The Dead Letter
Musings on the Xenology of Nations
Well, I will not get overly political with you, old friend, but I must say I found this part difficult reading. At some moments I half wondered if you had decided to provoke me; some outbreak of that abstruse djinn humor that leaves us burrowers frustrated and annoyed. Grace is, I suppose, subjective, but the ever-prancing restlessness, the shiny frippery, of these soft chatterboxes; the idea that this has entranced you enervates me. Your tone seems altogether one of romantic infatuation: you neglect to tell of the drunken elvish crooners lying unconscious in pigswill whom I have seen outside human taverns during brief truces in the Kail Interregnum (their cloaks hardly "impeccable"), or the obsessive whoring of the Seelie court. I hope I do not intrude too roughly on your sensibilities: I know most Djinni flinch at speech about the body and the sexes, but you are a xenologist, after all. To understand the elves you *must* understand their obsession with the sensual.
To my mind the Cyclopes, with their brute immediacy, are at least steadier than the Seelie Mob. To the cyclopes the body is simply all there is. To you and yours, it is nothing, a flawed and inconvenient vessel. To my kind, it is interesting for its parts, and their cycle; edible, combustible, separable; the simple boat of this Middle Passage to the Lower-and-Finer Realms. But to those shiny horrors, it is an endless curiosity, a toy, something they must constantly fiddle and play with, like hot-bottomed geese. And yet they cannot be honest about it, as satyrs are. Hypocrites, hiding behind a sham of dignity. Eagles indeed: they are a flock of endlessly honking geese, and it makes me tired to think about them, makes me long even more for the Peace I am denied.
Sorry to howl like a rabble-rousing charioteer, friend: you know I am even-tempered and a lover of peace, and can be civil even to Seelies. But you have provoked me with your childish adoration, and I feel I must lay you straight. (We won't even discuss your "catspaw" comment).
Mysterious indeed, these creatures. I wish I were at liberty to discuss our arragnement with them, but locquacious old fool that I am, I am still not about to tempt the Justicars.
Personally I have always found humans annoying. They do bring destruction and death in their wake, true, which is all to the good: more graves, more beings who enter into the still dark. Death by axe or arrow is no more and no less lovely than death by poison, age or disease, though it is messier. But their clamoring disorder, ther skittishness is often disturbing. Battlefields of rotting bodies do not please me, when there is no care taken with the remains, no solemnity, no pause. It is often said that humans are brave, but they are not what we call brave; they want to live. Their supposed acts of courage are like the thrashings of a trapped animal. They do not solemnly go into battle as a path into the Night. Now, certainly there can be a beauty to such thrashings as well; sometimes they throw the approaching Night into final relief. Humans do fear in abundance, and as you know, fear is a holy emotion for us. But their fear is not our fear either. The fear we prize (more properly called awful dread) is the embrace of the darkness, the state of a sentience totally stripped of its surety, its pleadings, its excuses, before the huge mystery of existence; the moment when the soul turns from its retreat, and fearing all the more, plunges into the dark abyss, embracing the end.
Humans, in my experience, even in the most special circumstances, never reach that point. They are always expecting to break free and win the day. I was once priveleged to observe a vivisection of several captive human warriors on the border of the Shadowlands. The vivisectionists were Imps, as is usual, but the Mage attending was Thardoughuk, a mage of Despair, and the Imps under his spell were so afflicted with Bleak Hearts that they were almost solemn. I was attending in an official capacity under the terms of the alliance of the time, and the whole day (it had a rather festive air, or what passes for festive in the Shadowlands) was carefully planned. Our Bes-Tharalian forces had taken the unusual step of capturing opponents in battle rather than giving them the final peace quickly, at the request of Thardoughuk, on the condition that they would be not simply subjected to endless agony, but brought through Despair to that acceptance which we consider holy, and then to death.
Two of our finest priests had negotiated the deal. My job -- and I must say I was bloated with pride at the thought that my strange calling of Xenology finally had an honorable role to play -- was to advise on the tolerances and psychologies of the captives. Anyway, it was to be a grand experiment, putting the best of Shadow and even Impish natures in the service, for once, of peace and mystery, but in the end it was a disappointment. Even under the most exacting tutelage, the humans never turned the corner into the dark, solemn embrace of the night, that grand embrace of unknowing which is true meaning, that terror which is almost joy; no, ignorant, stubborn creatures, they acted until the end as if this were the climax of one of their loud, heroic horesback theatre-pieces (which by the way, you neglect in your "Arts" section), as if any moment some of their cavalry would burst onto the scene and they would slay us all. They never got it. Humans are fundamentally superficial and absurd. What a foolish game to play, to fight death, to struggle for the light. No mortal wins that game. Now, you djinn are long-lived, you abide in the light, and then you die when you die. Simple enough, if not to my taste. But the absurdity is that the humans slay each other in droves, their lives are short and brutish, and yet each as an individual, there on the battlefield with death raging all around, endeavors not to die, hates it, thrashes against it. Farce.
It occurs to me that in agreeing to our conditions and then allowing the experiment to fail, Thardoughuk may have hoodwinked us. Never trust a mage.
You emphasize the industrial proclivities of humans: coal mining, steel forging and such. Other than in Omistad and Valgrave, which have significant industries of their own, I believe this is mostly due to hired or captive dwarven labor, and the more mobile and nomadic human groups are often without industry altogether. On the other hand, though from a djinn perspective they are nothing to remark upon, there are some significant centers of learning in Valgrave, notably Fain u Thadde, where the humans carry on reasonably civil trade with the more powerful elves of Aliaen. Though naturally humans excel as warriors, they are also a significant number of human merchants, particularly in dangerous and forbidding areas such as the Vast Desert. The struggle and scheming which characterize their nation tend to give them an advantage in this profession as well.
In the annals of politics and religion, surely one of the most ironic marriages is that between your people and the Venomous Ones. Of the six Ancient Alliances, surely that of Will has the most mismatched pair; whenever some Mage levies your two Nations together, the Djinn never fail to first haughtily ignore, then become coldly infuriated at the little horrors. The exception to this, of course, is the Shar'ul Academy, concerning itself as it does with the extremes of phenomenological existence, and in particular the court of Vizier Tha'al-Kharun-Sahdhar-Shanala-Qu'al'a'ash-Brzuk-Anaala, that most expansionist and aggressive of Djinn nobles.
I have heard from Theralda, who was briefly imprisoned there, that Imps have the run of the place, and are encouraged to practice their arts on prisoners and commoners alike, for the edification and illumination of the vizier's sages, and to aid his inquisitors. In return, Theralda observed, the Imps do not play as stupid as they usually do: for they are quite cunning creatures, in truth. And of course, some of your Sages have kept their Imps on a short leash, always beat them in the contest of wills, and been well served by them. Still, these are exceptions, and I have always harbored the suspicion that if the Faldathi prophecy were to come to pass, as Shadows and Visions alike appear to believe (though I have never been able to get a straight answer from members of either species on that or any other topic), and all the Nations of the world were called to serve one of the Six Great Forces, quite a few Djinn would defect to Clarity, if only to get away from the Imps.
We Keepers do not have as much trouble with the Imps as you do. True, there have been truly horrific wars between us on occasion; but we have also cooperated well. We do not underestimate them, as you do. They may be absolutely untrustworthy, but frankly, of all those Nations born of Strife, they are the most predictable. You can usually bet on them taking the course of action that will cause the most pain (whereas you cannot bet on Misfits to do anything). I cannot claim to have affection for them, or to admire them, but I also cannot get worked up over their depredations.
A brain in a bone box, a net of blood vessels, a bag of fine organs, this is the Boat that carries me to my destination. And if some Imp raiding party takes me, and plays the tune of pain upon my nerves, well, that is one more Gate of Fear, one more chance to grasp the hollow realms' fundamental Mystery, to strip away the false certitudes and hollow chattering with which we walkers-above hold the Empty Truth at bay. Not that I am volunteering for such an experience, mind you, but Imps have their role to play. I expect you have never cut open an Imp and felt your organs convulse at the stench; it is not a pleasant experience, dissecting the Venomous Ones (one must wear protective garments to avoid being burned, and be very careful to catch and dispose of all the larvae), but it is educational, and deeply death-affirming.
I do admire the Mages of Abomination. What a vast and constant exercise of Will, to endure such torments, to dominate creatures so full of powerful hatred and vicious caprice with only the Word, to scrape one's own psyche clean of all attachments, all shreds of tenderness and doubt and mercy, for if any bit of those emotions remain, the Imps themselves (never mind the more formidable Abominations) will seize upon them as a wedge to manipulate and poison, and drag the would-be Magister down. I admire such single-mindedness, and express my admiration by staying as far away from it as possible, and if that fails, trying to kill it as quickly as possible.
You mention two of the modes of Imp creation: the Greater or Intentional Summoning, as practiced by the Mages, and the Lesser or Unintentional Summoning, which is less well understood, but clearly involves a cruel and conscious mendacity or betrayal of a solemn promise by a sentient. There is also a biological mode, involving the larvae, which infect and devour a host, giving rise to an Imp. This is less well known, but is a classic problem in my own field of Xenosarcophagination, thus I remark upon it.
Ah, I believe in an earlier draft you referred to the Forces of Abomination as "Dark" Powers. This is not technically correct, as "Dark" classically connotes Mystery. Perhaps, however, this is some complex djinni pun that eludes me. Our Silent, Peaceful Fathers Below are Dark (and in the darkness, Bone-White): the vile and odious Powers of Abomination are all too well lit by the Fire...
~ Zaduth-Jar, Keeper of the Dead
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