the rest of the way in silence. Tirasi had no use for my commentary on the matter. For all my studies at the university, I could add nothing to Tirasi’s understanding she had not already gleaned from experience. A recitation of the schema of the brightest of scholars on recent changes in the societies and economies of the Avar had no place here in the mud and blood of battle, where the reality of such things actually mattered. Anyway, it was not long before we arrived back at the camp.

The soldiers left off their tasks and gathered before Tirasi, ready to receive their orders.

“House Meradhvor has sent four-thousand men against us, due to arrive tomorrow. Our defenses are half-built, and an airship arrives for a first assault. We are outnumbered and unready. But what is our motto?”

“The Dead do not fear!” came the response.

“In their wisdom, Doraen’s officers will not reposition the cannons to resist an outward attack. This means we must assault the newly-arrived ourselves. We will bring none of Doraen’s men with us, for those who love their lives will lose them. But as for us, brothers and sisters—”

“The Dead do not fear!”

The Company of the Valorous Dead was a small company by most standards, with about three-hundred souls. Upon taking command, Tirasi had cultivated her outfit as a band of well-trained, well-experienced and well-equipped soldiers best suited to special actions, raids, skirmishes and deployments of extreme tactical significance. She had served in large companies destined for the meat-grinder of large battle, where soldiers were disposable commodities and the whole affair a simple business transaction in which ledger spaces tracked lives against coin. She would have none of it.

Half of her soldiers stood arrayed before us, and my captain looked to her corporals. “Fisella, swords and shields. Emdir and Eldo: Halberds. Asham and Rellen: gonnes, sword and buckler. Gather your kit and form up. Nyssë, on me.”

I checked the short blade at my side, traded the harquebus for staff and wand and other sundry tools of my practice, and fell into step with my captain, as did the others. Tirasi left Malten in command of the half of the Company that remained behind the lines, needing no orders to guide him. She trusted him, and that was enough.

 

*          *          *

We passed over the defensive line, between the stakes that had been erected and through the half-dug ditch. Once we hit open ground between the barricades and the forest, we broke into a run rather than a march, entering the cover of the tress as quickly as possible.

Our soldiers swept through the forest deliberately in loosely-spaced squads, moving fast enough to make good time but carefully enough to keep as quiet as possible. The Company had trained well in maneuvers of this sort and even I found myself well prepared—armor burnished, oiled and muffled, my waterskin full, and anything that might bang or clatter wrapped in spare rags. Communication came through hand signals passed up and down the line.

In the early spring, stealth in a wooded area becomes far easier. The crunch of dead and dry leaves has faded away and only the hazards of twigs and branches blown down by the wind remain. Still, the precarious movement proved taxing as the we traversed miles of forest to close with the enemy.

House Meradhvor’s forces moved without concern for silence; they could not have managed stealth if they had intended to. Drudges pulled sakers, demi-culverin and gunpowder wagons, their clanking apprising the Company of mechanica in the field well before they could be seen. Two heavier Clippers and nearly one hundred soldiers accompanied the guns.

Tirasi signaled us to array ourselves for ambush. The gunners readied weapons, waiting until receiving the signal to light their matchcord, lest the tell-tale glow give them away.

One of the Meradhvor corporals had a keen eye, but not keen enough. He yelled “Ambush!” just before the first volley of harquebus fire slammed into their ranks. Many forces would have fallen into disarray at such an attack, but the Artificer Guilds trained their soldiers from youth. There were no further shouts, no sounds of panic, just the mechanical response of soldiers closing ranks and going about the tasks which had been long-drilled into them. They casually stepped aside the bodies of fallen brothers-in-arms without attention.

As the Company’s gunners reloaded for another salvo, we were struck by incoming fire. Not the loud and smoke-belching retort of more firearms but the quiet, fearsome twang of crossbow strings. This twang, however, came in too-rapid succession for the number of men wielding the weapons. Repeater crossbows, self-loading through the mysteries of Artifice. Their thin, sharp bolts could penetrate even plate at such a close range, and the volume of projectiles easily outmatched the barrage we had given.

Our gunners had taken some cover amongst the trees in preparation for the ambush, but their truest defense had been the artificial fog disbursed by angry gonnes, though even this proved of little use against the sheer mass of incoming fire. Early in the fight we had already taken severe casualties.

Outmatched though we might have been, we would not be routed by such a show of force; my brothers- and sisters-in-arms had encountered Guild forces before, knew the power of the repeater crossbow and had drilled their response.

After the first exchange of fire, the battlefield came alive with noise. Shouts of orders, the screams of the wounded, and the rumbling and hissing of the mechanica became a world unto itself, an easy place to lose oneself. Tirasi glanced regularly to me, keeping close watch as I wrestled with a fear for which I had not been—could not have been—adequately prepared.

My captain yelled a single word in the Company’s battle-tongue. Only the officers knew the secret language, so they in turn issued their squad commands in Altaenin.

Fisella ordered her soldiers to close ranks; they formed a shield wall and began a slow advance. Tirasi and I fell in close behind them. The soldiers parted just enough to pass around trees like a river moving gracefully around rocks. They had locked step, the squad becoming a single entity, now massive and dreadful.

By now the surviving gunners had unleashed their second volley, searching out where they could the men who had sent their brothers and sisters to an early—but not unexpected—grave. Between receiving this fire and exhausting the last of their quarrels before needing to reload themselves, the House infantry left an opening.

We exploited that opening immediately. The soldiers in front of me broke into a charge, barreling full force into the enemy line. I tried to remain at pace with them, colliding into Tirasi’s back as the lines impacted the enemy and stopped. She turned to me, her face as I had never seen it before, fierce and predatory, eyes glazed over with battle-fury, possessed of a violent spirit. “Stay behind me,” she said, her voice terse and gravelly. I did as I was told.

Guildsmen armed for the press of close combat stepped forward from the mass of crossbowman to meet the charge, and now the battle began in earnest.

I clutched my staff in one hand and drew my short sword, to no avail. Tirasi or Fisella had assigned several of the company soldiers to defend me in close formation; there was naught I could do but watch. I had seen Tirasi spar with others before, saw her practice with blade and other steel, but I had never seen her in true violence. She lost herself to her training and experience, ceasing for a time to be my captain and becoming a living weapon.

She directed her strikes, feinting high so that a swordsman raised his shield to cover his face and reversing to strike him in the now-exposed calf. Her dagger followed as the man dropped his guard, its hardened point missing his heart but puncturing the thin breastplate and sliding between the ribs into his right lung. With the recovery of the strike, the man’s breath became ragged; he dropped his armaments and collapsed.

She slid her right foot back and to the left, pivoting herself out of the line of attack of an assaulting spearman. By now, the first crush of the lines had devolved into a mass skirmish, with foes alternately having room for grand swings or being pressed too close for anything but daggerwork.

The spear’s initial thrust narrowly missed my captain, striking again with a serpent’s speed. Tirasi moved backwards, passing her front leg behind the other in each movement to alternate her forward hand, the rotation of her body adding power to her warding strikes. The spearman followed, coveting the boast of felling the enemy’s leader. He failed to measure his distance to the enemy as he closed with her.

After avoiding three more strikes, my captain reversed her motion, moving forward as she parried instead of backward. This put her too close to the spearman for him to recover his weapon and thrust again. He had time just enough to realize his mistake before he died, looking down to the sword in his neck and the dagger pushed against his spear.

My protectors had pushed me backwards and away from the fray. My hand twitched with the anticipating of swinging the blade I had spent so much time learning to use—not well, perhaps, but passably. Yet I remained thankful that my first experience of battle allowed me to do what I do best: to learn.

In an instant of respite, Tirasi surveyed the field as I surveyed her. The battle had become a large arrangement of individual melees, an ad-hoc tournament where the survivors of each duel sought one another out to fight the next round.

Something caught my eye and snapped me from my thoughts, the battlefield coming back into focus in a rush of sound and color. The hulking thing, too large to be a single soldier, reflected what light penetrated the green canopy above us, clanking and grunting as it moved, gaining momentum, shapes of the rebounding light changing more rapidly as it approached. A House clipper, the true Artifice of war in all its dread glory, charging straight for Tirasi.

There was a shout: “Captain!” The voice came from without, not within, but was nevertheless my own. Tirasi had time enough only to brace herself against the imminent blow.

The strike lifted her off her feet, throwing her into the air and against a nearby tree. She slumped to the ground, unmoving, and I feared her dead. I pushed against my protectors, raising my sword, but a strong and steady arm held me back with little effort. Then I remembered that I am a thaumaturge; my will is a weapon.

But thaumaturgy would not suffice in a situation such as this, when there is no time to carefully weave a working. I resigned myself to base sorcery, drawing power through myself and shaping the working in my mind’s eye. My choices were limited: I could not see the pulleys and wires animating the mechanicum to snap them and nothing too complex could be safely achieved with a sorcery.

I selected a working I had told myself I would never use. It seemed, well…trite. A spear of lightning shot from my fingers, forking into the mechanicum’s head and legs, branching from both in search of other nearby objects to which it could attach itself. If the experience were unpleasant for the clipper—and who knows what they experience—it was little better for me. I could feel the lightning coursing through my body before exiting my fingertips, doing no damage to me but leaving an upsetting tingling in my bones that lasted well beyond the working itself. Perhaps once was enough for that trick.

In an instant, the lightning disappeared again, its afterglow stinging the eyes of anyone who had been unfortunate enough to be looking anywhere between me and the clipper. The mechanicum stuttered momentarily, little bubbles of briefly-molten metal forming in the plates struck by the sorcerous attack, smoke wafting from its oversized frame. Enough to get its attention, perhaps enough to slow it some, but far too little to take it out of the fight. With a malicious glow from its eye sockets, the machine turned to face me and my defenders.

“Sorry! Sorry!” I yelled, fully expecting us to be thrown about like so many jacks at bowls. My companions closed ranks into a shield wall. But three of our brave halberdiers had partnered to corral the clipper, alternating their thrusts and positions to keep the mechanicum from being able to focus on any one of them.

Behind them, Tirasi began to stir. Her breastplate had been dented into concavity with the blow. She groped for a small knife in her boot, her eyes wild and unfocused as she loomed on the precipice of consciousness. Her fingers pulled the blade lightly from the sheath…and dropped it. Fumbling fingers foraged to find the blade before the clipper renewed its interest in her. Her breaths became ever more ragged, and I feared that she would suffocate while I watched helplessly. Finally, she tore the breastplate free, deep gasps allowing her to step back from the ledge.

My captain looked for her bastard sword, finding it broken from the fall. Her parrying dagger had disappeared. As she hobbled to her feet, she pulled the warhammer from its ring on her belt, reentering the fray at a meager lope, an awkward yawp passing from her lips where a war cry should have been.

The mechanicum had already crushed two of the halberdiers before Tirasi rejoined the fight. The last one standing, an Aen named Ithladen, cloaked and masked per the etiquette of his kind, had resorted to his sword after the clipper had casually snapped the haft of his polearm in two. Ithladen ducked and weaved, feinting and striking tentatively to create an opening for our captain.

Tirasi struck the mechanicum in its calf-plate as she moved past, bowing herself to avoid the backhand strike of the clipper’s attempted retaliation. Her blow had left only a slight dent in the clipper’s plate; though slow, the machine had been armored for thick fighting and—as it had done—could easily outmatch a number of fleshly soldiers.

The clipper awkwardly pivoted toward Tirasi, who struck a blow to the mechanicum’s knee as it repositioned itself. Now Ithladen seized the opening, gripping the blade of his sword with his off-hand, guiding its point between the clipper’s armored plates, just as he might with an armored knight. A gout of blue fire escaped from between the plates as Ithladen’s blade caught between gears and shattered. The mechanicum dragged its left foot as it turned.

Seizing the clipper’s hesitation, Tirasi attempted a blow to its head. She had to jump to reach it, flinching in pain at the exertion. The blow only worsened things; the hammer rang off the clipper’s head with a visible vibration in the weapon’s haft. Tirasi grimaced.

The mechanicum had recovered as she landed and fought to stay balanced. The clipper seized my captain with one hand, lifting her several feet off the ground. Ithladen frustratedly slashed against the clipper’s backplate with the broken remnant of his sword, all the while clutching his left hand to his side to staunch the bleeding where the splintering blade had scratched him.

My sorcery had proved too weak to be of much use, so I fumbled through my mind for some thaumaturgy that might turn the tide. Useless fragments of workings from my early studies bubbled to the surface: a working for the growth of plants, one for the levitation of small objects, one for the abjuration of rain. All the while a voice within me prodded, reminding that I had no time for a thaumaturgical working anyway. My captain would have the life crushed out of her long before I could run through the mental constructs necessary to bring a working into being. In my frustration and fear, I mindlessly seized upon the first full thaumaturgy I could remember and began shouting the incantations that brought structure to my thoughts as I drew and shaped the Power into a tangible thing.

Fortunately, Tirasi’s life was not in my hands; the incantation I’d been reciting belonged to working for the cleaning of kitchen pots. I’d failed the first true test of my battle-mettle, though my companions would be none the wiser for it.

Before I could stop myself from completing the working, there came a bark that overpowered my own voice. I blinked as the clipper’s left arm—thankfully the one not grasping my captain—tore itself from the rest of the machine and flew for a distance before coming to rest on the ground. Ithladen rolled aside with almost-preternatural reflexes.

The clipper dropped Tirasi to the ground as it turned slowly, searching out its assailant. A second cannonball smashed into the machine’s chestplate, driving it back a step before it collapsed, the glow from its eye sockets fading to darkness.

The sight had stopped my mouth when I couldn’t through my own volition. Another sign perhaps that I’d chosen the wrong profession. When I, too scanned for the cannoneers, a wave of relief washed over me. Eldo and some of his soldiers had seized the enemy’s artillery and turned it against them.

I rushed to Tirasi’s side. She moved cautiously, first opening and closing her fingers before trying her limbs. Satisfied she’d not broken her spine, though nursing a few broken ribs, she sat up with a pained exhalation. I extended my hand to her and Tirasi swung her arm in a haphazard arc; she groaned as I hauled her to her feet.

“What happened?” she asked in voice reduced to a ghost of its usual self.

Around us, the sounds of battle had quieted to the soft cries of the slowly dying and a few distant exchanges reaching their end. The men were checking casualties, both theirs and their enemies. Those enemies found alive they finished. They took more time with their own, examining their injuries to determine which could be helped and who had slipped beyond return. Those mortally wounded they comforted as best they could before giving them the dagger of mercy. From the dead of both sides they looted freely.

Fisella, Asham and Eldo approached, each of them battered and beaten. The corporals not

among them lay dead or dying.

“Report,” Tirasi managed in her gravelly whisper.

The three looked at one another and Asham stepped forward. “Captain, the enemy is defeated, with about a dozen surrendering and the rest in the embrace of death. As far as we can tell, there were no thaumaturges among our foes.”

“Koradh would not have risked them here,” Tirasi interjected. “Continue.”

“We’ve sustained heavy losses, perhaps as many as one half of our contingent.”

“Any good news?”

“Yes, Captain. We’ve destroyed two clippers and captured the enemy’s cannons. Four of them. The Meradhvor drudges do not seem to differentiate between our men and theirs; they’re obeying our commands.”

In the distance, Doraen’s cannons again roared to life. Now, artillery from the city answered the barks of besieging gonnes with retorts of their own.

“The city’s thaumaturges have fallen,” I commented.

“Let us return to the siege, then,” Tirasi managed, holding a hand to her chest. “Kill those who surrendered; we do not have the resources to guard them. Do it mercifully, for they have fought bravely. Get our soldiers rallied up and ready to move.”

A few moments passed before the looters could be pulled away from their hunt and mustered. We lacked time to reorder our squads, so ragged bands of men and women, uneven in ranks, made their way back to the siegeworks. The drudges and cannons, loosely attended by those who had captured them, lagged slightly behind.

Despite our minor victory, morale was flagging. We’d lost many brothers- and sisters-in-arms in the past few hours, without time to properly attend to the rites of the dead, much less to honor them in true warrior fashion. How long would it take us to recover from these losses? How many campaign seasons? I knew not, and wondered how the defeat of Meradhvor’s advance forces would influence the future of the siege.

Beside me, Tirasi drew in a deep breath, grimacing, and burst forth in a marching song. The corporals joined in by the second line, and we had all lent our voices by the fourth. We sang:

 

Lift your swords and march to war,

            Matters not if rich or poor,

            Join your brethren in the field.

            Meet your foe and meet your fear,

            Come to where Death draweth near,

            Seek to die before ye yield!

            See the sunlight on helms dance,

            Behold glittr’ing of the lance,

            Steel without and steel within.

            Hear the call of trumpets loud,

            Earn the price of bearing proud,

            Bleed with us, your newfound kin.

           

            Trade your blood for gold and fame,

            Lose your life but gain a Name.

            Fight ye on through hurt and pain,

            Fight ye on through sun or rain.

            Bellow ye with the cannons’ roar;

            This it is to go to war!

 

                        Gather’d up for stories grand,

                        Take this earth and make your stand,

                        Live forever in mighty tales!

                        Leave lover and home behind,

                        Embrace Death, mistress unkind,

                        Cross the Sea whereon she sails.

                        If dawn fails to break ‘pon thee,

                        You’ll lie under old ash tree,

                        With no marker for your grave.

                        But if you live glory follows,

                        Leave others to their sorrows,

                        And join the ranks of the brave!

 

Trade your blood for gold and fame,

            Lose your life but gain a Name.

            Fight ye on through hurt and pain,

            Fight ye on through sun or rain.

            Bellow ye with the cannons’ roar;

            This it is to go to war!

 

Before the song could end, some of us added the spur of another verse formed in times forgotten, likely in the stupor of celebratory drinking:

 

See the foes a-gathered round,

            Time to put them in the ground!

 

Tirasi’s singing voice did not charm even at the peak of health, but she growled on just the same. After the first song, Ithladen began another, an ancient and beautiful song of the Aenyr, sad and hopeful and moving all the while. It fit our mood perfectly, though few of us understood the words.

As we neared the siegeworks, the culverins and sakers swallowed up our songs. Joined by those who had stayed behind, we formed teams to pull the cannons, the ball and the powder into positions across the half-formed trench we’d had dug. The ground remained soft and muddy from the rain and much time and many expletives were expended before we could form the artillery pieces into a battery. Even then, the crews needed time to check the weapons, arrange the ammunition, make the first adjustments to aim and otherwise ready to fire.

Many of the men and women of the Company had been trained to crew artillery, but none could boast that she was a master artillerist. The teams proved capable but slow, and the purchase of time had grown costly with the town’s few demi-culverin unleashing a steady rain of grapeshotte in response to Doraen’s siege guns.

The shotte fell upon some of us, dropping those who were not killed immediately to their knees. I rushed forward, raising my staff high to expand my zone of influence, already drawing Power as I moved, my right hand forming spastic hand signs, mumbling spilling from my lips as I formed the progression of thoughts and mental structures to shape the sorcery. The Power for the working coursed through my mind and body, tugging at the fabric of my being, gently at first but more insistent as I continued to draw upon it. My muscles twitched; my mind pulsed. The very potentiality of the Power became tangible, its unpredictability reminding me that if I lost control over it, it could become anything.

A shimmering shield sprang to life in a sphere encompassing me and as many of the cannon crews as I could manage. An irony, perhaps; the thaumaturges defending the town had used the same sort of sorcery for so many days. We immediately became an even more splendid target for the enemy artillerists, and soon the heavy splatter of loose shotte against the shield became a heavy hail, a torrent, a deluge.

Some of the shotte began to penetrate the shield, slowed enough on its way through to patter harmlessly off the ground or the soldiers within. I leaned into the working, moving my foot forward into a fighting stance, my incantations became ever louder, drowning out the sound of the cannons and coming from somewhere outside me. My vision narrowed and darkened, reduced to a narrow tunnel through which I could only dimly view the battlefield before me.

As the iron rain continued, sweat gathered on my forehead, in my armpits and at the top of my buttocks, soon joined by a trickle of blood from my nose, staining the clothing under my armor and forming rivulets on my breastplate.

I heard a voice, tiny and distant, at the edge of my fading consciousness. Tirasi. She ordered the artillerists to move faster. The quickened pace proved costly: I could vaguely hear the shouted curses of the soldiers as they stopped to retrace their steps to ensure that they hadn’t missed a vital part of the loading and readying procedure.

The air became thick about me, heavy with the smell of ozone as some of the Power bled off from the working, manifesting Flux. Short bursts of lightning stretched from empty places in the air to the ground, the crack of accompanying thunder deafening. Clods of avar began to float above the ground, some of them even reaching eye level and passing into my limited field of vision, little gatherings of grass and mud that might have been picturesque in different circumstances.

Another distant voice, Malten’s, yelling to the crews, “Get back you fools! Powder is explosive!” As if they had not realized, the men suddenly backed away. My knees began to buckle under me and what little vision remained retreated to a pinpoint. I fell backward, caught by pairs of hands that dragged me to the relative safety of the nearby earthworks. As my vision slowly returned, I watched shotte fly through the area my shield had recently protected, felling several of the retreating soldiers. My heart sank for it, but the still-crackling miniature thunderstorm distracted me. How much Power had I drawn?

An arc of white-hot energy reached out from empty sky and danced along the cannon battery, delicately alighting on each. The pieces fired in quick succession, rolling back on their trunions and vomiting fire and death. They had not yet been aimed and sent the balls pell-mell against the town wall, gouging rough craters out of the stone but accomplishing little else.

I was left leaning against the side of the ditch where most of the Company had taken cover, Ithladen delicately setting me down after carrying me the last stretch of the way to safety. I remained in a daze, left only to observe my companion’s continued efforts.

Asham and his reassembled squad arose from the trench behind the cannons where most of the Company had taken cover. Those under his command leveled their harquebuses and fired a volley toward the top of the wall. As they ducked back down to reload, Fisella’s squad, now armed with gonnes, took their place and fired a second volley. In well-drilled time, Eldo’s squad took its place on the line and fired its own shotte at the town’s defenders.

One of the newer recruits, a young man still without a beard, crawled down the trench toward Tirasi and Malten. “We c-can’t t-take the city,” he blubbered, tears forming at the corners of his eyes and running down his dirty face. His sallet had come loose and drifted to the back of his head, more a bonnet than a helm.

Malten seized the recruit, driving his fingers under the top of the man’s breastplate and pulling him close by the straps. When they were nearly nose-to-nose and the soldier could see the crags and scars in his sergeant’s battle-worn face, Malten spoke to him. “Do you remember the words you spoke when you first joined?”

“Wh-what?” the recruit responded.

“The words, recruit, do you remember them?”

“Y-yes.”

“Say them.”

“I-I-I…” he began.

“Say them!”

“I, Ethem of Ansyr, do hereby pronounce myself dead to the world. Today I join the

Company of the Valorous Dead; I acknowledge my life forfeit in service to those who hold our contract. Should I complete my term of service, I may one day return to the world of the living, but I know that that day may never come, and so I shall live as one already dead. Being dead, fear cannot touch me. Cowardice shall not hold me. Injury cannot delay me. Blood shall not trouble me. Being dead, I have already crossed the most fearful threshold in existence; I shall not be moved.”

“Good,” Malten said, his deep voice carrying something of both approval and taunt within it. “Now, does it matter whether we win?”

“N-no.”

“Good. Why?”

“B-Because soldiers fight…. The fighting is the important part…Nothing can take the fight from us.”

“Good. The fight is who we are. And because of that, we may lose the field, but we are never defeated.”

The boy nodded, the sallet sliding back and forth with movement of his head and the chinstrap tugging on his throat.

“Then get on that cannon and let’s bring down that wall!”

Still visibly trembling, Ethem pulled the helm upright on his head, and stood to join the artillery crews. As he stood, the sallet again fell into bonnet position.

Ethem reached up to his chinstrap, but before he could right the helm, the ball of an harquebus struck him in the face. A loud metallic ping sounded from where the projectile exited his skull and dented the inside of the sallet.

Malten laughed, a riotous laugh better suited to a night of heavy drinking than the battlefield. Nevertheless, Tirasi found herself smiling, too. There was nothing for it; they could laugh at the young man’s misfortune and move on or they could give into fear themselves.

“Bad Wyrgeas on that one,” Malten said as he looked to Tirasi, still chuckling. His face suddenly turned serious and he bellowed again to the troops. “This is not a one-sided argument! Get those cannons firing and we make our clever retort!”

With the fire of the Company’s harquebuses forcing the town’s defenders to take cover, the artillery crews returned to the cannons. Uthcaire continued to exchange fire with its besiegers for another bloody hour of attrition and contested will. Our soldiers continued to fall, but death had become an occasional visitor rather than constant companion. Between Doraen’s own cannons and the added punch of those seized from House Meradhvor, Uthcaire could only buy itself time; it could not resist indefinitely.

Thus, surprise took none in the Company when—buffeted by extended barrage—a section of the town’s stone wall began to collapse. The destruction was anti-climactic; rather than crumbling into dust, the stones began to roll off the wall, pouring dirt from the earthworks between stone encasements like a torn sack. Some time ago, the citizens of Uthcaire had fortified their walls against modern artillery by building a second stone wall behind the first and packing the center with dirt. This conflict had been a long time coming.

The erupting avalanche of sandy earth created an improvised ramp by which the besiegers could now reach the top of the wall. A final volley of fire burst from the walls before the gonnes of both sides fell silent.

Tirasi and Malten stood up simultaneously from their positions of cover, and the soldiers they led followed in kind. I watched Tirasi try to shake dizziness from her head as she stood, attempting to hide the affliction from her men. She looked to her sergeant. “Ready the men for assault, but do not charge in just yet; let us give Doraen’s men the glory of the forlorn hope.”

Malten called the squad to order while Tirasi made her way down the line. She half-sprinted, half-hobbled over the craters and debris of the ravaged siegeworks in the search of Doraen’s officers. I had recovered enough to stagger after her, the others in the Company too busy attending more immediate matters to stop me.

She found Craith, still huddled with her men behind pavises and makeshift fortifications. Wild-eyed, she removed her barbute and threw it at Doraen’s lieutenant, disturbing the silence that had fallen over the soldiers with the clang of metal on metal as one helm struck another.

Craith had been crouched on her haunches; the unexpected blow rolled her to her side. As she struggled to right herself and return to her feet, Tirasi grabbed her by her shoulder-straps and hauled her to standing. Without averting her gaze from the officer, Tirasi barked, “Stand up, all of you,” the gravelly harshness of her voice lending the command the smoldering heat of a coal just beginning to glow.

The lieutenant’s face turned hard; her hand slid to the rondel on her belt. Before she could pull it, my captain brought the muzzle of a wheelock pistol to Craith’s chin. If she looked down her nose, she could see into the barrel.

“No.” Tirasi said quietly. Craith’s hand moved away from the dagger’s hilt.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Craith asked, somewhere between fury and incredulity.

“What are you doing, lieutenant? The wall has fallen and you are cowering behind barrels and sacks like a game of seekers. My men have been bleeding and dying, fighting to bring down that wall, and you—“

“We’ve been doing the same thing. Look around, Captain.” The lieutenant pushed her words through clenched teeth.

They had been fighting and dying—the cannons still distorted the air with escaping heat and soldiers in Doraen’s colors littered the ground, some caught by shotte from the walls but more laid low by wooden shrapnel from the defensive works. Farther afield, Doraen’s soldiers had similarly hesitated, unsure of what to do now that the defenses had fallen. We could faintly hear the cries of sergeants berating their men to ready themselves for a fight.

“It is not enough,” she spoke softly. “I have lost far too many good men because you refused to aid me. I will not give you a chance to do the same again.” But as she spoke, she looked to Craith’s soldiers and let the pistol’s barrel fall to her side, still maintaining a hold on the lieutenant with her left hand.

My captain gathered herself and attempted to speak with grace and authority, but her voice came as the sharp rasp of a sword leaving the scabbard, the harsh clatter of armor on the march.

“You men have left your homes to fight for your lord, and many of your brothers now lie in the mud. War is not the heroic endeavor you thought it would be, and you are afraid that the worst is yet to come because you do not know what awaits inside those walls once you scale them.

“I understand that. That fear is not a bad thing—it will keep you alive. But do not let it be a roar that causes you to tremble and cling to the earth. Make of it a whisper that guides without ruling. Gather yourselves and take up your arms. Your foe is more afraid than you, and with good cause.

“They have less experience than you. Their weapons are the tools and implements they have at hand, not the fine steel your lord has given you. They are outnumbered two to one, those who know how to fight ten to one.

“Now is the time for pillage and plunder, the time for recompense for what you have suffered. The town is yours. Let us go and take it!”

Fewer than half the words were Tirasi’s own. Most were lines from plays we had seen during the winter while she courted employers. A monologue from a history performed by a traveling troupe whose lord’s name I had forgotten provided the fodder for her rallying speech.

Their artifice showing through, the words fell short. The soldiers stared at her blankly, as if they struggled to find the reason for the sound of her voice. They’d undoubtedly noticed her lack of a breastplate and thought her mad. Her appearance had likely only reinforced the idea of her they had by reputation anyway. Tirasi’s shoulders fell, exhausted and resigned.

Craith had placed a hand on Tirasi’s back. Not in resistance or anticipation of attack, but in support. Where Tirasi had gripped the lieutenant’s shoulder, she now found herself leaning against it.

The lieutenant pulled Tirasi close. “Our mercenary sister is correct. The treachery of Uthcaire’s citizens has called us from our homes to prove our vows to our lord. We have marched in rain and mud, fought in smoke and tumult, died in bands and droves to show our loyalty. And the One looks down upon us with favor in our righteousness; They smile upon us and grant us a path to victory. Look,” she said, pointing to the breach, “there lies our path. Follow me into it, and let us show these turncoats the wrathful vengeance of the virtuous!”

Tirasi threw a sidelong glance at Craith, an expression of respect passing across her face. The soldiers stood in response to their lieutenant’s words, raising their weapons and voices as a unit. Craith drew her own sword and pointed it to the broken wall, a war cry rising from deep within her.

As Craith began to move, Tirasi pushed her lightly on the shoulder, signaling to her to lead the attack on her own and to leave the mercenary captain behind. Without looking back, Craith took the message. The soldiers fell into rough ranks, neither sprinting nor walking as they navigated the rough craters to the breach.

We made our way back to our own troops as Craith’s assault began. The hale and uninjured had formed ranks; at their master’s arrival Malten signaled them to a determined march to the wall. Unlike the return from their forested skirmish, they raised no voices in song as they marched, nor even to speak. They worked together in silence, their ranks orderly and precise, their determination palpable in the quietude that surrounded them.

Again, we joined the rear of the formation. Despite her silent protestations, Malten succeeded in keeping Tirasi behind her men. Still lacking a cuirass, too beaten and exhausted to put up a real fight, her presence in the front rank would only prove a liability to herself and to her brothers-in-arms.

Tirasi silently observed the onslaught, giving occasional hand signals to be sent down the lines to the corporals. Even this lasted only a short time before the combatants became too scattered for any semblance of organized command. From then on, Tirasi could only observe.

The front ranks scaled the breach and crossed into the town’s interior, where the fighting remained desperate, spread throughout streets and passageways splayed outward from the wound in the settlement’s defenses. The defenders had prepared ambushes, holing up in homes and business buildings to launch sudden volleys of harquebus fire into their attackers at close range. Others had formed gangs armed with hammers, axes, sickles and any other tool that could be turned to war, rushing groups of the assaulting soldiers as they struggled to navigate a tangled web of unfamiliar alleys and sidestreets.

We watched as the men and women of the Company began the brutal task of kicking in doors, hacking and stabbing at any who resisted them and quietly warning any unresisting townsfolk to remain in their homes on penalty of death. As we slowly followed in the macabre wake of the forward soldiers, I could not help but take in sights and sensations that would never leave me, and I once again doubted that I was strong enough to live the life of adventure I had chosen for myself.

A woman, crazed with grief, turned an alleyway and charged headlong for us, the mad townswoman’s only weapon a stub of a knife useful only in the kitchen. Tirasi shot the woman down without emotion or sound other than the impassioned cry of her pistol. Not much farther, we crossed into an alley littered with dead soldiers liveried in Doraen’s colors. Bullet holes in the bodies and the walls of adjacent buildings told the entire story in a single image. Craith lay among them, her pale face now twisted in surprise and agony.

We left Doraen’s officers to round up the town’s survivors. Tirasi allowed the Company’s troops a short bout of looting while she and her officers selected a command center within the town’s walls.

We settled on the local thaumaturgical guildhouse, both for the spoils of war it would offer and its strategic value. Inside, the Company’s officers found themselves forced to pay homage to the dead; the bodies of the town’s thaumaturges lay in the midst of a large ritual space hastily prepared in the house’s great hall. Eight in all, they had each sustained their protective working over the town until all had died, sacrificing themselves for the hope of holding out until help arrived. Tirasi ordered that the bodies be shown the utmost respect and that, once time permitted, they be given their last rites with full honors.

But at present, time did not permit, and as soon as the space had been repurposed, Tirasi commanded her officers to gather the Company to prepare for Koradh’s impending assault. They formed teams, commandeered Doraen’s troops, and went about the arduous task of relocating their cannons and supplies to the interior of the town wall.

The important pieces of materiel recovered, the soldiers hastily broke down the defenses in the earthworks outside of the town and brought what handiwork they could salvage to construct a barricade over the collapsed portion of the wall. Then began the long vigil for the arrival of Koradh’s forces, when the erstwhile attackers would themselves become desperate defenders.

Gathered together on the town walls, clustered around artillery batteries and behind crenellations and stoneworks, our Company now numbered less than one hundred souls able to fight, with over half killed in the fighting and many others under the care of Company medics in the buildings near the guildhouse, too grievously hurt to continue fighting that day or perhaps any other.

The night passed roughly; we took shifts on the watch and struggled for some modicum of sleep amongst the rustling of those awake and several false alarms. Only when the morning broke and light again pierced the clouds did Koradh’s army array themselves at the edge of the forest, outside of cannon range.

Even at that distance, we could see the colorful House banners fluttering in the wind. That same wind carried distant voices to us from the far side of the field, audible but too indistinct to make out. We readied ourselves, lighting matchcord and loading the artillery pieces, but Tirasi raised both her hands in sign to cease. We set aside our tasks and watched the enemy.

A light flashed in the House battleline and Tirasi called for her spyglass. After a long look, she passed it to me. When I brought it to my eye, I could make out Koradh immediately, identifiable by the extravagance of his dress and armor. He stared back at me through his own device.

The House general’s armor could not but captivate. Bulkier and thicker than even tournament plate, it resembled a miniature clipper or siegeman as much as harness; it, too, was festooned with wires and cables as if a marionette. Runic inscriptions inlaid in gold accented the blackened armor, and I thought that I could make out a faint glow from the symbols. From beneath Koradh’s green silk cloak bulged a protrusion from the backplate that gave the general a hunchbacked appearance. Without seeing beneath the cloak, I knew what would be found there—the Artifice that powered the armor, that allowed Koradh to move faster than a normal man in armor heavier than any man should be able to move in, that gave him the strength of a mechanicum unburdened by its low intelligence.

Koradh’s army indeed appeared to number four-thousand, and I could identify heavy artillery, thaumaturges and other specialists within his ranks. Fortunately, most of our own force remained hidden by the wall itself; Koradh would be forced to rely upon any intelligence he had received to guess at numbers.

The general turned to speak with a fat balding man, arrayed not in the vestments of war but those of court. The man held a leather-bound book in one hand and a quill in the other; he leaned forward to show Koradh the pages of the tome. I tried to read the man’s lips as he spoke to the general, but he spoke in a tongue I could not understand.

Koradh only looked at the pages in the book and nodded, stoic and stonefaced. When the fat man had finished speaking, Koradh again held the spyglass to his left eye to survey the enemy. His mouth moved as he swept the eyepiece across the town wall, as if he were calculating or reading to himself. Beside him, his soldiers stood in perfect discipline.

Tirasi quietly gave the order for the cannon to be made ready. Her expression told me that she expected this to be the end of us. A lump came to my throat and my hands sweated. She was right, of course. Against the House Meradhvor army arrayed against us, the only questions would be how long the fighting would take and how many we could take with us. Even Doraen’s hidden cavalry would do little against such a well-arrayed and -equipped force.

My stomach turned, and I wondered why I had come here in the first place, why I’d been so foolhardy as to think that I could be a mercenary and adventurer. I’d only wanted to avoid a settled life. This was my reward: death at the hands of some cold blade or some arcane working, the ball of an harquebus or the unfeeling arms of some mechanicum. It took all that I had just to stand there on that wall; everything within me told me to run and my legs twitched with the impulse.

As those around me wearily readied their weapons, battered and bruised and exhausted from yesterday’s exertions and a sleepless night just as I was, I remained frozen, fighting with all that I had to remain still. It was a losing battle, and I could feel the fear washing over me in waves, warming me with its intensity, drowning out my thoughts until I was entirely submerged.

Just at the point when I could no longer keep myself still, a shout from the Meradhvor lines shook me from my reverie. As one, the House soldiers turned in place and began to march away. Nervous laughter spilled from my mouth as the waves of terror swept away.

Within minutes, the army had abandoned the field and left us standing on the walls with nothing to do but watch, dumbfounded. Malten busied himself keeping the soldiers alert and ready lest the withdrawal prove a ruse, but the time revealed no turnabout, no hidden plot or scheme, no clever tactic.

Finally, Doraen and his cavalry trotted triumphantly out of the forest in loose groupings, nonchalantly making their way to the Uthcaire gates, their voices in song traveling before them.

“Bastards,” Malten spat. “They have a picnic while we’re in the mud and blood and then they come out of their hiding place like they’ve won the battle by themselves.”

“So we’ve won, then?” I smiled. He frowned in response and I could feel the elation drain from my face. When he gave no answer, I looked expectantly to Tirasi. She pointed behind me. In a square not too far from the wall where we stood, our brethren lit fires, stacking the bodies of our fallen in neat rows, splashes rising from the blood-covered streets as the corpses hit the ground, the stench of death and despair reaching us even where we stood. Too far to make faces, the posture and movements of the living nevertheless betrayed their brokenness as they stripped equipment and baubles from the bodies, the stacks growing higher.

“No.” Tirasi said behind me, her voice a ghost only half heard. “Doraen has won. We have lost.”

 

Texas Annual Conference 2017

Last week, I attended the Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church as a lay delegate. K was also a delegate; more eager than I, she referred to the several days of the conference as our “Meetings Vacation.” She’s not wrong.

I had started to write a review of my experiences from the conference closer to the event, but I decided to let matters stew for a little while before committing thoughts to (digital) paper. I’m not sure time has helped much, so take these thoughts as what they are—observations that may not accurately reflect realities.

Here’re my comments:

Bishop Scott Jones, A Good Guy

When it was first announced that Bishop Jones would be the new bishop of the Texas Annual Conference, I braced for impact. You may remember a previous post about my first time to hear him speak as bishop. Conference provided greater opportunity to get to know the man and I must say that my opinion of him is favorably changed.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that Bishop Jones and I have quite different theological positions. In his opening address, he (being a scholar of Weslayan and church history), referred to Kenneth Wyatt’s painting “Offer Them Christ,” depicting Wesley sending Thomas Coke to America (with the painting’s title referring to Wesley’s supposed charge to Coke). Bishop Jones pointed out that the scene depicted by Wyatt never actually occurred, but that it nevertheless carries some power and truth with it. As a writer of fiction, I very much agree.

I am led to believe (and this admittedly could be wrong because it comes from my own surmising and third-hand commentary) that Bishop Jones leans toward a more conservative and literalist interpretation of scripture. If this is true, I wonder how our bishop can apply a non-literalist hermeneutic to the painting but not to the interpretation of scripture.

At the end of the day, however, this criticism doesn’t matter, even if it is correct. What I saw in Bishop Jones was a man of deep faith, strong leadership skills, a commitment to the Gospel, a true desire to do good in the world and a sense of reasonableness and compassion. I am led to question my suppositions about him because his comments (both in the opening address and at the Under-35 dinner at which he briefly spoke) lead me to believe that his past actions regarding disciplinary actions against clergy performing same-sex marriage ceremonies were not governed by his theology but by a rigorous commitment to the discipline of the church as represented in the Book of Discipline. Again, I may disagree with his approach to the church discipline, but I do admire that his commitment carries a certain fairness and predictability with it that may not be found in my own thoughts about the importance of the Book of Discipline.

I think that Bishop Jones will be able to accomplish many great things in our conference and I admire his expressed desire to seek greater diversity in the church (even if it is not as extensive as the diversity I’d argue for). He seems like someone with whom it would be great to spend some time and from whom much can be learned. What the United Methodist Church needs more than anything else to prevent a split is people who can be in fellowship and communion with those Christians with whom they do not theologically agree (on matters other than the Creedal core, of course). Bishop Jones seems just such a person. Given his adherence to church order, I really believe that, if General Conference changed to Book of Discipline to favor full inclusion regardless of gender (there is much work toward gender equality between men and women, but not nearly enough for those who are transgendered, genderfluid or elsewhere on the spectrum) and sexual preference, Bishop Jones would support the modified discipline whether he agreed with it or not because of his commitment to the polity.

Overall, I was forced to reconsider my expectations of the man and to realize that in more ways than not he is a great asset to our conference and to Christianity itself. I wish it did not take me so long to realize something that—according to my own values and beliefs—I should have been open to from the very beginning.

The Resistance (to Progress)

This was the feeling I got most from the laity at conference this year. This does not apply across the board, and I hope that my conclusions were caused by a small number of vocal individuals or congregations rather than a true representation of the conference as a whole.

Our theme, as I’ve alluded to, was diversity and the need for the church to grow more diverse in ways that are authentic. What surprised me was the resistance to diversity that was voiced among laity.

The laity session of the conference involved a panel of clergy and experts in diversity and the diversification of congregations. The core question posed was, “If your congregation doesn’t look something like your community in terms of demographics, is your church failing to advance its missional purpose in some way?” The panel members were clear that the answer is not automatically “Yes”—there are commuter churches and a number of other types of situations that may cause a church not to match demographic percentages in the community. In fact, the panel members were also clear that seeking diversity just to make numbers match up isn’t very realistic and is usually not the right reason to pursue diversity. When it comes down to it, it’s about ministering to the people around you, not about looking good on pie charts.

Nevertheless, there should be a call to congregations to step outside their comfort zones and to seek congregants of cultures other than the dominant one in that church. We should not be neglecting people because of a different skin color or culture—we ought to be learning how to respectfully navigate (navigation being something more achievable than true understanding) those cultures to reach the people of them.

The questions to the panel seemed to seek assurance for the asker that there were good ways or reasons to avoid the call to diversity. The first question asked about which ethnicity statistically tithes the most—the clear subtext being: “Well, the white people bring the most money to the church, so shouldn’t we be focusing on them?” I don’t know whether that’s statistically true (and I really don’t want to know the answer), and I could write a whole post (or more!) on the theological problems with such an approach. Fortunately, the audience itself responded in resistance to the approach suggested by the asker. Unfortunately, this did not stop other individuals from asking questions that revealed equal amounts of intolerance or resistance to diversity.

If you’re not aware, the 2016 General Conference passed some changes to the church’s constitution. According to the legislative procedures established by the Book of Discipline, constitutional changes passed by the General Conference must then be passed by a majority of the delegates across the Annual Conferences to be enacted.

One of the constitutional changes (summarized here) involved changes to use gender non-specific language to talk about God as a whole, partially for theological reasons but most assuredly to make an effort to combat complementarianism and theologies that assign a lesser place to women because of their femininity (K and I have been watching The Handmaid’s Tale lately, which has reinforced my support for this amendment).

As one young clergyperson paraphrased after the discussion and voting on that and the other four amendments: “Five people got up to speak about how God has a penis.”

The arguments went like this:

(1) Jesus was a man. Because God incarnated as a man, it’s true that God is masculine (or for the softer argument: “it’s confusing to talk about God as non-gendered”).

(2) God created men and women separate from one another; a man cannot be a woman no matter how hard he tries (and vice versa).

(3) This change is an attempt allow changing societal ideologies to creep into theology.

Number 2 ignores modern science, the experiences of non-gender-conforming persons (also created by God) and, most important, the point and focus of this amendment. Number 3 is just another way of saying “there’s no interpretation to be done in Scripture (there’s only the truth of the literalist way I read it).”

Number 1, however, moved me to go to the microphone to speak in favor of the amendment and to respond. If you have nothing else to do, you can go watch the video of the conference online (Business Session 2, I think) and see my extemporaneous argument. It goes like this: according to orthodox doctrine, Jesus is 100% divine and 100% human. It is therefore foolish to try to extrapolate information about the divine aspect of Jesus by reference to the human aspect—our intellects simply cannot resolve this; it is a mystery of faith. Besides, reference to Jesus (or the Father, for that matter) as an argument for the gender of God comes dangerously close to the heresy of modalism—specifically, “sometimes God manifests as man, but sometimes God could manifest as a woman.” Such a response creates problems in trinitarian doctrine that make my head spin. The short answer, though, is that the trinitarian God is complete and therefore must in some way that we cannot truly parse out contain the entire spectrum of gender.

As important, it is incumbent upon us as the faithful to ensure that the interpretation of Scripture is not twisted to promote violence against or a lesser status for women (or anyone else for that matter). I think that many of us American Methodists forget that our denomination is worldwide and that there are places Methodism where gender inequality is still very much an issue (not to mention that we tend to brush under the rug those places it persists within our own minds and institutions).

The Good Apart from the Bad and Ugly

I’ve spent most of this post complaining about the conference, so I do want to point out a few wonderful things about my experience of it:

(1) Getting to spend time with young clergy was uplifting and inspiring.

(2) We heard some great presentations. At the Reconciling Ministries lunch we heard Rev. Dr. Cedrick Bridgeforth speak about being a gay, black man in the Methodist Church. His description of times when his blackness prevented getting to issues of sexuality and his gayness prevented getting to issues of race opened my eyes. The presentation on cultural intelligence by Rev. Dr. Maria A. Dixon Hall (Senior Advisor to the Provost at SMU) is nothing short of amazing. You can watch it on YouTube starting at around the 1:30:00 mark here.

(3) One of the panelists in the laity session stated that he believes that house churches will be a big part of the future of Christianity. I’ve been thinking this for a while myself, and validation from an expert is always good for the ego.

(4) Our conference appears to be innovative and vibrant and there are many laypersons and clergy who are proclaiming the Gospel in new and powerful ways.

(5) I got to see K in her element (the intersection of church and meetings) and hit the realization that she’ll be commissioned as a deacon at Conference next year. Time flies! I also got to meet several of her classmates from Perkins seminary.

(6) The affirmation of the social justice values of Christianity (and particularly the Methodist interpretation thereof) is comforting in times where politicians want to use hate and fear to hold power, leaving the world less fair and just all around.

(7) I made new friends in the Conference that I hope to have deep relationships with—it’s always fun to meet young clergy who are nerds like me!

I could go on, but seven being the metaphorical number of completion, that seems like a good stopping point.

RPG Review: Apocalypse World, 2nd Edition (and Description of Play)

I’ve known about the “World” games for quite some time; I’ve had a digital copy of Dungeon World wasting away in a forgotten corner of my iPad for years. But it wasn’t until this past week that I really gave the system the attention it deserved.

I had picked up Dungeon World not to run it, but because I’d heard that it was a “must know” for aspiring game designers. I’m constantly toying with ideas for RPG systems, and while I’ve never completed a ruleset I’d be proud to publish, I’m getting a little closer each time I think. So, with the idea that I had some things to learn from the illustrious Vincent Baker, I decided to take another look.

I purchased and began to read the second edition of Apocalypse World, the game that started it all, so to speak. Having read (but never played) Vincent Baker’s Dogs in the Vineyard, I knew going in that there was a powerful mind engaged in building profound storytelling games behind the work.

In the past, I’d only really skimmed Dungeon World, and it seemed too fast and loose for my tastes. Then again, I grew up playing Shadowrun, d20 and World of Darkness games and reading and re-reading the Rolemaster books, so my definition of fast and loose was itself pretty fast and loose.

In reading Apocalypse World, I was surprised to find a system that was deceptively tight, with rules determined to incessantly advance the story at all costs. Even more than Fate, one of my favorite systems over the past few years, this game is designed from the ground up to play out fiction-first games that put the characters at the heart of the narrative and keep them there. The examples of action—which I found to be believable portrayals of the rules in effect—reminded me constantly of a well-written and run television show—say Deadwood or Game of Thrones. The cast of characters is connected to the setting in ways that inevitably draw them into conflict, which is, of course, the essence of plot.

I don’t mean to say that Apocalypse World is a perfect system; there’s not such a thing. But AW does fit a certain playstyle very well, a playstyle that resonates with me. I like reading roleplaying games—they’re often great sources for both mechanics to adapt to other systems and setting ideas to explore in games or writing. But there are few that, upon a first read, make me want to go out and play the game as soon as possible. AW is one of those systems.

As a word of minor warning: if you’re not familiar, AW has some narrative space dedicated to sex, particularly the way sex influences relationships between characters and drives plot. Each character class gets or gives certain bonuses for having sex with other characters (with an explicit focus on these relationships developing between player characters). I fully appreciate the power of sex in the human psyche (and therefore as a motivating or driving force within fiction) and don’t consider myself prudish by any means, but the prospect of weaving a subject so fraught with sticky wickets into a tabletop game with my friends is daunting and doesn’t appeal. In the one game I’ve run so far, I’ve tried to take a middle ground in establishing that there are some sexual/romantic relationships between PCs and NPCs to get some plot mileage out of these connections but leaving the prurient details (well, most of the details, really) to remain in the background.

I give the warning above because some players and readers might be turned off (no pun intended, I suppose) by this content in the game. If that’s the case, and who could blame someone if it is, my recommendation is to ignore all the “sex stuff” and run the game without incorporating the rules dedicated to that aspect of the game. As is typical of any narrative or roleplaying game that addresses mature subjects, it’s best for the group to decide where the boundaries of those subjects lie by adapting the boundary established by the most sensitive player to the subject. This is just good teamwork, and a good roleplaying experience requires teamwork.

Which leads me to one of my favorite aspects of this system—it is collaborative between the gamemaster (called the Master of Ceremonies or MC) and the players in a truly effective way. The MC asks questions to be answered by the players and incorporates those into the story. This takes some of the improvisational and preparatory burden off of the MC (though an MC not comfortable with generating story on the fly should approach this game with caution) and gives the players some real skin in the game, with characters who have established ties to the setting influenced if not created by their own ideas and storytelling interests.

You can find plenty of reviews that detail how the rules play, so I’m going to skip that and talk more about the “feel” of the game.

I very quickly suckered some friends into trying the system out, so we set up a time yesterday to meet, make characters and start playing. Here’s how it went:

The game strongly discourages significant work on the MC’s part to “plan” game sessions and sets things up so that the MC is also “playing to find out what happens.” The prep I did was as follows: First, I created a few basic setting details—the game takes place in the Greater Houston area and the Apocalypse that happened about fifty years ago: (1) had nothing to do with nuclear annihilation and (2) involved massive sea level rise, making parts of downtown Houston look akin to Venice and completely submerging Galveston and some parts east of the downtown area (I looked at several map projections for climate change and sea level rise to get a feel for this). That said, I didn’t fully define the reasons behind or events of the Apocalypse—I’ll play to find out the details as they get created, just like the players. Second, I created a list of apocalyptic-sounding names to use for characters (the rulebook advises that the MC should “name every NPC” and make them feel like real living people). I printed the rules references and the playbooks for characters. I created an “Apocalypse World” playlist in iTunes with some movie soundtracks, a mix of hard rock, blues, Tom Waits, Nine Inch Nails and other seemingly-appropriate artists. I watched about two-thirds of The Book of Eli and about a third of Doomsday to collect ideas for—as the game puts it—“barfing forth apocalyptica.”

My players arrived around 11:00 to make characters. I’d set them during the week to thinking about the different playbooks/classes and what they might want to play. The choose The Angel (a medic-type), The Chopper (a biker-gang leader, think Clay Morrow or Jax from Sons of Anarchy), The Hardholder (the leader of a community, this reminds me somewhat of characters in Jericho but even more of Al Swearingen in Deadwood), The Brainer (a psychic with mind-control and mind-reading powers) and The Maestro D’ (the owner of a bar or entertainment establishment, the closest thing I can think of offhand, unfortunately, is Peter Baelish and his brothel in Game of Thrones).

There are a few things for each character to define and describe in that character’s playbook—The Chopper makes some decisions about the edges and flaws his gang has, The Hardholder defines some of the advantages of and threats to the hardhold, etc. I followed up on this by asking pointed questions and letting the players answer however they wished. For instance, we determined that the Chopper had once had someone betray the gang, the one rule they cannot abide being broken. But instead of killing the underling to make an example of him, The Chopper beat him badly and banished him. Instant villain—the banished character, who we named Ajax, has recently returned with a small army at his heels to get revenge.

We established that the hardhold is a rusted-out tanker ship washed fairly far inland by a tsunami, with Lita’s (the Maestro D’s bar) in the lowest deck and the upper decks providing the habitations, workspaces and other necessaries of the hardhold. This followed with the creation of some nearby settlements with whom the Hold (as the hardhold was quickly named) had tenuous relationships—a pseudo-feudal community producing much of the areas fuel and ammunition and a matriarchal society of slavers. Further questions established some history and relationships between the characters.

And away we went. Since the players had determined that the Hold had a bustling market for trade, that gave me a starting place—an injured caravaner arrived to explain how she and her fellows had been ambushed and robbed on a western road toward the Hold, territory The Hardholder was responsible for protecting. While The Maestro D’ stayed back to manage the hold (well, mostly her bar), the other characters road out in force, taking The Chopper’s entire gang, half to the Hardholder’s guards and several armored vehicles. They too were ambushed, though they fared much better than the caravan—only one of The Chopper’s men was injured by sniper-fire before the crew was able to eliminate the hostiles—too well, as explosive rounds left little to investigate about the nature and origin of the attackers except for a cryptic tattoo found on a remaining arm.

I’d like to pause here for a moment to point something out. This fight ran fast and smooth, with the characters making tactical decisions based on what they’d tactically do rather than looking to their character sheets for permission. There was the aforementioned enemy sniper, RPGs (that’s the other kind—rocket-propelled grenades), dragging the wounded to cover, exchanging fire from a mounted gun, near misses against the characters and more, with the whole thing taking less than five minutes.

Combat in AW (or any “World” game, as far as I know) doesn’t use initiative, with the MC just bouncing back and forth between players as narratively appropriate. Since the players roll all the dice, the MC only has to initiate a “move” and have the players roll to respond when the NPCs are doing something more than reacting to PC actions.

As an aside, I noticed that this is how combat was run in the “not-Pathfinder” game depicted in the show Harmon Quest—in a half-hour episode, quick combat is essential! Like D&D, it takes players who are either willing to do something non-traditional or unfamiliar enough with the system not to notice to pull something like this off, but I think it’s much preferred to the “classic” tactical combat of D&D or games like Shadowrun.

I have to admit that, when running RPGs, I sometimes find ways to shy away from fights because of rules that make them play out laboriously, slowly and without much excitement. AW does RPG fights right—the rules push the narrative of the fight but remain effectively in the background while allowing for narrative details to immerse the players and add nuance to the fight that just aren’t well captured in simulationist mechanics.

The players had determined that the ship had a functioning radio suite, one that was used both for communication with other settlements and for entertaining radio broadcasts. When the players had eliminated one “lead” to advance the plot I simply offered another—they began to pick up a new broadcast on the ship radios, one that sounded very much like a religious cult.

Once they’d returned to the Hold, I pushed more MC moves to advance things—an assassination attempt on the Hardholder, sabotaging of the ship’s power generation, the leaders of the other holds disclaiming responsibility, hard deals to track down the new cult—only to find out that it was a splinter sect and not the cult proper responsible for the attacks, etc.

It’s a general RPG axiom to never “split the party.” AW often encourages just this, and the Maestro D’ was working contacts in the Hold while the Chopper and his men went patrolling for other ambushers and the Hardholder, the Angel and the Brainer went on a diplomatic mission to secure help from the matriarchal hardhold. Because the action of the game carries forward pretty naturally, presents new twists and ideas to the story and allows the MC to not get bogged down in the resolution of events, there was no perceived difficulty at jumping back and forth between various scenes and characters. Unlike many games I’ve run, where players zone out when not actively involved in a scene, the players listened intently to the other player’s actions and scenes, wanting like the rest of us to find out what happens next.

The system is not fast and loose; it supports rather than controls a quick-pace of narrative and action. Just as with writing traditional fiction, pacing is important in roleplaying games and the narrative demands should control pacing more than mechanics—particularly overly-complex ones.

In all, not counting a pizza break, we played for a total of five hours. I haven’t played a single roleplaying session that long since I was in college, and never with so little preparation beforehand.

I loved Apocalypse World—mainly for the usefulness of the rules and the collaborative approach to plot and setting. In all honesty, I could probably take or leave the apocalyptic setting itself. Fortunately, there are tons of “hacks” for AW (Dungeon World, tremulus, Urban Shadows, Uncharted Worlds, just to name a few) and hacking one’s on setting or version of AW seems pretty easy to do. I certainly haven’t tested the system to its limits and breaking points yet (all systems have them), but I feel like even a single session of the game has greatly improved both my GMing chops and my game design toolbox. I highly recommend it for casual gamers, dyed-in-the-wool narrativists (though I don’t buy too hard in GNS theory) and would-be game designers; there’s a lot to sort through here in a tight and somewhat condensed ruleset.

Protecting the Religious Right (to Discriminate)

Yesterday, the Texas Senate passed a bill that allows religious-based organizations involved in foster care to discriminate in the provision of services based on “sincerely-held religious beliefs.” It previously passed the House and there is no reason to suspect that Governor Abbott will not sign House Bill 3859 into law.

As an attorney, (but not a constitutional law attorney, mind you), I have a strong suspicion that this bill violates the Constitution’s protections of religion, right to privacy and, as only recently affirmed by SCOTUS, protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation. We shall see.

But this is not a post about the law. This is a post about my views on the matter as a Christian and a foster parent. I’m appalled, but unfortunately not surprised.

There has been a growing movement among conservative Christians–especially in Texas, I think, though my lens is distorted since that’s where I am–to protect the right to refuse people services based on religious belief. This is both theologically untenable and ridiculously counterproductive from the standpoint of evangelism and discipleship.

House Bill 3859 allows faith-based organizations to refuse to: (1) place children with certain families because of the family’s differing religious views; (2) place children with persons or families whose homosexuality–as the Methodist Church would put it–is incompatible with Christian teaching; and (3) provide certain services (abortions or vaccines, for instance) to children in their care. There is no question that this legislation is motivated by conservative Christian lobby groups.

I hear about this bill and what the Christian churches involved in lobbying for the bill say through the legislation is: “My right to force my values on other people is more important than helping children without homes. I want to help children without homes, but only if I can do it my way without any risk of repercussions.”

That is not a witness to the Christ who tells us, “whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me.” Nota bene that the statement does not read, “whatever you do for the least of these who believe in me just like you do….”

The Texas foster care system has been judged by a court to be illegally deficient in the protection and services provided to foster children. There is a shortage of foster parents and a surplus of children who need homes.  Is this really the time to move for the right to exclude foster parents who are otherwise qualified and vetted to take in and care for children from “the system?”

As you’ve likely guessed, I’m pretty passionate about my own interpretations of the Christian faith. But I’m also not so egotistical and prideful as to have surety of my religious understanding so as to completely discredit, disregard and disrespect those of other beliefs–Christian or otherwise. Nevertheless, there comes a point where I feel that the hypocrisy is so blatant that I cannot help but take offense and I am filled with a righteous-seeming anger that the actions of other people acting under the banner of Christianity are besmirching my faith and sabotaging my own ability to evangelize and disciple to the world. It’s an uphill battle when you have to start a conversation about your faith with, “No, that’s not really what Christianity is about. I promise.”

Just last night I was in a church meeting where the perennial question, “How do we get more millennials to come to church?” came up. The best answer: stop doing stuff like this! Stop putting self-affirmation in front of helping people and making the world a better place? Millennials smell hypocrisy like a bloodhound tracking a scent, not that they need to be able to when judgment is thrown before mercy in such blatant manner! People are leaving the church (or never giving it a thought in the first place) not because of outdated furniture, color schemes or worship styles but because some make of it an instrument of oppression and transgression rather than one of confession and profession.

As a foster parent, how dare the government spend time trying to exclude some of my willing helpmates rather than actually fixing a deplorably broken system for the benefit of the children? It makes my life tougher even as I’m trying to help. That’s not good for an already-overburdened system.

There. That’s enough said about being appalled. Why am I not surprised? Because this is just one more milestone on the current trajectory of many Christians. We see this in the demand for people to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” and talk about the “war on Christmas” or the “war on Christians.” A little secret: no one needs to make war on Christianity for the relevance and the effectiveness of the church to dwindle into nothing–we’re doing a great job of that ourselves.

More broadly, it’s an indication of current trends in American culture–let’s blame others so that we can discriminate against them rather than truly trying to solve the suffering of the world.

When our priorities are correct, the revelation of our faith in Jesus comes naturally and is inevitable. When we make our goal protectionism over all else, I’m afraid that Jesus turns away from us in shame. Can you blame him?

Modern Mythopoeia

Tolkien’s legendarium is arguably the sine que non of the practice of modern worldbuilding (founded, of course on the ancient mythopoeias of Greece, Rome and especially the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe). The mythological histories that lurk behind the stories of Patrick Rothfuss, Susanna Clarke and G.R.R. Martin likewise inspire a wonder that deepens the metaphoric and thematic meanings of their respective works, reinforcing the actual narratives through foreshadowing, repetition of events and themes and the creation of seemingly-living systems of belief and culture that bring characters to life.

Mythopoeia is powerful because its focus is unabashedly meaning without the need for historicity and “hard” logic—it is the intuitive quality of dreams brought to bear upon the waking world. It is important on one hand because it makes for better fantastic worlds and tales; on the other it bears a power of its own that cannot be found in any other mode of storytelling.

Here’s the rub—the natural drive to develop mythologies and legends for our created worlds is to emulate the feeling of known mythopoeia, to capture the nostalgia of indulging in such modes of thought without sufficient critique of the cultures and ideologies that informed old ways of thinking—whether from the early 20th Century A.D. or the late 20th Century B.C.

Some of my first steps into Avar Narn involved journeys into the mythological and legendary foundations of the setting. I looked to the great writers before me in too imitative and awestruck a manner.

There were two mistakes here. First—this is my opinion based upon my own experience, so take it for what it is—one should not start at the beginning when crafted a world meant for storytelling. Quite the contrary, one should begin in forming the milieu in which the stories will take place—the worlds “modern day,” if you will—because this will more heavily influence the types of stories you tell with that setting. Start with the immediate, and work backwards—what kind of things might have historically occurred to result in the current state of political affairs, what legends and mythologies would have shaped the “modern” ideologies, perspectives and values that exist in that world?

Second, if we adhere too closely to historical mythologies and their fantastic descendants, we are not carefully crafting the values our world has.

By way of example—a world with a mythology of creation that draws heavily upon the Adam and Eve story is more likely to result in a misogynistic worldview—blame Eve for Adam’s sin as historic theologians tended to do. If that influence is there, it either has to be somehow present in the current time of the setting (even if its influence has waned such that people do not openly espouse such a view—but still think it to themselves) or something has to have occurred to change the initial perspective created by that mythology. This could be as simple as a change of the interpretive hermeneutic applied to a mythology or story of spiritual import. But it could represent a major change in theology or the mythology itself—perhaps one explanatory story was replaced by another. This could be a result of historical events: new propagandistic motives of rulers; the influence of foreign ideas upon domestic, whether by trade or conquering; events (natural or otherwise) that undercut or destroyed the explanatory power of the earlier story.

In other words, if we uncritically draw upon Tolkien’s legendarium to shape our own, we’ll get a mythology informed (subtly or not) but the dominant ideas of the early 20th century (and, perhaps, ancient Germanic mythologies as interpreted through the lens of that same time). Draw heavily upon Greek mythology for your world and—without an outside influence—the inhabitants of that world will have Greek values.

I’m tempted to say that sometimes this doesn’t matter, but any work on worldbuilding or crafting narrative that doesn’t influence some other aspect of the process is time wasted and meaning lost.

For me, the productive turn (which has occurred only recently as I return to the Avarian mythologies and legends to revise them as the setting moves toward its final state) happened when I realized that I needed to think about the social values I want to have (and, as important, have conflict over) in the setting.

The most important (and thus controversial) social matters—race, sexuality, religion, politics, immigration, environmental issues, bioethics, etc.—are treated with outdated and untenable views by much mythopoeic work, old and more recent. If you want to deal with these issues in ways that modern readers could relate to, ways that stimulate thought about the subject (particularly as an examination of all sides of an issue rather than solely a diatribe or invective current in your work), your world’s mythopoeia itself needs to challenge or wrestle with these ideas. What does it mean in your world if your mythology has divine beings engaged in homosexual relationships? It is not enough simply to have such stories—if questions of human sexuality are something you want to explore in your world, the context of those stories also matters heavily.

Maybe my point is simple—like Penn & Teller’s statement that “words mean shit!”, stories mean shit! No part of the crafting process of a setting or story should go without scrutiny or intentional design.

From this, the real crux of my argument is simple: do not imitate sample mythologies uncritically! Strive to capture the power and the feel of the mythopoeic, borrow from the tropes of the mythopoeic when helpful, but craft something that is uniquely yours and that tells readers something about the setting and your story! Take hold of the explanatory purpose of the mythopoeic and use it to your own ends! Your fantasy world’s mythologies should inform both you and your readers about the kinds of values and ideas that are taken for granted, as well as those that rebel against traditional beliefs and those that have come into question. Your mythologies are not so much about the conflict within those stories as the conflicts they set up for your “main” narratives.

Rant over.

Avar Narn: An Introduction to Magic

In this post, I want to talk about the place of magic in fiction in general and in my own fantasy setting, Avar Narn, in particular.

First, the general. What does magic represent in fiction? Many things are possible: a convenient plot device or deus ex machina; the power of words (ref. Earthsea and Dresden Files for examples); a dualistic or non-material worldview; the power of the mind and/or will; and, quite simply, the fantastic.

When I studied medieval and renaissance literature at the University of Texas for my master’s degree, one of my areas of interest was in cultural ideas and constructs about magic and the occult. While the age of serious witch-hunting was later than the period on which I focused, there were nevertheless plenty of opportunities for the study of both folk beliefs and scholarly beliefs in the efficacy of magic. One of my favorite books on the subject is Keith Thomas’s Religion and the Decline of Magic. Thomas convincingly argues that people increasingly turned to folk magic as the Reformation deprived them of Catholic apotropaic rituals and  miraculous healings that had formed a key part of their worldview served fundamental psychological needs.

In my own studies, what occurred to me in the study of real-world attitudes toward magic in the medieval and early modern periods was that magic represented a threat to traditional forms of power. Qabbalistic and Hermetic systems of magic represented the belief that “knowledge is power” stripped down to its barest form, challenging ideas of power through land ownership, military might and birthright. This aspect of beliefs in supernatural powers fascinated me and has undoubtedly informed in part my own approach to magic in Avar Narn.

I do not intend to spend much time talking about how to build a magic “system” for fictional settings–there are plenty of well-written articles, blog posts and other resources on this subject. Instead, I want to examine why a setting might have magic at all.

As you know, good magic systems have a cost associated with them–think of the blood magic of A Song of Ice and Fire or the sanity-sapping occult knowledge of the Cthulhu mythos. Thus, integral to a magic system is dramatic conflict of a type recognizable to any reader–what price are we willing to pay to get what we want? There are few conflicts more visceral or primal than that. In fact, we might consider that conflict to be a core part of any conflict whatsoever.

If willingness to pay the cost of magic is an archetypal dramatic conflict, the ability to pay the cost is also a prime ground for the kinds of conflict that drives stories–think of the destruction of the One Ring or the quest for the Grail. When certain conditions or materials are required for the successful use of magic, this itself can be a primary plot around which to build a story. This, I think is more commonly used in role-playing games than novels, but has a place in both.

In addition to providing ready conflicts to write about, magic tells us something (often much) about the nature of the setting. Magic with a high cost usually results in dark fantasy (think the Warhammer Fantasy universe, for instance), while magic with a low cost might become what we’d call “epic” or “high fantasy” but (in my opinion) more often looks more like a superhero story. In at least most cases, a magic system alone is insufficient to readily categorize the genre of a story (to the extent that such categories are really helpful anyway), but it is nevertheless a great contributor to the atmosphere of a setting. Where magic is rare a reader will take note when it occurs; when plentiful it will have far-reaching effects on economics, politics and the like. If your magic system doesn’t influence the way your world works in some way, it will feel “stuck-on” or compartmentalized and that does not contribute to the willing suspension of disbelief.

What is more interesting to me about what magic tells us about a setting is that the definition of magic is, essentially, a cosmological task. The why, what, how, when and where of magic tells you something about how the very fabric–the “reality”–of a setting works. Magic as a latent force to be manipulated and studied scientifically is quite different from a mysterious magic that cannot be fully understood and is used only tenuously.

With these thoughts in mind, let me tell you about “magic” in Avar Narn.

First, I try to avoid using the word “magic” within the setting. For semiotic ease, I don’t mind talking about that aspect of the system as “magic,” but the characters in the world don’t think of it with that word–it’s got too much fantasy baggage. Instead, the force of magic in Avar Narn is usually referred to metaphorically as “the Power” and its use as “the Gift” or “the Art.” Likewise, Avar Narn stories do not talk about “spells,” they speak instead of “workings.”

Is this a cheap trick? Is an elf by any other name still really an elf? More important, do readers balk when your story has stereotypical elves but you call them something else? I don’t know the answer for sure, but I definitely see this risk here. So, does playing games with the nomenclature of magic hurt or help in the long-run? I’ve made my choice and I’ll live with the consequences.

With all of that in mind, here’s some description of magic in Avar Narn:

Meaning: All of the details of the arcane in Avar Narn flow from the meaning I’ve set for this aspect of the setting. Magic, in this world, is about the power of the will writ large–the ways in which we use our freedom of will for good or for evil (or, as is more often the case in Avar Narn, some gray area quite in-between). Not just the details about how the arcane works, but the very history of its use show how mortals typically twist the good gifts they’ve been give to selfish and self-destructive purposes.

Source: The Power, the source of arcane workings of any sort in Avar Narn, is the stuff of Creation itself, raw possibility that The One (or whichever divine power a person happens to believe in) has made available to some.

Availability: Not everyone has access to the Power, and even among those who do the ability to shape the Power into an actual working is limited for most. Why this is the case is a mystery to scholars–to a certain extent, differences in the effectiveness of practitioners can be explained by the thoroughness of their studies and discipline. Nevertheless, the question of why some have the Gift at all and others do not remains open. Some say that those who wield the Gift have returned to this world in a higher state of being after gaining some modicum of enlightenment in past lives, but the tendency of so many practitioners to fall to corruption through their use of the Power undercuts this idea. Regardless, I’m not willing to explicitly explain this–nor do I need to, as having multiple theories and no concrete answer feels more realistic.

Difficulty: Magic in Avar Narn is difficult to perform properly, even under the most favorable of conditions. Scholars of the arcane believe that this is because the natural state of Creation resists mortal attempts to reshape it through the Power of raw possibility–the more radically a desired effect differs from expectations of natural law and causation, the more difficult it is to achieve.

This means that magic is more often subtle than flashy, more often a component of a larger undertaking rather than a replacement for mundane action. Yes, truly fantastic effects are possible, but often they are simply achievable through other means. Magi with the right training and preparation may make for devastating battlefield artillery, but cannon are cheaper and easier to replace. It is the flexibility of arcane workings that makes magi a force to be reckoned with more than the Art’s raw force.

The Cost: Like any good magic system, the use of the Power is fraught with costs–some minor, some significant. At perhaps the most minor level, the use of the Power is fatiguing on mind and body–sometimes to the point of lasting physical injury. As important, controlling the Power to form a working is difficult at best, and uncontrolled raw possibility bleeding into the world is anything but safe. Not only do practitioners have to worry about losing control of their intended working, but even successful workings may have unintended side effects. Even without immediate side effects, small amounts of the Power bleed into the world from even the most tightly-controlled workings. This is called Flux. If Flux accumulates before it naturally dissipates, it can cause random and unlikely events to occur. From this comes the stories of a magus’s presence spoiling milk or turning candles blue; this reality has done much to generate fear and persecution of practitioners over time.

Additionally, there is what I’m currently calling “the Practitioner’s Dialectic.” The Dialectic is the observation that the emotional and mental state of a practitioner when performing a working will affect the nature of the working, and the types of workings wrought will subtly influence the mind and emotions of the practitioner. One who uses the Power for malicious ends may find himself corrupted into a “natural” state of maliciousness, even if the first steps down such a path were intended to ultimately be for good. In other words, practitioners who use the Power under the idea that the end justifies the means often find that the means become the end. Remember, the use of the Art is symbolic of the use of free will writ large, and the use of free will is recursive–every choice we make sets us on a new path and changes or affirms (if ever so slightly) who we are.

These costs are known in the Avar as the “Fourfold Curse” of the Art–the risk of physical injury, the difficulty of controlling workings and their side effects, Flux and the Practitioner’s Dialectic. In Avar Narn, magic is capable of truly wondrous and miraculous things (although its use is not so wanton or commonplace as, say, a Dungeons & Dragons setting), but the narrative conflict of magic is whether it is worth the cost.

The Practices: There are five Practices of magic in Avar Narn–at least according to the widely used Ealthen system of categorization. These are:

Sorceries: Sorceries are brute force workings, the quick summoning of the Power combined with a raw exertion of the will. They do not create long-lasting effects, are relatively weak compared to other Practices and are messy in application. On the other hand, they are the fastest possible applications of the Power and some individuals (known as “Sorcerers” and “Sorceresses”) are able to wield sorceries without formal training. Other Practitioners view Sorcerers as especially dangerous given their unpredictability and the heightened influence of the Practitioner’s Dialectic on sorceries.

Thaumaturgies: Thaumaturgies are what most people think of when they think of “spells.” A thaumaturgy is the careful formation of the Power into an intended effect. This requires time, focus and skill–thaumaturgies typically employ incantations, hand gestures and at least a whole minute to complete. Rather than simply directing the Power with the will as in a sorcery, a thaumaturgy involves creating mental structures and sequences of thoughts to deliberately and cautiously create a desired effect. These effects are typically relatively short-lived; while noticeably more powerful than sorceries, the wonders created by thaumaturgies often pale in comparison to the power of ritual workings.

Ritual: The most powerful and lasting “immediate” effects are achieved through rituals. Rituals make use of arcane diagrams and occult sympathies to create the structure for a working (rather than requiring the practitioner to form everything in her mind). It takes time to set up a ritual–a magic circle is necessary and the items and ingredients for such an undertaking are usually not readily available. Further, the Flux of a ritual working adheres to the place of the working rather than the worker–this has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Perhaps the most important aspect of ritual workings is that their effects may be created so as to be longer-lasting, persisting for days, weeks or months. Powering such persistence can be quite costly, however, and any effect meant to be permanent–such a Fleshcrafting–requires permanent sacrifice of some sort or another.

Alchemy: Alchemy is the use of occult sympathies, proto-science and the Art to store effects in consumable items. This allows the practitioner to pay the cost of a working in advance and to delay the use of the working until situationally appropriate. Alchemical effects are typically on par in power with sorceries or thaumaturgies but not rituals.

Artifice: Artifice is the set of closely-guarded secrets that involve using the Power as a source of energy for driving mechanical creations. The practice requires magical skill, engineering talent, competency in alchemy and many other esoteric knowledges to perform. Artifice plays an important historical, social and economic role in the Avar, as you’ll see in upcoming stories.

 

This really only scratches the surface of the details of arcane power in Avar Narn–I’ve found working on magic within the setting deeply fascinating and rewarding so it has developed what I hope is dramatic nuance and complexity that properly limits the effectiveness of magic while making it capable of wondrous things in ways that will be narratively exciting. More to come, on the subject, I’m sure.

 

 

Demonology

I’ve been doing some research into demonologies lately for some of my fiction writing, and, naturally, it’s got me thinking about demons and devils from a theological standpoint.

Most of Christian demonology (and the demonology of Judaism and Islam, for that matter) is based on folk belief run amok.

The Book of Job features “the Satan” (“Ha-Satan”), not so much a formal name as a title of office: “the adversary.” In Job, the Satan’s position is just that, the skeptic who doubts Job’s sincerity and requests God’s permission to test Job’s faith. Here, the Satan’s intent is not to corrupt Job but to uncover the truth of his piety. We should also read the Satan in this text as highly metaphorical; through the story the author is leading us through an investigation of the problems of evil and suffering. The ultimate answer given at the end of Job is that we humans cannot fully understand evil and suffering and must trust in God as the only satisfactory resolution. The Satan, then, represents a force or condition personified for mythopoeic effect more than a literal being.

The word “satan” appears in the Old Testament about 18 times outside of Job. The King James Version (already saturated with folk demonology–James VI & I himself wrote Daemonologie in 1597) sometimes translates the word as a proper noun when it more correctly should have been translated as “an adversary.”

There is one notable exception: Revelation 12:7-9, which reads: “Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down–that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” We’ll return to this below.

The word translated by the King James as “Lucifer” appears in Isaiah 14 and should properly be translated as “morning star” rather than a proper name.

So where do our ideas about Satan and Lucifer, fallen angels and great demons come from? As I mentioned above, a borrowed and greatly embellished folk tradition that somehow became enmeshed within Christianity.

The early Mesopotamian cultures had extensive legends about demons, much of which we have come to know from apotropaic amulets and inscriptions. There are Alu and Agag, the edimmu and the Lilu, just to name a few. Mesopotamian ideas naturally influenced Jewish ideas (remember that Abram is called by God to leave the Mesopotamian cities in Genesis) and through Jewish thought came to Christian thought. The Exodus and the Babylonian Captivity provided additional opportunities for pagan demonologies to influence demonological thought among Rabbis and Jewish scholars.

The Dead Sea Scrolls provide some insight. We know that Qumran, the community of the (probably) Essenes where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, was probably founded between the 130’s and 100’s B.C. and was destroyed by the Romans in 68 A.D. Among the Dead Sea Scrolls are 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees, both of which make reference to the episode in Genesis 6, where the “sons of God”–interpreted in these texts as angels–rebel by taking human wives, giving birth to the Nephilim. Because of this, we know that a well-developed and codified set of demonological ideas exists at about the time of Christ. To what extent these ideas were widely accepted is, I think, unknown.

The likeliest influence for a chief demon in the popular concept of Satan is Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism is a dualistic religion, in which the good God Ahura Mazda battles the evil god Angra Mainyu (or Ahriman) for control of the world. This idea of a powerful evil being in opposition to the supreme being (and in the early Old Testament the Hebrews appear to be henotheistic long before they are truly monotheistic) must have been an attractive one for the explanation of evil and suffering in the world.

This jibes well with the story of Satan’s rebellion against God, a war in heaven that ends with Satan and his followers being cast out or cast into Hell. In a truly monotheistic mindset, it doesn’t make sense to think that one–angel or not–could overthrow the sovereign creator of all things and take God’s place as lord of creation. If this popular “Satan’s rebellion” story is true, I question the danger of an adversary who can’t do a basic benefit to risk assessment; it’s the smart criminals you have to watch out for.

Now we return to the passage in Revelation. But we ought to be careful: while the core nugget of Satan rebelling against God and a war in heaven is there, the nature of the text and the narration make it unclear whether we’re looking backwards in time or forwards. Based on the surrounding context (that the seven seals have been broken and trumpets are blowing) this appears to be a depiction of a future time–not a spiritual history.

The Revelation of John was probably written somewhere in the 70’s to 90’s A.D.–not long after or perhaps even concurrently with the Book of Mark. Plenty of time for popular demonological beliefs to take hold–and well before the canonization of the New Testament texts. We know that 1 Enoch and the Book of Jubilees existed before the Book of Revelation was likely written, so we know that there were demonological ideas that to draw upon at the time, even if most of these ideas would not make it into canon.

There is much information to be had on ancient demonologies and their potential influences on one another. For my purpose here, I mean only to point out in broad strokes that most of our ideas about “the devil” and Satan are based on conjecture and elaboration–some of it fanciful–rather than Scripture.

Most of our understanding of the “war in heaven” narrative–in the popular mind–comes from Milton’s Paradise Lost. It is from that work, Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and long-standing oral traditions that our concept of the devil comes about.

Why does this matter? Because the way we think about evil matters. Is there evil in the world? I don’t think there’s any question about that. Is there a personified, capital “E” Evil at work in the world? I don’t know–I don’t think that Scriptures are entirely clear on this matter and we can cause more suffering than we alleviate if we focus overmuch on a the “spiritual warfare” against a personified Other in our efforts to seek justice and peace in our world.

To be clear, the Scriptures do indicate a confidence in the existence of supernatural entities that can affect the world, some of them evil or unclean. The Witch of Endor (surprisingly not related to Star Wars) summons the spirit of the prophet Samuel at Saul’s command; Jesus is shown driving spirits out of the afflicted as well. I’m unwilling to deny this; nor can I categorically prove or disprove the existence of a Satan. But, we don’t know the extent to which Jesus’s exorcisms were really the contemporary cultural understanding of the miraculous healing of mental illness and to what extent actual predatory beings were involved. Maybe I’m hedging my bets, but I’m inclined to believe that it’s some of both. Still, we’re not Jesus and therefore not blessed with absolute knowledge of which is which, We ought to take a very careful approach, then.

What are the dangers of a focus on Satan as a strong influence on our lives? The most obvious, I think, coincides with the previous paragraph: the employment of exorcism as a tool when the situation really calls for mental health treatment. Much research shows how mental conditioning can create a situation where a person can be made to believe that they need an exorcism and to play the role of the afflicted even when they would not have said that they were possessed before entering the preparation for exorcism. The extreme measures used in some exorcisms have led to deaths–this isn’t really helpful to anyone. Again, I’m not saying that an exorcism can never be an appropriate course of action (I’m skeptical but I don’t have any way of knowing for sure) and I have no problem with ritual abjuration and exorcism, such as performed by the Eastern Orthodox Church prior to baptism. More often than not, however, I think exorcism is the creation of problems that do not exist, obstructing the addressing of those problems that do.

In the wider spiritual sense, however, it’s not exorcisms that most concern me. What concerns me is the functions a Satan figure fulfills in practice. On the one hand, Satan makes a convenient scapegoat for personal responsibility–the classic “the Devil made me do it.” There’s a definite psychological advantage to saying “I did that thing I feel guilty about because I was weak in the face of the Devil’s temptation” over saying “I made a bad choice that was my doing entirely.” While psychologically advantageous, this practice is not spiritually advantageous–to repent for sins we must accept responsibility for them.

The most dangerous, as I’ve seen firsthand: saying that someone is under the influence of Satan is the ultimate act of creating Otherness. Once done, the namer typically treats the name as a force of Evil against which the only righteous course of action is vehement opposition. The named can never have a good point, raise an issue that ought to be considered, or be approaching a conflict from a place of reason. The voice of the named may be entirely disregarded. I have seen this in intrachurch conflict; it is painful to watch, frustrating to deal with, and Sisyphean to resolve.

As a further example of this, take a look into the Satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980’s and early 90’s. This is the closest we’ve come to a witch-hunt in modern times, I think, and most if not all of the accused were innocent. If there is a Satan, he was well served by those events.

Here’s the ultimate irony, I think: Jesus commands us to love even our enemies. If there is a Satan, as an archnemesis of humanity, ought we not to try to love even him? Yes, we must reject evil, but rejecting evil is a matter of standing against particular actions and outcomes, not against people themselves. What does opposition to a Satan in a way that shows mercy to the extent possible look like? Personified evil can only lose its power in the face of love.

A focus on Satan as a force of evil blinds us to looking at institutional evil, the ways in which our society–which includes us and our own complicity–perpetuates oppression, injustice and inequality. When we look to a personified evil acting in the world for us to oppose, we neglect the evil we do, especially when we can say “my evil is far less than that of the Devil.”

As an aside, I think it’s interesting (and perhaps important as well) to note that most self-avowed Satanists do not belief in a literal Satan. They instead believe in the Nietzschean pursuit of selfish power at the expense of all else (an idea that remains nevertheless anathema to the Christian), but they do not per se believe in a Devil or even necessarily in evil for evil’s sake (although the line quickly blurs when exercising power for power’s sake). If even those who explicitly make Satan the focus of their philosophical ideology (and there are, unfortunately, some Christians who do the same, albeit from a more oppositional  perpesctive) view Satan as a figurative symbol for selfish living and rebellion for its own sake, we ought to consider the figurative meaning of a Satan in our own theology at least as much as a literal meaning.

The thoughts of Satanists do not make the existence of Satan true or untrue. My own thoughts here bear the same powerlessness, and I’ll explicitly state once again that I believe in the possibility of the existence of evil supernatural entities–personified evil or not. There are far more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. At the same time, we are far better served striving against the evil within us and within our collective way of living before looking for some external evil to combat–even spiritual warfare has a tendency to bring out the darker side of human nature, I think.

A close inspection at the Biblical sources for Satan, especially when viewed alongside the historical development of popular ideas about a personified evil in the form of some archnemesis spirit, leaves some doubt about the literal existence of a demonic force. A belief in Satan as the ultimate adversary is not a key component of Christianity (although I think that it’s fair to say that belief in the existence of evil as a condition or description of conditions is). I fully understand that there are those convicted that they know that Satan does exist. I must respect their position as much as possible because I cannot confirm or deny the truth of their experience–not that there is no absolute truth about their position, just that I don’t have access to it. In light of such uncertainty, we are better served looking to humanity and the ways in which we sin and bring evil to fruition before we blame Satan or some other supernatural force for the decisions we make and the conditions we allow to persist.

 

The Meanings of Life

I fail to understand why people talk about “the meaning of life” as if there is a simple answer, monolithic and one-size-fits-all to such questions.

My own theological conclusions lead me to propose that we seek to regard the question “What is the meaning of life?” with a two-fold or perhaps even multi-part answer, because I believe that there are really (at least) two interrelated but separate answers to the question.

On the one hand, the example and teachings of Jesus Christ present us with an objective meaning of life—fulfillment through relationship. We are told to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind,’ and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

I think that we ought to treat this statement not simply as a command but as a revelation of the way existence works. Christ is telling us that, in seeking right relationships, we will find joy and fulfillment because God has created all things in such a way that relationships naturally and inexorably create joy and meaning while isolation and selfishness create unhappiness and pain as a matter of cause and effect. In other words, this is not just good advice, and Jesus is not simply preaching morality—he is telling us about the fabric of existence itself. This, I think, makes good sense—an omnipotent God does not need to resort to meting out hyper-specific rewards and punishments when God controls causality itself. Which is not to say that God could not hand out consequences to mortals specifically and directly, but my own experience leads me to believe that God is subtler and more elegant than that.

This understanding is necessary, but not sufficient, to fully answer questions about what meaning is to be found in life. Unfortunately, I think that we Christians often miss—or at least fail to communicate—the rest of the message. Worse, we sometimes suppose that the meaning of life is about us worshipping God—and nothing more. As I’ve argued elsewhere (and will likely continue to do), that explanation reflects poorly on our beliefs about God’s character and purposes and saps meaning away from human existence. Worship is good and right, but it is not the sum total of Creation. Relationship fills the universe with eternal meaning, but our loving God doesn’t stop there.

Look at the diversity of existence—of people, of things, of situations, of feelings, of thoughts, of interests, of possibilities—and one cannot help but find that our God is not reductive. So why do we treat the meaning of life in such a way?

That second part of the equation for the meaning of life is much tougher and is, more often than not, what people really mean when they ask about the meaning of life. What they’re asking is, “What does my life mean?” or “What is the personal meaning of my life?”

Those questions are not to be disregarded; God purposefully made us as individuals. The scriptures are full of passages reminding us of the importance of our individuality, our “selfhood.”

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul expounds on the goodness of differences between us and how, through both diversity and unity, we create something beautiful. This idea is important enough to Paul that it bears repeating—he first discusses differences in spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-11) and follows with the analogy of the parts of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).

But Paul is far from being the first in the scriptures to describe the gift and wonder of individuality. The psalmist in Psalm 139 praises God, saying, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well” (Psalm 139:13-14).

Here also is the reason that marriage is used as a metaphor for the relationship between Christ and the believer (or Christ and the church). In marriage, two individuals become something greater together, at once maintaining their individuality and yet also creating a unity with a meaning and wonder all its own, the frustrating and inspiring “both/and” we so often find in Christian theology.

If you have read much of my other theological musings, you know that I take a distinctly existentialist approach to theology, borrowing much in my own thought from Paul Tillich. Tillich, and particularly some of his students, emphasize that humans are storytellers, that that is how we rationalize and assign meaning to our existence. While not denying the existence of absolute truth established by God (I would rather vehemently affirm it), I am convinced that most of our understanding of any topos is formed by relating that thing to all other things—by organizing categories and understandings in relationship to one another and thereby creating (or, perhaps, inferring) meaning based upon observation of those arrangements.

This state of being results in the situation I described in my recent post “The World and the World.” The idea plays into our discussion of the grand meaning(s) of life like this:

I have two major meanings in life—the meaning of my relationship with God (and by extension all of Nature, Creation and other Creatures) and the meaning of my own individuality. A macrocosmic and microcosmic meaning in close relation to one another.

There are some things that we ought to consider in our approach to the meanings of our individual lives.

We ought to consider the importance of free will. God gave us free will to use it. He gave us a macrocosmic meaning of life so that we might simultaneously enjoy free will and use it well. We ought also to consider the great space and freedom God has given us for personal definition within that larger and divine meaning of existence.

Considering these things, I believe that it becomes evident that the individual meaning of life is a conversation, not a question and answer. Within the bounds of the greater meaning of life to which God calls all of us is near-infinite space for positive and beneficial expression of self. While God has certainly created us with certain personality traits, preferences and dispositions, we also have a thorough hand in creating and defining ourselves through the use of our free will.

As a student of early modern literature, I frequently encountered the Renaissance idea of “self-fashioning,” what we would call “fake it ‘till you make it.” Even modern neuroscience tells us that our brains are more plastic than previously thought and that it is not just functional brain states that influence the mind but that the activity of the mind can, over time, “rewire” the brain.

This is why the personal meaning of life is a conversation—it’s a back and forth (as I’ve argued all free will is) between the ways God is calling you and the places God wants you to become yourself, whoever that specific self may be (provided that it is within the bounds of what is good and true).

The space here (and may own ability, I’m afraid) is woefully insufficient to even scratch the surface of these ideas with much depth. For now, I’ll content myself with the following proposals:

Our theology ought to revel in our relationship with God, the profound diversity of Creation, and the wonder of our call to be active, participatory and individual within Creation. We need a “theology of self” that uplifts humanity and inspires while still acknowledging the (matter of fact) reality of God’s ultimate sovereignty. We ought to continuously praise God for such amazing gifts bestowed freely upon us—and the redemption God has given us for when we (inevitably) misuse those gifts.

We ought not to look outward to the lives of others to find meaning in life. We ought to look upward to God and inward to the core of ourselves to participate in the eternal creation of meaning in the Kingdom of God—both the present reality and the promise to come.