The Drums of War: Part Five

Submitted by C B Wright on
July 20, 1992

The old man hangs in the air, frayed white linen hanging from his gaunt, feeble frame like the last drooping fronds of a dying willow. He’s lost track of how long he’s been there—months? Years? Long enough that he can barely remember anything else. The power that suspends him also sustains him—it is a prison, not a tomb—but it provides only enough sustenance to prevent his death.

Each day he struggles to master his hunger and his thirst, steeling himself to meet his captor, and each day they go through the same ritual. His former mentor and friend accosts him, threatens him, makes demands he cannot possibly fulfill—and, when the day nears its end, he threatens to do worse the day that follows. But for his captor that day never comes: he’s still trapped in the death-throes of the island, and when the island resets, so does he. And so the next day the old man is forced to do it all again, and the next day, and the next, a never-ending stream of being re-introduced to the man who betrayed him and the entire world.

Except that each new day brings even greater hunger and thirst, and each day it becomes harder to master. It cannot last.

His captor (Artigenian, a tiny voice whispers) is locked in time and half-blinded by his rage, but he is not a stupid man. The old man is not locked in time, and he is changing. His hair grows, his beard grows, and he grows ever thinner, ever weaker, ever more gaunt. The pain of hunger and the agony of thirst make it hard to focus on his task… and if he fails at his task, the entire world fails with him.

He tries, as he always does, to focus on his hunger and his thirst, to recognize their strength and find a way to turn that strength aside. Day after day he wrestles with the gnawing teeth in his stomach, the fire in his throat, and so far he has won. Day after day, but not today: today he feels the power of hunger and thirst and he cannot cast them aside. They are too strong; he is too weak.

The ornate double doors at the far end of the hall open, the sound echoing in the large space. A man dressed in green silk (Artigenian! a tiny voice screams) strides purposefully into the room, the hem of his robes trailing along behind him. The doors swing shut of their own accord as he stares at the old man.

As he always does.

The old man closes his eyes.

“No.” Artigenian’s voice is thick and harsh. “No. You will open your eyes and face me.”

As always, the old man feels his eyes open, his head swivel down to gaze on his captor’s hard and uncaring face. And in a moment his captor will say fate, it seems, returns you. Why is that, I wonder? And so the cursed dance will continue as it always has.

“Who are you?”

The old man’s heart skips a beat as he stares at his captor. Artigenian stares back, frowning in suspicion, as if seeing him for the first time.

“You are not the man I put in this prison last night. You are the desiccated remnants of a man, perhaps, if ever you were a man at all. Nothing like the—”

Artigenian breaks off and steps forward, just to the edge of the circle that imprisons him. “You will look into my eyes.” He speaks with such absolute certainty that it’s not even a command, and the old man immediately meets his gaze. It’s a terrible gaze, full of power and anger and purpose and the end of all things. It scrapes its way past his eyes and gouges into his soul. Artigenian’s eyes widen in surprise.

“It is you. But how…?”

The old man hopes against hope, but he sees the suspicion flickering in his captor’s eyes.

“You are not as you were, my student. You were an empty shell devoid of its glory, yes, but the shell was strong when it arrived. Strange how in the passing of a single night you have become… this.” He gestures contemptuously.

Artigenian turns away from him and begins to pace, taking long strides down the great hall, hands clasped behind his back, head bowed in thought. Nostalgia washes over the old man as he sees this—it is, perversely, an image he remembers fondly. When he believed this man was his friend, the sight of him so deep in thought was comforting. He knows the man is not his friend, yet the image still conjures that warmth.

Perhaps he is finally about to crack wide open. Perhaps he is finally going mad. The thought is almost comforting—if he can’t save the world, it might be better to be oblivious of its end…

Artigenian stops mid-stride, straightens, and turns. “How long?” He glares at the old man, the veins in his neck bulging with anger. “How long have we played this game? How long have you allowed me to believe that this was your first day of captivity?”

The old man says nothing.

“You are no longer strong, my student.” His captor’s voice sheds its anger and takes on an icy calm. “The circle sustains you, but not well, I think. Your shell is paper thin. And would tear just as easily. And yet…”

He turns away and resumes pacing. One length of the hall, two, three, five, eight… on the eighth he slows to a halt, head held high. Artigenian turns to face the old man.

The old man shudders in horror. Artigenian is smiling.

“I am, it seems, trapped in time. I am more aware of it than the others, but still bound. And it raises an interesting dilemma for me.”

He advances slowly on the old man. The feeling of horror deepens.

“The dilemma, stated simply: what I have learned right now will be forgotten come morning. I wonder if I’ve made that discovery before. How many times have I discovered my captivity, only to realize that there was no way to retain that knowledge? I have the power to carve my story into the very foundation of this place, to gouge my words in the marble and tile… even the steel, if I chose. But come morning the words would be gone, because they would never have been written. Nothing here persists.”

Artigenian stands just outside the circle again.

“Nothing persists but you.”

The old man begins to tremble as his captor passes his hand across the plane of the circle, disrupting his prison. The old man falls to the ground, groaning in pain as his feeble limbs collapse beneath his weight. He tries to crawl away, but Artigenian is not weak, and he steps on one thin arm with his foot—not enough to break bone, but enough for it to hurt.

“I cannot use paper,” Artigenian says. “So you, my student, will serve in its place.”

The old man shakes his head, but can’t bring himself to speak.

Artigenian leans over him, tearing away at the linen covering his chest. “Here beats your worthless heart. You, who betrayed us all, cause est proditor, you alone are free of this prison. You persist. And so tomorrow, when I gaze upon you for what I will believe is the first time in a very long while, I will see the memories I have set into your skin, and I will know it to be a lie. And thus will the prison be broken, and thus shall I be made free.”

Artigenian speaks words in an ugly, vicious tongue—words that make his flesh crawl. Did I speak these words once? Did I blaspheme this world so, and believe that I was doing good? Before he has time to remember, Artigenian’s hand touches his chest. The old man screams as the tip of each finger presses down, and fire bores into his skin. He gags from the smell of his own burning flesh, then screams a second time, like an animal, terrified and desperate. And then, just as the pain threatens to overwhelm, it changes: the tips of his captor’s fingers turn icy cold, and waves of power flow into him. He shivers; his eyes roll back in his head. It cuts and burrows. When Artigenian draws his hand away a complex symbol of black, spidery lines is embedded in the old man’s chest. It isn’t part of him—not like a tattoo, or even a common brand. It simply sits within him, glistening, waiting patiently to be removed.

His captor straightens. He steps back, utters a word, and the old man’s prison is restored. Once again he hangs in the air, tattered linen streaming down like dead branches.

“Tomorrow, then.” Artigenian gives him a curt, mocking bow, then strides out of the room.

Left to the silence of the room, the old man can do nothing but weep. He has lost. He was not strong enough to resist, and if Artigenian can free himself it will only be a matter of time before he finds a way to undo everything and swallow the world in an ocean of grasping, slithering horror…

“LaFleur?”

The voice comes from behind him. The old man twists helplessly, trying to turn to the sound, but he has no control over his prison.

“Sorry.”

He doesn’t hear movement—strange in this hall, where every breath is magnified by its echoes—but he sees a man step into his view. He looks familiar: a young man, in his late twenties or early thirties. Clean-shaven, short, light brown hair, clear blue eyes. He is certain he’s met this man before. He reaches for a name…

“…Bernard?” His throat is so dry he can barely get the name out before he dissolves into a fit of hacking, retching, and coughing.

David Bernard. Lieutenant, NYPD (Retired). The first Sky Commando.

“God, LaFleur, what happened?” Bernard stares at the old man in shock.

The old man takes a deep, rattling breath. “Prove it’s you.”

Bernard blinks in surprise. “I don’t… I mean. How?”

“Prove to me you are not one of his lies!” It is painful to speak, but even now the old man must be certain. He doesn’t have the strength to win, but he must still fight.

Bernard grimaces. “OK, I get that. But… we don’t really know each other. That kind of stuff requires…” his voice trails off and he frowns, thinking quickly. “OK. Back in New York when you first asked for my help, Scrapper Jack acted like he knew what you were planning to do. I didn’t understand the context at the time, but I noticed it. He knows, doesn’t he? You told him about what happened here. You told him what you told me on the plane—probably more than that, since you trust him more—which is why he didn’t want you to come.”

The old man sighs in relief. “Thank you. I thought you were lost to the island.”

“I was for a while. I cheated. Look, I heard a little of the conversation you had with that guy. I’m pretty sure you don’t want to be here tomorrow.”

“No,” the old man (LaFleur—my name is Artemis LaFleur) says. “I don’t. Can you free me?”

Bernard hesitates. “Maybe. Hold on.”

His expression unfocuses, as if he’s staring at something a long way off, and then the old man (LaFleur, damn it! My name is Artemis LaFleur!) feels the prison cease to exist. He crashes to the ground in a heap.

“Are you all right?” David kneels next to him, peering at him in concern.

“I need a moment.” Artemis LaFleur is weak, but he feels something of himself return. “I need a moment to make sure I’m not dreaming.”

“Oh, I’m pretty sure you’re not dreaming,” Bernard says. “But I am…”

Comments

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This might be a typo :

This might be a typo :

But for his captor that day never comes:

Should be
But for his captor that day never comes;
or
But for his captor that day never comes -

That is, use a semi-colon, or maybe a hyphen.

Same potential typo as before

Same potential typo as before :
Day after day, but not today:

Should be using a hyphen or semi-colon, I think. Probably the latter.

One final thought. The last sentence should end with a period, I think, not "...".

Another potential typo :
Nothing like the—

Should be using "..." instead of a hyphen, I think.

So my Theory of Using

So my Theory of Using Punctuation In Dialog (which is not an officially recognized part of the English Language and not endorsed by any manual of style) assigns different levels of pauses and inflections to different types of punctuation. I use an em dash primarily for two things in dialog: to show that the person speaking has abruptly change topics in mid-sentence, or to show that he or she has abruptly stopped speaking (or is going to be interrupted).

So for example, "Nothing like the--" is used to show an abrupt change from what he was saying to the new thought that came along. I'd use an ellipse if I was trying to show a more gradual change between the two, like if what he was saying sort of drifted off and then a new thought occurred to him.

Outside of dialog, I agree I could use a semi-colon in the "day after day, but not today" but I'm not convinced it's mandatory. I'll have to think about it.

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.

"As each day he struggles to

"As each day he struggles to master his hunger and his thirst, steeling himself to meet his captor, and each day they go through the same ritual." -- This sentence doesn't quite fit together; the "as" clause doesn't match up with anything. Maybe change it to "as each day passes", or maybe just remove the "as" from the beginning of the sentence and start it "Each day"?

"(Artigenian! A tiny voice screams)" -- I wouldn't capitalize the "A" in "A tiny voice". A word processor would disagree, of course, but "Artigenian!" is basically a quote, but without quote marks for stylistic reasons -- so the exclamation point is part of the quote, not part of the outer sentence. If that makes sense.

"Perhaps he is finally about crack wide open." -- Should that be "about to"?

It seems like rather a large coincidence that David should figure out how to escape the "reset" on the exact same day that Artigenian smells something afoot. Cavalry arriving in the nick of time, and all that. Granted, it's a common enough trope in comics, and it's not even the first time it's happened in this storyline (e.g. Regiment appearing at just the right time during the assault on the Forrest house), but this one feels like more of a stretch. Unless, of course, it was somehow David's dreaming that tipped the scales enough for Artigenian to notice something was wrong...

Thanks so much for another issue! Always love seeing Curveball show up in my reader.

It seems like rather a large

It seems like rather a large coincidence that David should figure out how to escape the "reset" on the exact same day that Artigenian smells something afoot. Cavalry arriving in the nick of time, and all that. Granted, it's a common enough trope in comics, and it's not even the first time it's happened in this storyline (e.g. Regiment appearing at just the right time during the assault on the Forrest house), but this one feels like more of a stretch. Unless, of course, it was somehow David's dreaming that tipped the scales enough for Artigenian to notice something was wrong...

Well technically it all happens on the same day. Over and over and over and over and over again... I haven't specifically called it out yet (though I think now I will next issue) but in my head it's actually been months between David figuring out how to break free and Artigenian figuring it out as well. Keep in mind the events in Esperanza are taking place at a different point in time, and that point in time is kinda screwed up.

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.

Also, just incorporated those

Also, just incorporated those edits. Thanks!

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.

“The ornate double doors at

“The ornate double doors at the far end of the hall open, the sound echoing in the large space. A man dressed in green silk (Artigenian! a tiny voice screams) strides purposefully into the room, the hem of his robes trailing along behind him. The doors swing shut of their own accord as he stares at the old man.
As he always does.
“No.” Artigenian’s voice is thick and harsh. “No. You will open your eyes and face me.”
As always, the old man feels his eyes open,”

He didn't close them, though? It was never mentioned, and the description of Artigenian suggests that LaFleur is watching him – it's written from his perspective.

"Artigenian turns away from him and begins to pace, taking long strides down the great hall, hands clasped behind his back, head bowed in thought. Nostalgia washes over the old man as he sees this—it is, perversely, an image he remembers fondly. When he believed this man was his friend, the sight of him so deep in thought was comforting. He knows the man is not his friend, yet the image still conjures that warmth.

Perhaps he is finally about to crack wide open. Perhaps he is finally going mad. The thought is almost comforting—if he can’t save the world, it might be better to be oblivious of its end…" This is kind of terrifying, but also impresses me. It's a realistic detail and... well... good writing.

“He speaks words in an ugly, vicious tongue—words that make his flesh crawl.” I'm sorry, but this is confusing – the first he is Artigenian, the second LaFleur, but they're so close together with no explicit change of subject that it's hard not to read them as the same.

"the tips of his captor’s fingers turn icy cold, and waves of power flow into him. He shivers, his eyes roll back in his head, and the power cuts and burrows into him. " This isn't an error, but it is a bit awkward - you seem to be describing the power flowing into him twice? It's not the same both times, but it does seem a bit awkward.

Also, agreed on the Theory of Using Punctuation In Dialog thing. The use of an ellipsis to mark a fast break in dialog has always looked odd to me ("Wait... why is he trailing off there? It looks as if he should be interrupting himself - why is he pausing?) so that's at least one data point in favor of the dash-for-interrupting-oneself/quick-change model.

I'm not sure you need a semi-colon. One of the less often mentioned uses of a colon is to mark that the second part of the sentence will be explaining the first part, which I think is what is going on here. I usually think of it as marking a list, but that's just the most common meaning - I think the use here is valid.

... just my two cents. Also agreed that it's a bit of a coincidence that he shows up just then - it didn't bother me, because it was suitably dramatic, but I think I tend to have below-average sensitivity to that sort of thing, so take that with a grain of salt. I did assume this scene was significantly after David broke free, both because it would make sense (it's a large island! He can't miraculously find LaFleur in a day!) and because LaFleur seems much older in this scene than in the one last issue.

... also really really like this episode in case that wasn't obvious. But I like this plot thread. >.>

The text at the beginning is

The text at the beginning is mostly copied from the previous scene, with a few alterations, but I did leave out the part where LaFleur closes his eyes. I put that back in...

Added Artigenian's name and a reference to the old man to make the parts clearer.

Broke up the descriptions about the power to try to clarify that the second bit is extra description on top of the first bit, instead of a new thing.

In Joe's comment, I was focusing on his observation that David seemed to escape the "reset" and find LaFleur on the same day Artigenian figures out his captivity, which occurred this issue.. I didn't see it that way -- I was hoping that focusing on how intense LaFleur's hunger was at the beginning, and by referring to him as the old man to show how feeble he was, would contrast with his appearance in the last issue enough to give the impression that a great deal of time had passed. (I don't have a lot to work with because at this point I can't compare David's perception of time on the island with LaFleur's, because the island resets each day and neither one of them have been counting the days -- though now that I think of it, it would have been perfectly in character for LaFleur to do so, and it would have helped the reader a great deal. Ah well. Missed opportunities.) My assumption was that David freedom last issue would line up in the reader's mind with LaFleur's interaction with Artigenian last issue, and LaFleur's condition this issue would indicate that in that timeline quite some time had passed. However, quite some time has passed between last issue and this one :-/ and it might not be a good idea for me to hope that kind of detail carries over between releases.

Your observation is a little different -- that David finding LaFleur just as Artigenian discovers his captivity seems "dramatically convenient." I do plead guilty on that. It seemed the opportune moment. :D

--
Writer, former musician, occasional cartoonist, and noted authority on his own opinions.

A) Yes, what you assumed

A) Yes, what you assumed readers would think was what I thought.

B) That's OK - it worked. ^^ At least for me!

C) I took a quick glance at your changes in case any new typos were introduced, and this may just be something I missed the first time, but "And then, just as the pain threatens to overwhelm, it changes:" - should this be overwhelm him?

LaFleur is looking better and

LaFleur is looking better and better while getting worse and worse. He started out on this path attempting to avenge the death of a frenemy. Along the way he found out the opponents were using magic and, in order to learn more, he went into a dangerous personal hell. He didn't know that he would be captured but he did know about the danger and the fact that he would be facing his worst personal failure again. He has spent on the order of 10 years facing daily torture in order to prevent doom to the world. The guy may not deserve to take over, but he has performed a hell of a thankless job for largely altruistic reasons (avenge a friend, save the world). He makes Travers look like an amateur. And there are no likely good outcomes for him - any plans he had for after avenging Liberty's death are likely impossible now due to his additional age and weakness. This is a massive tragic hero trope, no matter what the authorities label him.

On a different note, Bernard isn't causing sound when he moves and says he is dreaming. His dream self can interact with the island, not just view? That wasn't just a way of avoiding forced reset? WTF? Mind you that fits in well with the rest of the weirdness going on.

Speculation: LaFleur escapes but still carries Artigenian's 'brand'. Another magic user sees it and uses it to break into the lost island. Nastiness ensues...