Friday, June 24, 2011

Journeyman, Part Four: Artificer

"The Shining Cities are dead," said the ambassador. "We discern that they were struck by the Gray Men. As far as we can tell, no one survived."

"Then the University has been destroyed?" the Arluisian King asked. He shook his head sadly. "That is a pity. Their clever little toys have been so useful...."

"Someone will rebuild," the ambassador replied. "They always do."

"Indeed," the king mused. "Indeed. If I recall, they have been razed six times...less than half the number of times our kingdom has been attacked, though we ourselves have never failed to repel enemies." He smiled a faint, satisfied grin. "Regardless, it will be many years before they supply us with their swords or those magnificent eye-scopes...what a sad thing to hear. How long ago did it happen?"

"I have traveled many months," replied the ambassador. "And I have been waylaid many times. This news comes to you thirteen months old."

The king nodded. "Such is the way of things." He sat up then, and clapped his hands twice, smartly. "But you have not come all this way to tell me about the Shining Cities, have you, ambassador? Surely there is greater news from your own country! You have come quite a long way, to look at how dark your skin is. What have you come to tell me?"

The ambassador smiled a gleaming smile, bright against his tanned and handsome face. "I believe it best to tell you in private, Majesty. The newly-formed Parliament di'Corvex sends word of a deeply sensitive nature, and would rather that your response not be compromised by the opinions of your subjects."

"An amusing sentiment, coming from a Parliament," the king replied, and waved a hand. Within seconds, the room had cleared, but for the king, the di'Corvae ambassador, and the three men surrounding the king. Each of them wore a sword on his left hip and an eye-scope on his right eye; the glass in the latter glinted redly even in the dark.

"Your Majesty? It is a sensitive message."

"The guard remain with me at all times, ambassador," replied the king. "How is it you did not know this? My family is never without their guard." He smiled and gestured expansively at the throne room, at the walls, and at the towering statues that leaned against them. "And we are never without the Weepers."

Every king who had ever ruled Arluis—the child-state of Arluin, birthed after Arluin fell—had had his likeness carved into the wall of the throne room. Each was depicted with his head bowed and a tear coming from one eye. (Popular myth was that the tradition came from their sorrow over Arluin's demise; a different version which said the first king had been weeping because he'd stepped on a nail, and the rest of the family were too stupid to break tradition.)

Regardless, the statues represented a nearly insurmountable obstacle to would-be assassins: they negated all magic but for the work of Artisans. Eye-scopes, lightning swords, sun guns: all marked with the Stars and all immune to the negating effects of the Weepers. The Royal Guard had enough enchanted weaponry to dismantle a city, and no man could compete with them physically. The Kings of Arluis were invincible.

"A magnificent spectacle indeed,  Majesty," the ambassador praised, "although ultimately, I'm afraid, futile."

"Why do you say that? The Weepers are older than any magic on this continent. Even the Artisans' cunning Stars are only as old as my ancestors."

"I'm sure," said the ambassador, and as he spoke, his face changed. Tears began pouring from his eyes, but not true tears—they glittered and shone cobalt bright. When the tears had all fallen his eyes were no longer blue, but gleaming black. His hands glowed as though with fire.

"But the Artisans are not the oldest magic in the world." He smiled, and there was lightning in his face.

"I am."


Aron walked quickly down the Street of Kings. On his left hip he wore a stolen sword, and on his right eye an eye-scope flashed red. He'd glamoured himself again, making his eyes a dull green and his face pale enough to match the skin of a royal guardsman. Jinevra would have disapproved of the fact that he'd stolen a uniform from one of the men, but he hadn't the patience to glamour his clothes. Besides, why waste good cloth?

And, after all, he needed the proper costuming for this play.

He reached the end of the avenue, the city square. It was filled, seething with a mass of humanity. He lifted his hands and shouted, in a great, deep voice, "Friends and countrymen!"

Everyone turned.

"The King has been murdered! The Weeping King is dead!"

That was all he needed to do. The war was begun now, and no one could stop it. Soon, the king's servants would tell the city of the di'Corvae ambassador who had asked to be alone with their monarch, and the fledgling republic would be attacked by one of the oldest kingdoms in the world.

And the Republic would win. Aron had seen to that already, on his year-long journey here.

He grinned as he watched the crowd. Already it was writhing, passionate, hateful enough to ignite a war. His work was done here.

Satisfied, he turned to leave—and froze, very quickly, when he found a blade leveled at his throat.

"Well," Aron said coolly, "hello, there."

The man with the sword wore a dark burgundy uniform with eight gold circles on the breast. He wore an eye-scope on his left eye, though the glass wasn't glowing. Aron noticed with interest that the man's sword was marked with the Stars. At the sight of the symbol, he felt his blood quicken and a thrill run up his chest. The Artificer...not yet.

"Hello, Guardian," replied the Admiral. He tilted his head quizzically, and blue light appeared deep in the eye-scope. "But you're no Guardian, are you? Peel away your glamour, young one, or I'll stick you here and now."

Aron smiled and let the glamour flicker away. As the magic bled away, the Admiral's face curled into a sneer.

"An Artisan," he snarled. "I should have expected it."

"Barely such," Aron replied, "as I never graduated."

"You left before the Shining Cities were destroyed."

"Not at all. I was there when it happened."

"And you killed my king."

Aron grinned, and as he did he felt the Artificer rise up. His voice, his eyes, everything in him changed in an instant. "What will you do if I say yes, Admiral? That sword's a pretty thing. I'd hate to see it discolored."

"I'd count it a prettier thing," the Admiral grunted hoarsely, "with the blood of a kingkiller smeared along its blade."

The Artificer nodded solemnly, then said, "Well, I would rather we not do that—"

And he moved back. The Admiral blinked in surprise, but already the Artificer was twenty meters away, smiling broadly.

"You will need to be faster than that, Admiral," he called. "I am quite—"

"Stupid," said a feminine voice behind him. He felt a hot, buzzing cylinder pressed against his back. "To run backward without looking."

He knew that voice. Oh, how very spiteful Fate could be....

"My lady wife is a magnificent ally, is she not?" the Admiral said proudly, marching forward to lay the point of his sword on the Artificer's chest. "Always at my side or behind my enemies' backs."

The Artificer glanced over his shoulder at the woman behind him. "Behind your enemies' backs, yes. Although I imagine your enemies get her on her back just as often." He sneered at her. "Hello, Laera."

"You will not sully my lady wife's honor, murderer," the Admiral growled.

"Your lady wife?" the Artificer guffawed. "How long have you known her, Admiral? A month? I can promise you this: she's slept with more of the Arluisian Navy in this single year than you've commanded in your lifetime!"

The Admiral's face contorted as he let out a wordless howl, and his eye-scope turned blindingly red. His sword glowed scarlet.

"That would be somewhat more impressive if you knew how to use your tool, Admiral," said the Artificer, as he pinched the blade between two fingers. The red glow disappeared, and the pretty blade cracked, then split in two. "Practice does make perfect, I'm told." He turned his eye-scope to look directly in the Admiral's eye, and smiled. The other man's knees shook, then buckled, as he fell to the ground.

The Artificer turned to face his sister and smiled at her one last time. "This seems just a little too familiar, little Laera," he said. "I have some sense that I have done this before."

"Shut up!" Laera screeched, shoving the pulse gun into the center of his chest. "Shut up!"

"Oh, do pull the trigger, little sister," he taunted. "If you can, of course. You never did enjoy blood. Remember the first time you killed a man? But—oh, yes, that's right. You couldn't. You preferred a...softer weapon. Always preferred warming men to killing them, didn't you?" He sneered. "Perhaps that's why the Artisans never really wanted you. Not as a student, at least...."

"Things can change," Laera whispered hoarsely, but she didn't shoot. "I don't need something marked with the Stars to kill you."

"You're quite right. You'd need much more. This dear husband you've been stringing along had the Stars on his sword and his eye-scope, and, see how much that's worth." He turned to stare at the Admiral's unconscious body, moodily studying the symbols that decorated his weapons. "Yes, much more than the Stars. Much more than a gun. You'd need to be more than human, I think."

While he stared, Laera pulled the trigger. A crackling ball of silver energy rushed out and punched through the Artificer's skin, muscle, heart and bone, and came buzzing out the other side. Her brother turned to look at her.

"Do you see? You'll need more than that." He looked strangely sad. "Steel, heat, light, magic...the Artisans were weak, pale imitations of what I have become, dear sister. I am much more than a man. Much more than even one of the Angels, I think. Perhaps I have escaped Death."

He looked her in the eye. "Perhaps he has forgotten me."

His eye-scope gleamed, and his little sister flew backward against the wall. Her eyes turned black as coal, and she screamed. Everything within her gaping mouth was black.

The Artificer looked into the blackness, and the blackness looked back.

"Ah," he said. "I see. You haven't forgotten me. You're just waiting for us to meet."

Monday, June 20, 2011

Journeyman, Part Three: Absolute

"That was how it happened," Aron said wearily, leaning back into a musty armchair. He inhaled deeply, pulling in the scent of ancient books and dust. Apart from the pacing of his teacher, the annals were quiet: they were sequestered within the deepest and most private area of the University. Even the rats didn't venture down here.

"Remarkable," his teacher muttered. "Utterly incredible. You remember all of it?"

"Yes," he said. "But it's...fuzzy. Like a dream. I remember Laera talking about Elrael, and his sword, and I remember hating Reil...but after that, I don't know why I did anything. My body was moving, but my mind was...gone. Inconsequential. I didn't have any control."

"That's not unusual," said Jinevra. "It's impossible to contain the first time it surfaces."

"But next time?"

"That's assuming there is a next time. There have been people who only do it once. Their blood runs hot, their eyes spark and their hands burn with the Stars, but it never comes again. They become Artisans, or they don't. Or they die."

"Yes. But if it comes again...."

"Then you're an Artificer," Jinevra said calmly. She plucked a book from the stacks and flung it at him. "Read up on them. You'd be the sixth we know of."

"And what of the Felling Sword?"

"What of it? It's a fable."

"Fables shouldn't rouse a power as old as the Angels," Aron retorted. "And it was the Felling Sword that woke it. I've known Reil was sleeping with my sister for weeks, but it manifested after they'd told me about the sword. The Artificer wanted to know where to find it."

"Well, it knows now. What good can knowing do it, though? Even if the sword exists, there's nothing you or the Artificer can do about it from here. You'd end up chasing a fairy tale halfway across the world."

"No, not from here. I would rather not leave while there is more to learn here. It is...problematic."

"Problematic, yes. Regardless. It hasn't come back in you, has it?"

"No, but it's only been a week."

"And I assume you haven't seen your sister since then."

"For all I know, she's already found some hopelessly lovesick captain to ferry her across the Gasping Sea," Aron said bitterly. "None of the Artisans have seen her. I don't think she'd leave the Cities, but...."

"To be fair, you did murder her lover while she watched."

"Her lover was an idiot, a drug addict, and a stain on my family's honor. I was only bleach."

Jinevra chuckled and said, "Looks like your sister didn't approve of your cleaning."

Aron unfolded from his chair. "Your humor is acknowledged, if not even slightly appreciated. Are we going to study anything today?"

"Not today. I worry that if I tried to teach you something, I'd wake up something I'm not prepared to handle."

"Fine," Aron snapped. He grabbed another book from the stacks and turned to leave. "I'll see you in a week."

"What? What are you going to do for a week?"

"Chase fairy tales."

* * * *

No one in all the world heard more fables and history in a night than men in expensive bars, for there is no better place for a bard to make his living. Not one person has looser pursestrings than a rich and grateful drunk, and nothing finds more grateful drunks than a pretty tune. A well-versed singer in the right bar need never thirst.

This bar was the third Aron had sought out this week. The last two had had bards of a very certain kind: talented but ultimately empty-headed. They knew several songs and many melodies, but no stories. This one, though, seemed much more promising.

"Tell of the beginning of time," Aron called out. The bard's eyes widened for a moment, and then he smiled.

"The beginning of time," the bard began, and struck a chord, "sparked like fire in the dark.

"Some say life was spoken into the blackness by the Bright One. Others believe the world bloomed out of the nothing like a glorious flower. The Church of the Blinded Prophet proclaims that light and dark were wrestling, or loving, and that from their union our home was born.

"Yet, still others have said the Angels brought us forth—that they Seven flew into the dark and said, 'Let us create.'

"And so they did. The first carved the world with his thoughts, shaping a planet from words and will, wind and water, dreaming light into the black. The second walked on that world and spoke to it; he introduced the water and the land, making it burst with green life. The third came to them as they dreamed, and he sat with them and said, 'You have made great things.' He plunged his fingers into the dirt, and from the dirt sprang a thousand thousand creatures of every shape and kind. He looked at his brothers and said, 'But I have made greater.'

"Now the fourth was wiser than the rest, and said, 'Brothers, your works are wondrous. But in all your dreams, you have forgotten the light.' With one hand, the Angel grasped the light, and with the other grasped the dark. In a single, great effort, he forced them together and breathed upon them. They fell to the earth and, from the writhing, twisting mass, the first of our race was born: the race of man.

"The fifth Angel, one of great cunning, wanted more than what his brethren had made. He was patient, and waited until the race of men had grown. Finally, when he needed to wait no longer, he took one of the daughters of men for himself. The sixth, amused, made the Folk from water and light, and then contented himself with flinging stars.

"But the last of them was not so easily entertained.

"The last Angel's name was Lhaor. Lhaor understood that, without limits, the race of man would ruin the world his brothers had made. And so Lhaor created a servant for himself, and called it Azrael. Azrael walked in the world, invisible, unstoppable, bringing the final limit: death itself.

"And so began the world."

Aron did not clap with the others. His eyes were narrow, calculating. In their depths, the Stars glowed faint gold.

The Artificer was waking.

* * *

Aron found the bard later that night, perched on a bar stool and drinking himself into a stupor. On any other night, he would have waited for a little while, let the young idiot fall to the floor. Patience, after all, is a virtue.

But, then again, he had little time for virtues.

So he slipped valerian into the man's drink. Three minutes later, he sidled up, pretended to be an old friend, and carried the man—who suddenly felt very, very tired—out of the bar, into the dark.

* *

The bard woke into the dark and, being a musician, took only seconds to start whining.

"Where am I? What's happening? Who's there?"

"Relax," came a voice from the velvet blackness. "I just want to hear a story."

"You drugged a man and brought him to my home for a story, Aron?" protested another voice—this one female, and elderly. "What story could possibly be worth this? If we get caught—"

"Then the Artificer will handle the city guard. It wants to know about the Felling Sword and it wants me to survive."

"You're making a handful of extremely critical guesses, there, Ar—"

"Shut up." Then, directed at the bard again, "Now, songweaver, I would very much like to hear a story. Elrael and the Weeping Kings, I think."

"Y-y-you want a story?"

"Always the tone of surprise," remarked his captor. Then, abruptly, his voice changed, becoming strangely flat, emotionless. "Little singing bird, let me be clear on this: you are alive because I have need of you. If you do not give me what I need, I will have little reason to suffer you longer. Do you know a story of Elrael and the Weeping Kings?"

The bard stammered. "I don't—the Weeping Kings? I don't even know—"

But that was when the building shook. Gray dust cascaded from the ceiling, and a million screeching cracks exploded from above them.

"What on earth is happening?" the bard shrieked, his pure tenor breaking in distress. As he spoke, voices—terrified, agonized voices—broke into a chorus of horrific wails. Just as quickly, they were silenced.

A dull glow blossomed in the dark, and the bard was astonished to see that it wasn't a torch: it came from the hand of one of the people who had captured him.

The man with the glowing palm held the light up high and tilted his head, as if listening. Then, his eyes dark, he looked at the bard.

"What's happening? I'll tell you. The Gray Men are here."

"The Gray—"

He didn't finish, because the Artificer lay one glowing hand on his head. Silently, he fell to the ground and slept.


Aron and Jinevra surfaced three days later, when the explosions and the screams from above had stopped. They knew exactly what to expect, so they left the bard asleep in the annals. He wouldn't have handled it well.

The Shining Cities were gone—razed to the ground. The air tasted of ash and smoke and death. As far as they could tell, no one else had survived. Just them: Aron, his elderly teacher, and an irritating, gutless storyteller.

For a while, they wandered in the wreckage. Nothing had been left. Even the Artisans hadn't been able to guard themselves: the University was only a hollow shell with a charred skin. Every house on that avenue had crumbled.

"Why didn't they find us?" Aron asked.

"The annals," Jinevra replied, "are nearly as old as they are. This is not the first time the University has been destroyed, but no one touches the annals. Ever."

Aron looked at her. "Well. I guess this pretty neatly eliminates my reason for staying."

Jinevra nodded. "Yes. Yes it does. Someone will rebuild the Shining Cities, eventually. They always do. But they won't need an Artificer. They'd kill you just as quick as listen to you."

"Then I go to Arluis. To the Weeping King. The Gray Men know what I seek, and now they have confirmed I am right to seek it."

"Will you take us?"

"My old teacher and a songbird? No. It reeks of cliche and I would rather not be distracted by your entirely predictable murder. I must do this alone."

"What will you do there?"

Aron looked at her. The Stars were burning in the dark pits of his eyes. "Kill a king. Steal a sword. Start a war."

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Journeyman, Part Two: Angelfall

In the Shining Cities, no one put a particularly high value on discretion; that was the first thing Aron had learned when he started exploring. Every visible surface, every house, every street was coated with so much river-sheen it reflected the sun. The people, too, were covered in the eye-catching paint; women drew delicate spirals around their eyes and cheeks, while the men marked their foreheads with family symbols.

Not for nothing did foreigners call them "glitter-folk."

Aron had only been outside for a few seconds, but already his eyes had begun to water. He squinted at his little sister and grinned.

"Happy anniversary, by the way."

"Hmm?" Laera didn't stop moving, but pushed faster through the crowd, pulling Aron along behind her.

"Happy anniversary. Remember? Five years ago, we died."

All in a manner of speaking, of course. As far as any law-keeper in the Copper Cities would ever know, they had died the same day their father did, half a decade ago. It was simpler to assume that raiders had invaded and murdered the family rather than consider the alternative.

Gray Seekers, and Artisans.

"I can't believe you're still keeping track of that," Laera said, laughing a little. "It seems like five years is enough time to get over that."

Get over my father being murdered by the Gray Men? Get over being kidnapped so the Artisans could bring me to a city of arrogant, narrow-minded sparklers to run their errands and recopy their books while they pretend to teach me magic? 

But he didn't say it. Laera wouldn't have minded, anyway; she had long ago learned to ignore his thoughts on their living situation. It wasn't surprising. Laera loved this city—although love was a peculiar word for it. Laera knew better than to love.

"Perhaps it is," Aron mused. "Regardless. Where are we going, little sister? Why have you pulled me from the hallowed halls of the Artisans, abandoning my oh-so-sacred duties of scribbling copies of the old books?"

"There's something I want to show you," she replied. "You know Reil, right?"

"Reil? It sounds familiar. But, then again, the Reil I'm thinking of was an idiot and a cad who got thrown out of the University because he tried to sleep with an Artisan's woman."

Laera kept walking without a word.

"But it couldn't be that Reil, little Laera. My sister would never be so stupid as to listen to the desperate pleas of the sexually frustrated, would she? Surely not...."

Laera turned and flashed her dazzling smile, bright against her tanned skin. The color of her teeth matched the curlicues of river-sheen on her cheeks, though her eyes flashed even brighter. In the sun, they looked almost white—but perhaps that was only the lighting. Sunlight always flattered Laera now; she'd learned under the glitter-women. Even now, her hair was twisted into an intricate knot, her ears twinkled with glass stars, and daubs of river-sheen glistened on her neck.

She had grown into a proper glitter-lady so quickly and naturally it worried him sometimes.

"Sexually frustrated? Hardly," she taunted.

Aron's eyes widened a little, but he didn't respond. What was he supposed to say?

Laera led him down a side street, out of the crushing crowds. It was surprisingly empty and uncommonly dim; Aron glanced around, but couldn't see even a speck of river-sheen.

"Do you remember what Reil was always looking for, Aron? In the annals?"

"Besides girls? I recall it being something about the Angels."

"Yes. The Angels. Do you remember the story you told me about the Angels? That some people said they made the world?"

"And humans," Aron continued. "And the Folk, and the Gray Men, and all the beasts that crawl on the ground and fly in the air and swarm in the seas."

Laera smiled, and turned toward a door to one of the houses that lined the street. "Good. I'll let Reil do the rest of the explaining."

Aron followed his little sister into the house and nearly gagged. It stank of treal, and sweat, and ashes and elm.

Reil was sitting just beyond the front room, expecting them. He hadn't changed since being thrown unceremoniously from the University: still gaunt, with hollow cheeks and an artless tangle of blond curls. He gestured expansively when they entered.

"Old friends," he croaked. His treal addiction had scorched his vocal chords so much that his voice sounded almost frothy. "Welcome to my humble castle." Laera danced over to him without hesitation, landing in his lap, where she pressed her lips against his papery cheek. Hot anger flashed through Aron's breast, but he didn't let it past his mouth. Trapped, it seethed in his belly, spreading through him like slow poison.

"Skip your merchant talk," Aron snapped. "And tell me exactly why I am here."

Reil grinned. His teeth were pale yellow. "I have a business proposition for you. Laera has told me you work in the annals. I require access to them. For...research."

"Your research seems to be of a rather more carnal variety, rotmouth," Aron snarled.

Reil grinned ever wider in response, showing the blackened remains of his gums. “Carnal studies, cardinal studies…how’s a man to choose?” His smile slid from his face then, leaving behind a severe, skeletal expression. "Do you remember the story about the Angel who fell to the swords of men?"

Aron thought for a moment, remembering, as Laera spoke. "You remember, brother. The bards called it 'The Felling of the Feller.' A companion piece to the epic of Elrael."

"Yes," Reil said, and his grin widened, "except that in The Felling, Elrael is able to murder the Angel because his sword is enchanted with Death's own charms."

"I fail to see what the Angel-Killer has to do with you," Aron said, but as he spoke he felt the anger in his gut turn very, very cold. His fingers trembled. A dull ache bloomed between his eyes.

"Pay attention for one forsaken moment, Aron," Laera said huskily. "What if Elrael's sword exists?"

Silence fell in the room. Aron took a deep breath—taking care not to choke on the fumes coming from Reil's mouth—and then said, "Laera, may I speak with you outside for a moment?"

He didn't wait for an answer, but pulled his sister bodily from the room. She followed, if reluctantly, and yanked her arm back as soon as his grip loosened.

"Why aren't you answering, Aron?" Laera demanded. "What if Elrael's sword is real? Can you imagine what we could do? If the Angels weren't above us, grinding us under their heels—"

"It's not particularly likely, as he happens to be a fable."

"But all fables have some basis in truth. The kingdom of Arluin existed. Why not its hero?"

"Because he didn't! Because the entire story is about him killing Death! Because Reil is only telling you this so he can get in between your—"

"Reil hasn't laid a finger on me," Laera snarled. "And he won't unless I want him to. You're not the only one here who can kick a man between the legs, Aron. And I've been studying under the Artisans, too."

"Studying, yes," Aron snarled. "Learning? As you would say...hardly."

Aron stormed past his sister, leaving her alone in the entry room. Reil saw him coming and assumed it was good—until Aron grabbed him by the throat and thrust him against the wall.

"You say you think Elrael's sword is real," Aron said calmly. "Tell me why, and where it is."

"Books!" Reil gasped. "In the annals!"

"There's the why," Aron said. His eyes darkened, and smoke began to rise from his fingers—or from Reil's throat. It was difficult to be sure. "Would you be so kind as to tell me where it is?"

"I don't know!" Reil gasped. His eyes had begun to bulge.

Laera had come running, and she was screeching something about letting Reil go, but Aron didn't hear it. He pushed harder against Reil's throat.

"I am a patient man, Reil," Aron told him, "but you have dishonored my sister, and you are withholding information from me. That is not the way to treat a patient man, Reil."

"The king!" Reil shrieked. "The books say the Weeping Kings have it still!"

Aron grinned and let Reil fall to the floor. "Oh, Reil. See? That was not hard at all."

Laera rushed to Reil's side, comforting him, cooing sweet words into his ear. Reil was not paying attention to her, though; the livid red burns on his throat were more insistent.

Aron stood silently while his sister worried over Reil's twitching body, waiting. Eventually, she rounded on him.

"What have you done?!"

"I have paid him back in kind," Aron said. His eyes were gleaming, the Stars shone inside the depths of his pupils, and his voice had lost all emotion.

Laera stared at him as if she'd never seen him before. "What you just did. It was not Artisan work."

"No," Aron replied, still emotionless. "It was artificing."

"You nearly killed him! He might die anyway!"

"He was already dead," the Artificer said. "The only real question is whether you will show him mercy or not."


"He will die, little Laera. The question is whether it is painful or not."

"I'm not going to—to—to kill him! I won't!"

"Pity. The pleasure's mine, then," the Artificer said, and lifted his hand. The Stars gleamed on his palm for a moment, and Reil's eyes turned black as burned river-sheen. He began to scream.

"No! No! Stop!"

"I cannot stop, little Laera," the Artificer said. "I cannot prevent what is to come."

After a moment, Reil's body sagged. The Artificer turned to his younger sister.

"If you are wise, you will not seek the Felling Sword," he said, his flat voice deepening with every word. "But you are not wise."

"What...what has happened to you?"

"Nothing. Everything. Someday I will tell you, little Laera. Until then, live in blessed, blissful ignorance. It is better for you, and for us all."

And the Artificer left the house. Laera didn't follow.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Journeyman, Part One: Asylum

"Long ago, in the kingdom of Arluin, lived a great hero who could not be defeated. His name was Elrael.

"The kingdom of Arluin had many enemies, though none could defeat Elrael in combat. It began to be said in their councils that Elrael's strength came from his purity, and that—"

"What sort of purity, Aron?"

"He never knew a woman."

"What!? But how can that be? Did they have no women in Arluin?"

"No, no! I mean...he never...fell in love with a girl. Any other questions?"

"No. Keep going!"


"Many of Elrael's enemies thought that if they could make him fall in love, his strength would leave him, and so they began to send their daughters and sisters to him as acts of peace. They hoped that he would marry, and that his strength would leave him because of it. Then they could overrun Arluin and take its people as slaves.

"What do you think happened next, little sister?"

"Elrael loved one of them, obviously. That's why Arluin fell, isn't it?"

"Close, dear one, but no. Elrael was too pure and too dedicated to his kingdom to love any of the daughters of his enemies, and never kissed one of them."

"So then how did he fall?"

"Well, one day, after many long months of seeing the most beautiful women the world could offer, Elrael went walking in his gardens. As he walked, he looked into a pool, and in its reflection he saw a maid more beautiful than any he could have imagined. She had skin fairer than starlight, and in her mouth was madness, for she was Death's own daughter. Without a second's thought, Elrael dove into the pool, for he knew that he loved her more than he could ever love another."

"How stupid. No one falls in love that fast."

"They do in stories."

"It's still stupid."

"Just listen, okay? It's nearly your bedtime, anyway, and you don't want to go to sleep without hearing the end of this, do you?"

Aron's youngest sister curled up beneath her covers. "No. Keep going."

"Elrael swam to the very bottom of the pool—and it was a very deep pool, mind you, for it went all the way to Death's own door—and, when he arrived, he said—"

"That it is time for the young one to sleep," said the heavy voice of their father as he entered the room.

"No, Da! It's almost finished!" the little girl pleaded.

"Aron will finish tomorrow night," their father promised. "But for now you must sleep."

Aron stood and followed his father out, pausing to kiss his little sister goodnight. "Tomorrow night, little one," he said, smiling. "I will tell you of life and death and everything that falls in between."

She stuck her tongue out at him, and Aron grinned as he left.

* * *

"You're worried, Da."

Aron's father shook his head. "It's nothing that you need concern yourself with. There's nothing you can do about it."

"Tell me anyway. I'll just be up all night wondering otherwise."

"Then wonder. Now go to bed."

* *

"You're going to finish tonight, right? Right?"

"Of course, little one. Lean back and close your eyes and I'll tell you of how Elrael conquered Death."

Aron's little sister fell onto her pillow and stared at him expectantly. He breathed deeply, preparing, and heard a faint and unfamiliar sound. He ignored it and began,

"Elrael dove to the very bottom of the pool and surfaced on the other end in Death's own chambers. And there stood the lady who had stolen his heart: Paraleon, the daughter of Death.

"Elrael approached her and said, 'Fair one, I must have you. Tell me what I must do to earn your hand.'"

Aron stopped as he heard the unfamiliar sound again. It had a perturbing quality, this distant echo: like screams of the battlefield-fallen, heard from leagues away. It was anguished, unrelenting, insatiable.

"And Paraleon said to him, 'I have heard of your strength, Elrael of Arluin, and know that if anyone is to win my hand it will be you. There is only one way to have me, and that is to kill my father.'

"Elrael knew he could never conquer Death, but agreed. That night they, I mean, they kissed, and as they...kissed...Elrael felt his strength fade from his limbs."

"He was a normal man after that, then?" asked his sister.

"Yes. Elrael lost his honor and his strength in a night. Roughly fifteen minutes."

"Fifteen minutes?"

"Never mind. I'll tell you when you're older."

There was the sound again, louder, coming closer. It was like the singing of swords hewing skin and bone and muscle, like the keening cry of hunting wolves. What was it?

"The next day Elrael rose to find Death. He entered Death's house, and was set upon by the guardians."

"Who are the guardians, Aron?"

"The Gray Men."

The sound came again, more defined. More a screech than a song, like a noise from the mouths of dead men's mothers.

"What are they?"

"They guard Death, but they are servants of Lhaor. They bring misery wherever they walk, and all they touch crumbles to ruins. They smile like spiders and their eyes never stop searching, though no one knows what they're looking for. They are doomed, cursed to guard Death for a waking eternity, never ceasing, never resting.

"Now, though Elrael's great strength was gone, he fought the Gray Men as only lovers fight: desperately. None of them could stand against him, though they all struck him before they fell."

The screeching was more than a whisper on the wind, now. It was nearing them. Aron wondered, for a moment, if his sister heard it.

"When the last of the Gray Men had surrendered to him—beaten, though not destroyed—Elrael limped through the halls to Death's throne. Blood gushed from his wounds, his clothes clung to his ragged skin. He looked upon Death and said,

"'I have come to kill you.'"

"And, wearily, Death looked to him and said, 'No. You have come that I may die.'"

The door to the room burst open, and their father swept in, slamming it shut.

"Da? What's—"

"Quiet!" their father demanded, and they both obeyed. "Hide."


"Do as he says, sister," Aron commanded, pulling a false floorboard up to reveal a hidden space. He slithered in, and as his sister joined him, he looked at his father.

"It's come, hasn't it? The thing you were thinking about."

"It has," Da said. "Don't make a sound."

Aron let the false floorboard sink back into place and hugged his sister, carefully placing his hand over her mouth.

"Whatever happens," he said softly, as they heard the door explode above them, "we must not scream."

They could hear the sound clearly now, the whirring and clicking and screeching of the Seekers. They heard their father's muffled cries as he tried to reason with them, and his muted struggle as he fought their inexorable fingers.

They heard the shriek of metal cutting flesh, and then everything fell silent.

The Seekers left quickly, but Aron didn't move, didn't let his sister move, for hours. Eventually, he became aware of a steady drip, drip, drip landing on his face. He touched the drops that lay, quivering, on his skin, and brought them to his mouth.

Salty, he thought, and coppery.

Blood. My father's blood.


He awoke to the sound of voices. Desperate for help, desperate for life, he pushed the false floor up, revealing himself and his sister, lying alone and trembling in the dirt.

Two men had found them. They were dressed in City fashion: red shirts, white pants, black cloths obscuring their left eyes. But they were different.

They were Artisans.

"Hmm," one said as he looked at the two children. "Angel blood, would you say?" He had a queer voice: flat, unchanging. His eyes gleamed yellow when they caught the light.

"I suspect so," replied his partner. "A speaker. We shall take them, I think."

"Yes. We shall take them."

The Artisans smiled like skulls. The one with yellow eyes touched Aron's forehead and said, "Don't worry. We will let you wake again. Someday."

And all was black. 

Friday, June 3, 2011

Love Wins (Or So We Hope): A Review

In recent months, Rob Bell suddenly became uber-popular again.

(Well, popular isn't quite the right word. "Talked-about" is good, or "infamous.")

Lil' Bobby Bell was once known for his artsy NOOMA videos and the equally-artsy book Velvet Elvis. I was quite familiar with him because I had a hip youth pastor, and no one loves Rob Bell like hip youth pastors do. I mean, really, he was everything the young church wanted; that is to say, he was nothing like the pastors we'd seen in Grown-Up Church so far.

Our ancestors had brought to us the seemingly-endless era of Duty Church, wherein all the good Christians sat in wooden pews and listened to a withered old man talk about what he learned from the Bible in a monotonous drone. No one ever admitted to having questions or struggles, nobody ever danced, and no word was dirtier than "sex."

Understandably, Duty Church had left us with a bad taste in our mouths, and who better to swoop in to save us than Rob Bell? He was everything we wanted. His messages came in well-produced videos (which conveniently never laster longer than our limited attention spans) and always included music from the forever-magnificent Album Leaf.

What more could we ask?

But, for me at least, Bell eventually fell off the stage. After reading Sex God, I sort of forgot about him. Oh, I still echoed his thoughts, used his quotes, remembered his axioms--but I didn't even notice when he published two other books.

And then he wrote Love Wins, and suddenly everyone remembers him.

Now, since it's Friday and I owe you all a post, I'm going to piggyback on Bell's controversy with my own review. Here we go.

Part 1: The Perception, and My Sparknotes

Critics have come out of every single nook and cranny to decry Bell for being a universalist. To hear them tell it, Love Wins suggests heinous heresies: first, that "There is no hell," second that "All roads lead to God," and third that "Everyone will get to heaven." ("WHAT! How dare he suggest that Christ has enough grace to forgive even the people who don't accept him?!")

Now, let me be clear: none of them read the book.

Bell never says any of the things above. He does not even suggest them. The only thing he says on the subject of hell is that, maybe, we misinterpreted it.


The principal idea of Love Wins, whether accurate or not, is this: the word Christ uses to describe "eternal" or "everlasting" or "forever" (what have you) is, in the Greek, "aion." The English lost quite a bit in translation here, because aion isn't an unending series of minutes going on indefinitely; it's used to describe an experience that is so intense that it feels timeless, e.g. the seemingly infinite time it takes to sit in a class you hate, or the seemingly infinite moments you spend with people you love.

More accurately, "aion" means "timelessness."

Further, the word for hell is often "Gehenna"--a term used to refer to the Jerusalem city dump, a trash heap where everything is miserable and the fire never goes out. Essentially, it's the place where all humanity's refuse goes to rot. A place where all the consequences of our actions can be seen clearly.

In essence, all he says about hell is that maybe the idea of everybody who doesn't respond the right way burning forever isn't quite accurate. Do we have verses backing up our idea that all the unsaved will be burning forever, with no chance for redemption? (He stresses the "with no chance for redemption"--his concluding idea about hell is that, eventually, even the people in hell can be redeemed. But he does acknowledge that hell is certainly real.)

[In answer, no, we don't--or at least, I haven't encountered them.]

He sums it up on the back cover of the book:
"God loves us.
God offers us everlasting life by grace, freely, through no merit on our part.
Unless you do not respond the right way.
Then God will torture you forever.
In hell.

Part 2: My Thoughts

Is he completely accurate? I doubt it. Does he have a point? I think he does. Hear me out for one moment:

The way we understand the Gospel right now, it seems that often we run to God for an utterly wrong reason. It's not because we love him, not because we want a better life or an eternal union with our Maker.

It's because we don't want to burn in the eternal conscious torture we learned about in Sunday school. Love? Hardly.

We're running to Daddy because we don't want him to carve us up with a knife.

We're told to offer our lives as a "free will offering," and this doesn't seem anything like that. It seems a lot more like coercion. (I'm only suggesting that the message has been distorted somewhat. For an even better look at the subject, check out David Dark.)

Further--with the ideas we have now--yes, sinners do get what they deserve. They even get, if you will, what they "want" [for a given value of want]. Anyone who does not acknowledge God--anyone who does not respond in the "right" way--is condemned to an eternity separated from God, with no chance for redemption, ever.

Firstly, if that's the truth (that God closes the door on redemption as soon as we're dead), there's a serious risk he's (a) impotent, since he is "unwilling that any should perish" [2 Peter 3:9], (b) not as good as he says he is, or (c) far more judgmental than we ever thought. Or, perhaps, (d) we're misunderstanding. (I find that's it's good to work in the option "I may have misunderstood" into any final answer. It leaves wiggle room.)

Secondly, that leaves quite a few people screwed over.
What about a Quechuan who never hears the Gospel?
What about a kid who, just after reaching the "age of accountability" (whatever age you want to make it), is murdered by a serial killer?
What about a girl whose father raped her while reciting the Lord's Prayer?

Does God condemn these people? They certainly had their chance. Yet they never sought out God, never accepted Jesus, never prayed a special prayer or shadowed the doorstep of a church. Certainly they are guilty (as humans are). Is it equally certain that they will be eternally condemned, with no chance for redemption after their earthly flesh is rotting?

Somehow I doubt that a God who would give up his own Son for us will have no mercy on them. I can't see him saying, "I'm sorry, kids, but I'm fresh out of grace and mercy. Looks like you'll have to burn in hell forever and ever!"

I can't buy that. That's not the God I know.

Part 3: My Apology

I've grown up with the evangelical view. Many of you know me; I'm well-versed in most all the traditional ideas. And I'm fairly bright and, heaven help us all, God saw fit to grace me with an education.

That being said, understand that I have not (and certainly will not) swallow all of Bell's teachings without bothering to chew. Once again, as you all know, I do so love chewing.

Please remember these facts when [if] you slog through all that weary, mumbling prose I put up. I'm not saying Bell's right; I am saying that he's worth listening to if only because he makes you think.

Heaven knows Christians don't do enough of that these days.

P.S. I would really like to hear everyone's thoughts on the subject after you've read the book. It's darn interesting and, frankly, it's not going to die down for quite a long while. People will read this, and when they do, it will be our job to discuss it with them intelligently, rather than responding with blind hate and ignorance. We've done too much of that already.