002/Critical Condition

Kadenja performs miracles at The Altar; Eoran accompanies an elder to an open air market.
Zero Sum: Critical Condition

Drowning.


It always felt like drowning.


Even after ten years, Kadenja Toriet always opened The Altar with water in his lungs. It bubbled and frothed from his mouth with the desperation of breathing, the necessity of obedience under guise of miracle trickery, survival treason.


He used to fight and claw to clear his lungs, to ease the hemorrhage in his thorax that pressed ever inward. The pressure used to crush him, disintegrate the pleura that held his parts in human form. These days, however, he understood he was a vessel. He was simply a book and every sermon was a reading etched into his sleepless body, his somatoform mind.


In his executioner's arena turned theater replete with last resorts and dead ends, he opened his arms to the screams of an audience who only wanted half the story. They rose to greet him, upturned faces a field of red lit masks that shielded the world from their blood hungry mouths, their worship of the greatest cost.


“You are tired,” he lamented for his murderous flock with the weight of his body heavy in his voice. “You are sick. Your doctors can't fix you. They can't find that seed of suffering in your belly, can't fix the decay in your bones. This is your story they tell you. This is how you  live the rest of your life. This is how you die.”


When the pyre exploded into a bonfire center stage and the music pulsed through the ring, Kadenja straightened to his full height, commanded them be comforted by this truth he'd composed, this book he was chained to, this magic he sold.


“I'm here to rewrite your story. So let's make a sacrifice.”


***




"And don't forget," the crone cautioned, her voice an extended croak rising above the backdrop of urban bustle and the steady repetitive shuffling of her slippers, "it's the sacrifices we make that transforms us into who we are." Her nails, stained and overgrown, gripped tighter to the arm of the young man she held.


"Right," Eoran Toriet nodded, suppressing further reaction. Advice was the very last thing that he needed, but he would be hard-pressed to ever volley such a sentiment back at a creature so revered.


In a handful of steps he swallowed, offering silence to the pathways that made Ossa’s niche of Port Haven. That passable display of repression was more his making than any supposed sacrifice he had offered thus far, despite what was native to the blood from which he came: he was the phantom of a failure walking betwixt the halogen glows of people and families more successful than he would ever be. A subject whose status was perpetually stalled.


It could not be said that all Toriets were born to be so unavailing. Eoran recalled this cruel fact to his core every time the unseen workings of his world decided to pluck upon those putrid strings of memory to summon their nauseating jingle. It was moments like these where he could really feel the weight of the world resting heavy upon his shoulders, sending pangs of aetheric strain into his skin, his muscles, his bones. Like the tolling of a clock screaming hours in the distance, he felt the burden of a schedule relentlessly upheld, a time signature spun by the tongues of false prophets.


Eoran ducked his head and pressed a pair of fingers into one of his eye sockets. Rising bile threatened expulsion and it was


suffocating.


It always felt like he was suffocating.


***


Lightning ripped through Kadenja’s ocular socket, shot like a stampede frenzy through his brain.


It used to affect him. It used to drop the prophet to his knees in the midst of his idol prayer, his own heartbeat pulsing through the blood that wound its snake body through the air. Now, it existed as a reminder. Reassurance that Eoran still lived-- and lived freely. In a different time, a separate world, he could have followed the arc of it home. He would draw a map through the darkness to help his brother breathe again.


But Kaden Toriet was dead and there was no remedy for a dead Toriet. There were no songs at his funeral pyre, no mourning for his memory, no eulogy in his name.


All that remained was the echo of the broadcast, the conflicting headlines, the accusations,


the shame.


“When we buy from Varonian, we make a trade,” Kadenja said, brusque through the pallor of his ghost. The crowd fell silent as he found his first. “I know what you ask for.”


He focused on a woman, hands gnarled with arthritis, face alight with fear and uncertainty in the bath of the altar's flame. Quickly, she was brought to him and in the ringing silence that heated the room with its electric need, he examined her hands, pressed his forehead to hers, and all but whispered:


“And you know how we pay.”


At the apex of his Eoran’s retaliatory gouge, Kadenja drove an awl through the palm of his hand.


***


“My,” the woman asked, “are you alright?”


Eoran’s fingers palpated the mass through the thin protection of its fleshy lid, diagnosing missteps that had long been eroded by time in an act of dubious clairvoyance; time which he’d spent plenty of getting used to his expectations being dashed. If the life he had been given was shaped like a cliff, then ten years and more afforded him what he needed to figure out that there was naught but a crag at the bottom. And yet, in truth, his poor parents were truly the victims in all this - their youngest child was never the smarter of the two.


“Yeah,” he emerged from his cloud, “much better. Just had something in my eye.”


It was familial detritus. Eoran didn’t understand why he kept that piece of his brother so near. He wasn’t sure if it was a gesture of ghoulish longing or a grotesque curiosity. Familiarity was a breeding ground of contempt exacerbated by a heart grown bitter from absence, and though he had spent so many days and nights mulling over the extraction of that eye exchanged (a truly useless symbol these days) he had found himself defiantly unable to see the process through.


“That’s not it, you’re gloomy,” she chided as she pulled the man along into the market whose open stalls were aglow with vibrant colors. Ultra-saturated segments of woven cloth bled their hues to the ground with the aid of light above while wild scents gifted from spice ships just returned wafted between the hustle of packed isles. Amidst the chaos, the elderly woman quickly found what she was looking for and bargained fiercely with the tradesman who claimed possession. A deal was struck, and Eoran quickly stepped in.


“No, I’ll pay,” he said with a generous smile, fist strangling the life from a handful of bills.


And pay, he did.


***


The chaos of the crowd roared to life as the elderly woman extended her hands in wonder, burls and pains leaving her joints as the tithe of the congregation filled the circuit of telemarketers that ringed his arena like bookies. The cameras cut close to the first miracle of the day, documenting her healing for the viewers at home, her cries of joy a show to ease the public unrest for the execution that would soon come.


“Varonian delivers us our first sacrifice, but don't take it for granted, no friends-- this blood ain't enough for the trade we've got to make.” Kadenja raised his hand to the sky, for all to see. His own blood glistened under the stage lights. trickling down his arm to stain the rolled cuff of his ivory shirt. He was produced to present dramatic visuals for ratings. A long shot showed his meager silhouette as a mere inconvenience before the pyre that raged in the ring.


His voice, however, was loud and clear.


“When Varonian wandered this desperate rock and observed the suffering upon it, he built us a house and named it Orin. In those days we had what we have now-- we had sickness, we had war, we had famine, but we had--”


“NO END,” the crowd roared as though enchanted.


“That's right my friends, we had no end when sickness, war, and famine came to take us down.” He paced the stage now, addressing the crowd in the singular as he wove this old tale with his snake oil words. “When there were wars, men cut down would just stay on the battlefield, bloodless and unmoving, but still alive. Sickness was unending, interminable even for the sake of mercy. Can you imagine it? Cancer that marauds its way through you until all that’s left is a breathing cadaver cursed with a suffering that saw no end. When a heart stopped working, you were just a corpse on delay. A body decaying with a mind still alive.”


“NO END.”


“That's right: no end. We romanticize immortality, but death--death is necessary. You don't miss death until you're begging for it to come.”


He held his head high as the convict was raised on a platform. An Ossan man, a murderer,


a lie.


“You don't miss sleep until you're tired.”


The death oracle  turned toward his victim and rounded him with that practiced gait that only delayed the inevitable.


“So when Varonian wandered the rock and saw this suffering with--”


“NO END.”


“-- he built us Orin because he couldn't abide the forever we had. Gave us a bed to sleep in when life was no longer something we could bear without needless and undue suffering.”


Kadenja place a hand on his victim's cheek and forced him to look. He used to think his eyes begged forgiveness from his own kind, that they could understand what he had to do, but he understood now that his intent meant nothing.


He was a noose.


This church was the scaffold.


“Sirai, espodorietya reigoprosonta--” the convict begged. The translation on the live feed, those home screens, and the scroll above the stage read please, don't do this executioner but it wasn't really correct. Ossan was a language of nuance, and even scholars found it difficult to fully unravel the layers of words in order to properly translate Ossan literature.

Kadenja heard him say: Please don't make this my story, executioner.


“I won't let you suffer, friend, but Orin's calling now,” he said quietly to the prisoner as he covered his mouth with his blood drenched hand, soothing him with old words, lost prayers, ancient apologies.


On screen, a caption listed the convict and his crimes-- multiple homicides, assault, weapons possessions, contraband. A warning about the ensuing images flashed as Kadenja continued to speak through the dim chanting of the crowd.


“Saa doronta espatya,” he said. It's too late the translation proclaimed even as the convict calmed visibly, forcing his eyes shut.


Your death has already passed.


“But you're not alone, friend. I'm walking with you.”


***


"Thank you. It's good to have friends like you."


"You're welcome," Eoran nodded as they drifted away from the stand in search of something else.


The market heaved in constricted abundance, personality bubbling up into the atmosphere in colorful expressions spanning multiple languages and heritages. Songs of speech overpowered the external influences of the city, hushing the rumbling of cars with the exactitude of sharp accents. The younger man held tight to his companion as they wove a line as crooked as a fledgling river. They were pulled by the whims of nostalgia corrupted by age; the woman was easily distracted by baubles glittering in every direction and Eoran was happy to oblige those dalliances of memory.


The woman stopped again, this time at a cloth vendor. Large spools of kaleidoscopic fabric were gathered in a rudimentary cage made of millions of compressed splinters held together by nails rusted to infected perfection. A thin wire strung from post to post across the front of the stall hung at a taut angle, overburdened by the weight of too many mismatched ensembles. Her hand stretched out with some wonder to pick a selection from the bunch – a clot of a dress whose cherry hue cut a gash in the bland offerings it was beside.


“When I was a young girl, I had a dress just like this,” she said, crumpled lips turning pointed with mischief. “I would always wear it when the sun was at its worst and though my mother, and her mother, would scold me for going out like that, if I saw something on the street and wanted it, there was a line of young men, just like you, eager to get it for me. In fact, I’m glad to see I’ve still got it, even if the fashion has changed.”


Eoran huffed a laugh, “Right, but that’s not the only thing that’s changed.”


“No,” she conceded. “Things change all the time. People, places, thoughts, ideas. This world is a living being, sustained and soured by the creatures that walk upon its land. I’ve seen so much happen in my life, Eoran. I’ve lived to have the mountain of my lively youth eroded away into a lump of old age – and I don’t just say that figuratively. Look at me!” Her shoulders, hunched forward, rustled as she turned away from the dress and the stall.


He did as told, contemplating briefly before trailing after her wandering form.


“Does that make you worry about your death?”


“No, son,” was the elderly woman’s immediate answer. “I anticipate it. Change is not mutually exclusive nor does it show favoritism. We all change. Death is just another change.”


The living Toriet’s expression settled into one of aloof acceptance of that truth, which he knew all too well.


“So… If it’s all just change, do you think the dead can come back to life?” he asked after a moment.


“I think there are forces in this world which should be left alone,” she replied. Eoran hummed.


***


Kadenja, the devil prophet, race betrayer, baphomet, heathen saint, miracle worker, and network goldmine, ever left alone, pulled his hand from the convict's mouth-- an ancient calling perverted by modern shackles. From the convict's slack mouth came a red snake drawn by the scent of the Bloodwright's veins. It moved naturally but continued to grow.


Those unfamiliar with Varaket usually wondered how the snake had gotten into the body in the first place. What sort of magic or illusion was this, some sort of disgusting trick to shock and awe an arena of desperate believers.


But the snake would continue to grow and grow, fed and formed by the exsanguination of the sacrifice, drawn by the blood of Varonian's favourite book.


As the snake grew from the sinner's violent expiation, the furor of worship grew in volume, grew in waves--and when Varonian's blood snake freed itself from the emptied body, it played a pet to Kadenja who allowed it to weave through the air like an eel.


“Go,” he told his familiar fondly. “Find where they are weakened. Find their sickness.”


It wasn't simply the snake's existence that made believers of skeptics, but the way it moved. Like it was real, wild, hunting. The way it searched and thought as it made its way through the crowd gave it a life that was difficult to deny.


Kadenja was nothing if not an accomplished puppeteer.


I'm walking with you, and I'll remember your face when this ends.

Sirai iyashaya.


***


Eoran and the woman plunged deeper into the market, but a rapidly expanding crowd quickly overtook them.


At the end of the isle, the object to which the group’s excitement was tethered became clear. A vendor - old man, foreigner, dressed in rags stained with a faraway smell - sat watching the convex screen of a television that definitely belonged to another era. The picture flickered and frayed, colors failed but were also soon reinvigorated with the help of a cane's tip angrily tapping upon the box's plastic shell. The figure on the screen was hypnotic, holding even those that were not basking in his immediate presence with his cobra-like scrupulosity.


This shit again,

He thought, as though it was forgettable.

This shit again,

As if it didn't happen regularly.


The man looked back to see his companion occupied with telling a long winded tale to a pair who were listening only in the interest of making a sale, then turned back to the small screen. There was surely some cruel humor in making that eye, once belonging to that caricature before them, watch his own gruesome ceremony. And yet, it was a shame that Kaden couldn’t see how monstrous Kadenja had become.


"This guy is an asshole," Eoran told the crowd.


"What?"


"No!"


"Oh, shut it."


"He's helping people!"


"Yeah, look at him work!"


"Gods, that's amazing!"


“I wish he’d help me!”


"… He's helping himself," the specter's brother replied with crossed arms.


***


For all the good Kadenja and his service to the Old Gods seemed to be doing, Eoran seemed the sour brother of a blood saint, the ticket out of the gutter for all the Ossa still stuck there in the majority mind.


Varonian's blood specter found the sick, found the injured, and when Kadenja laid his hands upon them, he rewrote their story. He wrote a prayer in his body of glass, fragile and hollow, to be read by the Death God-- and Varonian wrote back. He wrote that their eyes could see, that their spines would be straightened, that their knees were no longer weak,


that they would be strong.


Even a few Ossa, desperate enough to be seen in that heathen's church, were willing to chance the prophet's trickery. He pulled the sickness from an old woman's veins and reinvigorated her with blood from his own, his familiar apparently being made of the wrong type.


For the showmanship and the death it demanded and all the terrible things he'd been forced to do,

Kadenja tried to do something, anything right that he could.


The opportunities were just few and far between.


Pallid and near bloodless himself, the prophet wavered before his pyre, a gasp escaping his audience as his fluid serpent steadied his gait.


“We have heard many stories today,” Kadenja Toriet, con-man, traitor, and blasphemer, said with a heavy quake in his otherwise limitless voice. “And we have begged them be retold, rewritten... by the hand that guides us through pain, delivers us f--from suffering.”


There wasn't enough blood in him.


He knew it when he'd given it

and he knew it now

with a smile.


“Forgive me, friends. It seems I've overextended myself today.”


***


“Good, I hope you choke on it.” That liar’s kindness, that display of forgery. Eoran pushed away from the crowd to return to the old woman. It was getting late, and he still had deliveries to make.


“Oh, that poor man!” The crowd cooed.


“I hope he’s ok,” that mobile congregation sighed.


***


The Prophet of Varaket staggered, Varonian's spectral snake hissing and snapping at anyone who came close to his master. The scene cut out as the ringleader fell to the ground, a solid tone distorting on the airwaves as the headlines began to write themselves.


KADENJA TORIET IN CRITICAL CONDITION

Ossan woman saved from advanced blood infection tells her story