by Sir Various
Slave to an artifact, Kale wrestles with madness, power...and himself.
Crux of Madness
by Sir Various
I didn’t have much longer to live, if I was lucky. The half-moon above cast a perfect reflection on the halcyon waters of the shrouded lake before me. The waters were inviting, succulent, enticing…a dark tease that tempted me into its promise of a cool oblivion. It seemed so easy. If I could surprise the ring somehow, the water’s embrace would swallow me and I would finally have peace. Just a quick and sudden dash into the water, then I could force myself under…
I sighed as the ring cautioned me inside my head. My thoughts, even my emotional brooding, were always bare to this cursed ring. I could feel its teeth cutting through the flesh of my middle finger, just as intrusive as its alien mind, but there was no pain. There never was any pain, not even when I maimed my hand in a fruitless attempt to remove it. I looked at my scarred hand, my phantom fingers providing a mocking illusion of existence. It was too dark to see the silver scales of the ring's form, but I could feel its icy hardness against my forefinger. I laughed at the absurdity of my situation. I was a god now, perhaps, but a half-handed god of death. Death and dying.
If I threatened it, it would push me, fill my body with power. It knew my own emotions, controlled them, forcing me to exert enormous will to temper its murderous rage. Staring at my disfigured hand, I thought back to when I removed my fifth finger in my first futile attempt to kill it. I remembered in horror at how it simply unfurled, moved to the adjacent finger and then thrust me into unconsciousness.
During my fugue I murdered a village, slaughtering every breath of life, the ring's punishment for my attempt at freedom.
I thought about when I tried again to free myself, three years later. I managed to get the cursed band off me for a blissful second, but as my unbound finger fell bleeding to the ground, the ring unraveled again and leapt insect-like to my middle finger. When I awoke three days later, I had left a swath of devastation that left the city of Tirah burning. It earned me a reputation of hate and a name of legend that children would tell their grandchildren. Kale the Bloodthirsty. I would have laughed at such an absurd moniker if it had been funny.
I hesitated to think of what it would make me do if I cut off my hand. The ring mocked my grief with its remorseless vengeance.
I tried to mourn my victims. I still do, in a way. I desired to remember everyone I killed, but my murders were absent from my recollection. This ring of damnation ruled my memories as much as the rest of me. Can a god that is a slave even mourn the nameless?
I learned as long as I did not provoke the ring, I could let it consume me, concentrating on keeping its thoughts at bay while staying away from populaces I could harm. I avoided civilization, hiding in the dark wilderness, alone with only the ring and its alien thoughts. I felt that it wanted--needed-- to destroy me, to devour my essence through its simple grip on my hand. It was malevolent, a patient evil, ancient and unyielding, determined to take its sweet time munching on my soul. Was I destined to be a slave-god to it forever?
No. I had to do something.
The ring bit down on my finger and I suppressed the urge to wince. It knew me, knew I planned on destroying it. If it had a sense of humor, it would be laughing at my naiveté. How can I plan to defeat my enemy when my enemy was part of me? Despair filled me, and for a moment, I thought I could actually detect a malefic chuckle from its inhuman mind.
I sat on the dark beach and watched the still waters, trying to empty my mind of any thought, hoping it would starve on the hollowness of my head and heart. Invariably, thoughts still flitted across the wasteland of my brooding, no matter how hard I tried to resist. The ring seemed fine with memories and passive thoughts, but it also promoted aggression to external forces, especially when I felt angered. It was only when I directed my thoughts to it in any way adverse, or if it felt threatened, that it took full control and began its violent tirade.
I didn’t hear the girl approach. Although my senses were honed to sharp clarity by the ring’s symbiotic boons, she startled me. I saw her halt to my right at the edge of my vision and I leapt up in surprise, pulling my sword from its worn scabbard. My half-hand lit up with a viridian glow, the ring pushing energy up my mutilated hand and into my arm. The ring pulsed with a sharp bite, eagerly anticipating the surge of combat. I fought its flurry of thoughts and my muscles bulged against my threadbare sleeves, tensing with barely restrained power. The shores of the tranquil lake lit with the vivid green glow of the ring’s control and I struggled to keep from tearing the woman apart. I gritted my teeth hard and bit down on my tongue. Closing my eyes tight, I silently begged the woman to leave as the ring's alien thoughts demanded action.
go…Kale-thrall… go… go… GO…
The voice jolted me from my artificial fury. It can’t be her…please…don’t be her. I opened my eyes and my fear was confirmed, a fear powerful enough in its brevity to override my compulsion. My sister…was she real? Did my thoughts of the past summon her image to mock me?
“Vivien?” My voice cracked as I spoke her name, dry and hoarse with years of disuse. She looked different, older and grim. The emerald glow from the ring bathed her face in a sickly hue. Her eyes were still the same, straight and direct, but her smile was gone, the lines of laughter now etched into a drawn frown. She had cut her hair too, and already I missed her auburn tresses; the short crop she wore now was tousled and wild. Dressed ethereally, she seemed little more than an apparition, yet the ring did not deny her existence. Alas, I had hoped she was just a ghost in my invaded mind.
“You can’t be here…you must go...please!” I begged through my clenched teeth. The ring felt my emotion, desired it, craved every succulent ounce of feeling, so it dug deeper into my finger, pushing its influence harder. Vivien did not seem scared or worried.
I worried for her, instead.
She opened her mouth, but hesitated. After considering for a moment at something, she ignored my demand and walked toward me, head straight and unflinching. My good hand ached with the strain of holding my sword back from cutting her and I gasped at the flood of rage the ring pushed through me.
I had no choice. I lunged at her, a cry of despair escaping me, and the lake shore burst with a surge of green light. Vivien continued her walk towards me, and as I fell upon her to destroy her, I saw her smile.
When I woke, the blackness remained. I was lying on something soft, much softer than the dirt and stone my back was familiar with. Was I dead? A sharp feeling of relief washed over me, but it was short-lived. I could still feel the hard cold scales of the ring against my remaining finger, and it confirmed my abysmal existence. I sat up, stretching my senses, but without vision, such a diffuse exertion was unlikely to produce results. The ring was silent, blissfully for once, and I was at a loss for the first time in years. Standing up, I felt around for a door or a wall. I met stone, and I followed it around in a moderate square, but there was no door that I could feel. I reached up, and could not feel a ceiling. I was trapped, although the ring would enable me to leave at any time, by force if it wished.
I settled back down on the unfamiliar soft pallet and let my thoughts free for once, although I remained wary. My quiescent ring would not remain so, and whoever imprisoned me would come for me eventually. One did not hold Kale the Bloodthirsty for long without repercussions. I chuckled bitterly at my title, knowing it still fit regardless of its absurdity.
Vivien had hunted me down, sought me for some reason. She must have spent years to do so, and her quest certainly had changed her. The struggles she must have gone through to find me, seeing the trail of havoc I caused. I regretted killing her, and I wept at that, wept hard, my first and only tears since finding the ring. It was too much, and I didn’t deserve whatever punishment I had been given by fate. Of course, I had slain many, even obliterating Tirah, all of it affecting me and adding to my sin, but I wasn’t really the murderer. Although I knew I should blame the ring, I still slaughtered Vivien, one of my few precious links back to humanity. Oh yes, it was certainly the ring’s fault, but her death was still on my hands.
The ring did not mock my grief with alien thoughts, for once. Its slumber was unfamiliar but welcome.
Do gods cry? I marveled at the question, insane as it sounded. Yet as each tear fell, I knew I still possessed at least some humanity. As long as I grieved for the slain, I still fought. The ring could not take that away from me.
I dozed off and on, with no change in the pitch of the room whenever I woke. The deep stillness of my prison confused my senses, and I was never sure when I was actually awake. The ring remained dormant, although I tried a hesitant push with my good hand to see if it would slide off. It bit down briefly with its familiar teeth, but did nothing further, so the ring still retained its hold on my middle finger.
It’s not so bad in here, I thought. There was no one to kill, no way to escape, peaceful and quiet. It was most assuredly not death, but a close enough approximation that I could grow accustomed to. Food and water were concerns the ring freed me of years ago.
My hunger now was only for salvation.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t just sit there, wallowing away in misery like I had intended to at the lake. There was the unknown jailer to consider. If they could restrain me in my unconscious fury, then they possessed a power I would be interested in learning about. The ring’s dormancy was my key to both prisons that held me, ring and now stone. I couldn’t waste the potential opportunity to overcome my master.
The best approach in my experience has been directness. If I attempted to force my way out, the jailer would come, either to restrain me or reason with me. So, I moved to the nearest wall, and placed my maimed hand against the stone, the frozen ring pulsing now with anticipation. A muted anticipation flitted across my mind as well, along with a faint tickle. I could feel the ring’s thick thoughts beginning to stir. As I suspected, the ring was not fully dormant, just subdued.
The room lit with a sluggish green glow, the ring rousing a bit more now. It recognized that it was imprisoned, and wanted out, a feeling I certainly agreed with. Abruptly, I felt a presence behind me, my senses detecting the contrast of their arrival from the tranquil room. I didn’t turn, however. I kept the ring against the wall, pressing it into the stone, angering the ring in its lethargic awakening.
“Kale, please don’t do that.”
Vivien’s voice shocked me. I did turn then, a cautious hope filling me, and I withdrew my hand from the wall. The ring did not calm, however. I pushed hard with my will to slow it, soothing it with my years of familiarity to its rage. The ring’s stupor must have helped, as I was able to calm it for once, and I let out the breath I was unaware I held.
I could not see Vivien clearly. The last dredges of the ring's rage only illuminated her silhouette, and her faint form was mockery of existence. Despite her voice, I could not yet believe she was alive. Had my insanity reached the point of hallucination? Did my grief call into creation a manifestation of my parasitic godliness? I reached for her with my mortal hand, a penumbra of despair over me.
I expected no resistance, and I was surprised to meet her very much real hand. I grasped her with fervor, a desperate need to reaffirm her existence and confirm my hold on sanity.
"I hear it, Kale. I hear your ring. You are safe from it here," Vivien spoke from the gloom, her voice even and reassuring.
I shook my head. No place could be safe from me. Yet, here I was, able to resist the demon on my hand. Then, what she said registered, and I stopped, staring at her incredulously.
"You can hear it?"
“Yes, brother. We all can.”
We? I felt the ring pulse, and the room lightened noticeably as it reacted to my trepidation. Vivien released my hand and I heard her step away from me.
As she moved, the room lit up suddenly from a source other than the green of the ring, and I shielded my eyes from the brightness. I could see the stone walls as my eyes adjusted, and a pallet of cloth spread haphazardly against one wall. Vivien watched me, dressed as she was the night she visited me, although now I could see her face clearly. I said she looked grim before, and that was true, but now I realized just how much she had changed. Something had aged her, and I guessed I was a significant portion of the cause.
“The ring…it thinks you’re a threat,” I said.
“I know. We are not though. Reassure it, Kale,” she said, glancing at the increasing glow of the ring. She seemed agitated, beginning to pace in front of me. I didn't blame her for being nervous.
“It won’t listen to me. I’ve tried.”
She smiled. “I know. It’ll listen to you in this place. Try it.”
I was confused. I needed answers, and she was being cryptic. Despite my relief at seeing her, she –no, they- were toying with a god of death.
Nevertheless, I concentrated on soothing the ring, forcing it to calm.
I anticipated a struggle, as was the ring’s usual response, but it subdued readily. Not quite submissive, though; I could feel its explosive emotion held back with only a tenuous restraint. Yet, it seemed more…willing…to listen to my request.
Vivien stopped pacing, which I assumed was in response to the fading glow of the ring. She smiled with satisfaction, and for a moment I felt a twinge of anger at being handled in such a way. The ring’s acute pulse mimicked my flash of emotion.
“Now is the time for explanation, sister.”
Her smile faded, and she nodded in agreement. “Yes.” She moved to the far wall and placed her hand upon it, caressing it with a smooth motion. “Do you feel that? Can you feel my hand?”
I did feel it, the gentle tickling of a touch inside my head, as if there was an unreachable itch. “What are you doing?” I asked, alarmed. I moved towards her, the ring animating.
I stopped abruptly and my will evaporated. The ring died immediately, and once again I was confused. How did she halt me? What was going on here?
“Your confusion is warranted, Kale. I will be brief, because I can only control the ring when you let me.” Vivien moved from the wall, pulling her hand away, and the tickle left my head. “This walled prison is not real. We constructed it for you, to help you, to train you to use your…gift.”
“Not real?” I asked, staring at the very real-seeming walls.
“Yes, Kale. It is in your mind, as am I.”
The ring grew furious at that, as did I. The unreal room lit with very real emerald light, and the ring's wrath forced itself up my arm and into me faster than I anticipated. Ignoring Vivien, I rushed past her, a blur of motion, slamming my half-fist into the stone wall. As I hit the wall, my awareness burst with a flash of white light, and I stumbled back, dazed. The ring was not dazed however, and it pushed for me to assault the wall again. I couldn’t resist it, despite my stunned head, and I ran at the wall again.
Vivien’s voice pierced through my foggy concussion, and I felt the ring instantly dim to nothing, as before. I stumbled to a stop, and then collapsed, my dizziness and pain taking their full hold on me.
I laid there on the heartless floor, my will to respond not merely stripped by my sister's ability to stop me, but also worn down by the hopelessness I felt. Why should I even try? I was doomed to be an emotional slave to this damned ring. It had no motivations, no desires of its own. It stripped those emotions from me at every turn, magnifying my fear and self-loathing into a conduit for its own anger. The ring wanted to survive, and it had no issues making me help it.
I could not even kill myself to be free of it.
Vivien, or whoever she was, came over and knelt next to me, staring at my pained expression, her own face drawn but unconcerned.
“Kale,” she sighed. “I know this is not easy. I know this is so very hard for you. I am here for you now, and you must try to learn. Try to control yourself and the ring.”
Her false sympathy mocked me, but I was too emotionally sapped to care. What did concern me was my sanity, now. How far gone was I? This place was a delusion, a construct of my mind according to my sister. Was it really my mind, now? Had the ring consumed enough of me to become me?
“No, brother. You are still Kale. The ring does not desire to change, only to live.”
So, she was in my mind too. She had said as much, but her presence was so real that I was easily convinced otherwise. As well, if she was in my thoughts, or an aspect of the ring itself, I should be exceedingly wary. That was actually amusing to me, the thought that I actually had any chance of independent action.
“What do you want,” I croaked, remaining prone on the floor that wasn’t a floor. My sanity was still very much in question, but hopefully Vivien (the ring?) would enlighten me before what was left of myself tottered off the edge of madness.
"We want you to live, brother. You have been consumed by remorse, grief, and anger for too long. Your willingness to perish just to remove us has grown too far, too strong for us to ignore."
The specter of my sister spoke with gentle soothing words, and it did comfort me to hear her. It consoled me even though I knew it was the ring, manipulating me again for its own ends. Nevertheless, I had nowhere to go, even in my mind.
"That is correct, Kale. We built this prison in your mind to give us the opportunity to speak, explain to you our motives, to reason with you. To help you live with us." Vivien smiled at me, the same smile she had when we were young. Damn this ring for using her too!
“It has motives?” I asked.
“We do now. We have learned enough from you to understand why you tried to remove us. We have seen all of your memories, all of your life, and we have seen how powerful you feel with your heart.” Vivien’s image flashed briefly to her younger memory, the skin pale and smooth, her hair auburn and glorious. My heart ached to see the sister I so desperately missed.
“Accept our offer, brother. We will no longer punish you or force you unwillingly to action without your consent. We only ask that we remain with you, alive. If you die, we die too.”
Did the ring expect me to accept this? If it could learn my compassion then it could also learn how to deceive, how to lie. No, I would not let this prison, this horror, this abomination remain in my land, to murder more innocents.
“That is our only offer, Kale. Know this, however. We cannot permit you to leave until you relent. We are being more than generous, and in time, you will come to believe us.” Vivien shifted back to her older form. She stood up, smiled forlornly at me, then turned and faded away.
Knowing her for what she was now, it was curious why she chose to age the only memory of my sister into something new. I couldn’t fathom the goal of that, but regardless, that was not my problem right now.
I stood up, and contemplated my situation. The ring imprisoned me in my own mind, in an attempt to bargain with me for its life. Why would it feel the need to bargain if it ruled me? Vivien said that my willingness to destroy it through suicide had grown too strong for it to ignore. What did that mean?
It proposed a compromise. It was obviously trying to sway me, by using the image of Vivien, yet it had revealed the deception almost immediately. As well, if Vivien was the ring itself, why did the ring rise up and attack the wall to escape, while she simply commanded it with words, as if it was a separate entity?
I thought long about it. There was no time here, simply a dream place. I was never a great thinker, but in here there was nothing to do but think.
It must need me more than it implied. The relationship must truly be symbiotic. Perhaps it fed off my emotion, relying on my feelings to sustain it. That made sense, as it intensified any emotion I felt into a blurred cacophony of energy, upon which I would release that energy violently into the world. It did not understand my hatred of it at first, and when I had attempted to remove it, it punished me, conditioning me to respect it.
Now, it stated that it has weighed my life, and found it worth saving. I chuckled at that conclusion, another absurd thought in a sea of madness. I was a god of death receiving salvation from the demon that cursed me. What right did it have to judge me, when it was the executioner that forced me to slay?
I wrestled with indecision. I deserved this prison it made for me, yet perhaps its offer was valid. I paced, torn by thoughts of guilt versus a faint hope that flittered weak across the vastness of my despair. I knew it monitored me, watched me struggle with its proposal, and perhaps the silence the ring sustained added weight to its offer.
I decided to test the ring's willingness to cooperate. Vivien stated that I would be left here, prohibited to leave until I agreed to it. Yet if it needed me, then why must I accept such a simple threat? I walked to the nearest wall and felt the illusion of stone and mortar that was my mental prison with my normal right hand. I felt the tickling in my skull, the same feeling I had when Vivien did the same before.
This is my mind, dammit. The ring lit up with my anger, and I realized that I had a plan. The ring pushed its energy up my arm, and I felt its rush to move, to destroy the wall that triggered our ire. I brought my half-hand up to the wall. Instead of striking the prison, however, I withstood the ring’s impulse and placed my hand flat, my three fingers spread wide.
You want a deal I am willing to live with? I will show you what I can do. I felt the texture of the stone, so real and firm in its valiant attempt to deceive me, but the ring’s contact with it enabled me to grasp the full vision of my mental prison. As if the wall became soft clay, I dug my fingers into the stone, pushing my maimed hand and ring deep into it, my motion into it thick with resistance.
“What are you doing? Stop!” Vivien’s voice came from behind me. “You’ll destroy your mind! Do you want to go mad?”
I’m already mad. That revelation amused me, and I chuckled as I pushed harder into the stone wall. A mad god, indeed. Chunks of stone fell to the floor, striking the ground solidly. The wall was only malleable to the ring, and as the stone shifted and swirled around my buried hand, I felt the tickling in my mind swirl faster.
“You don’t understand, brother. We need you to learn control, learn to work with us. If you do this, there will be no stopping us from destroying everything!” She sounded desperate, but I knew it was the ring struggling to retain its hold. I knew its weakness now. It needed me, and it had no intelligence of its own. It needed me more than I needed it. I did not need to compromise. All I needed to know was that I was free.
“We must stop you, Kale.” I could not hear her move, but the ring in its ire warned me of her approach. That was another clue to my control of it, no matter how much it demanded of me, it still functioned according to my senses, my thoughts, and my emotions. MY senses, not its, not hers. The ring flashed bright, and I shaded my eyes from its incandescence. The wall melted, and both the room and Vivien dissolved with a blaze of emerald light.
And then blackness.
I woke again to darkness, but this time I knew where I was. I was on the beach, face down in the cool dirt, the waters of the lake just as still as earlier. It had been a dream, but it did not flee into the oblivion of consciousness like normal nightmares. The vivid stone prison and Vivien remained real in my mind, just as real as memories of life. I sat up and looked for the corpse of my sister, yet my senses could not find a body.
The image of Vivien that had appeared in the darkness must have been a hallucination. The ring had gone to great lengths to communicate with me, and it had been an unusual conversation. The ring spoke through an altered version of my sister, using my attachment to connect with me. Yet, while it had tried to communicate, it was still subject to my emotion and my thoughts, and so it had defended itself from even its own illusions. Yes, the ring did want to devour me, but only if I let it, only if I gave it permission. I controlled it, now, a symbiotic pair. I was the god of only myself, not a demon-god ruled by alien motivations.
A mad god, indeed.