During one of our Mage: The Awakening campaigns, we had a Rules Lawyer in the group who was famous for arguing with the Storyteller ("Dungeon Master") about what certain antagonists could do and whether something made sense given the rules. For Mage, since we had all read the whole book to decide who we wanted to be (and to not need the rather complex mythos explained to us at every plot point), our Storyteller hit upon a rather ingenious idea: "The source book is simply what mages think they know about the world. When something comes up that disagrees with the book, surprise: the book is wrong." The Rules Lawyer, unsurprisingly, didn't enjoy being in a world where he couldn't at least have an Out-of-Character handle on everything that was going on. I, by stark contrast, loved the idea of being in a world with flexible rules that was driven by creative inspiration rather than conforming to a spreadsheet. But then, I'm not a Rules Lawyer...
That's rather what I'll be doing with this next book: I'm adapting elements from various World of Darkness settings just to have some starting material, keeping and renaming what I like, and discarding what doesn't fit or is just ugly/silly/stupid. I'm also doing some amateur mythopoeia of my own, which I tried to avoid for the sake of simplicity, but turned out was inevitable when I found myself drawing up a chart to align certain characters by zodiac affinity. Keep in mind, the zodiac isn't what matters - it's just a mechanic I used to get things arbitrarily started. After that, the way those alliances all play out and the things the characters do within their context, that's the actual interesting part.
Anyway. That should all be very reassuring, I hope. :) Here's the actual freakin' story. Enjoy!
Samantha opened her eyes.
She was in a large room, dimly lit by candles, laying on a cot. She didn't know why she was there.. she didn't know where "there" was... she didn't know who she was... she didn't know anything...
Suddenly alert, she stood up to figure out what was going on. Her clothes were ragged and torn, her joints a bit stiff. Looking around, she saw that she was in a circular room with one door. Moonlight fell in through one of several small windows, separated by large bookcases. Each window held a lamp, and there were two on the large oak table in the center of the room. At the table was a single chair, and upon the table was a single book, open, with pen and inkwell beside it. She tried the door; locked. The windows were too high to look through, too small to climb through, too narrow to gain a firm grip; she could reach only the lamps hanging just before them. At the foot of the cot was a small chest of drawers. One drawer was full of neatly arranged inkwells, another held bottles of what she assumed was lamp oil, and the last was full of empty bottles and inkwells. Underneath the pillow, she found a golden key. She picked it up, intending to -
Samantha recoiled in horror as the flood of memories washed over her. She remembered her life - growing up in Anaheim - her parents - junior high softball - boyfriends - high school gymnastics - college studies - visiting her uncle - catching bugs - and thorns...
At the memory of the thorns, she cried aloud and jumped back, dropping the key.
Samantha opened her eyes. She was on the floor in a large room, limbs splayed every which-way, disoriented. She had a dull ache in her backside and the palms of her hands, as if from falling... Funny, she thought, I don't remember falling. I don't... I don't remember... anything. Puzzled, she looked around the room. There was a cot, there a table, bookshelves all around, lamps in the windows, a key on the floor before her. She shifted to her knees and reached for the key.
The shock of the intruding memories nearly made her collapse. She remembered growing up in suburban California, enrolling at UCLA, visiting her uncle in Newcastle, and then... the memories were rough, scratchy, tearing at her sanity, her very soul, as they screamed through her mind. Staring at the hand holding the key, she saw twisting and spiraling branches light up, sharp thorns adorning them here and there. The tattoos burned as they lit, as if they were made of fire. She was struggling to remember what happened after visiting her uncle: the memories were obscured in her mind, as if surrounded by thorny branches - No, she thought, I'm just imagining that. It must be something traumatic, and I'm just projecting these tattoos - Her train of thought abruptly halted. Tattoos don't burn. Tattoos don't light up. And yet, there they were, crawling up her arm, burning brightly.
She struggled to her feet, made her way to the desk. She remembered catching a bug, and she shouldn't have done that. She remembered being taken somewhere, and she didn't want to go. She remembered writing in some of these books, important things, things she wanted to remember. She sat down at the table and looked at the book before her, and sure enough, the page was partially covered in her own handwriting. The ink was dry. She turned to the first page and set the key down to begin reading.
Samantha opened her eyes. She was puzzled by the book before her, but intrigued by it as well. Somehow, she couldn't remember quite what it was about - come to think of it, she couldn't remember much of anything. She began reading:
I am a slave in this place. Locked in this tower, I must keep the fires burning. That is my task and my purpose here. Aside from that, there's not much to do. All that matters is that I keep the fires burning, or else my Keeper will come for me.
There are books to read, but they are full of nonsense - magic, faeries, made-up mystical stuff that nobody in their right mind would believe. There are books to write, but all I can write is nonsense - magic, faeries, made-up mystical stuff that nobody in their right mind would believe. And yet, it's true, it's all true, it's all happened to me, and it happens to me every day.
Nonsense, indeed, she thought, and kept reading.
The key is my blessing and my curse. It lets me remember everything, and it lets me forget everything. when I touch the key, I remember it all, even the times I forgot. When I let go of the key, I forget it all, even things I knew before I came here. The key holds my memories, and when it takes them, it gives me peace. This can't happen. It's not possible. But it happens just the same.
Samantha looked around. There were books. There were lamps. On the table beside her, there was a key. She laughed. Sure, she was in a remarkably similar situation, but the sorts of things she read about were impossible. They just couldn't happen. And yet... she couldn't remember a damn thing before reading the book. Hesitantly, she reached for the key...
Her mind felt like it would break under the strain of the incoming memories. She remembered everything, she remembered the repeated forgettings that had plagued her since her arrival here, she remembered keeping track of the days - her tally! The burning tattoos brought a clarity to her mind, and with visibly focused determination, she turned to the back of the book in front of her, which she had begun using as a journal. On the last page were tally marks, every set of five with a slash through them. Samantha breathed a sigh of relief, she had been keeping good track: at the end of each row was the count for that row, and each row held one hundred marks. She put fifteen rows on a page - that was, what, four years and change?
She began turning the pages from the back of the book. Page after page of hash marks, growing increasingly disordered. The memories kept coming back, the flood reduced to a trickle, as she remembered her interminable stay in the tower. She remembered deliberately sabotaging her own efforts, drawing stick figures and other pictures on the page instead of keeping tally, covering pages in haphazard hash marks with no respect to time passed, writing expletives across entire pages, crossing out tallies or just doing crazy things... had she gone mad at some point? Was she mad now? How else could she reconcile the impossibility of her circumstances with their obstinate reality?
She was furious. Angry at herself, for her weakness and her inability to escape. Angry at the world, for being like this. Angry at her Keeper, for doing this to her. Angry at the lamps, the lamps of all things, for signalling her obedience to her Keeper. Angry at the books for giving her some supposed knowledge of this world, but the inability to test that knowledge or do anything with it. Angry at her own diaries, for recording her decline into insanity. Samantha remembered that she had on several occasions hidden the key from herself, so that she could know some measure of lasting peace, but she always ended up writing in one of the books, keeping a journal of new memories, and it always started exactly the same way: "Journal entry #1: I have no idea where I am, or who I am, or what's going on. I think I may be going crazy." Word for word. Every time. Once, she had stumbled up on these entries before finding the key, before resigning herself to her fate and writing anew, and she had very nearly snapped. And how many times had she found her true journal, the journal she had written while holding the key, but without the memories to give it context, as she had done just moments ago? She could remember many, many times... they were beyond counting.
This was like some sick twist on Groundhog Day - the world marched on without her, leaving her to relive the same amnesia over and over again. She couldn't escape - though the key would let her out, there was a beast outside, waiting to devour her. She had heard it pacing along the stone floor on nights when the wind was still. She had seen its shadow as it passed by the high windows on days when the sky was clear. She did not know when it slept or when it woke. All she knew was that she couldn't bear to be here any longer.
Samantha stood and, key firmly in hand, threw her journal out of a window. It took the lamp with it, and she heard a satisfying crash from outside. She began hurling books at the other windows, knocking out the lamps one by one. She smashed the two lamps on the table with a particularly heavy tome. At last, every fire extinguished, she screamed and hurled the key out of the nearest window.
Samantha opened her eyes.
She blinked a few times, unsure of quite what was going on. She felt relaxed, cleansed, as if she had undergone some powerful catharsis. She couldn't for the life of her remember why, though... come to think of it, she couldn't remember much of anything.
She was in a dark room. She could see the moon through one of the many windows, stars through the others. She went to the wall to try to find a light switch or door or something... bookshelves, bookshelves, stone wall, bookshelves... a-ha! A door! She found the knob and tried it, but it was locked. She pounded her fists upon the door, but heard no answer, only the whispering wind through the windows. The door was too heavy, too solid for her to break. She turned and leaned her back against the door, wondering what to do, wondering what was going on...
Suddenly, the door flew open, sending Samantha flying into the middle of the room. She slid across broken glass and came to a rest after slamming into something large and heavy. Looking back just in time to see the door slam shut, a silhouetted figure stood in her presence: tall, thin, bent. In its right hand was clutched a searing brand, sharp and pointed, glowing red hot. In the dull red glow, Samantha could make out the edge of a face, one wild eye, and half a manic grin. Samantha tried to scramble away across the floor, screaming in fear and pain, her hands slipping on her own blood, her elbows and legs coming down hard on the broken glass, unable to navigate around the legs of the table she could not see. The thing pounced, and was upon her, pinning her down by the throat. The brand came down toward her face, and Samantha lost her mind to the searing agony being scrawled upon her flesh.
Samantha woke screaming from a nightmare, her hands clutched to her chest, her breath torn from the air in ragged gasps. She had dreamed she was locked in a tower, and something about a golden key, and fire, tattoos, thorns... she looked down at herself. The brands upon her flesh burned and glowed dimly, and in her hands she held a golden key. Her clothing was in tatters, and she could barely remember what a bath even was.
So her Keeper wouldn't kill her? Wouldn't let her quit? Wouldn't even let her starve! Samantha couldn't remember eating since she arrived, couldn't remember drinking a single drop of water, yet she felt neither hunger nor thirst. Was this some manner of Contract she had read about? A spell, a hex, an enchantment? She had no idea. she didn't know what was going on. for all her memories, for all the torture she had been through, for all she had read, everything she knew - none of it applied! None of it helped! She had no more idea what was going on when she held the key than when she dropped it! The cruel irony struck her as a joke, and she laughed.
And laughed, and laughed, and laughed. She realized, dimly, at the beginning, that this was the insanity laughter, and once it started, it might never stop. She didn't care. Laughing her crazy ass off, she got up from her cot and started dancing around the room, tossing the key from hand to hand. Her stream of consciousness was persistent enough to permit her to catch the key, but each time she snatched it from the air, she recoiled as if struck. She laughed all day, and she laughed all night.
She laughed until the lamps burned out.
She did not notice as her Keeper entered the room. She did not mind as she was thrown roughly onto the table. She did not scream as the thorns were burned into her skin.
- - -
Samantha bashed her head in on the corner of the table one day. She dashed her brains out on the stone floor a few times. She slashed her wrists with broken glass from the lamps on many occasions. Once, she even fashioned a noose from the canvas of the cot, and broke off a table leg and hurled it through a window with a knot tied around it. The table leg came up horizontal across the narrow vertical slit of the window, and Samantha managed to hang herself. As she lost consciousness, she felt like she had really accomplished something.
Every time, her Keeper revived her. Every time, her rebellion was punished with more burning thorn tattoos. Every time, her resolve to escape was strengthened.
On a particularly lucid day, Samantha decided to face the beast. She opened the door, and looked out upon the sky, fully expecting it to be the last thing she saw before being devoured. But nothing happened. She looked around, and walked about the parapet surrounding the tower. She found a pile of bones, massive jaws, hideous fangs... the thing had starved long ago, yet she had not. She continued her walk around the parapet, and found herself back at the door to her room.
There was no way down.
Samantha refused to cry. She refused to laugh. She refused to despair, to go mad, to do anything but muster her courage... and leap.
Her tattoos never burned so brightly as when she fell. Falling through the clouds, she had no idea how high up she was. She fell for what seemed an eternity, and finally felt thorns tugging at her skin. She looked around, and saw that she was falling into the Hedge. The thorns scraped at her face, her arms, her sanity, her very soul, but she held the golden key tightly to her chest.
Samantha opened her eyes.
She was holding her key. She remembered everything. She was lucid. She looked around.
She was out of the tower.
Everything hurt. She was covered from head to toe in criss-crossed scratches, not deep, but so dense that she couldn't even see her tattoos. Her clothing fell about her like loose streamers, barely a covering and definitely no protection. She heard steps coming down the path: she palmed her key and struggled to her feet. Thankfully, the soles of her feet were unharmed.