Shattered eyes look out over the horizon, taking in the gleaming curvature of the world.
Red embers flicker behind fragile irises.
Pallid lips curl into a sinner’s smile, a grimace that mocks the gentle glow that spills over mountains. That pale, warm light ends its journey as it falls on his wolfishly-angular features. The rays of light bring a million tiny deaths to the surface of him, unseen microbiota that spawn and extinguish in an instant. These deaths bring him nourishment and color, for he is plague personified.
He sits on an ashen boulder, reclining with his broad back against the stone. The cool surface is a relief against his jagged spine, easing pains that have walked with him through life. Long years of travel wear deeper with every step — it shakes up the shins, unsettles the knees, and then snakes through all the bones from earth to sky. An afternoon’s stroll can be rejuvenating; a thousand year’s travel takes its toll.
Life calls for death, glory for shame. Health brings illness. It’s the dance of eons, the ballad of making and unmaking and it is…
“…Where shall I walk next?” He wonders in a voice like cracked vellum, smooth yet broken.
He raises a hand to the great pale light. He yearns to see the golden rays spill between his fingers, glorious as it was for the trees on the horizon. Instead, he’s confronted with profanity: a warm glow inhabiting his flesh, illuminating the softness of his fingers in gentle amber. The darkness of the bones remains at the core, black and unforgiving.
Here, too, is ceaseless mortality.The traveller finds it everywhere. It’s both what he seeks and what he brings.
“This is not enough,” he whispers to the unchanging horizon. “My efforts are not enough. I need to bring something new to this song.”
Time passes. Dust blows through his hair, salting the strands, abrading his cheeks. The road has brought him nothing.
Twenty sky-cycles ago, he walked with the caravans. Ragged clothes, dust-pocked faces, people left adrift on the wind. Like him, they were strangers in any land. Like him, their lives were ones of endless travel. In walking beside them, the traveller hoped to find some meaning, and to create something wonderful and new.
With his road-worn boots drying by their fires, he would sit in their company, share their cups, their dances, and their kisses. He was handsome of face, long of limb, and kind in his words. All in all, he was a creature made to affect, to reflect, and most importantly… to infect. Others were drawn to him, and he drew them yet closer. Even when the campfire’s light burned out, he’d formed associations and friendships, shaking hands and sharing embraces of camaraderie.
His touch was a kill. Cheeks that once blushed soon turned pale with sickness. Lips that curled at his passing soon became dry, cracked, racked around coughs. One by one, the people who walked beside the wagons began to ride within them. Proud fighters became misshapen lumps beneath sheets.
Leaders and followers soon began to do little at all except sleep through the day and wait for their misfortune to pass.
One at a time, these caravans wilted by roadsides. Even their steeds, whom he’d stroked at the mane, began to litter the trails. Strong beasts returned to the earth.
Somehow, the traveller remained dissatisfied. His efforts became known across the countryside, and soon, cities ceased to open their doors. He’d done nothing but draw suspicion to an already-waning crowd. In time, that crowd became suspicious of him in turn. Caravans became insular. They learned tricks of medicine, they learned the profane preventions known to temples.
One long day, the traveller approached the strongman of a performing caravan — a real gurran behemoth of a man. The lanky specimen, broad and barrel-chested, regarded him with lifted brow.
“Well ‘ello. May I help you, lost traveller?”
“I am weak of back, light of limb. I could use some training… May I borrow one of your weights?”
“For sure, for sure. Strength is gain’t through pain, my friend. Join me in my labors.”
And so he did, and he made a strong show of it. He’d killed recently, and it brought vigor he’d needed. He lifted the irons high, and ingrained them deeply with his touch. When he threw them to the soil, the strongman guffawed with laughter and clapped him on the back. At this, the traveller grinned with triumph.
It was only to his dismay then, that the strongman then washed his hands and boiled his weights upon a kettle over fire.
“An ol’ superstition, learn’t it from the Kindlers. Purify it with the light of the ‘ol pale fire. Y’best try it yourself! Sick goes ‘round.”
Around indeed. To travel would never be enough. Shattered eyes, red lights, the pale of his cheeks… He hid them well from others, though he could not hide the deaths he’d brought. This trail took him far and wide, but too shallow into cities, too rarely into homes. If this world were to know his brilliance, his unique brand of affection, then he would need to become something very, very much else.
By one blighted caravan, he stopped to consider a wagon’s carcass. Within, a family of four slumbered their last. Each could hardly be called corpses. They’d become skeletal lumps in rags, wretches drowned in misery. Below, the wagon wheels had gone to rot, with strong kruckwood besotted with moisture and mold. The wagon’s undercarriage crashed into the dirt, half-buried, and buried yet further with every passing rain and dust storm.
The wrapped canvas peeled from the wagon’s bows, half-pinned with nails, half taken by the wind. It billowed like waves, flapping upon a prairie wind. It stood there as a standard of surrender, of conquest, a white flag telling all that came: “Do not stop here. Do not tarry. Our goods are gone to brigands, and our hearts are gone to the soil.”
A queer fascination struck the traveller, and he wrapped one hand around the canvas’ edge, capturing it from the wind. As he pulled it taut, he saw something he’d scant expected: a pure pallor, bleached by the shardlight that spilled across it. Not the rain, nor the dirt, nor the carcasses beneath could ever have changed the canvas. It remained resilient and unblemished, lighter than the sun, smoother than bone. It was the soul of the wanderers that he could never taint.
And so, taint it he must.
The traveller violently ripped the canvas from the wagon bows, prying and tearing it from the nails. He went about his work with the brutality of a feasting skygg, a hungry scourge, a hound ripping skin from flesh. In time the canvas came away in tatters, leaving the wagon behind as a skeletal corpse, its former inhabitants laid out like entrails beneath an unkind sky. This dead beast needed its skin no longer, especially not one so pure and tooth-white.
No sooner than the traveller had drawn it about his shoulders than the canvas had become his own. Ripped fibers mended once again, and shapeless skin turned to clothes. He was a being that corrupted all he’d touched, and as he claimed his prize, it came to suit him. Ripped ends wrapped ‘round into sleeves, frayed spans turned to collar and coat tails. Bent nails turned to iron buttons, and the canvas, writ large, became a pure white coat.
The traveller would be lost no more.
The Visitor in White was born.
The Visitor turned his shattered eyes away from the horizon he’d so hated. The embers of his eyes flickered and burned for more. Like in a dream, he took to the air without walking. Like a nightmare, he found another unfamiliar shore to crash upon: a city on a hill.
Before him stood towering stone walls – limestone, flint, granite, and mortar of sand, lime, and water. The walls were born of labor and audacity, stone stacked on stone, a monument to mankind’s gall. They were made to turn away speartips, to baffle the monsters of the land, blunting swords and claws alike. The hunger of brigands and beasts failed against such measures. It was a match for monsters, but they had never met a monster quite like him.
Every wall had a door, and he had a knack for finding them. All he had to do then was stand alone before the guards, spread his arms, and present them with his brightest smile. Unlike peasants and paupers, he brought them vague promises spoken through pearlescent teeth. The dirt of the road never stuck to his clean shardlight-white coat, and thus he, too, must be clean. They felt that the beautiful must also be unimpeachable. The Visitor, noticing the success of his spotless coat, brought out sheafs of papyrus, each in fact bleached and empty, though to the eyes of onlookers, they were penned brilliantly with meaning and certification. The gatekeepers saw in the papyrus the promises they’d needed fulfilled.
There was no need for forgery, when their hearts already sought lies he’d never bothered to tell. They took to him like flies to mouldering wheat. In return, he smiled, and the edges of his lips never reached his shattered eyes. The broken sclera glittered with delight.The embers within flickered side to side, like flame to paper, not knowing what to begin to devour. A whole new realm of potential opened up to him with the rising of the iron portcullis, and with the first few, giddy steps he took beyond those city walls.
House calls, but not ones that were requested. He became the blight of learned men, fools that he’d bested. Where they’d spent years learning to turn away pox and boils, he brought vague hopes, joys, and lies to thwart their toils. The best successes were salves and venoms, pretty names, caustic agents, and false tinctures for vim. There was nothing that could stop him. Door by door, porch by porch, he made his way into homes. One after the other, they turned sick, and he bound up their sheets.
He bagged up their bones.
It was his first grand success, and in days the city between the walls was emptied.
Like the wagon on the roadside, it became blasted, cracked open to the world. Anyone could now walk through that old portcullis. The men who’d once manned them first held kerchiefs to their lips, then bedsheets, then old white tarps.
When he left, the city was returned to the world, though the world was not keen to take it back. Brigands seldom entered its walls, fearing they, too, would be wracked with coughs and meet the city’s old fate.
The embers of his eyes burned brighter, like small suns within their sockets. This was what the world needed. Ages ago, the hope of this world’s celestial light had been shattered, sundered, and returned to the land. Now here it is, reborn in his eyes. It’s a hope of an age past. It’s the falsehood that this world really needs: a true balm.
Sickness? No, the land was sick with despair long before his passing. Before, the city’s standard rotted above the walls, faded cloth half-lost to the wind. Now it was exactly where it belonged: planted in the dirt, eaten by worms, reprocessed and made grand. In life, the city was a mockery, a charade, fading every day with its shattered glory. In sickness, it found the cure to obscurity.
In death, it became a legend.
“Not enough. Not enough. The embers could burn brighter!”
Frustrated, he pounded the cobblestones with his fists. His knuckles turned bloody.
Rage overtook him.
The bodies had ceased to move.
They mocked him with their stillness.
With his success, no one remained to sing his praise.
He felt great satisfaction as he’d fooled them, triumph when they took to their beds. He’d even felt glee, delight, when the men in masks came and counted the dead by their heads. But then what? The illness, the death, it passed and then it was gone.
Now the visitor is left in the street, enraged and alone.
“What next? What next? I must become a god among the damned!”
His blood splattered across the stones. The wounds on his knuckles festered, boiled, and then closed. In time, his composure returned, and the hatred in his eyes continued to burn.
“A story. A tale! I need to hurt those who will speak of me, long before they’ve passed.”
So he turned his back once more, a wave gone to find yet newer shores.
Another span of walls rose before him, yet these were grander, unsullied, and much more than stone. Florid banners flew high over stylized parapets, crisp edges bore gilded engravings, and like cathedrals, these walls told stories in stained glass. Across the panes, tales spun in sweeping flourishes of color: grand battles, heroes who took to the hills, ancient monuments to massacre. To the Visitor, this was a place to earn his fame.
Its name: Arrchestra.
The walls here honored killers, and he would not rest until he could rise above them all.
Before he could even begin, he’d heard children chanting, jeering with morbid gall…
He brought out the usual trick: the white parchment, the unimpeachable cloak. It worked, though the guards took him for a joke. As he passed through the gate, he realized a new horror: there were many like himself, liars in their coats, hundreds more. Word of his conquest had already reached these shores. The worst part, yet? It had already become a bore.
“I bring you miracles, open up your doors!”
Laughter came from inside.
“No thank you, good sir, we’ve no need for more.”
Frustrated, he turned to a man by the roadside: pocked, brittled with age, and nearly dead. The Visitor checked him close and found specks of illness, spots on his head.
“Here good sir, miracle tincture. Take one, take ten!”
The man smiled in good cheer and waved him away.
“You’ve already cured your pox? Well, I’ll help you do it again!”
The man silently turned his back.
This city, so jaded, had no need for his wares. But for a man like him, what else was there? And then he saw, by torchlight and applause: a stage. A commoner’s play showcased the world’s flaws. He took to the stairs and placed a mask across his face. If he disguised himself as another, then there’d be no more disgrace. He told them lies again, but now they were beautiful. He bade them gather close, and through them, he feasted in full.
One hall after another, filled, and then emptied. He rose in prominence.
Windows once full of candlelight went black. Dark providence.
Thinking this the height of success, he visited the elite: a special game. The Visitor in White himself would come to play. It would have been his masterpiece, a fine place to showcase his name. One by one, they gathered and giggled, telling stories of his travels. Then one by one he visited them, sent them to their beds, and they fell as corpses when sheets unravelled.
It was quite a tale, and it too made its way to the stages. Unfortunately for him, it wasn’t one for the ages. It worked once, and then he received no more invitations. They were wise to his tricks and his cheap imitations.
Where, still, were the heroes from those tales of war? It made no sense. They spoke of them. More importantly, he’d won wars before!
Then he recalled the children’s laughter, and realized he’d become a mere doggerel.
He took to the parapets, manic with failure…
His blood boiled in his veins. Shame burned in his cheeks. He’d never felt such humiliation. He had to stop his lying, stop his rhyming, the rhythm to his tribulations. The songs, the songs, the songs, they were changing him! He had to stop. Even so, he could barely slow. Every attempt energized him. Every failure infuriated him. He clasped a hand around his wrist, and found it to be shaking, trembling with the hunger. Eyes blazing…
His shaking only stilled when he felt the wind through his hair once again. He was high, high above the city, free of the fever he’d brought to them and that they’d given to him in turn.
There, he could see it. He could see the beauty of this city at last. It was something he’d missed during his manic attempts to bring ill throughout its populace. It was already so frenzied, so fevered, so wild before his arrival, and yet, there was something he’d missed: Order. Society. Compassion. There was a strange undercurrent to all of their works. He’d been fooled by the banners and stories of conquest painted across the outer walls. Between them, he found only storytellers. Had they never loved lies at all? Perhaps their whole society was founded, instead, upon the careful crafting of truths.
He’d been thwarted by a strange resilience of the soul.
Light around the city moved like the face of a clock. It was precisely timed. Everyone had a home, every sick person received a doctor, and every earnest lie was met with earnest mockery. People tended to this city with great care, and it bore the tender mark of those who kindled flames. Good people lit torches, and bid people who were sick to stay in their homes. The city adapted, and cared, and took care of people beyond its own.
In the face of them, he felt like a piece of shattered glass.
He hated the feeling that rose in him in that moment, tangled sorrow, love, and hatred.
He saw that this land had already been struggling, and thus, been no stranger to struggling against him. He’d stepped to the edge of the parapets and gazed down over the walls. From above, he could finally see their design writ in glass, now inverted, a cautionary tale. The heroes were not meant to be hailed as they died on those fields, faces comical with dismay. They were simply lessons to be learned. Even the barrier itself was a parody: glass that could never stop the inevitable.
This land had already faced a blight or two, and learned their lessons. It was a place that had no home for him. He had no choice but to leave this tale behind.
He’d achieved a handful of names, and nothing more.
He’d brought forth a few thousand deaths, and nothing more.
Up above, the flat white light of a swirling, sunless sky mocked him. It was like a father’s cold smile, disapproving of a vagrant son. It was the look of a victor, someone who’d say to themselves, “Yes, exactly as I predicted. Like a small flame, you flare, then flicker and wane. No more, no less.”
The Visitor in White beat their fists against the ground once more. The dirt was unmoved, and like an uncaring mother, remained stoic and unyielding. A powder of dust covered his fists until they’d bleached a chalky white. Parched cracks formed in the knuckles, splitting open to reveal ruby flesh. The very sight of it was repulsive to him. It was a reminder that he, too, was something that could die. He, too, would one day become nothing.
That hatred brought his blood, again, to a boil — and being a creature of manifestation, of pure will, his blood did in fact boil. The skin over his hands rose, bulged, then popped and fell. With each burst, a million tiny lights crept, then poured forth like flowing glass, first inching over his fingers, then surging, cascading over his flesh like hungry insects. They swarmed over his forearms, each one spreading, growing, then popping over the course of seconds.
Pop, pop, pop…
Birth, life, death, birth life, death, birth life death…
He watched in horror as they lived out their false lives on his skin, each shard of glass shattering upon expiry, embedding crystalline corpses into his flesh.
The Visitor in Light screamed in anguish, hating, ripping, until there was naught left of him but the smallest shards of glass. Lies and rhymes never worked because he was never a creature of man. He was an insect, born of dirt and sky.
So like an insect, he sought a new hive.
A great citadel loomed on the horizon: Grand, Stoic Rhytalo.
The walls stood taller than any he’d ever seen before. Rather than stone, great hexagons held up the fortress: man’s divisions, geometries, plans and grand designs. Rather than armored guards, uncaring automatons stood sentinel along the rims of the walls. There were watchers in the towers, but they stood vigil from afar, their eyes crossed in black and covered in cowl. It was a coward’s vanguard, though against the armies of men, no doubt effective.
Fortunately, Visitor had chosen to be an insect.
Despite its silence, this citadel stood as a core of the world. Wooden crates flowed in on the backs of beasts, iron crates flowed out on the backs of automatons. Within the walls, the wood was used. Within, the flesh was used. Import and export, supply and demand. All of it was on the cheap, lean, and efficient.
Everything was scheduled, nothing gone to waste, and nothing to spare. It was the picture of perfection, and with every arrival a guildmaster marked a piece of parchment, “Just on time. Just on time. Just… on… time.”
The sentinels had no care for the small, crystalline creatures that entered the goods.
The beasts had no care as they ate of him in their feed, swallowed, and filled.
He had acted on instinct. He had not even known that there were people behind those walls, waiting for those goods, also waiting to be filled. Just like him, they too wore white — head to toe, daubed and grayed by the labors and dusts of the day. Yet with the way they took up the meat in the market, the way lived without tending, went sick without medicine, died without graves, they were like pure, freshly-driven snow. In them, pains rested comfortably in their joints, having never felt a life without an ache.
They showed innocence in suffering.
He grew within them, one by one. Like the people of Arrchestra, the Visitor had learned from his mistakes. He did not arise at first — like the aches in their joints, he made himself comfortable, waiting for the day the bones would break. He embedded himself deep, resting crystalline in their lungs, filling them with pain, infecting them with light.
Production continued unabated.
From hand to hand, the Visitor’s in Light’s blight spread.
In the grand warrens, people were crammed in tight. They lived without privacy nor comfort and arose at first light. They were awakened by claxons, orders, voices from pipes. When they faltered, the voices bellowed louder, and swords were drawn at the first hint of a strike. Delays would bring only madness, imperfection, lost profit and goodwill. As the blood of this nation, it was a call they were required to heed. It was no matter that work could kill. When the halls grew dark, the voices in the pipes grew louder with the Visitor’s spread. They were all asking one question:
“Why won’t the wretches get out of bed?”
The goods did not arrive on time anywhere. As was the motto of the masters, there was never any excess — and in the times of famine, there remained nothing to spare. The few crates that did leave, the Visitor in Light rode inside.
By the time he had left, he finally had a name — an acronym and a number, and before he knew it, he’d traveled worldwide.
He became a number, and he killed a number — such irony. You really are what you eat. It was a fine thing that he chose to travel again.
He killed quite a few within those sterile, uncaring walls. Yet even as the numbers drifted down to nil, he wondered: did he kill more for their poor goodwill? He’d gone rampant with glee, as the workers were forced to work, and the automatons pushed them back to the stone mills.
He took more of them then. The thought of it made him nostalgic, how their dedication became their end.
In time, the city’s master on high — somewhere beyond the screaming pipes, the nutrient tubes, the bulbous windows — must have become wise. He took measures. The city began closing its doors, masking the inhabitants, and sequestering them into cubicles rather than grand bunkhouses. In time the Visitor in Light found this place was a fine cradle, but not a greenhouse to grow in. They stifled him in due time, much like how they stifled their people.
He then went abroad once more, and oh, did he take glee in returning to the arrogant Arrchestra. He’d learned lessons from the first pass. He’d learned to learn from those storytellers. He did not return as a man, a peddler, nor an insect. No, he returned clinging to the things they did love: crates of fine jewelry, bushels of gleaming taistberries, on the lips of illicit encounters. They did not love medicine, but they did love their delights. By his own fortune, he’d made men of medicine meaningless to these people. One by one, he snuffed out their lights.
While they fell sick in their beds, they turned the well-meaning men in coats away.
Soon, he became Arrchestra’s ultimate decay.
The theaters turned to hospitals. The town squares turned to morgues. The grand, twisting canals became pipes for offal and waste. The grand orchards became withered, husked graves of the decadent. They clung to their stories, their delights all the while… Where grand Rhytalo seemed to be in folly, never learning, never listening, they at least knew to stay inside.
Arrchestra couldn’t bear to bolt its doors. An entertainment economy — was that the phrase he heard on those wine-parched lips?
It made him feel nostalgic again, the way the city crumbled to dust. It was as if it’d relied on the soaring spirits portrayed in those grand, stained-glass facades, and old plaques now covered in rust.
Without its joys, its pleasures, its cavorting and nightly endeavors, there really was very little to Arrchestra. The Visitor in Light never took note of it, but the city had relied on fae protectors. Their will was as fickle as the hearts of its people. When their plays, their joys, departed, these juvenile beings became broken — feeble. One by one, the city’s heroes left.
What had made it so easy for greatness to wither?
Perhaps if they’d had a grand foe, they would have stood strong.
Instead, there was just him — a speck of a thing, a nothing, hubris in a magnifying glass.
The shardlight cast finely across their amber orchards. Somehow, despite it all, they brought those failing plants back first. Their stocks soon overfilled with taistberries, gleaming ruby, though they dared not distribute to any but the city’s worst.
The prices rose, more bodies fell, and in time, it all came to pass.
Shattered eyes look out over the horizon, taking in the gleaming curvature of the world.
Red embers flicker behind fragile irises, alarming, but weak and failing.
The Visitor in Light once again strides across the dusty path. His boots are parched, his cheeks now weathered by the wind. His eyes still shine like shattered glass. His white canvas envelops him still, familiar and kind. It remains his only friend here, between the blazing-white sky and the harsh, cold earth.
He listens close, and smiles in serene pleasure as the wind sings him yet another dirge.
A wretch howls at the wind:
“Why did it have to be yesterday?”
Vaipeas, now-named, turns to look upon him.
Like Vaipeas in his own time of wretchedness, this man prostrates, with his fists and knees ground into the dirt. His clothes are a-tatter, his tangled hair blows hither-and-yon. Lines of tears streak through the dust on his cheeks. His voice is like cracked vellum.
“Why did it have to be yesterday? The day… that you took her from me!”
He howls at the wind, pounding his fists into the dirt. The stones crack his skin, break the knuckles, but no power bubbles forth — just blood, just skin and broken flesh. So he strikes the ground more, all for naught.
Curious, Vaipeas looks him over more closely, and can now see: his tattered linen cloak, and the Kindler’s sigil wrapped in a silver, dangling from his neck. He’s a worshipper of the arcing crescent of light that spans the horizon, the Great Fire, that fallen light from the sky. His departed Sun has done him only ill, it seems.
The dust of the earth trails through the man’s grasping, bloodied fingers…
He’d be so easy to end. In that moment, Vaipeas considers taking the man’s chin up in his hands, to kill him with a touch. He could grip those ashen cheeks and watch, slowly, as the flush flees his skin and the light falls from his eyes. Perhaps in those final moments, the pupils would gleam like small, amber lights, and the irises would crack like glass…
“What does it matter that it was yesterday?” Vaipeas asks, turning on him.
The wretch doesn’t waver or whimper, for he’s already broken.
“If it were tomorrow, things would have turned out the same. Ne’er would you have predicted. Ne’er would you have prevented. This is your lot. I come when I please, and you die, and there’s naught in between. It’s the way of you small folk to die. It’s simple, it’s clean.”
And then the man recounts a tale: one of dogged pursuit. Be-masked and cloaked, he’d chased the Traveler, the Visitor, the Number, Vaipeas from city to city. He’d marked every new name in a tattered journal. He’d taken note of every weakness, every symptom, every medicine, even as they’d changed. He’d run up the ramparts to scream the names. He’d run into the halls of kings, the feasting dome of Arrchestra’s fine-silked Symposiarch, the maze-like citadel of Rhytalo’s grand Architect. Neither listened to him, until the time came. Then they snatched his notes, praised this poor wretch, until the Visitor shifted and stole this small man’s light.
He was a man chasing yesterday to prevent tomorrow.
It strikes Vaipeas as curious, and again, yes, as a tad nostalgic. Did he see this man once, back in that first shuttered city? Was he a boy with dust-pocked cheeks, bereft of his mother? Was he a grizzled father, hair peppered with grey, having lost a wife and a life as the Visitor peddled his wares? All too possible. He never really did take note of their faces. The “who” of them never really did matter.
But then, something occurs to the Blighted God.
He looks upon the man, not with pity, but with a sense of reverie. Like in a trance, the Blighted God speaks, and strange words leave his lips:
“Perhaps the land that we’ve been born into is blighted…”
“But the things that you’ve done have not been in vain.”
“Believe in the choices you’ve made.”
Man against nature, nature against man… They both long to thrive, to grow, to deprive.
They found understanding in hatred for one another, their love for life, and in resolve.
And so the God of Blight turned away, and the chase did begin again.