‘a qlippothic engine – Beta Sequence’: available from the 2nd of April 2017

Edie stares, guts clenching at the sight of her X-rays. Her ribs glow a phosphorescent blue against the black of the background. She tries to distract herself from the shadow, tries to look away, to look her bones over: there’s the sternum, there’s the pelvis, the clavicles, all in perfect clarity. The edges of the bones are rendered in a detail so hard-edged as to be undeniable. Around them, like translucent clouds are the altogether more indistinct shapes of her organs, the same hazy blue of old cigar smoke.

Her heart, though. The thing around it’s as clear as bone, clenched like a fist with eight fingers. Even with the suggestion from her memory-dream, she hadn’t been expecting this.

The body of the thing is flat; looking at it side on, it can’t be more than maybe a couple of centimetres across. From the front, though, the hard abdomen and smooth thorax nearly cover her heart. Its eight hard limbs, each nearly as thick as a fingerbone, encircle the organ completely, holding it in a choke. She looks at where the head of the thing should be, but the X-ray becomes vague and indistinct. It becomes impossible to tell where the organ ends and where the…

The…

The spider

begins.

“What is that?” asks Veronica, her hard voice grown harder.

“Get it out of me,” says Edie.

“That is hybrot countermeasure number twenty-three seven omega, designation ‘Serdtsepauka’,” replies the Friendly Robot to Veronica. “Developed by Project Kraken in nineteen-eighty-nine, the Serdtsepauka is a hybrot countermeasure, genetically engineered from the genus Atrax Robustus. It ensures complicity of prisoners, subjects of extraordinary rendition, and captured enemy combatants. Standard practise involves surgical implantation of the Serdtsepauka into the recipient over the course of a three hour operation. Grafted directly into the cardiac muscle, the Serdtsepauka is then sustained for the rest of its life by the bloodstream of the host organism.

“In the event of prisoner non-compliance, operators may then deploy the Serdtsepauka through the use of electronic signals sent wirelessly to proprietary systems embedded in the countermeasure’s nervous system. These induces a variety of effects on the host, ranging from simple palpitations, to cardiac events, to – should the operator desire – death.”

“Get it out of me,” says Edie, her voice rising.

“I’m working on it, mate,” says Veronica with mild desperation. “How do we get it out of her?”

“Post-implantation extraction is not advised.”

“Get it out of me,” says Edie, her voice becoming shrill.

“Edie, calm down,” says Jacintha, who’s not sounding too calm herself.

“Get it out of me!” screams Edie, finally dropping all pretence at control. “Get it out of me, get it out of me, get it out of me!”

Then Jacintha’s fist crashes into her face and the world rolls over into blackness.

____________________________________

The second part of YorkNecromancer’s debut novel series a qlippothic engine will be available for download and in paperback from April 2nd, 2017. Beta Sequence: OSTROV picks up where the first novel left off, moving the series into altogether darker, more horrifying waters. For those readers who haven’t yet encountered this landmark series, the opening chapters of the first novel Alpha Sequence: DEREVNYA can be enjoyed by clicking here. If you like that, why not follow these link to purchase it in either Kindle download or paperback? America readers should click here while British readers should click this link instead.

If you have any questions, feel free to message me via my Facebook page.

Argue On The Internet Better

The Moral of The Bucket

Is there anything more boring than school assembly?

After eleven years as a pupil and fifteen as a teacher… if I am sure of one truth, it is this: assemblies fucking suck. They’re long and boring and always about some unhelpful, untrue nonsense. ‘Believe in yourself’ or ‘be yourself’ or ‘MLK cured racism forever’. You know, some cheap, useless bullshit that hides the grotesque unfairnesses inflicted upon people by a society predicated upon selfishness and cruelty that we all have to sit through and pretend is in some way enriching the minds of the pupils who hear it. Which no-one listens to anyway, because we all switched off after the first fifteen seconds.

In twenty six years of them, I remember exactly one that was worth my time.

The speaker brought a bucket to the front of the room and put it down in front of everyone. Then she filled it with rocks.

“Is it full?” she asked.

“Yes,” came the bored reply.

So she pulled out some smaller rocks, and nimbly fitted them into the gaps. People looked up, their attention piqued.

“How about now? Is it full now?”

“Yes,” came the reply, although no-one sounded as certain this time.

She pulled out a bag of pebbles and dropped them into the spaces.

“How about now?”

“No,” came the reply, everyone now caught up with her game.

“Clever,” she replied, pulling out the bag of sand and pouring it into the bucket, filling it to the top. “So how about now? Is it finally full?”

“Yes,” came the confident cry.

At which point, she pulled out the jug of water.

With the bucket now definitely actually full, she turned to a hall full of year 11 pupils about to sit their exams, and said:

“You’ve all got lots to do each day: coming to school, doing homework, revising, chores, making time for yourself. The bucket represents your day. So what have you learned about your day? What’s the moral of the bucket?”

“There’s always time if you look hard enough?”

“No,” she replied. “Your day’s a fixed size. There’s only the time you’ve got.”

“We can always fit more into our day?” came the tentative reply from a lone voice at the back.

“No,” she replied. “Your day has limits. You have limits. You can only fit in so much.”

“So what is it then?” shouted one of the louder, braver boys at the back.

Picking up a large, jagged lump of granite that hadn’t fitted in, she held it up to the hall and smiled gently.

“Always start with the big rocks first.”

Differentiation.

That assembly is a perfect example of how teaching works. One of the rookie mistakes every noob-ass teacher makes when they step up to the whiteboard and decide they’re going to impart knowledge to the no-nothing numpties who’d rather be at home killing brown people on ‘Call of Duty’ is this:

“They’ll learn if I tell them.”

No.

No they won’t.

Years of Darwinian existence at the chalkface teaches us all the same brutal truth: you can’t tell anyone anything and expect them to learn it that way. The information might go in, but it falls out straight away, because telling isn’t teaching. Anyone who thinks it is, is a dumbass.

To truly teach, you have to be like Dom Cobb. You have to practise inception.


Pictured: me getting metaphorically ready for the first lesson of the day.

In the film ‘Inception’, Cobb gets a line that – somewhat unexpectedly – perfectly summarises why just telling someone something doesn’t work:

This is me, planting an idea in your mind. I say: don’t think about elephants. What are you thinking about? …but it’s not your idea. The dreamer can always remember the genesis of the idea. True inspiration is impossible to fake.”

 This is an utterly accurate summation of why, if you tell someone something, they don’t retain it. Teaching is the act of making information stick in people’s brains, and the ideas that stick are always the ones you come up with yourself. As Cobb says, perfectly summarising the end result of good quality teaching:

 

What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient… highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain, it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed – fully understood – that sticks; right in there somewhere.

Now, unlike what the film may lead you to believe, inception isn’t actually as difficult as the film makes out.

And no matter what some people might tell you, you don’t even need to bring a gun.

True inception simply requires what we in teaching call ‘differentiation’.

Differentiation is the act of creating different resources for your pupils based on their needs. You see, the problem of teaching is that you know what you want your pupils to learn, but you can’t tell them what it is. So, instead, you create puzzles and activities that (hopefully) lead them to working out the idea for themselves. Instead of telling them something, you facilitate a way for them to come up with the conclusion you want: to ‘create’ the knowledge spontaneously in their own head.

Inception.

Because Cobb is quite right: if a person works out an idea for themselves, they’ll remember it forever.

Now, teachers aren’t the only people who use this technique; religious teachers of every faith have been using it for years. Parables, koans, fables… These are all ways to convey knowledge to a learner without telling them what the knowledge is. It’s why story is so powerful: every story is a lesson about something, whether it means to be or not.

Now, at this stage, I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m bringing this all up. Well, it’s because of arguing on the internet.

Arguing On The Internet

As long as I can remember, wargaming has been a hobby that’s as much about hating the hobby as it is enjoying it. Models have always been too expensive, rules have always been unbalanced, army lists have always included sub-par units, Games Workshop are always on the verge of going out of business… Since the second issue of White Dwarf, someone out there has complained that ‘White Dwarf’ isn’t as good as it used to be in the good old days. (They’re always wrong; ‘White Dwarf’ has never been good.)

The thing is, the internet has taken this hobby-within-a-hobby of relentless mythering and supercharged it. On the internet, like-minded misanthropes can meet and, just like the sort of strung-out junkies who’d suck off a dog in exchange for a hit, they can complain about a hobby they hate that they’ll never, ever quit.

The problem – for me, at least – isn’t actually the complaining. There’s nothing wrong with calling out crap when you see it, and despite what the memes may tell you, arguing on the internet can be quite productive… assuming both sides are properly supporting their ideas and coming from a place of informed debate. Sure, emotive, emotional arguing achieves very little, but proper, reasoned debate is possible… It’s just difficult.

So, my aim here is a primer for effective differentiation: a way for you to more effectively incept your ideas into the heads of others when you’re online. A way to ensure your arguments remain n reasoned and supported, rather than pure unthinking emotion, better able to convey the nuance and subtleties of what you actually think.

Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Just knowing something doesn’t mean you’re clever.

This is kind of hard idea for people to wrap their heads around; I know it was hard for me during my teacher training, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Knowledge simply represents data. Intelligence, on the other hand, represents the ability to actually use that data in useful, meaningful ways.

This is why we teachers use Bloom’s taxonomy. Benjamin Bloom was the educational psychologist who chaired the committee which first broke down the various educational domains into ranked areas of increasing complexity and specificity.

The theories Bloom and his buddies came up with date from the fifties, and I’m not about to argue that they’re completely accurate in their description of human learning processes. In fact, in modern education, the theories can be contentious. Don’t take them as empirical truth is what I’m saying.

Despite this, I personally regard Bloom’s as a useful tool. Not as something to be slavishly adhered to (as some educational institutions treat it) but as a kind of mental checklist; I use it whenever I’m trying to establishing exactly why a specific pupil doesn’t get the topic we’re covering. Bloom’s is useful as a reminder that intelligence isn’t just about IQ… which is why all the best ‘schemes of learning’ (the technical teacher-name for a collection of related lessons) will therefore necessarily take pupils up a kind of ‘slope of learning’, from simplest concepts to hardest. Despite its imperfections, Bloom’s taxonomy provides a simple guide to difficulty levels. Its utility lies in the way it can be a reminder that a person may not be able to advance from a lower level to a higher level as they haven’t understood all the steps in between. After all, you can’t evaluate a topic if you haven’t got knowledge of it.

I would argue it is these ‘missing gaps’ in our readers’ knowledge which makes arguing on the internet such a pain in the ass. Bloom’s is flawed, yes, but taken as a rough and ready system, it presents a useful tool to enable us as educators (yes, including you) to identify where our audience might have gone off-piste, as well as the kinds of things we might need to help them get back on track.

So, what are the stages of Bloom’s taxonomy?

1.) Knowledge: the ability to recall data or information.
This is the most basic level; it’s literally rote retention of simple facts: ‘The sky is blue’; ‘Christians believe in Jesus’; ‘a simile is a comparison using “like” or “as”’. Knowledge represents the capacity for a learner to repeat information that does not have to be understood, simply defined through clear observation.

2.) Comprehension: the ability to understand the meaning, translation, interpolation, and interpretation of instructions and problems.
Which sounds really complex, but all it means is that instead of simply observing something, you are now able to say something a little deeper about the thing you know. “Christians believe in Jesus because they have read the Bible and agree with the tenets within”, for example. Comprehension also represents the ability to state a problem in one’s own words: “The sky is usually blue; however, when it’s grey, that means there’s more water vapour in the air, which means it’s more likely to rain.”

3.) Application: the ability to use a concept in a new situation or unprompted use of an abstraction.
This is the ability to apply something that’s been learned in the classroom into new and unexpected situations, either in life or in the work place. For example, if I teach a pupil how to use emotive language, they might use that skill at Christmas time, pulling on their parent’s heartstrings to try and get more presents. Doesn’t mean they succeed of course, merely that they have learned something which can actually be used.

4.) Analysis: the ability to separate material or concepts into component parts so that its organizational structure may be understood.
At this stage, learners have understood the individual parts of a concept, and are now able to understand how to put those ideas together, in such a way that they can now understand structures. At this level, things are starting to get difficult, because analysis requires the ability to understand abstract ideas – to work out how things function without necessarily having that function shown to them. So as an example, a pupil studying English might be able to look at the language in a poem, and explain how it’s being used to affect a reader’s emotions as a means to manipulating their thought processes. On the other hand, a pupil studying design and technology might be able to look at the component parts of a device and assemble it without being told what the device is.

5.) Synthesis: the ability to build a structure or pattern from diverse elements.
By this stage, a learner is not only capable of understanding the components and processes behind an idea or concept, they can actually start innovating using those same concepts as tools. They can put parts together to form a whole, with emphasis on creating a new meaning or structure. So an art student might, for example, be able to look at a pre-existing style of painting, the style of artwork from another culture, and a newly invented kind of paint, and combine those disparate elements to create something that is completely new, but which honours the inspirations the artist has drawn from.

6.) Evaluation: the ability to make judgments about the value of ideas or materials.
This is the final, most difficult stage of learning, because it involves understanding all the prexisting stages, and being able to compare them. Of course, it’s something we do every time we go shopping: which of these two seemingly identical products is the one I will buy? However, when dealing with a more difficult, abstract topic, this process can become incredibly difficult, especially when higher-level mathematical or scientific skills are involved, or when several complex ideas relating to cultural critique are interacting with each other all at once.

As I’m sure you can see, it’s the evaluation stage which is the most awkward when it comes to discussion online… mostly because it seems easy. After all, we do it all the time.

Except we don’t, and that appearance of familiarity can be deeply deceptive. Just because a person can compare oranges and apples doesn’t mean they can effectively compare three or four seemingly contradictory, high-level abstract concepts on any level beyond the most superficial. Knowing what those concepts are is simply not enough; one cannot evaluate just because one has knowledge of a topic. If all you have is knowledge, then you’re missing the comprehension, application, analysis and synthesis stages.

Put simply, Bloom’s argues that we have to know what a thing is, understand how it works, be able to use that thing ourselves, explain every aspect of it, and be able to use it in conjunction with other things before we can truly start comparing it to other, similar things. Without all those intermediate stages, we can try and evaluate, but the gaps in our intelligence will mean we make mistakes that someone without those gaps won’t.

Which means, stepping backwards from this, that if you want to truly teach someone else online (or anywhere) of the truth of a certain concept, you yourself need to appreciate all of those stages, and lead your ‘pupils’ up the mountain of knowledge one tentative step at a time.

So let’s see how this could be applied to a discussion about wargaming.

Nom Nom Lovely Crunch.

To start with, I want to look at how we might potentially use Bloom’s to present a discussion on a topic from the ‘crunch’ side of 40K. In this case, it’s going to be looking at the preponderance of 3+ saves, the ubiquitous feature that makes MEQ armies so very MEQ.

IMPORTANT NOTE: The arguments and discussion points I’m going to cover in this do not represent my own opinions on the topic; they are used for illustrative purposes only because the topic itself is one with which most gamers would be familiar.

So, we start at the beginning, with the Knowledge stage. Here, we just have a simple piece of data: Space Marines have a 3+ save.

So butch.

The next stage is where things gain a touch more complexity. The Comprehension stage requires us to understand, interpolate, and interpret that knowledge. In simple terms, for this argument, we’re going to state a problem in simple terms: Marine armies are ubiquitous, meaning 3+ saves are ubiquitous; as a result, if everyone has a 3+ save, then armies are all very similar, which makes games dull.

This is where a lot of arguments about Marines tend to begin – look at their similarity! They’re all the same! I’m sure you’ve gotten involved in arguments about strength 4, about armour penetration rules, all those things which could mitigate this (potentially) tedious similiarity. If so, you’ve reached the Application stage, you can use concepts you’ve learned to change, overcome or improve situations you find yourself in. In this example, the Application stage would be to point out that there are actually counters to 3+ save in the game already: it’s possible to counter 3+ saves through the careful use of AP3 weapons. So, to pick an example, a Deathwatch player – who has easy access to AP3 melee weaponry – might elect to give every model in their Deathwatch army power weapons. Boom! Problem solved forever, right?

Pictured: the artificer blade ‘Hard Counter’.

Obviously no. But someone who’s at the Analysis stage is capable of separating concepts into component parts and considering the organizational structure… which is a posh way of saying they can look at individual elements more closely. So, they see the problem of too much 3+ armour, and instead of offering a simple, blanket not-solution, they offer a slightly more refined solution. Our hypothetical player’s analysis point out that those AP3 power weapons are only useful in assault… which means that any model with a power weapon which doesn’t enter assault has had points wasted on them. Given that not every model is likely to enter assault, it would therefore be points-inefficient to equip the whole army, simply on the off-chance a random model might get the chance to smash face. However, our analyst offers a more refined solution to the issue of AP3: only equip models that they have specifically designed to enter assault with power weapons.

The next stage of this, Synthesis, involves building a structure from diverse elements. In simple terms, this would be where our hypothetical player starts putting disparate parts together to form a whole, with emphasis on creating a new, more effective structure. At this point of the argument, someone with a grasp of Synthesis will realise that the preponderance of 3+ saves cannot be dealt with by assault troops alone. So, in order to be able to tackle 3+ at both assault and range, they elect to equip some models with Plasma pistols, whose increased range will give them more ranged control of the battlefield.

Plus cook them alive in their own armour.

And here is where we reach the final Evaluation stage, making judgments about the value of things.

After a few games, out hypothetical player judges that the Plasma pistols are effective in assault, but less effective at range because their range is too short, meaning they aren’t actually any better than a simple power weapon… so giving them to troops who already have power weapons is overkill. Plus, the ‘Gets Hot’ rule has claimed important troops at the worst possible time. So, while they are happy with their use of the occasional power weapon to tackle 3+ saves, they still require a ranged hard counter. They have two real option: Plasma guns, which will leads to an overall drop in the assault effectiveness of their troops, due to the lost attack, or Grav weaponry. Grav weaponry will be less effective at wounding, but lacks the ‘Gets Hot’ rule. So, the options break down to:

– A plasma pistol: points expensive, short ranged, and has ‘Gets Hot’, but is super-killy.

– A plama gun: the same points and ‘Gets Hot’ problem of the plasma pistol, but with decreased assault effectiveness on top; however, all of which is compensated for by a good range.

– A grav pistol: short range and effective in assault; marginally less killy than a plasma weapon, but without ‘Gets Hot’.

– A grav gun: all the strengths of the grav pistol and the plasma gun, with the only downside being the decrease in assault effectiveness.

Looking through all these criteria, our player decides that the extra range the guns have over the pistols brings an additional advantage: the ability to control significantly more of the board, which not only makes their men more deadly, but also forces their opponent to think carefully about the risks of position their men too, allowing our player more board control. Having chosen to take the gun, they then have to decide which one, which will obviously depend on their local meta.

But who are we kidding, it’s going to be grav. No ‘Gets Hots’, and absolutely beast at getting rid of Monstrous Creature nonsense? Of course grav wins.

Now, for those of you going ‘Well all that stuff seems pretty bloody obvious to me’, well, yes. This is a very simple logical chain, used to illustrate the ways that each level of Bloom’s facilitates the next. For our next example, I’m going to take you through a cultural argument rather than a gameplay one.

Ooooh, Pretty Pretty Fluff!

For the example of Fluff analysis, I’m going to use the perennial topic of female space marines, firstly because it’s an argument that everyone is familiar with, but mostly because it’s an argument where I can clearly lay out my own thinking (because it’s an argument I’ve spent approaching three decades having).

Pictured: the worst thing that could ever happen to 40K, according to some.

The Knowledge stage of this argument begins even more simply than our last one. We start with the simple statement that all Space Marines are male.

The Comprehension stage is where we first express the problem. Games generally have players of both genders. Space Marines are the most popular 40K army; therefore, if all Space Marines are male, then female gamers are being treated unfairly.

Now, this is the stage that people’s rage kicks in, and turns the argument nasty. That’s because the Comprehension stage is simply the expression of a problem. We need to take the argument significantly further to reach a fully thought-out response, whether that argument be in favour of female Astartes or against. So, the hard work really begins at the Application stage, where we first start to think in abstractions. In this case, one Application would revolve around the abstract concept that Warhammer 40,000 isn’t real, and that therefore, Space Marines aren’t real. As a result, the in-universe ‘fact’ that ‘All Space Marines are male’ can be ignored if I, as a player, want to ignore it.

The Analysis stage, where we separate concepts into component parts so that we can understand the structures which justify the existence of the concept being discussed. For example, in following our argument, we can now look at the origins of the game: the people who created Warhammer 40,000 were males, working in the 1980’s, when society was undoubtedly a sexist one. The men responsible for the game probably didn’t expect that women would ever play their games; given the world they lived in, that belief was probably true. This means the in-universe ‘fact’ that all Space Marines are male… well, it exists as a logical response to the specific time, place, and people involved when the game was created. In the same way as novels from Victorian England contain horrifying racism that would be unacceptable in the modern world, Warhammer 40,000 comes with the legacy of the world that existed when it was created. It’s a product of its time.

Synthesis is where we begin to probe that concept even more deeply by pulling together various ideas from widely differing places, creating a new structure from pre-existing older ideas. Here, for example, we could create an argument that synthesises disparate ideas from the real world. If we accept that 40k’s roots were necessarily inadvertently sexist, we can also realise that the real world has moved on from there. Culture has changed. In computer games, another traditionally male-dominated domain, women now account for 54% of all gamers worldwide; female gaming has made those companies which embraced it huge profits. In comics, another bastion of one-time purely masculine culture, Marvel and DC comics have achieved financial success by overtly appealing to the female market (Kamala Khan, Harley Quinn). Those female readers have brought both companies mad money (not to mention providing comics which are equally enjoyed by all genders). Given that different areas of geek culture whose psychographic and demographic groups overlap with Games Workshop’s have achieved huge financial success, it therefore follows that by ignoring even the possibility that women might play tabletop miniature games, Games Workshop is missing out on huge money. When we then factor in several years of low profits for Games Workshop (combined with a global economic downturn, and the undoubted financial impact of Brexit on the primarily UK-based company), GW cannot afford to be sniffy about money which could just be lying there waiting to be made. Put simply, female marines make financial sense.

After all, people are already paying other companies for the bitz…

The Evaluation stage of the argument finishes the argument off. As established, the in-universe ‘fact’ that ‘All Space Marines are male’ is unfair to female gamers. As established, it is a byproduct of the era in which the game was released, and because the game is fictional, it is not a fact, but a choice regarding a piece of fiction, and therefore able to be changed. As established, changing this ‘fact’ to allow for female Space Marines would be likely to make Games Workshop money; morally, it would be fairer for all gamers. It would also be undeniably true that male gamers would lose nothing: any as established, any gamer can assemble any army they choose, including an all-male Space Marine army if they like. Now, should the change to fluff be made and female marines be embraced by GW as canonical, then there’s no doubt that GW would lose some customers. This is the same community which featured a member who infamously burned his entire army when WHFB became AoS. Some players would undoubtedly respond to such a change with such horror that they might leave the game, and badmouth the company. This would hurt profits, and so the question becomes: do GW stay the same, embracing these more conservative members of their community, or does GW embrace change, risk losing them and having them conduct what will undoubtedly be a loud and toxic campaign that could easily turn very nasty?

Looking at all the issues from a dispassionate place, the choice boils down to two core motivations: either profit or morality. From a profit standpoint, as established, female space marines represent a financial risk, but also a possibly huge financial gain. From a moral standpoint, to the traditionally-minded player, female marines represent an unthinkably appalling concept; to a progressive, the current fluff is equally despicable.

(From my own personal point of view, the choice to introduce female space marines seems obvious. If female marines exist, then I can get the girls who are currently playing Perudo, Ghost Castle and Poker at my school games club into 40K. I know this, because every discussion about 40K I’ve had with the girls always starts with them being amazed at how awesome the figures are, and ends with them being disappointed that there’s no women. So they keep playing the games that don’t exclude them, GW misses out on a school that would otherwise be entering its tournament scene, the school doesn’t give my club any more money to buy new stuff, and the three remaining 40K players are forced to keep using battered dictionaries as scenery instead of having actual scenery. Seems obvious to state it, but a rising tide lifts all boats…)

Caveat: Mister Garak’s ‘Misconception’

So, the two examples above hopefully demonstrate the way to best structure your own arguments, and have modelled a potentially useful way to order your thinking to better explain it to other gamers.

However, the thing to always remember is that encouraging higher-level thinking and intelligence isn’t necessarily going to encourage the result you expect. Just because you set up an activity using Bloom’s Taxonomy, don’t expect your truly clever students to necessarily reach the same conclusion you do. High-order thinking like Synthesis and Evaluation, by nature, isn’t learning by rote. Your pupils will take the pieces you give them and assemble them in ways which are logical to them… ways that may not have been obvious to you. After all, there exist genius-level scientists of equal intelligence who are Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Zoroastrians… all of them unable to convince the others to change their opinion. Intelligence doesn’t necessarily make a person better at seeing objective ‘truth’, but it definitely makes them better at defending emotionally-based positions.

In ‘Deep Space Nine’, Cardassian super-spy and sociopath Garak was told the story of ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’, and decreed that the moral was not ‘never tell lies’; it was ‘never tell the same lie twice’. So, you know, be prepared that if you’re teaching people to actually think, they may think some very unexpected things.

That’s all for this month; if you enjoyed it, why not head off to Amazon and buy a copy of my book?. It’s the best book about lesbians fighting cyborgs and ghosts you’ll ever read.

a qlippothic engine: alpha sequence is out NOW.

Derevnya BoLS banner 2

If you’re a follower of this blog, then you’ll no doubt have seen the header. Well, my debut novel is out now, and I’d like to invite readers of the site to enjoy a free copy.

Starting from Monday the 6th of February 2017 and lasting until Friday the 10th, the first volume of a qlippothic engine will be free to download to all. A genre-busting story of horror, science fiction and ontological mystery, Alpha Sequence: DEREVNYA is the beginning of a three part narrative that will take readers on a very strange journey indeed. One where death itself need be no impediment to further suffering.

To read the opening chapters, readers can click here and follow this link to enjoy the preview of the first two chapters of Alpha Sequence: DEREVNYA I posted back in January, but why bother with that when the whole book can be yours for absolutely nothing? Just follow these links: America readers should click here while British readers should click this link instead.

Like this? Want to know more? If so, then as well as following this blog, you should like my Facebook page where I’ll be publishing details of the follow-up, Beta Sequence: OSTROV, currently slated for release in April this year.

Feb 2017: Wolverine – The Original Faster Horse

The 90’s was a weird time.

The Dark Age of Superhero Comics was in full swing, with bandoliers, belts and badasses the only flavour of ice-cream available to buy. Whimsy and lightness were out; stubble and dead girlfriends were in. This was the era when a hobbit-sized manimal possessed of more back hair than a stoat with three X chromosomes was the coolest guy in town. Which always kind of surprised me. After all, when your power set is essentially the same as Jason Voorhees, you’re not supposed to be the epitome of cool.

More popular than The Beatles.

Back in the 1990’s, you couldn’t move for Wolverine. Despite being a hero whose only real power is violent murder, and despite having the emotional range of Steven Segal on those emotion suppressors from ‘Equilibrium’, Wolverine’s gurning countenance glowered down from the cover of approximately eleventy thousand comics. X-Men, X-Force, X-Factor, Uncanny X-Men, X-Men Adventures, X-Men 2099… Marvel milked that cash cow until the milk ran out and the udders squirted blood. For over a decade, the stubbly shortarse with knives for hands was so ubiquitous on covers of comics so terrible they could conceivably be used by Q as an argument for the extermination of the human race, that he even has a trope named after it: Wolverine Publicity.

The thing is, you can kind of see why. The early nineties was the last great era of the action hero: Stallone and Schwarzenegger were demigods at the box office, so it made sense for the comics of the era – aimed as they were at the exact same demographic group of testosterone-poisoned teenaged boys – to ape what was popular in the mainstream. In this, Wolverine was more than successful, fighting, ninjas, cyborgs, cyborg ninjas, ninja cyborgs and of course, his worst enemy, Big Wolverine.

Because the only person who could possibly be a threat to Wolverine is a bigger version of Wolverine.

You’d think Wolverine would be an easy sell. He’s macho, has the king of all steroidal physiques, thinks in tough-guy clichés, and literally has knives for hands. By rights, he should be the greatest of all action heroes, ever.

But merciful Zeus Wolverine’s films are terrible.

Now, this has nothing to do with the man who plays him. Hugh Jackman is an incredible actor with huge range. ‘The Fountain’ is an unsung masterpiece, ‘The Prestige’ remains one of my favourite films of all time, and any man who will grab a stein of beer at a moment’s notice and pretend to be Gaston from ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is a class act all round. But, sadly, the only good film about Wolverine in is the very first, original ‘X-Men’ from 2000, back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Despite featuring Cyclops, Jean Grey and the rest, it’s utterly Wolverine’s film – he almost effortlessly steals it from everyone else – and he’s just so amazing in it, we all thought he’d work on his own. I mean, come on, he gave Cyclops the finger and was kind to Rogue. How could a film where those douches weren’t around sucking up valuable Wolerine-kicks-all-the-ass time possible fail?

Spectacularly, as it turns out.

‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ was a garbled mess that exchanged plot for shots of a hideous cyborg made entirely of veiny bratwurst, wearing Hugh Jackman’s skin while it butchering faceless baddies to absolutely no effect. Seriously, this was a film so bad that Deadpool himself called it out.

The second attempt was no better. ‘The Wolverine’ was a borderline-racist caricature of what Americans think Japan is like that was so crap I was honestly amazed he didn’t end up in a duel with Tom Cruise’s character from ‘The Last Samurai’. Although, actually, that might’ve been better than what we got, which was Wolverine going toe-to-toe with a shoddy CGI abortion that wouldn’t have been credible in 1989, let alone the new millennium.

As two films have borne out, Wolverine just doesn’t work on his own. Not even a little bit. The interesting thing is that people always seem to lay the blame for this at the feet of bad scripts. Which is fair enough – the scripts were dreadful. I mean, it seems so simple: bad guy shows up, Wolverine tanks the damage and then solves the problem by stabbing them in the dickhole. Seems easy enough, yeah? Why can’t the studios just make it work?

Well, I’d argue that the problem isn’t the studios. Maybe it usually is – look at the way they mishandled Deadpool! But Wolverine’s a character they’ve more than given the chance to succeed, and he just never does.

Why?

I think the reason is Wolverine himself.

He’s just not that interesting.

If you take a step back from the awesome to actually look at the meat of the character, there’s not actually a lot there. He’s got generic anger issues, a generic mysterious past, generic amnesia about said mysterious past… he’s a walking cavalcade of clichés, and he’s kind of hard to tell stories about as a result.

He works as a character when he’s with the X-Men because it’s a great juxtaposition: all the other X-Men are generally pacifists. In an organisation dedicated to showing humanity how safe and normal mutants are, Wolverine is the mutant everyone should be scared of. When the evil senator says ‘Some mutants are living weapons’, Logan’s the one they’re talking about. When the Danger Room’s power goes out, he trains other X-Men by locking the door and turning out the light and just attacking them.

He also makes the prettiest papercraft.

He’s the X-Man other X-Men fear. Which means we see his awesome by comparing him to them. His awesomeness exists in direct relation to their lack of it. The plucky protagonist gets caught in a room? Logan crashes to his rescue. The intellectual protagonist gets lost in navel gazing? Wolverine drops an Adamantium-edged truth bomb and passes her a beer. He’s the X-Men’s ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ card, and that’s what makes him so amazing…

… but the moment you take him out of that equation – the moment he’s the one who has to carry the narrative – he fumbles, because on his own, there’s nothing about his personality that’s massively unique. When he’s skulking around the back, the mightiest warrior in a group of peaceful hippies, he stands out. Alone, he’s just another generic action guy: scowls and manpain and cliché.

The crux of a good narrative comes when characters run into a problem which they cannot solve through their strongest skills, or when they encounter difficulties they cannot overcome through the methods they’d usually use. Superman isn’t interesting when he’s taking on Muggle bank robbers, because the fight is a foregone conclusion. He’s interesting when he has to fight the concept of wealth inequality, or the fundamental problems of human cruelty, or when he’s up against President Luthor: a man he literally cannot punch without incurring impossible political consequences. In the same way, Wolverine isn’t interesting if he’s confronted with problems whose solutions are either knives, stabbing, punching, or kicking.

But those things are literally all his fans want to see him do… right up until they see him do them, whereupon we get a pointless fight between Wolverine and Big Wolverine, two men whose weapons are knives, but whose powers are immunity to knives. It’s a fight that literally neither of them can win, but the demands of the action genre mean there’s no other way the story can let their conflict proceed.

The fans want to see Wolverine fight. When he’s with the X-Men, it’s awesome, because he can’t be there to defend them all. When he’s alone, it’s always something of an anti-climax: he’s just too good at it. He is, to all intents and purposes, indestructible, so the fight has no stakes.


Well, apart from the girlfriend who will inevitably be killed for him to have some more manpain over. Which isn’t a boring cliché that’s making me yawn even as I write it.

This is why I’m actually quite grateful Marvel’s businesses were choking by the end of the 90s. The Dark Age, whilst initially successful, was losing money hand over fist by the end because every story was the same, and no-one cared any more. Marvel had to sell off the film rights to their biggest properties just to stay afloat: Fantastic Four, Spiderman, the X-Men… all the big money was given away.

Without that, we’d probably never have had the MCU.

On The Rise of a Reformed Junkie.

It may seem unthinkable now, but there was a time when Iron Man was B-list player. The first Iron Man film was a legitimate punt; no-one really knew who Tony Stark was, and Robert Downey Jr. was best known as a drugged-out former star of TV’s Ally McBeal. No-one knew it was ever going to lead to the insane success it received.

But Marvel had no other options. They’d needed money, they’d sold off the X-Men, Spiderman, all their biggest names, and so they had to fall back on the B-listers. The guys who people vaguely remembered from episodes of Spiderman and his Amazing Friends they’d watched decades before. But, by being forced into focusing on lesser-known characters, the organisation that would become Marvel Studios managed to tap into something people actually wanted: to see something they hadn’t seen before.

In the current superhero-saturated environment, it’s easy to forget what a breath of fresh air that first X-Men film was. My friends and I had been talking about how awesome it’d be to see Wolverine in a film for years, but we knew it’d never happen. Not when the dominant paradigm of the time was ‘Batman and Robin’, a film which was built entirely around a philosophy that superheroes should be ‘toyetic’. X-Men happened, and it was magical because we hadn’t seen it before. It was a real thrill to see the Wolverine in that first cage fight, just smoking a cigar and beating a man without even popping the claws; the way they made you wait for the first time they came out… we were champing at the bit to see him slash a motherfucker up.

By the time ‘The Wolverine’ came out, that thrill was gone, and with exactly as much character depth in his sixth film as he’d displayed in his first, Wolverine was something we knew completely. And this is where the truth of things was revealed. Like the film The Amazing Spiderman, the simple truth is that people don’t want to see things they’ve seen before. We’ve seen Wolverine beat up a horde of spec ops dudes in gasmasks so many times now. We’ve heard Spiderman explain how with great power comes blah blah yakety schmakety…


Pictured: something that never needs to ever be in a Spiderman story ever again.

It’s the reason ‘Amazing Spiderman’ tanked, while the excitement surrounding Spiderman in ‘Captain America: Civil War’ was so intense. ‘Civil War’ was a new Spiderman. There was no angsty bullshit, no tediously rehashed scene of Uncle Ben dying, no retelling of a not-exactly-complicated origin story we all learned back when we were five.

Instead, there was a funny relationship with Tony Stark, a man clever enough to immediately know who the Spiderling Crime Fighting Spider was. There was Peter Parker geeking out over Winter Soldier’s cybernetic arm, marvelling at the build quality of Falcon’s wings, being mildly awed at the simple fact that that’s actually Captain America he’s fighting.

In short, it was the first time a film had done something original with Spiderman in years.

The thing is, everyone says they want to see something new, but the truth is a little more complicated than that. People don’t actually want what they think they want. They don’t want originality, because true originality is actually a little bit overwhelming. If it’s something the audiences have absolutely no familiarity with, no cultural reference points to refer to, then it’s actually not pleasant for them. Because true originality is, by necessity, weird. Radiohead followed up the triumphant ok computer with Kid A, an album that essentially attempted to reinvent the concept of music, and which was instead a garbled mess of bleeps and bloops which only the most pretetentious music fans could even tolerate. Tommy Wiseau’s ‘The Room’ is a work of stunning originality… and an experience so horrible it only succeeds as a surrealist comedy.


A film whose star looks like he was stitched together from leftover foreskins  by Jim Henson’s creature shop.

Genre criticism argues that people don’t actually want originality, and the failure of films which just rehash the same old ideas proves that there’s no success to be found in doing the same thing repeatedly to diminishing returns. The thing is that people don’t actually want their favourite thing over and over again; they want something that’s like the thing they loved, only different enough that it’s not immediately recognisable as such: a new twist on old favourites.

A hilarious recent example of this – for me, any way – is Doctor Strange.

Dr Stephen Strange is an arrogant genius with a goatee beard and many material possessions, forced to reevaluate his life after a crippling injury, trained by a wise mentor in an isolated location, emerging empowered by his newfound knowledge, driven to use said gifts for the betterment of all people by a guilt at his previous selfishness.

He is LITERALLY Tony Stark, only with magic powers instead of science powers. Right down to the facial hair, they are literally the same man, and their initial films are, to all intents and purposes, the same.


Dear Glob let this be in Infinity War

But the thing is, there’s just enough differences that Strange felt new and exciting.

Despite what the common wisdom will tell you, a lack of originality isn’t a bad thing; refusing to give fans what they want – another Iron Man film – isn’t a bad thing, because you can just file Tony Stark’s serial numbers off, call him Stephen Strange and BOOM, new property.

We can even see this in supposedly utterly original properties that take apparently daring risks like ‘Game of Thrones’. For all its defiance of everyone’s expectations with Ned Stark and Robb Stark, SPOILER ALERT John Snow has turned out to LITERALLY be Aragorn. Just like Tolkein’s famous ranger, Snow is the lost son of the rightful king, returned to claim his birthright from the unworthy usurpers who have been ruling in his absence. ‘Game of Thrones’ may seemingly bear very little similarity to ‘Lord of the Rings’ beyond the superficial, but the truth is that slowly, it’s been revealed to be hitting many of the exact same story beats as the trope codifier. Jon Snow’s narrative may not be fully exposed yet, but it seems to be the same Hero’s Journey that Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins and Buffy Summers all walked long before him.

And as I’ve explained, I don’t think that’s a bad thing. As we’ve seen, when people say “That’s so unoriginal,” what they mean for the most part is “I’ve seen these exact same story and character patterns played out in this exact same way before,” not “I want something I’ve literally never seen before”.

Now, I think this is kind of important for fans of Games Workshop and most especially Warhammer 40,000, because as of 2017, we are in interesting times.

A Gathering Storm

If you’re a 40K player, unless you’ve been living under a barn, you know about the Gathering Storm. GW have been cranking out campaign books for a while now. Since the lacklustre turd that was ‘Campaign of Fire’ at the start of 6th edition, we’ve had the various Warzone books, as well as Shield of Baal, Warzone: Damocles, Sanctus Reach, Death Masque… but despite all these, Gathering Storm represents something legitimately new.

“When are GW going to move the narrative forwards?” fans have been asking for years, so much so that last year, I wrote a blog exploring the concept. Well, to go with the interesting times we live in, everything seems to be changing, 40K included, and the unthinkable has happened: the plot of 40K has indeed moved forwards. Cadia has fallen; the Primarchs are returning; three plastic Sisters of Battle models have been released!


AND THEY SAID IT WOULD NEVER HAPPEN!

All of which begs the question: what does Gathering Storm imply?

After all, for years, Warhammer fans had been clamouring for the story of the Warhammer Fantasy Battle universe to move on. When it did, and when it came to the unavoidable apocalypse of an ending that had been promised… Well. There’s no deny the disappointment of that for many people, nor that the Age of Sigmar setting which followed was contentious.

Speaking as a never-fan of WHFB, I wasn’t overly distraught over the loss of that game’s setting. I also rather like the Age of Sigmar stuff, overblown hair-metal nonsense though it undeniably is.

However, I’m massively invested in 40K, and the things I love about it – the cultural stagnation, the fascist nightmare that is the Imperium of Man, the complete and unrelenting horror – all those are threatened by the Gathering Storm narrative, especially with the release of Guilliman. A true, genuine hero is something I personally don’t like the idea of it 40K (Ciaphas Cain excepted) and the idea of turning 40K into a white-hat-vs-black-hat Manichean universe of ‘goodies vs. baddies’ is honestly the last thing I want my beloved game to become.

So what should I do?

Well, not panic.

Because yes, the absolute worst could happen. 40K could go the way of the Warhammer universe, finally bent and broken over the knee of the Ruinous Powers as the Emperor’s Finest go down swinging. I honestly can’t imagine anything more tedious than that, but it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility. I could have serious reason to be worried.

But panicking is a bad idea, and knee-jerk demands for what we think we want are unhelpful; Henry Ford may never have said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful adage to bear in mind whenever a serious/significant change is made to a beloved setting or product.

We’ve established that people don’t want the same thing again and again, no matter how much they might protest otherwise. No matter how much the devout might rail and pluck at their beards, 40K is a long, long running game. We’re coming up to its 30th anniversary, and that is a long time for a setting to be static. Every equivalent setting – Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, and so on – have played with other settings, other eras, other ideas. 40K has evolved and developed, until the point where I would argue that we’re now in an unprecedented golden age, especially with the mainstream release of Horus Heresy.

So when it comes to Gathering Storm, I’m quietly optimistic, especially when the signs so far have all been so promising. The models are utterly wonderful, the changes to the setting so far have been engaging and exciting, and it seems to be building up to something genuinely quite brilliant. Not to mention that, if we step back from the narrative and look at the real-world business side of things, the fact that 40K is in nowhere near the dire situation that WHFB was in pre-Sigmar. With that system, GW had reached the stage that they honestly had nothing to lose. Unlike WHFB, there’s nothing to be gained from a complete restructuring of the setting.

And honestly, even if they did, sure, it could all go pearshaped and we could end up with something that’s not a patch on the setting we have now. But the truth is that the model line exists as it does now. Whatever changes come, the core elements must necessarily remain the same, and as we’ve seen from other media: it’s better to have something unexpected than something we’ve seen before.

I for one am looking forwards to where the Gathering Storm leads.

From The Vaults: Why Does He Stay With Her?

Or

It’s Okay Baby, Khorne Loves You Really…

Introduction: The Warp Will Protect Me Like A Shield Of Steel!

Everyone loves the idea of being a bad@ss; that, given the right training and the right circumstances, we could – if only for a day – be powerful. So much of our art and culture is dedicated to allowing us the vicarious thrill of power, from superhero comics to Disney princess films, all of it allowing us imagined lives of dominion over a world that’s – frankly – pretty bloody terrifying a lot of the time. Wargaming is no different.

However, pure power fantasies don’t always make for compelling stories or intriguing narratives. This is something I looked at in my very first ‘proper’ article, where I discussed my perspective on what I perceive as the limitations that the followers of Chaos tend to suffer from.

In the comments, loyal followers of Chaos began telling me that while I may have raised some interesting points, I was – in the final analysis – wrong. Things that seemed obvious to a non-Chaos player like me, that Chaos’ soldiers would run out of bullets, batteries, food and water, oxygen, fresh armour plating, all the logistical details that allow an army to function… To the followers of Chaos, well, I was being shortsighted.

“You’re forgetting the power of The Warp,” I was told, “and you can’t do that. They don’t need things in the same way as the other factions. Chaos provides.”

Again and again, this was sentiment was repeated in different words and different ways, repeated again and again, like a holy catechism.

Chaos provides.

Well, this article is intended as something of a riposte to that notion, specifically looking at how that belief actually devalues one of the key things that makes the Chaos faction so interesting in the first place, making them a less interesting, and arguably, a less bad@ss faction. That those limitations are actually what makes them awesome in the first place, and a key reason the player base should embrace them.

His Scythe Hasn’t Rusted Because The Warp

In my first article, I used the example of Typhus and his Manreaper to demonstrate why Chaos has an issue with supplies and equipment:

Typhus’ Manreaper has become Unwieldy since the Horus Heresy… [That’s because Typhus is] living in conditions which are less than perfect for the correct maintenance of complex electronic equipment.

Seriously, Nurgle’s soldiers are held together by rust and duct tape. I’m amazed Manreaper only has Unwieldy, instead of a rule that says it bends like foil the first time he hits someone with it.

In the comments section, I was told (numerous times) that The Warp keeps him Typhus going. That it keeps him alive and sustained (all true), and so therefore, it should logically (!) do the same to his weapon; that it mades no sense for his scythe to be Unwieldy because Chaos Provides.

And this argument was made numerous times, about almost everything I had argued that Chaos’ followers would lack access to. No bullets? Well, Chaos provides, so now their gun shoots lightning. No food? Well, Chaos provides, so now their body survives by eating metal. No batteries? Well, Chaos provides, so now your marines poop lightning.

No matter how logical the imposition, how irksome the lack of materiel, how abominable the scarcity of resources, Chaos provides, because evidently, to some players, Chaos isn’t a terrifying primal force of destruction fuelled by the blood of billions, but an overprotective mummy with nothing better to do than swaddle her babies and give them everything they could ever need.


Pictured: Khorne, apparently.

Yes, arguably, Chaos does provide. Sometimes.

But by its nature, you cannot rely upon that aid; no general can reliably factor that aid into their plans. The clue, of course, is in the faction’s name: Chaos. If we are to judge the value of a thing, we do so based on its actions, not its words. And looking at the way Chaos behaves, I don’t think it treats its followers in the same way as a caring parent… Though I do believe it very neatly fits the profile of another type of intimate relationship.

The Most Dangerous Words In The English Language

There are lots of words in English that are dangerous on a personal level. Ignoring more extreme words most of us will never use (For example “Launch the nukes!”) there are many phrases that can lead to terrible harm. Examples include “Just one more won’t hurt”, “Oh, no, my pet Rottweiler’s great with children”, and of course “Go ahead, do it! You ain’t got the guts to shoot me!”


Oh he does. He absolutely does.

But the most dangerous words in the English language are more subtle than that. They’re not an encouragement to risk, nor a monstrous threat, nor anything else obviously danger… And that is, of course, why they’re so deadly. They’re narcotic, and like any drug, they don’t seem bad at first. They might even make you happy for a time.

So what are they, these most dangerous words in the English language?

“I love you, but…”

Now, on first glance, they look like nothing, don’t they? Perhaps even lovely. After all, we all want to be loved. Well, all of us except the real narcissists, but even then, we may still want to belong. Love is an object of the most fervent desire for almost everyone on Earth; to know that we are worth something, that our lives have value. That we are worthy of being loved.

That we existed, and that existence mattered.

“I love you, but…”

Love is something people just get ridiculous about. As a culture, we attribute it mystical powers – Doctor Who saves the world with it every other week; Jean-Luc Picard uses it as justification for the human race’s existence; Matthew McConaghy escapes a black hole with it; John Lennon tells us it’s all we need… On and on and on, giving it magical powers it doesn’t remotely have, all because it just feels so good.

“I love you, but…”

See how nice that sounds? They love you. They must. After all, they’ve just said so! It’s obvious isn’t it? How could these words be dangerous? How could any admission of devotion lead us to harm?

“I love you, but…”

It’s in the qualifier. ‘Love’ is unconditional. By its very nature, it represents a lack of choice. If I love you, I can’t just switch it off. Love isn’t like a tap. Once you love something, that’s just it. Anyone who adds a ‘but’ to that sentence, well… That’s a qualifier, isn’t it? That’s a condition.

“I love you, but you talk too much.”
“I love you, but you could do with losing some weight.”
“I love you, but I don’t like it when you spend so much time with your friends.”


Pictured: a none-too-subtle metaphor.

That “but” poisons the whole phrase, because it neatly proves that whoever is saying it? They don’t love you at all. They might like you, but they don’t love you. They might love what you can do for them (or perhaps to them), but they don’t love you. That’s because love is uncontrollable; it is accepting of flaws, because it has no choice. Love is tolerant of mistakes, because it can’t do otherwise. To love someone, truly love them, is to be unable to let anything else in the way.

Maybe they did love you once, but the moment you hear that “but…” it’s a sign: it’s over. Whatever feelings they had for you are gone, and now they’re using your feelings to their advantage.

Because that “but” always leads to a request. Cut your hair. Change your clothes. Stop hanging out with your friends.

Change yourself into what I want you to be.

Because I’m the one who’s important.

Now, hold onto these ideas, because we’re going to return to them. We just have to discuss magick first.

On Shells

There’s an interesting thing in the mythology of GW’s interpretation of the Chaos gods; famously, each originally began as a more positive force in the universe. For example, Tzeentch was the god of hope, Khorne the god of bravery and determination, and so on. They all began somewhere more positive than they are now. This is not a unique idea. In fact, it is a very old one indeed.

Hermeticism is an eclectic religious tradition which basically involves being a wizard and is the source of all those creepy Goetic demonic names like Baal and Belial (well, original Abrahamic tribal sources nothwithstanding). It includes a great many ideas lifted wholesale from something called Kabbalah. This phonemically delightful word is the name for a specifically Jewish tradition of mysticism, rooted and based in maths and words. It’s the place we get the idea of the Golem from, as well as the root of ideas like the fact spells have to be spoken, that they use ‘magic words’.

All very interesting, but how does that relate to anything?

Shells.

Shells is how.

You see, Kabbalism uses what I’ve always thought is a beautiful metaphor to describe the world and the way everything connects to everything else. It’s called the Tree of Life, and in essence it’s a kind of map of reality.


So pretty…

There are ten points on the tree (the big circles above) called sephiroth (and no, they’re not the villain of ‘Final Fantasy VII’). Each has a number and a name, and those numbers and names are linked. For example, the top, Kether (meaning ‘crown’), is numbered 1. It represents God, the self, the purest form of ego… hence why it’s number 1. Two is Chokmah, and represents ‘fatherly’ traits, such as leadership, authority… All those ideas associated with fatherhood. Its number is 2, because the shape you draw between two points looks like…


Pic unrelated.

Well.

Three is Binah, and represents ‘motherly’ traits, such as caring, protectiveness, and so on. Its number is three, because that draws a triangle, which (if you angle the point so it’s pointing down) looks just like…


Pic unrelated.

I’m sure you get the point.

Now, this is all a massive oversimplification of a highly complex system of thinking (and if you want to know more, I can’t recommend you read Alan Moore’s magnum opus ‘Promethea’ enough. Seriously, it’s one of the most interesting books ever written; go get a copy now!) but I hope it gets the key point across, namely that the tree of life is entirely metaphorical, as well as deeply symbolic. The points of the sephiroth represent parts of everything, and everyone, because everyone has a masculine side, a feminine side, the purest part of themselves, as well as the other ideas I’ve not listed (which include a sense of justice, a sense of beauty, and so on).

The thing is, just like Spiderman has Venom, the Emperor has Horus, and Amazon.com has basic human decency, the tree of life has a tree of death; as you might imagine, it’s bad news. It’s an inverted tree of life, with the sephiroth replaced by their deathly opposites, called ‘qlippoth’.

Now qlippoth doesn’t mean ‘demon’ or ‘devil’ or ‘Justine Bieber’ – you know, creatures of pure evil – like you might at first think. It actually means ‘shells’. Specifically, empty shells. That’s because Kabbalism doesn’t look at evil as a specific act; you can’t ‘be’ evil… Because there’s no such thing: evil is an absence.

In the dark ages, there was a mythical substance called ‘frigoric’; it was supposed to be like coal, only it gave off cold rather than heat. Certain alchemists argued this was where cold weather came from, but the idea is laughable now. We all know that cold is simply the absence of heat. In the same way, Kabbalism argues evil isn’t a thing that exists in and of itself; it’s simply an absence of goodness. Evil acts are acts committed without humanity. Those who do them don’t do them because they’re evil; they do them because the goodness isn’t there. Now, you may or may not disagree with that, but the point it that that’s why a the tree of death is made of qlippoth: because it’s all that’s left over once the goodness has gone are hollow shells.

Allow me to illustrate.

Imagine a man called Dave. Dave loves Stacy, but Stacy isn’t interested. Dave’s love compels him to try his best to win Stacy – buying her gifts, helping her out, listening to her problems… But Stacy’s just not interested. So she turns to him, and speaks her truth: ‘You’re a good man, but I don’t love you and I never will’. And it’s true, she won’t.

Now, sephirothic Dave, filled with goodness, listens, and hears. And because his love for Stacy is true, he says to himself ‘This might mean I spend the rest of my life unhappy… But I’d do that for her, because I love her… Which means her happiness is more important to me than my own.’ So he thanks Stacy for her honesty, wishes her well in her search for love, and leaves her forever… Hopefully to look for someone who will love him back. Maybe they stay friends, maybe they don’t; it’s irrelevant, because Stacy is happy. Dave’s love for her made her happy. Hopefully Dave is happier too, because he’s made a clean break and can start looking for the right person for him – the one who will love him back.

Qlippothic Dave, though? He hears her truth… But ignores it. See, he doesn’t actually love her; he just loves the way she makes him feel. He listens only to his own feelings, this selfish need for her. He judges her needs as less important than his own, and so he carries trying to win her over. When she keeps rejecting him, he gets angry – his feelings keep being hurt: why doesn’t she care about his feelings? He’s been so good to her!

He can’t see that he is responsible for his own misery, because his compassion is missing. If he could only see that his constant attention was making her first annoyed, then frustrated and finally terrified, that every attempt to win her actually makes her hate him more, then he would see that there was not even the possibility of happiness there for either of them. But he can’t; his empathy is missing. He can’t see her feelings, only his. So he keeps listening to his desires, following her around, stalking her, making her life a scared, wretched misery… And all in the name of ‘love’.

So the qlippoth of love? Is stalking. Love itself is neither good nor evil. It requires compassion and empathy to be good, or it’s simply a hollow desire that can easily form the basis of some truly psychopathic behaviour.

And as it is with the qlippoth, so it is with the Ruinous Powers.

They may have once been gods of hope and honour and a great many things besides, but those days are long over. The Ruinous Powers are exactly that, and can never be anything else. Not any more.

Of course, that doesn’t stop Chaos’ worshippers lying to themselves. Denial is, after all, the most predictable of all human responses.

But He Loves Me!

Chaos is generous. It gives its followers gifts, powers, mutations, boons… On and on and on. But the thing is, Chaos doesn’t follow rules about how and why it does this. Unless it does. And then changes its mind. The one thing you can rely on when it comes to Chaos, is that Chaos? Is chaotic. It’s unpredictable. There is nothing to say that one day, it won’t just look at Abaddon and go ‘You’re a chaos spawn now and forever because banana-flavoured monkey skirts!’

By nature, Chaos cannot be controlled, channelled, funnelled or manipulated. So the idea that Chaos provides is a flawed one. Because it does… But it takes away too. And without rhyme or reason. Even if you’re part of a Chaos Legion, even if you’ve been working up the ranks over the millennia of The Long War, you can never be safe, because the parts of the Chaos gods that made them worthy of worship… They’re just not there any more. Khorne doesn’t care if you die or your opponent does, so long as someone gets got. Tzeentch doesn’t care if it’s plans are confounded, as long as it’s the one doing the confounding, and maybe not even then.


Tzeentch: for when the only thing missing from your plan is bird seed.

As we established, the Chaos gods are all, ultimately, shells of what they once were, their most important parts missing. And you remember how we discussed that anyone who says ‘I love you, but…’ doesn’t love you at all?

Well. A practical example of that.

Sharon was a woman who grew up quite an unhappy little girl; looked over and mistreated, she’d been through various relationships with various men, never quite enjoying an emotional connection of any sort. She liked them well enough, but really none of them ever did it for her.

Then she met Steve.

And Steve was great. Charismatic, charming, intelligent, dynamite in bed… He was everything she’d never known before. He made her laugh, he made her smile, he made her feel safe. He was a great, great guy. So when he voiced the fact he didn’t really like the way her mother treated her, taking advantage of Sharon’s need to feel loved by making her do lots of little favours she hated, well, it was only right she listened. After all, her mum was a pain. She’d been doing favours for her for years without thanks or praise, and Steve was only repeating things to her she’d already said.

When Steve pointed out that her Dad was the same, always getting her to store his ridiculous collections of plastic tat at her house despite having room at his, well, he was just telling her what she’d told him. He was only a mirror to her own feelings. Steve even offered to talk to her parents about it when she couldn’t, and he did too. He was great, really positive with them – not difficult for a man as charming as him – and within a month or so, the house was clear and Sharon didn’t have to do any more of those annoying little favours.

About a month later, when Steve pointed out how unhappy her friends were making her, well, he was only mirroring her own thoughts again. Because they were all so passive aggressive, weren’t they? Especially bloody Leona. God, the way that woman talked behind her back, it was like being back at school. Steve was right, completely right, and anyway, he was all she needed, wasn’t he? Not a bunch of annoying grown-up girls who only ever wanted to go out and drink Prosecco, pretending to be better than they were as they moaned about how…

It was no great difficulty to stop replying to their texts. And it was no great loss when the texts stopped coming. And slowly, Steve came to be Sharon’s entire world; her balm against loneliness, her shield against the world.

And he cried so hard after the first time he hit her. It wasn’t his fault; he’d had a hard day at work, and it wasn’t like he was an abusive partner, not really. He didn’t get drunk and mistreat her or call her names, he didn’t intimidate her into leaving. Yes, he might have said he didn’t know what he’d do without her – may have threatened suicide if she left – but that was only because of his deep love for her. That was just how important she was to him: she was his everything. How could she turn her back on him?

That’s what she told herself the next time he hit her. And the time after that. Every time was the last, every time. And he wasn’t lying, either. He meant it every time. Every single time. Every time, it tore him apart inside, and the next day would be flowers and gifts and meals out and apologies…

Until there weren’t.

After two years, even the apologies had stopped. And, bruised and broken (though not always physically), Sharon began to wonder if she’d made a mistake. That she loved him was undeniable… It hadn’t been like when they got together in so long, but she still remembered how it had been at the start. And it wasn’t like she had anywhere else to go. She hadn’t spoken to her parents in over two years, hadn’t seen another soul in nearly as long. And it wasn’t like Steve was going to kill her, was it?

You could change Steve’s name to Emma if you like. Or Sharon’s name to Brad. Or both. Patterns of abuse are frighteningly similar across genders; every human is capable of hurting another. I simply framed the story this way because Sharon was a really good friend of mine and I’m just telling her story the way it was told to me. (Names changed to protect her, obviously).

More importantly – and relevant to this article – you could also change Steve’s name to Khorne, or Tzeentch or any of their kin if you like. Then, you could change Sharon to Angron, or Mortarion or a hundred other named characters.

When they’re written well, the Ruinous Powers come to you as a friend. Not as slavering, gibbering, obvious evil, but as the charming, wonderful, misunderstood loves of your life. As the part of you that was missing until right now. They’re seductive; they call out to your insecurities… Even Khorne, whose warriors all began as probably the most insecure of all. They come to you and they’re the answer to a question you didn’t know you’d spent your whole life asking. Whatever you need, they bring it to you… It and everything else. The power to save the Imperium with mighty magicks? Not a problem, Magnus. The glorious death your father cheated you of when you lead the slave revolt and your sisters and brothers died without you? Here you go, Angron. The chance to demonstrate your superiority to the father who never loved you?

Sure thing, Horus. We can do that for you.

And the Powers smile and tell you they love you, that you’re the only one for them, all while telling every one of the people around you the exact same thing. They tell you they’ll never hurt you, that you are Chosen, that you are their Champion, that if you follow their rules, that if you’re strong and brave and never let them down, the universe and everything in it will be yours.

So it’s not their fault when they hit you. You must have done something to earn that. It’s not their fault when the next Black Crusade fails, or when your human warriors are swallowed by a campaign where you were promised daemonic support that never materialised.

It must be something you did.

Chaos isn’t a caring mother, or a protective father. It doesn’t give you its gifts because it cares for you, or wants to see you succeed or grow. It’s an abusive spouse, constantly undermining whatever there is left of its followers and replacing that with itself, hollowing them out until they’re nothing but a brainwashed slave, slathering for violence or drugs or to spread disease or make pretty pretty spells. And all the while, as this process of erosion goes on, the worshipper justifies it to themselves – it’s what I want. It must be, or else why am I allowing it? I must want this. Denial is the most powerful emotion that an abuser can take advantage – that simple refusal to see things as they are, because… because… because… Always a different because, and it’s never true, but it’s close enough to the truth that the person can allow themselves to believe it. And all the while, that sense of self, that self-esteem and happiness, all slowly gets worn away and replaced by a spiritual parasite, incapable of anything except further abuse.

To be a Chaos worshipper is to live a life of constant, horrifying abuse. Even if you’re at the top of things, you’re still less than the god which demands your soul.

On Agency.

See, Chaos isn’t anyone’s friend. It’s not a superpower or a fuel. It’s not the bullets in its worshippers’ guns and it’s not a Plot Device that wallpapers over the faction’s deficiencies.

Well…

Apart from when it is, I suppose… And the fact that some writers use it as that? I think that’s a problem.

See, 40K, at its best, is all about Forging A Narrative. Whether that’s on the tabletop or in a book or wherever, there have to be real odds. In Greek tragedy, they don’t call the hero a hero, because they understood the hero doesn’t have to be heroic. The word they use is ‘protagonist’. It means ‘the one who struggles’, because stories are all about struggle. They’re about things going wrong, and a character trying to put them right, no matter the cost.

A key part of that is that they should have some agency against the ‘antagonist’, the thing they struggle against. If there’s no chance they can win, then the story becomes dull… And likewise, if there’s no chance they can lose, the story becomes dull too. Drama comes from the possibility of success or failure – that mid-stage where we literally have no idea what’s going to happen.

Consider the classic problem of DC’s Superman. He’s so absurdly tough, so ridiculously unkillable, that it’s borderline impossible to get an audience fired up about him. No-one’s cared about Superman since the 1940s. All his best writers acknowledge this; how does he meaningfully struggle against anything? They have to work to put him into situations where he’s either struggling against things he can’t solve with his powers (like dating) or struggling against problems that can never be solved (like famine or human cruelty) or struggling against godlike villains (like General Zod or Darkseid). When they have him against Batman, Batman is the default hero because Superman so obviously wipes the floor with him; the end of ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ is amazing specifically because SPOILER Batman wins. Superman is dull because there are no stakes in any of his stories; he’s not a bad@ss. He’s a flying brick.


He even thinks in melodrama.

Now compare him to Captain America. In so many ways, they’re fundamentally the same guy: all-American, decent and good. They both want to protect and serve the world in the best of all possible ways. They both hate bullies, care deeply, and are slightly nebbish is private. But Cap is so much more awesome because he’s so much more vulnerable. Oh, he’s faster, tougher, stronger… But he’s still got to run from an airstrike. The stakes are higher because he has to struggle in human, meaningful ways that Superman doesn’t.

‘Chaos provides’ turns Chaos from Captain America into Superman and makes them ten times more dull as a result. It’s narratively shortsighted. Say Abaddon leads a Black Crusade, fights all the way to Pluto, then suddenly BAM! Khorne manifests on Earth for no reason at all and kills everything while Abaddon is forced to watch… See, unless the story is about how Abaddon will always be Chaos’ useless little punk, The Lord and Master Of All Human Failure, then he just got cheated. He didn’t do anything to win. In his own story, he just sat there and let Chaos do the heavy lifting. He becomes completely secondary.

In order for the story to be interesting, he has to have agency, which is a posh way of saying ‘he has to be capable of affecting the story outcome himself, and be the one who does so’.

If Chaos is going to be the main character of its story, if it’s going to be the protagonist, then it needs to be able to fail., because that possibility of failure is what drives our excitement. Chaos’ forces need to have unique flaws – things that its followers have to struggle against. And their unique flaw is their lack of everything. It’s what makes their defiance so exciting. They have to be worried about getting new bullets, refuelling, resupply, all in a way the Imperium or the Craftworlds or the Tau Empire does not, because in a very real way, that’s their story. That’s their struggle. The key trait of the Chaos Worshipper is refusal to submit. Taking that away, making it so they don’t need to fight to keep going? It turns them into evil Superman… Great if they’re the villain. But otherwise? It just makes them dull.

A Chaos Worshipper, be they Cultist, Chosen or Champion, is, at their heart, a person utterly alone. They’ve fallen in love with something that does not love them back… Something that is incapable of loving them back; the Ruinous Powers’ qlippothic natures mean that they are utterly incapable of caring; the part of them that could is long gone. They can no more care for their followers than a person without lungs can breathe. So the Chaos worshipper’s very source of what power they have left mistreats them, lies to them, manipulates them, abandons them at exactly the worst possible moment, hurts them… And they’re the ones who have to always come crawling back, because Chaos is all they’ve got now. They left all their support networks behind and can never go back. Never.

And that’s awesome, because it makes for great stories. From the outside, Chaos is a monolithic, terrifying mass of lunatic killers and monsters. From the inside? It’s basically the same thing, only every single one of those killers and monsters is hanging on to the edge of a deep, black abyss by their fingertips.

So saying ‘Chaos provides’ is actually incredibly demeaning. It’s short-changing the faction, saying ‘We don’t need to put any effort in, because no matter how badly we foul the bed, mummy Chaos will come along and wipe our little bum-bums’. It’s to deny those amazing Chaos characters their story: that they struggle ten times harder than any Imperial, because their friends, followers, even their god… The whole entire universe is against them on a literal, personal level.

And they’re still fighting.

That, my friends, is what makes a great protagonist, and it’s why Chaos players shouldn’t get angry about their faction’s struggles. It’s why they should embrace them. Despite all appearances to the contrary, no-one else has to fight as hard.

Jan 2016: teaser – A Qlippothic Engine

It’s been so long now, Edie wonders if there ever was anything but the room. The room, the pale Goth girl, the hard-faced woman, and dog food for dinner.

After yawning for a third time, she decides yes, she is tired, so she might as well settle down to sleep. Then the door explodes open and their concrete cell is filled with soldiers. The guards’ voices flicker, screamed orders stretched into inhuman roars by electronic mufflers, and the women are seized, dragged from the room. Jacintha shouts, resisting; Veronica walks in sullen silence. Edie stumbles in a daze, too terrified for anything except complicity.

Just like always.

As she’s marched down the corridor, it’s not just the soldiers that make her chest tight with horror. It’s the fact of being outside, because outside their room, the world is a complete unknown. In the months since she was taken, she was only let out once, and that day…

That’s a day she doesn’t like to think about.

More shouting. She watches as the men drag Jacintha off to the left, Veronica to the right. She wants to shout, to fight back, to roar that they can’t do this. But they can. Of course they can. They can do anything they want.

Each day since her arrival has been an object lesson in her powerlessness.

She’s flung forwards and tumbles face-first, sprawling painfully into a filthy room. She shivers, the cold of the place so severe the walls are scarred with frost. Soldiers stare at her from behind blank masks.

STRIP

The voice comes from a crackling tannoy, deformed as it scatters off the cracked tiles. It’s buzzing, synthetic; a silicon lord of flies.

“W-w-what?“

STRIP

Eyes welling, Edie does as she’s told. Turning her back on the guards, she lifts her top, squirming as she drops it to the floor. Clutching her chest, she’s still desperate – even in a situation as wretched as this – to keep some shred of modesty.

Of dignity.

STRIP, commands the voice.

I am!” she shrieks, but her voice sounds small. Plaintive, she thinks.

She reaches down with her free hand. In the cold, her fingers are clumsy and won’t do what she tells them. They catch in her trousers, and she nearly trips over.

She wants to cry.

Her trousers reach her ankles, and she kicks them off, covering herself with her hands as best she can.

The water smashes into her like a fist, doubling her over, forcing her mouth open, filling it, choking her. Wreathed in its icy fire, every touch sears her skin, and she howls with pain. Every place the water touches is left her raw, shrieking for relief.

The spray stops. A dirty bar of soap is kicked over.

WASH YOURSELF

And, nodding, gurgling, choking for air, she complies, scrubbing herself. She has to fight to keep standing, her knees threatening to give way at any moment. She knows that if they do, she will never rise again, so she closes her eyes and grinds the coarse bar against her skin.

The water crashes into her again, its teeth coruscating across every inch of her. This time, she makes no sound. There’s nothing inside left for her to scream with.

The torrent stops. She stands there, not merely shivering, but with her body moving as though under an electric current. She tries to look at the soldiers, but she can’t. Her head won’t obey, the neck muscles jumping spastically every time she tries.

She’s thrown a grey towel.

DRY YOURSELF, says the voice.

She complies. Or tries to. It takes a long time, and the guards are happy to wait.

She’s thrown some clothes. Clean, but yellowing undergarments; heavy canvas trousers; thick woollen jumpers and socks. Each item smells of disinfectant and dust.

PUT THEM ON

She complies.

She’s thrown a pair of heavy boots. This time, she pulls them on without being told. Anything to keep the awful voice silent.

MOVE TO THE DOOR

Legs unsteady as a newborn deer, she complies.

The soldiers stand either side of her. She rubs her sides, desperate to massage the slightest measure of heat back into her scalded, frozen flesh. Her fingers sink into the itchy wool of the jumper. It’s thicker than a duvet, but scratches like wire. Pulling her hands out, she blows on her fingertips, appalled at their frostbitten blueness.

MOVE

She complies.

The soldiers walk her down a corridor. A bored-looking man in a black uniform and hat presses a button and buzzes them through a security door. The walls change, from the familiar cracked grey concrete of her detention facility to filthy off-green tiles. Every surface is veined with hairline striations, filament-thin fractures. The floor is patterned in ugly brown tiles, the air thick with the sour stench of failing central heating.

Another corridor. Another. Then another door; they’re buzzed through again.

Outside, the air’s so frigid it’s like a slap to the face. She clutches herself, too cold even to shiver now. Looking up, she watches as her breath swirls out in a grey cloud that’s carried away by the snow-laced breeze. White flakes spiral lazily from a sky so low she could almost sink her hand into it.

“Down there. Through that gate,” says the soldier to her left in his crackling, inhuman voice.

As he leads her away, terrified as she is, it’s only a little while until curiosity gets the better of her. She turns to look back, rewarded with her first view of the outside of her prison. It’s a vast, ugly block; a Brutalist horror, as though someone took the worst of the Siberian gulags and worked their hardest to make them worse. She can’t help from marvelling at it. It’s a monstrosity which is impossible in size; not so much in height, she thinks, but in its breadth. Hundreds of metres of foul, grey slabs make up its sides, crenelated peaks dotted with razor wire, searchlights, and every kind of weapon. Fissures and cracks in the blank walls hang open, revealing wracked, wind-lashed arteries of rebar dripping with thick rust. From where she is, they look like wounds in the side of a fallen god.

They reach the gate and a new pair of guards seize her. Her sleeve is rolled up, her numeric tattoo examined. Entries are made in a log book. A tick is placed on a clipboard. She is led alongside another high concrete wall, past more gun towers, more razor wire, more searchlights.

They take her to a door. It’s huge, impossibly so. Nine feet by twelve of reinforced steel and hydraulics, it looks more like it belongs on a battleship, or perhaps a bank vault. Her guard gives a muffled command, and the monstrous bulkhead opens. The air is knocked out of her as they shove Edie through, and this time she does fall, skittering across tarmac to land in a pile on the other side.

She looks up just in time to see the vault door closing behind her with a knell louder than death.

“Hello there.”

Edie squints in the direction of the voice and a figure moves through the mist, disrupting particles of snow as they come closer.

“Who’s there?” asks Edie.

“I’m Willow,” says the woman, stepping towards Edie, a gloved hand outstretched. “I work in the pub here; they send me whenever someone new arrives.”

After imprisonment, interrogation, months in a concrete cell, of all the things Edie was expecting – firing squad, guard dogs, perhaps to be chased by men who hunt women for sport – an English girl was nowhere on the list. Certainly not an English girl who looks like this. Willow’s maybe eighteen; nineteen at a push, Edie thinks. It’s her clothes that make her look older. She’s dressed for the depths of winter, clothed in a warm scarf and heavy overcoat whose style was last fashionable sometime when rationing was still happening. And her makeup? That type hasn’t been popular in thirty years. She’s got blonde hair, worn long – deliberately feminine – but tied back. Her handshake’s neither firm nor loose; the smile’s sincere, but not warm.

“Edie,” says Edie, shaking the woman’s hand, appraising her carefully, so wrong-footed by this turn of events she has no idea what the appropriate response should be.

“Oh my God, didn’t they even give you a coat?” asks Willow suddenly. “Thoughtless beasts. Here, quick, take this,” and she takes off her coat, wrapping it over Edie’s shoulders.

“Thank you,” Edie says, astonished at how glad the warmth makes her feel. Then, as though the warmth has allowed her thoughts to function again, the girl’s words seem to finally percolate through her mind to a place where she can register them, she says: “Wait. ‘Pub’?”

“That’s right,” nods the girl.

“You work?”

The girl nods again.

“In a pub?”

Another nod.

“Where are we?”

“It’s called Derevnya.” Willow replies.

Edie’s expression must reveal her confusion, because Willow laughs, a high, tinkling sound.

“Don’t worry, it’s just the name of this village. There’s only about fifty of us, so we’re a small community. Oh, but don’t worry, though. Everyone’ll be so happy to see you here. We’re very welcoming of newcomers. You sound Northern?”

“Sheffield,” Edie replies. “Born and bred.”

“You’ll probably get along with Captain Bambera. She’s from a place called Selby. It’s in Yorkshire too.”

“I know Selby,” nods Edie, wishing she could feel her hands.

“Aw, it’ll be nice for her to have another Yorkshire person around. She’s been quite the gooseberry up until now.”

“You’re from the South?”

“Place called Hitchin.” Willow replies, smiling. “Although I left when I was like, seven; just long enough to get the accent. It’s little town about thirty miles North of London. Nothing there except trees and lavender. And a bus stop you can hang about at, if you’re one of the cool kids. Bit like here, I suppose. Only, you know, there’s less lavender here. And no bus stop. And no summer. But other than that, it’s almost identical.”

“What do you mean, no summer?” asks Edie, stumbling along next to Willow, head still muzzy with cold.

“Just what I said,” replies Willow, gesturing to the sky. “It’s like this pretty much all year round. Sometimes we get a little more snow than this, sometimes a lot, and there’s usually a little more mist, but otherwise it’s fairly consistent.”

Willow leads her down a path which is neatly gardened on both sides. It’s all starting to be a little too much, the faintly aggressive ordinariness of this place. Edie feels like the time she got lost at the shops when she was a little girl; she’d taken hold of a man’s hand, only to look up into a stranger’s face instead of her father’s. The sickly melange of familiarity and dislocation is as horrible now as it was then.

“What’s your number?” asks Willow.

“Number?”

“On your tattoo,” says Willow, helpfully reaching over to roll up Edie’s sleeve and check. Reading it, she nods. “Ahh, so you’re the one moving in there. Lovely house, that one; big enough for three people. Want me to show you?”

“Please,” nods Edie, finally deciding that it’s best to just go with whatever this madness is until things start to make more sense.

The further they walk, the more Derevnya looks like something from some joyless children’s book about Christmas, thinks Edie. As they walk, buildings emerge from the fog like lost travellers. Their style is – somehow – even more off-putting than the concrete horror Edie just left. It’s all… quaint. English. Normal. Tudor in style, these little houses wouldn’t be out of place in any little Victorian village in the shires. The tops are thick with heavy black beams, which contrasts with the whitewashed sections lodged in between them. The lower halves are pure red brick. Though they’re not classically Tudor, thinks Edie. The edging is too regular and well-made to be anything as rushed or imprecisely made as a true Tudor building. The angles have obviously been done with machines, not by hand.

Still, the effect is uncanny.

The thought that she has been outside her cell for nearly an hour occurs to her, and she feels suddenly overwhelmed. The mist starts to feel oppressive, the space around her both closed in and distant all at once. A scream percolates up through her, but she fights it down. Falling to her knees, it comes out as vomit.

“Oh no!”

In a moment, Willow’s crouched next to her, rubbing her back and holding the hair out of her face. Edie spits, breathes, vomits once more, spits again, and breathes. Willow keeps rubbing.

Eventually, Edie feels herself calm down enough that she can stand. She lurches to the side, and half-sits on a low wall. She grabs her knees tight, and waits until the world finally slows down from spinning around her.

“You okay?” asks Willow.

“Fine,” lies Edie.

“Yeah. I was the same when I arrived. Bit of a shock to the system, innit?” asks the girl, in a voice which is more or less sympathetic.

Another five minutes or so later, Edie’s recovered herself enough that she’s ready to move on. Willow offers to help her up, but she waves the girl away and stands unaided. Turning, they continue down the street.

Each house is fenced off behind a little stone wall; those look hand-laid, thinks Edie to herself, spitting again to banish the last of the bilious sourness from her mouth. Behind the walls are neat gardens, with trees, shrubs… Every kind of winter greenery as the plants flourish in defiance of the ice.

“You’ll have a chance to go for a bit of a wander later,” says Willow, turning to Edie with a cheery kind of smile. “It can be quite overwhelming at first. Believe me, I know. Just remember, this is Main Street. It leads into town, and almost all the other streets branch off it. Now, your house is…”

They take a turn and a little metal sign says ‘Drake Avenue’. For a moment, Edie can’t feel the cold. Instead, the skin on the nape of her neck prickles with déjà vu.

“Number six,” she says.

Willow stops, turns, and looks back, her face smiling but her eyes nonplussed.

“That’s right,” the girl replies, smiling in surprise. “How did you know?”

Edie’s legs stop moving, and she simply stares at number six, Drake Avenue. It’s a tall Edwardian house, spotless red bricks behind a neatly trimmed hedgerow of something dense and spiny. The bay window of the lounge has orange and brown curtains drawn, the pattern on them something escaped from a Sixties council house; a tessellation meant to be so deliberately bright and cheerful it distracts the people inside from the squalor of their lives. The pattern… it pulls at Edie in the way that memory sometimes does.

“Have I been here before?” she asks, mostly to herself.

“Feels like I’ve always been here,” replies Willow with a mindless kind of cheer. “I think everyone gets that way after a bit. Anyway, go on in. The key will be where you expect it.”

“What do you mean?” asks Edie, still staring at the house. When there’s no reply, Edie turns to see the young woman walking away from her. Willow turns back to her and calls out.

“Once you’ve gotten settled, you should come to The Old Queen’s Head. It’s the only pub in town. Can’t miss us. Just keep walking down Main Street, and you’ll reach us.”

Mist swallows the girl, leaving Edie quite alone.

Time passes. Edie stands outside the house, staring up at it, her legs unwilling to make the slightest move inside. It’s only when her shoulders start to sing with pain from the cold, that she turns to look at them. She’s shocked to see a thin layer of snow; it’s settled and isn’t melting. She lifts her fingers, and sees the tips are bluer than they were after her ‘shower’.

Stay outside? she thinks.

Stay outside and die of exposure, or walk inside and…?

And…?

And even though there’s no specific thought attached to the nebulous sense of dread looming at the end of that sentence, staying outside still feels somehow preferable than stepping into the charmingly English house.

No, she thinks. Outside might be preferable, but it’ll definitely be fatal.

Shivering, she takes a step forwards and opens the garden gate. Stepping over the neatly-laid paving stones of the short pathway to the door, she stops by the ‘Welcome’ mat, and looks down at the two plant pots either side of the door. She lifts the one on the left and there’s the house key.

Just where she expected it.

Picking it up, she slides it into the lock, opens the door. The light switch is to her right and she flicks it, bathing the abject darkness of the house’s insides with warm, intimate light. The interior décor is Sixties modernist to a fault. It could have come from one of those films where Connery played Bond. The brown sofas are right out of some Gerry Anderson puppet show.

A hand grabs her hair, wraps itself in it. Dragged to the floor, she lets out a cry of pain as her head hits the carpet. She feels the blade at her throat, and in the instant she realises the cold has stolen any strength she might have had to fight back, she also realises she’s going to die.

She thinks of the green room.

“Ed?”

Veronica’s voice is strangled, trapped in a strange place between anger, fear, and mild embarrassment.

“Nic?”

Edie opens her eyes to see Veronica’s face. The older woman’s right arm is still holding the kitchen knife to her throat, but the left one is disentangling itself from her hair.

“Oh Jesus,” says Veronica, and leaps up, hands held up in deference. “Oh Ed, I am so sorry.”

“Nic? What the hell…?”

And Edie sees Veronica’s eyes. They betray the same anxiety she’s feeling.

“I didn’t know,” says the older woman, the tendons in her hand twisting against the hard wood of the knife’s handle. Veronica sees Edie looking at the knife in her hand, and seems to remember that she’s carrying it. She makes a weird gasping sound, and casts the knife, clattering, to the floor.

“I didn’t know,” she repeats.

It’s okay, thinks Edie, but her mouth’s too scared to form the words.

“What’s going on down – ?“ comes a voice from upstairs.

Edie’s eyes flicker to the corner of the stairs, where the voice is coming from. Jacintha’s stood there, wrapped in a towel, wet hair clinging to her shoulders, a heavy brass candlestick in her hand. At the sight of Edie, she drops it to the floor and dashes down the stairs. As Edie pulls herself to her feet, she’s nearly barrelled over again as the younger woman flings her arms around her and pulls her into a tight embrace.

“Ed!” she cries.

“Hey Jack,” says Edie, her voice finally returned.

She reaches out a hand, and takes hold of Veronica’s, squeezing the fingers. Veronica looks up, a single wet line running down her cheek.

She flings her arms around the other women, and the three of them hold each other close. It does nothing to make their terror go away, but, for the moment at least, that terror feels a little less awful than it did.

Jacintha heads upstairs to dry herself, and Veronica wordlessly gestures for Edie to follow her. The women step into a kitchen that seems to have been transported wholesale from somewhere in Yorkshire around 1950. Veronica clicks on the light, then starts to make the tea as Edie leans herself on the radiator. After the cold of outside, the heat is delicious, and Edie soon feels like herself again. She watches as Veronica gets the kettle ready. It’s an old hob-fired one, and Edie is reminded of her childhood, back before Mum got that first electric kettle.

“Tea’s in the cupboard to the left,” says Veronica, and Edie opens the cupboard while the older woman readies the mugs.

Edie finds the cupboard bare of almost everything. Inside is little beyond a few tins, wrapped in white paper, with only black lettering on the side. One is labelled ‘CHICKEN SOUP’; another ‘BAKED BEANS’; a third ‘CORNED BEEF’. The teabags are in a small cardboard box, the brown sides slightly dented, the lid printed with the word ‘TEA’ and nothing else. She takes out three coarse-feeling teabags, each one filled with gravelly leaves and passes them to Veronica, who drops them in their cups. The kettle sits on the gas hob as blue flames lick its metal underside.

“Sorry,” says Veronica, her voice quiet and ashamed.

“For what?” asks Edie, and the two friends smile at one another.

Neither woman says anything more. After a short while, the kettle begins to whistle, then to shriek, and Veronica turns off the gas and pours the tea. The women adjourn to the dining room, where they sit, Edie pressed up against a radiator again. Neither asks if they’re worried about the food being poisoned; not when their gaolers could kill them any time.

The table is covered in small pieces of wire, tiny screws, transistors, all of them clearly ripped from the insides of an ancient-looking wireless radio. Veronica sits amongst them, returning to whatever work Edie’s arrival interrupted. Her fingers move with intensity, wrapping components together with thin pieces of wire, taping others down. Edie watches her, sipping tea without saying a word.

There is the crackle of an electrical short, and Veronica winces, sucking her fingertip.

“Anything I can…?” asks Edie.

“No, mate” says Veronica. There’s a click and she smiles broadly. Turning to Edie, she holds the improvised mess of wires and electronic pieces up like a trophy. It looks like a prop from some cheap BBC sci-fi show from the Seventies, thinks Edie.

“What’s that?” asks Edie, but Veronica puts a finger to her lips, mouthing the words ‘I’ll tell you later’.

“Dunno,” Veronica says, her voice pantomime-loud. “Bit of limescale, maybe? Been in my tea as well.”

Jacintha comes downstairs, wrapped in a deep red dressing gown and slippers, sits between the two women, and Veronica passes her tea.

“You searched the house?” asks Edie.

“Not yet,” replies Veronica, holding up her improvised contraption. “Well, not fully,” she adds, the conspiratorial tone indicating that the thing she’s made has some role to play in the search.

“We were going to, but I was too cold,” says Jacintha, a little embarrassed.

“Made her get in’t bath; lass’d been stood in’t snow. Nearly had hypothermia,” says Veronica, throwing a disapproving look at Jacintha.

“It wasn’t my fault. There’s… There’s just something about this house…” says Jacintha.

You felt it too, Edie thinks.

They finish their tea in silence. Draining her mug, Veronica pulls the other women close. Taking out a pad of note paper, she hastily scrawls a note.

We need to check the house, she writes, then holds out the thing she’s made, pointing at the words Scanner. For bugs.

Split up? Quicker that way? writes Jacintha.

Veronica shakes her head, writing Can’t afford mistakes. Slow and thorough. We start here.

Edie and Jacintha nod. Veronica writes Don’t mention scanner.

What if there’s cameras? Writes Edie.

Veronica smiles bleakly.

Then we’re buggered, she writes.

As she gets up, Edie notes how quickly Veronica’s taken charge of the situation. She’s not exactly unfazed, nor is she thriving, but she’s – what’s the word? Coping. Dealing with things. Already, she’s jury-rigging devices, fighting back, moving with purpose. There’s not even a question that Edie or Jacintha might do anything except what Veronica says. Edie drains her tea, stands, and the three of them get to work.

Checking the lounge takes close to an hour. The walls are cold brick; the chintzy wallpaper comes away easily enough, revealing red brick beneath. Paintings come down from the walls. They’re quite nice, thinks Edie, these homely scenes of village life painted in vaguely elegant swirls of oil. Thankfully, none of them conceal anything more exciting than a wooden frame. The single bookshelf is filled with books that look like they belong in a retirement home: volumes on wildlife native to the English Countryside, books about the rights and rules of the United Kingdom’s canal system, a few paperback copies of John Clare’s poetry and a handful of similar ‘improving’ books.

The women work in silence, diligently combing the downstairs of the house from floor to ceiling, and for a few hours, they find nothing. Then.

“This is right weird,” whispers Jacintha. She’s crouched down on her knees by the skirting board in the front corner of the room.

Veronica, raises a hand in a questioning expression.

“Here, come over, feel this,” Jacintha replies, keeping her voice low, and the two other women instantly move over, crouching down by her.

“Is that a breeze?” asks Edie.

“Air bricks,” says Veronica, dismissively. “In my old house, you could always feel a breeze.”

“Not the breeze,” says Jacintha. “The temperature. Feel it. Doesn’t that seem odd to you?”

“It’s got to be ten below outside,” says Edie, nodding as she realises the reason for Jacintha’s curiosity. “That breeze is warm.”

“And the smell,” says Jacintha. “It’s faint, but can’t you smell that?”

“What?” asks Veronica.

“Get down, you can smell it more clearly,” says Jacintha.

Veronica lies flat on the worn brown carpet, and inhales.

“Smells like a house,” she says.

“No, come closer and smell again,” says Jacintha.

Veronica does so, sniffing again. Her expression changes to one of curiosity.

“Grease,” she says, nodding. “Industrial. For pistons.”

“Yeah,” says Jacintha. “And do you see anything industrial around here? Anything in this house at all that would give off that kind of smell?”

“No,” says Veronica, nodding. “Nowt.”

“That is weird,” says Edie. “I don’t like this.”

“I don’t like any of this,” says Veronica, grimacing. “Come on.”

After two hours, nothing. No bugs, wires, pinhole cameras… Nothing.

“Right. So does that mean we know downstairs is safe then?” whispers Jacintha.

“As much as we can,” nods Veronica. “There’s always the chance they could be using something advanced, something that we can’t pick up.”

“What are the odds of that?” asks Edie.

“No idea,” Veronica replies.

“That’s not a comforting answer, Nic,” says Jacintha.

“Best I’ve got,” Veronica replies, her face grim.

“Look, let’s just get on doing the rest of the house next, okay?” Edie whispers to Jacintha.

“Yeah,” the girl nods. “Yeah, ‘course.”

Edie wonders if she looks as worried.

“We’ll go room by room,” says Veronica. Edie wishes she felt as confident as the older woman sounds.

The sun’s set by the time they’re finished downstairs but they’ve not found any kind of observation device, hidden or otherwise. Edie’s had time to take in her surroundings better. The lower floor has a lounge, kitchen, dining area, and a small reading room, all decorated in the same early Sixties fashions. The house isn’t exactly filled with things, but what’s there is of a kind. Nice things, pretty things… All bland and inoffensive and safe. Like a house assembled from a catalogue, she thinks. The food and drink is the only truly strange thing. The stark labels, devoid of even the slightest hint of branding are, after a lifetime of brightly coloured food packaging, almost disquietingly alien. Although if the tea’s anything to go by, the contents seem safe enough. Cheap and not entirely pleasant maybe, but nutritious enough to survive on.

Certainly better than what they were forced to eat in the cell.

“Upstairs?” asks Jacintha.

“Absolutely,” says Edie.

Veronica grabs Edie’s arm.

“What?” she asks, turning. Something about Veronica’s expression is disquieting.             “Take a moment,” says the older woman.

“Why?”

“The rooms are…” but Jacintha can’t finish the sentence.

“What?”

Personalised,” says Veronica, her tone ominous.

“How do you mean?” Edie asks, as her skin prickles.

“It’s… Well, you’ll see,” replies Jacintha.

“Okay,” Edie replies, filled with a grim anxiety.

The three of them walk upstairs.

“Which room do we start with?” asks Jacintha.

“The first,” replies Edie.

“Are you sure?” asks Jacintha. “It’s yours.”

“Okay,” replies Edie. “But how bad can it be?”

Jacintha stops and fixes her with a look.

“Bad,” she replies.

Edie pushes the door open.

The bedroom on the other side is dark; she flicks on the light and has to catch her breath. Her duvet is on the bed; her duvet from home. And the bedside table… that’s hers too. So’s the lamp on it. The towel hanging on the radiator is hers, down to the stain in the left corner from that time she made the ill-advised decision to dye her hair red. She walks in, a fist-sized lump in her throat, looking around at this huge chunk of her life, amputated cleanly from her house and transplanted wholesale into this alien place.

“But… But these are from my home,” she stammers, her voice barely a whisper.

“Yeah,” replies Jacintha, nodding, face set. “My room’s the same. Nic’s too.”

Edie goes to the wardrobe. The front panel is decorated with the same ballet poster of Anna Tsygankova doing that sexy little thing with her feet that turned Edie on so much she  could never quite bring herself to throw it away, even though it was a permanent reminder of the particularly bad date she’d been on where she’d acquired it. Shivering, she slides the panel aside to find her clothes neatly hanging from the rail, her underwear and T-shirts neatly folded on shelves. The battered wooden box labelled with the word ‘TAMPONS’ in her own handwriting is hidden in the same discreet spot it would’ve been in her own house.

She wonders why her head’s spinning and falls to the bed. Jacintha rushes to her side, but Edie holds her hand up.

“Give us a moment,” she gasps, and Jacintha nods, taking a step back. In a minute, she has herself under control, and moves unsteadily back to her feet.

“You okay?” asks Jacintha.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m fine,” says Edie. The rooms swims around her. She feels Jacintha’s hand on her back, reassuring her.

“You’ve lasted longer than I did,” says the younger woman. “I took one look, said ‘Nope’, and walked out again.”

“We have to check. For devices,” says Edie.

“Yeah,” says Jacintha. “But you don’t need to push yourself. Nic and I can do it.”

“No,” says Edie, straightening her back and standing. “No. No, sod these people,” she walks out of the room, and empties the bin down the bowl of the toilet, washes her mouth out in the sink, and comes back to find both women waiting for her.

“I’m ready,” she says. “Let’s tear this place apart.”

After they’re finished, clothes cover every surface, knick-knacks and oddments are strewn across the floor, and not a single thing has been found.

“Next room,” says Edie, using the slow-burn of her anger at this unconscionable violation of their collective privacy to drive herself forwards.

Jacintha’s room is laid out almost identically to Edie’s; only the contents are different. The three of them start the work of going through everything. The wardrobe’s filled with black T-shirts decorated with pictures of angry punk bands, leather straps for wrists, waist and legs. There are at least three completely different styles of long leather trenchcoat. The strangest thing is mounted on a rack on the wall, and Edie picks it down to check it.

“Is this a sword?” she asks, drawing the razored blade from its scabbard with an oiled hiss.

“It’s a katana,” replies Jacintha, unable to look at it for some reason; Edie thinks she sees a flicker of shame across the girl’s face. “They’re like swords, only better.”

“Nothing here,” says Veronica, moving her device across the back of the room, peeling back the wallpaper at the rear of the wardrobe to reveal nothing but more bricks. “No signals. Room’s clear. Let’s move on.”

“Your room?” asks Edie.

“Only one left,” shrugs Veronica.

Veronica’s room is almost completely empty. A set of cast-iron dumbbells nestles in the corner, and a small rack of books is neatly lined up on the side of a small writing desk. A collection of plain jeans, smart tops, and simple jumpers in varying shades of purple lie in a chaotic pile on the bed.

“I’d already started when Jack showed up,” says Veronica, sweeping the room with her device. “Just needed,” and she shakes the device, “to finish the job.”

Edie’s eyes are drawn to the one detail that’s unique to all three rooms. A small golden frame sits, bookending the paperbacks on the writing desk. In it, there’s a picture of Veronica smiling, the ornate tattoos of her right arm wrapped around a beautiful little boy. He can’t be older than five, the almost-black of his skin and tight, curled hair obviously those of his father… But the bright, black eyes and toothy smile are unmistakably Veronica’s.

“I didn’t know you had a son,” says Edie.

“Daniel,” says Veronica, her voice toneless. She could be talking about the weather, or her weekly shop.

“Are you…?”

“I’m fine,” says Veronica. “Let’s get this finished.”

It only takes half an hour; Veronica has less possessions than the others, and when they’re finished, they slump to the floor by the radiator, exhausted.

“Does this mean they aren’t listening?”

“Yeah. So far as I can tell, no. They’re not,” nods Veronica.

“How reliable is… that?” asks Jacintha, pointing at Veronica’s device.

“Not as reliable as I’d like,” replies Veronica. “It’s easy enough to make a short range radio-wave scanner. It took a bit of work, but I’ve also managed to wire this to make magnetic and resonance sweeps as well.”

She sighs.

“In a perfect world, I’d have a thermal camera as well, look for the cold spots. But, well.”

“So is the house clear or not?” asks Jacintha.

“Honestly mate? No idea. Assuming they’re using current technology, you know, nothing weird I haven’t encountered before? Then I’m ninety nine per cent,” says Veronica. “But, like I say: they could be using stuff I don’t know about.”

“That’s not ideal,” says Edie.

“I dunno, ninety nine per cent sounds good enough to me,” says Jacintha. “We’ll just have to keep our voices low, eh?”

They all smile at this.

“Anyway, what now?” she asks.

“We escape,” says Veronica her voice supremely calm. “We find out where we are; we commandeer a vehicle; we get out of here.”

“Is that even possible?” asks Jacintha.

“Frank Morris escaped Alcatraz wi’a spoon and papier mache. David Jones, John Lewis and William Ash led fifty POWs to freedom. And from an ‘escape-proof’ camp. So yeah. It’s possible,” replies Veronica.

Jacintha smirks, and Edie nods. She also doesn’t mention that Frank Morris drowned during his escape, or that the majority of the fifty escaped POWs were recaptured and shot.

“How do we begin?” she asks.

“First, we tidy up. Then, we explore. They’re going to have us under observation. The question is when and where? For the moment, we have to assume it’s all the time when we’re not here,” Veronica’s face is cold, flinty. Underneath all the hate, though, Edie thinks she can see something else to it, something almost – though not exactly – happy? No, not happiness, she thinks. A sort of grim satisfaction, perhaps?

“Our primary goal has to be intelligence gathering,” Veronica continues. “We need to know everything. What’s in this village? What buildings are here? What people? There’s clearly a boundary wall all the way round; does it have any weak spots we can exploit? If not, can we tunnel? If not, can we find some way to disguise ourselves as guards? We have to assume they’ll have thought of almost everything we might try, but trust that we are cleverer than them. There will be something they’ve missed. Summat we can use. We have to work from the assumption that if we’re clever enough, and we work hard enough, we will get home.”

“You seem very confident,” says Edie, not feeling remotely as secure as Veronica seems to be.

“Might sound it, but I don’t know if I feel it,” replies Veronica. “Still, let’s get cracking, eh?”

They’ve been working together, putting clothes back into wardrobes for two hours when there’s a knock at the door.

‘A Qlippothic Engine’, my debut novel, will be released in 2017.

 

December 2016: Notes On the Pantheon Of Mhurkan Deities.

 

(Author’s note: this month’s blog is dedicated to Kirsten, one of the best women I’ve ever been privileged enough to call friend. Thank you for everything over the last six months, K. )

Taken from vol. XXIII of the Analecti Historiae Terrae, incepted by Hieromagos Archaeologis Neopliny the Elder, recorded for posterity this day, 0135937.M41, stored on dataslate Kepler XXII-B. Imperator tutatur illos qui quaerunt. 

Transcript begins.

(light applause)

Welcome and salutations, my children, the Emperor’s light and benedictions shine upon you all. And thank you for joining us again at the Scholae Archaeologis for what promises to be a riveting look at the prehistory of ancient Terra and the cultures that existed there before humanity was graced by the Imperial Light.

In our last lecture, we considered the rites and rituals of Mhurkan pair-bonding, looking at how our ancient ancestors conducted themselves in affairs of household negotiation and child-rearing. We considered the religious aspects of their ancient cultic belief systems, and I want to start by reassuring those of you who wrote letters of complaint to both myself, the Scholae Archaeologis, and even the Ecclesiarchy, warning of heretical thought being discussed herein. I feel this reassurance even more necessary given today’s topic: the pantheon of the Mhurkan deities.

(Some murmurs of dissent; general noise continues for a brief moment. Hieromagos Archaeologis Neopliny can be heard making calls for calm.)

While the discussion of such things may leave some of you anxious – perhaps even frightened – let me be the first to allay those fears, and declaim these ancient  beliefs as nonsense of the highest order. It behoves us to remember that the Mhurkan peoples were primitive, superstitious, and ultimately, perhaps even childlike in their beliefs. Lest we forget, this was not merely a pre-Warpflight human culture; this was a pre-space human culture; one that perhaps had more in common with animals than it might have with our own, more vaunted, society.

(laughter)

These old ‘gods’ – terrifying though they may perhaps seem to the minds of those inclined to superstition – are not to be taken remotely seriously. Indeed, they  should be considered warnings of the dangers of believing in anything, save the Emperor and his glorious Truths.

However, as I am sensitive to the fears of my students, I have arranged to have Ecclesiarchal ministers present throughout, to tend to your spiritual needs should this discussion become rather more… Shall we say, taxing? Than you might otherwise have found such things.

(light applause)

Very well, then. Let us begin by looking at the very basic foundations of Mhurkan religious thought.

It is not confirmed, but the analects of Archmagos Rejaak theorise that the Mhurkan people were not originally native to the landmass they called home. Instead, she argues – persuasively, I might add – that they were best considered a mongrel people. They had come from many other lands, other places, and brought with them their previous beliefs. From a theological point of view, this would certainly seem to be borne out by the evidence we have uncovered. Indeed, the Mhurkan people seem to have a greater panoply of gods, deities, spirits and ghosts than almost any other culture in Terra’s prehistoric period.

They were, by nature, a fearful people, and possessed of what we might now think of as a ‘warrior culture’. That so few of them were warriors – we know from fossil records and soil analyses that the Mhurkan landmass was never invaded by an outside power – meant little to the culture as a whole, and we can see this from the development of their various gods.

Now, there are simply too many deities for us to look at in the short time we have today. However, there are a number of core divine figures of significance whom almost all Mhurkans would have known and invoked on a daily basis, and it is these figures we will be considering today.

So, if you could turn your attentions to the pict-screens in front of you; those wishing to make notes are advised to have your ‘slates ready.

The first, and greatest of all the Mhurkan deities, was Phryduum, the God of Cruelty. Phryduum, as you can see here, was represented as a female figure, dressed in the robes of a priest and anointed with a halo of iron blades.

If you direct your attention to the holo, you will note the few remaining elements of her main temple we have uncovered. Unfortunately, none of these items remain extant; they were destroyed during the siege of the Imperial Palace during the dark days of Horus Lupercal’s treachery, but these images remain, preserved in the datacores of the Omnissiah’s loyal servants on Mars.

The head, as you may observe, bears an imperious aspect; Phryduum was known for her unyielding nature. Those Mhurkans who followed her – often members of the indentured slave armies the Mhurkan state maintained – would sometimes do so with oaths of loyalty made, literally, for life. The most well-known of these oaths was ‘Give me Phryduum or give me death’. As I said: a warrior culture, red in tooth and claw.

(Murmur from the audience)

The hand? Yes, if you just rotate the image… There, you see? Yes, it is a flame, well observed. That would be her fabled sword of fire, a terrible weapon with which Phryduum was known to scourge her followers and enemies alike.

The most common form of Phryduum worship was the inflicting of cruelty upon others. Phryduum’s name would be invoked when doing so. If you observe your pict-screens, we have a few extant examples of remaining invocations to her. As you can see, the rites were curious, and demanded a complex, two-part process. To begin with, the worshipper would seek out a victim, usually through the use of the exceedingly primitive datagheists available to the Mhurkan culture. Upon selecting this victim, the acolyte would then ‘feel them out’, identifying areas of personal weakness, before finally making their attempt at an offering to their god. These prayers were known as ‘dhwiits’. The prayer would begin by stating something to the victim, a personal cruelty calculated by the worshipper as capable of inflicting emotional duress or mental suffering upon their chosen victim. Threats of rape were favoured, as well as insults about the chosen victim’s appearance, physical size, ethnicity, cultural beliefs, or gender. Ultimately, the targeted aspect of the victim’s life was of less of importance than was the damage the words of the dhwiit  inflicted.

Now, this initial insult would not be the end of it; should the victim remain silent, the worshipper risked Phryduum’s wrath. As a result, worshippers would make many hundreds and thousands of such dhwiits.

Should the recipient of a dhwiit respond, the worshipper would then invoke the god’s name, using the declarative phrase: ‘I have Phryduum’s Speech’. This phrase would signify the end of the prayer.

The purpose of the rite seems simply to have been for its own sake, although I theorise that these worshippers engaged in the rite in order to escape falling victim to Phryduum herself. As a god of cruelty, her ways were inherently capricious, and so it seems likely that the rite of dhwiits was designed to stave her attentions off in some way. Of course, with the loss of her main temple on the long-fabled Island of Stadden and the loss of those religious texts within, almost everything about this dark god remains unclear.

The next most powerful of the Mhurkan deities was Khuns. So powerful was this god, that it has been suggested that his name formed the original root of the country’s name itself: “Mhur’Khuns”, or “Land of Khuns”. Khuns remains a contentious and curious figure, one soaked in the violence of the Mhurkan mindset. He was the Mhurkan God of Insecurity, and his worship was thought to bring distinct favours.

By worshipping Khuns, Mhurkans were able to seek his favour, and by doing so, feel more secure. There were various rites and rituals to do this.

The most straightforward of these was the simple invocation of his name; like the ancient Islamic Shahadah, one simply had to state their faith in Khuns. There was no one phrase with which to do so, but most took a very plain form: “I have Khuns in my house because it makes me feel safe”.

The next level of offering would be to buy a weapon, for Khuns was a warrior-god and weapons his favoured symbol. It is known that at the height of the Mhurkan empire, almost every Mhurkan would have a small shrine to Khuns in their house, usually containing the weapons that were a sign of fealty to this dark figure.

The highest form of offering would be a propitiation, in the form of a blood sacrifice. Those Mhurkans who felt most disenfranchised, most isolated from society, least secure about their lives,  could always turn to Khuns, who would accept any number of killings made in his name, giving out confidence and a sense of accomplishment as reward. Many of his most fanatical believers would often make such offerings, sometimes sending Khuns huge numbers of human sacrifices. The most devout would allow themselves to be killed at the end, their deaths sealing the offering to him, and presumably guaranteeing them a brighter spot with their lord in the afterlife.

(murmur)

No, no. It may seem ridiculous to us, but these blood sacrifices weren’t occasional. Amongst the Mhurkans, these ritual killings were very common. They even extended to the killings of children; indeed, attacks on what we would call Scholae were held up by Khuns with particular favour.

(gasps from audience)

(murmur)

Well, please remember that fossil evidence is mostly missing, but from what we do have, what we can tell? Is that children were not held in especially high regard by the Mhurkan people. So the leaders of Mhurkan society tolerated the attacks of Khuns more devout acolytes, presumably out of deference to Khuns. Despite the violence his most fanatical followers wrought, his worship remained very highly respected, with his church – known as the En’ahr’eh – retaining huge power nationally. As I say, almost every Mhurkan would have a small shrine to Khuns in their house. As a result, these killings were accepted as part of Mhukran daily life; most probably, they were seen as an acceptable price to pay for a sense of security, no matter how illusory.

(murmur)

(laughter)

Yes, yes. I quite agree.

Now, before we move on, it’s probably worth mentioning another, lesser known god. This one is much less powerful than most: Thortsonprairs, God of Indolence.

As I’m sure you have been made aware today, and indeed, across previous lectures, the Mhurkans were a violent people, ones tolerant of child killing and blood sacrifice so long as it was done in the name of a god. Of course, there would be outcry from the victims of Khuns’ followers, and those in power had to be seen to do something.

If you’ll please turn your attention to the pict-screens, we have an especial treat for you.

(video plays)

(gasps)

(applause)

Yes, I know. Amazing, isn’t it? This is the only extant footage we have from that time period; thirteen seconds, showing a man we believe to be the Mhurkan ‘Presitent’, or hereditary king. The Mhurkan Presitent would be called upon to speak to the people in the case of a particularly ‘successful’ blood offering to Khuns, and when he did, he would conclude with an invocation to Thortsonprairs. There, listen: did you hear that?

(video plays again)

You can hear it so clearly, reassuring the people ‘our Thortsonprairs are with them’ – by ‘them’, he of course means the victims. Incidentally, we have Magos Ishtae Prim to thank for this footage; her archaeotech team managed to find this on, where was it again?

(Ishtae stands, says something)

That’s right. Mars, out past Arsia Mons. This is the result of over forty years’ research, and it constitutes a unique find; the oldest found footage of human life, and it’s a human making an offering to this most obscure god. Can we have some applause for that please?

(applause)

No, Ishtae, there’s no need to blush. You’ve earned it. You’ve earned it.

Where was I? Oh yes, the god of indolence. Yes, Thortsonprairs offered no favours, nor did he render any curses. He was simply a useful figure to invoke, a shorthand way to say to the people ‘Well, we agree this is bad, but we intend to do nothing’. Thortsonprairs eventually became so often invoked alongside Khuns that it seems the two became inextricably linked in the Mhurkan minds. We’ve found offerings of various personal objects made by the families of sacrificial victims, listing the name of the sacrificed person, then a prayer to Thortsonprairs, not Khuns.

Our data is scant on this, and it’s an interesting little historical puzzle. Any of you looking for extra credit, I’ll be happy to accept theses on this topic. Magos Prim is the key person to speak to, so if you’re interested in knowing more, speak to her.

(murmur)

No, I’m not doing this to embarrass you, Ishae. Emperor willing, you’ll be the one that takes over from me when I pass on, so Throne knows you need to get used to this kind of attention.

(murmur)

(laughter)

Fine, fine. (laughs) We’ll see when you’re sat with me, marking those papers, eh?

(laughter)

Okay, settle down. Moving on, the next god on our list is Dh’flaq, God of Terror. Uniquely amongst Mhurkan deities, Dh’flaq is never represented by a human figure, but instead, an abstract pattern of lines and geometric shapes. If you’ll turn your attention to the pict-screens…

As you can see, it’s an undeniably abstract, curious collection of shapes. We have unearthed no data as to why Dh’flaq takes this particular form. We believe the lines represent the bars of the prisons in which his victims were taken to be terrorised, and I have a theory that the more angular star shapes represent bloody holes in the flesh of his enemies. Sadly, we simply cannot know, at least at this time. What makes this most galling is that Dh’flaq’s symbol is ubiquitous in Mhurkan culture. We have found it everywhere, and while he was particularly beloved amongst the warrior class of Mhurkan culture, Dh’flaq’s symbol turns up even in houses without a shrine to Khuns.

While not as locally focused as Khuns, Dh’flaq was far more frightening a figure. His was an evangelical creed, demanding that his followers leave the Mhurkan homeland and seek out worlds to conquer. The Mhurkan warrior class’ leaders were all devout followers, and we theorise that their religious fervour to seek out and conquer in the name of their god, is what led to the widespread global devastation our investigations have revealed through soil samples and analyses of Terra’s mantle. The Mhurkan military was, infamously, the most deadly amongst humanity at the time of Mhurkan empire’s height, and it would not be difficult to connect these ideas.

Dh’flaq’s followers pledged themselves to him; aside from evangelising across the planet, his followers were expected to sing hymnals to his name, and engage in metaphorical representations of his conquest of the world. The most famous of these is Hislamball, the game discovered a few years ago by Prefect-Magos James Hislam.

(murmur)

Yes, I see we’re all familiar with that one.

Hislamball was not, as initially theorised a socially cohesive event. We had always known the Mhurkan people were beloved of sports and competitions, as attested by the remnants of the mighty stadia our investigations have uncovered. Hislam’s research shows that games of Hislamball always began with a prayer and a hymnal offered to Dh’flaq. You’ve no doubt seen the research photographs of unearthed Hislamball armour, worn to protect players from the ferocious impacts of other players…

(murmurs)

Quite so! Yes, we absolutely believe the sport to be a complex rite made in offering to Dh’flaq. Given Hislamball’s ubiquity – we know that it was played in almost every Mhurkan settlement, we can therefore infer that Dh’flaq, despite being a dark, violent figure, was beloved by the people.

You see? Even a group of humans as primitive as they were capable of unutterable theological complexity.

Our next god is one of those we know least about. Dh’panks – we believe the name indicates some kind of familial relationship to Dh’flaq – is the Mhurkan god of slavery. Most often used as a name to keep the Mhurkan people obedient, Dh’panks punishes each according to his or her income. Those who are rich find favour with Dh’panks, and his high priests, who seem to have been the Mhurkan lawmakers, would go to great lengths to ensure that those with most got more.

On the other hand, the poor are most despicable to Dh’panks eyes, particularly amongst his priesthood. Those with little would often find themselves the targets of Dh’panks’ ire, castigated and attacked, with what little they had taken as an offering to Dh’panks in hope of avoiding future judgements. I am sure most of you will of course be familiar with the famous catechism “Dh’panks are too big to fail”? Well, this incantation was used whenever a priest needed to justify the flagrant inequalities their god inflicted upon the Mhurkan people. The phrase seemed to have held great significance for the Mhurkan people as a whole, invoked even by their Presitent, should the worship of Dh’panks lead to riots – as it occasionally did.

As I say, we know little about this god aside from his nature. Much of his teaching was secret, jealously guarded by his priesthood, and his secrets appear to have died with them.

The final figure we shall be looking at today is Rais. Rais is unique inasmuch as he is a devil rather than a god, but his power amongst the evil figures in Mhurkan theology is almost unparalleled. As is the mystery surrounding him.

Rais seems to have been held as a vicious attacker, taking out his supernatural rage on some of the Mhurkan people, but not others. We have no idea how Rais chose which to persecute and which to leave, but that those he tormented blamed him for their affliction is undeniable. And their claims seem to hold some weight, albeit in cultural terms, rather than anything supernatural.

If you turn you attention to the pict-screens… Now, this is a map of a Mhurkan settlement. The blue dots represent those Mhurkans who know nothing about Rais. Now watch.

Fascinating, isn’t it?

These red dots represent those Mhurkans who seem are ‘victims’ of Rais. As you can see, they’re all clustered together, in their own part of the settlement.

Here’s another settlement.

Here’s the blue dots… And here’s the red.

Here’s another. And another.

(gasps)

Fascinating, isn’t it? The pattern extends across almost the whole of the Mhurkan continent, albeit with the exceptions of major cities. Those people afflicted by Rais are made to live in the poorest, meagrest parts of their settlements. Circumstantial evidence suggests they would work poorer jobs for less money.

The thing that is most fascinating about this, is the vehemence with which the existence of Rais is denied by those who know nothing about him. We have accounts – numerous ones – extant, all of which strenuously work to deny the existence of Rais or his evil works.

Whether this was a deliberate thing, a cultural conspiracy?

Well, if you’d like to make it your thesis, please see me. The mystery of Rais has always been a favourite topic of mine.

And that brings today’s lecture to an end. I’d like to thank the Scholae Archaeologis for having me, for you all for listening, and poor Magos Prim for putting up with an old woman’s need to embarrass her former students.

(laughter)

Now, in the name of the Throne, go in peace, to love and serve the Emperor.

Thank you very much.

(applause)

(transcript ends)

 

The Demon and Michael Gove

gove-sad-620x330

The Demon stood next to Gove.

“What’s… What’s going on? What is this?” asked the terrified little man.

“This? This is Hell.”

“It doesn’t look like Hell. It looks like a classroom.”

“It is,” replied the Demon, gesturing for him to take a seat.“It’s a classroom in the North of England; 2012 to be precise. You’re at the height of your powers as education secretary.”

Nervously taking a seat, Gove watched as the class entered, wondering if the Demon was going to use its oversized scythe to chop off his arms or legs first.

“Oh this? No, you needn’t worry. I’m not going to use this on you. Not yet.”   And with that the Demon gestured to a small girl at the back of the class. At the sight of the girl, Gove recoiled in disgust. She was everything wrong with England: loud, brash, with huge hoop earrings and a chunky signet ring. The moment the teacher turned her back, the girl began talking loudly to her friend about which boys they were going to have sex with.

“Disgusting,” muttered Gove under his breath.

“Oh, I agree,” nodded the Demon. “Her name’s Sharon. At this point in time, she’s sixteen, and desperately alone.”

“Doesn’t sound like she’s going to be alone tonight,” sneered the politician under his breath, mostly to himself. Realising his indiscretion, he turned to the Demon, terrified of some hideous infernal punishment, thankful to find none was forthcoming.

“That’s the thing about young women who’ve never had anyone explain their true value to them. They think the reason the world has abandoned them is their fault,” said the Demon. “That they somehow earned the world’s disregard. It’s only a short mental leap from there for company to evolve into a synonym for validation.”

The Demon sighed.

“She’ll do anything to stave off that utter desolation of the soul. If it means she gets to feel real, even if it’s least for a little while, she’ll do anything.

“Even things she’s not ready for. Things she’ll have to justify to herself afterwards, convincing herself it was what she wanted, digging herself deeper into self-hate because the alternative is to admit she made a mistake that cost her something she shouldn’t have given away.”

The Demon leaned back, and watched the girl chat to her friend.

“And no-one can easily admit that. Certainly not a girl who – in her most secret heart – honestly knows herself to be less than nothing. She learned the lessons you taught her well, Michael.”

Gove shivered as the Demon exhaled smoke, a wistful expression coalescing on the brute architecture of its face.

“What none of her friends know – what you didn’t know – is that Sharon is a genius. It’s why she feels so out of place. Why she’s so alone. When your IQ is 169, you stand out… and the nail that stands out gets hammered down. Growing up with the misfortune to be born to a drunk mother and an abusive father, Sharon had no chance. Without them to guide her, the education system was all she had to fall back on… But there’s no money for a girl like her. You saw to that. Money is only for the right kind of people – the best kind of people – and not for a loud, brash girl with extremely special needs.”

The Demon leered at him, and at the sight, Gove felt an overwhelming urge to loosen his own shirt collar.

“Why take the time guiding such a loose cannon, giving her boundaries, carefully nurturing her when it could be better spent on those who co-operate without thinking… After all, no-one’s got time to treat the disobedient like they matter. Not when their line managers are leaning on them because there are OFSTED targets to hit.

“Abigail, the teacher here, she’s been working sixty hour weeks. She’s trying her best, but she’s just got too much to do, and no time to do it in. The school can’t afford enough teachers. So Abigail does her best. She helps the ones she can, copes with the ones she can’t, and then goes home and plans for the next day.

“You penalise her if she fails the middle, so she does what she has to – she ignores the bottom. Ignores girls like Sharon. Well. It’s just how you play the game of efficiency maximisation. If the pupils whose lives OFSTED have decreed are of import pass their exams and the rest fail? Abigail’s winning.

“It’s also why she needs two kinds of pills to get her through the day, and another to stop the panic attacks in the evening. Most nights, she cries herself to sleep at the whore you’ve made of her. More than once, she’s thought of running herself a bath, sliding beneath the surface, and breathing water until her cares are finally washed away.”

Gove sneered.

“I still don’t see why you’re telling me this.”

“Well, ethical myopia always was your particular hamartia, Michael,” replied the Demon, leaning back and fixing Gove with an impassive stare. “The reason I’m telling you this is because you’re dying.”

Gove gasped.

The Demon rose from its chair, and stepped across to the girl with the hoop earrings.

“Yes. From a very rare, very aggressive condition. It’s got a complex Greek name with over seventeen separate syllables. Obviously it’s quite incurable. Your death is going to be long, slow, and quite spectacularly agonising. Your private physicians will do what they can, but ultimately, what they can do is limited.”

The Demon reached out a hand for the girl, close enough to touch her hair. Gove was surprised to see the beast’s fingers trembling, as though nervous. The Demon’s expression was more shocking still; the simian horror seemed somehow awestruck. Like an artist who beholds something rare and exquisitely beautiful – something almost too beautiful to be near for fear that one’s own presence might somehow taint it.

“Your condition’s genetic. You’ve passed it to your children. They, in turn, will pass it to their grandchildren. Oh, a cure will be found. But by the time it is, you and forty eight of your descendants will have died in shrieking, wretched agony, praying to an unconcerned universe for your pain to stop.”

The Demon’s eyes sparkled like black fire.

“But it won’t. Not until the end, and for you? Not even then.”

Gove felt himself chill.

“The reason we’re here, is because Sharon is the inventor of your cure. Or rather, she would have been, if she’d been nurtured properly. Protected from unworthy parents by a state which upholds the dignity of its people, no matter the ugliness of their origins. Nurtured by the right sort of care and attention in a supportive environment, with boundaries provided by decent people who respected her, wanted her to succeed, and weren’t worn down by endless impossible targets designed more to please voters than help the vulnerable. Provided with financial support to get her through university, she would have grown to be one of the finest doctors in British history. A towering light of the medical profession, she would have saved countless lives, including yours and all of your children down the ages. The cure to your particular condition would have been a very minor achievement in a lifetime of astonishing accomplishments.”

Gove is astonished to hear the demon’s voice crack.

“But she won’t heal you, your family, or anyone else now.  She died seven months ago. There was pain. Terrible, shameful pain. She was alone, cold in a watery bedsit, with a needle in her arm and poison in her veins. No-one noticed her light leaving the world, and no-one misses her now she’s gone.”

His blood icy, Gove looked at the girl; he tried to imagine her as a doctor. A professional, clean, smiling, pristine in her white. But all he could see was the ugly jewellery, the ridiculous hairstyle, the braying laugh that set his skin on edge.

“You’re lying,” he hissed. “You only want to hurt me. You’ll say anything.”

The Demon turned to him, and smiled, and in the blade of that smile, all Gove’s bravery and defiance evaporated.

The Demon was most assuredly not lying. Not even a little.

“Oh Michael,” it crooned, its tones syrupy with limitless, perfect hatred, “Michael, you’re almost right…I do want to hurt you. And I will. Over and over and over again…  even on your birthday.”

The demon gave a little shiver of arousal.

“And very soon now.”

Lifting its hand, it held out an admonishing finger crusted with rotten blood.

“But ‘soon’ isn’t the same thing as ‘now’. I’m not showing you this to hurt you now, oh no. This is for afterwards. For when we’re finally together, alone in my room. This is so that during every second of what I do to you, during every violation, every debasement, every infinity of screaming, you know.”

“Know what?” stammered Gove, barely able to form the words.

“That none of it needs to be happening. That she would have kept thee from me.”

Gove felt himself grow cold, his insides thick with hollow realisation.

“Please…” he whispered, his voice tremulous, his hands shivering. “Please, I’ll do anything.

“A little late for that now, Michael. Broken eggs are only good for omelettes.”

Boundless fury vanishing, the demon smiled, but in a very different way than it had earlier. Before, its grin had been a leer of mockery. Now?

Now, its expression was hungry.

Taking a step forward, its cloven hoof left a seared footprint in the floor. It crouched low, squatting on its haunches, its leering grin so close to Gove’s eyes he could see every one of its hundred serrated, shark-like teeth.

“Still, why not keep telling yourself it’s her fault for being born poor, eh? After all, it’s worked for you so far. ”

Gove’s eyes open, and he looks down at the ruin of his body in the hospital bed. The putrescence of his skin laid open, flesh falling away from the muscle in awful, meaty strips held together only by white gauze thick with the morning’s yellow stickiness and suppurating blood.

And as he closes his eyes, trying to squeeze down the pain which clamps him between its teeth, the only sound is the echo of a mocking laugh, ringing through the hospital ward, off into the indifferent dark.

Thanks Mantic!

So you may recall a few months back, I wrote a blog outlining my reasons for being, essentially, an exclusive GW fanboy.

Now, I meant every word I said there, and a lot of it was, to say the least, rather harsh critique of a variety of other miniature manufacturing companies, most notably Mantic Games.

Imagine my surprise, then, to find this in my blog’s inbox:

My immediate first thought was ‘bloody GamerGaters, phishing for my details’; after all, I’d expressed my personal opinions about the idea of nudity in games and in daring to have an opinion, I had drawn notice to myself. So I elected to do nothing about it.

Of course, who can refuse free miniatures? So I reached out to Mantic, curious to know exactly who this ‘Ronnie’ might be.

Imagine my surprise to discover he’s Mantic’s CEO!

Imagine my further surprise upon discovering that the offer of a free game was legit. Not in a million years can I imagine GW doing anything like that. They’d never even acknowledge you existed, but here’s Mantic, being classy as hell.


It arrived on the same day as my order from the excellent Puppetswar; if you’ve not seen their stuff yet, you should really click that link.

After a brief exchange, a couple of weeks ago, my copy of the game arrived and I can confirm: it is exactly as excellent as any of Mantic’s previous offerings. Fun, concise, with tight rules… If you’ve played any of their other games, you very much know what you’re getting into, so I won’t belabour the point any further than to say that if you’re a gamer who likes games, then you should absolutely check it out.

However, in my original column I had already acknowledged as much; I am a huge fan of the rulesets to both Deadzone and Mars Attacks, so I was under no doubt that this would be worth playing.

No, the issue here is the models: are they any better than Mantic’s previous offerings (which, as we all know, I am not a fan of)?

Well.

Yes, actually.

You’ll have to forgive my grainy picture, but I include this pic more so you can get an idea of the scale than anything else; if you want to see better pics, click this link and actually check out Mantic’s website.

As you can see, Rick is still in true-scale… But he’s 35mm, not 28mm, and actually, this makes a huge difference. If you compare him to the Astartes, you’ll see that he’s just ever-so-slightly taller, and that subtle shift is what elevates this model from a fragile, teensy display piece at best to an exciting and worthwhile sculpt.

And it is a worthwhile sculpt. The detailing is great; some lovely CAD work has all the folds in the fabric of his trousers, all the lines on his jacket, and a face which actually looks like the Rick of the comic…. Which is a bonus for fans of the comic over the TV show like me. Honestly, I want TV! Rick to just die, not to mention the walking charisma-free abyss he laughably refers to as a son.

The zombies are equally good, with a ‘delightful’ variety of exposed gibs, missing limbs, and all the usual glutinous good stuff. The manufacturing processes have been good as well; mold lines are either subtle or non-existent, meaning that you could easily shift these from the box to the paint station with minimal prep work. They’re also all single-piece models – an obvious nod to the fact the game’s clearly targeted at non-hobbyists – but which will be an absolute godsend to anyone who just wants to play the game.

So I’ve got a gift horse. Dare I look in the mouth?

Well, obviously, yes.

But my issues with the game are minimal. Firstly, they’re all one-piece models, which for more serious hobbyists like myself, will limit the creative potential of these somewhat. If you just want to play the game, then they’re great, but if you view your miniature purchases as the collection of materials rather than models, they’re not perfect. The fact they’re hard plastic goes a long way to countering this, however.

The second issue – and rather more the severe one if you are just interested in the game is the fact that beyond Rick and The Abyss Which Walks Like A Boy, you won’t recognise any of the other humans.

Seriously, who are these jabronis? Derek and Patrick and Liam and SERIOUSLY, WHO ARE THESE JOBBERS? I’ve read most of the comic and I can’t remember any of them. Where’s Michonne? Or Herschel? Or Carol? Or Tyreese? Or Glenn?

TWD comic has some absolutely superb characters, people I genuinely cared about (unlike the increasingly wretched TV show) and is by far the better of the two potential source materials to draw from. I understand the need to sell game expansions later on, but seriously: Rick is the only big name human character in the initial box?

It’s a little disappointing, especially because COME ON! MICHONNE SHOULD OBVIOUSLY HAVE BEEN IN THERE!


Seriously, we could have had this, and we get Derek?! WHO THE HELL EVEN IS DEREK?!!

There’s also the traditional problem of true-scale weapons being teeny-tiny. I spoke about this in my previous column on the subject, so it’s very much a personal taste thing, but even at 35mm, the models’ weapons are just too dinky for me.

That’s about all I can meaningfully critique, though. This is a damn fine game and a damn fine release for the asking price of £35 (roughly $42, or, what, probably $5 by January, given the way Brexit’s wrecking my country’s currency with the unfettered fury of a honey badger whose dinner got spiked with PCP). It’s bags of fun, the models are great, and – hopefully – a positive sign for future things from Mantic. I especially like the move to 35mm, and hope it’s the direction they choose to take all their models.

I also have to re-iterate that this was a bloody classy move from Mantic. Given that I spent nearly 5000 words savaging their work, for them to behave this way tells you all you need to know about this company.

I said in my previous column that I was waiting for Mantic to make me a fan of their models. And if I’m being truthful, I’m still not all the way to being a fan of their truescale aesthetic; I probably never will be – personal taste and all that. But I am a huge fan of the company, in terms of both their game designs and the way they conduct themselves too. They’re decent people, invested in the community, and I think they deserve a great deal of respect for that.

November 2016: We Cannot Know Someone Until We Have Seen Them Fight.

I’m in the staffroom of my school, laughing with Jo about the original Transformers film. You know, the one set to the beat of some pounding Judas Priest. The one that – through what I can only assume were access to Dark Forces – managed to get Orson Welles and Leonard Nimoy to voice, respectively, a sentient devil-planet, and the universe’s most ithyphallic robot.


Nowadays, they only sell toys that look like this on LoveHoney.

So we’re laughing about how goofy the Junkions are, just as Julian walks into the room. Now Julian is sixty-two. He is a Serious Man, who has done Serious Science for Serious Companies. Julian is not a man given to whimsy or silliness, and I mumble the words BA-WHEEP-GAH-NAH-WHEEP-NINNY-BAH just as he walks past. Regarding me with the expression of a Victorian industrialist given to pondering ways to increase production by burning children more efficiently, he looks at me, then smiles. In the most matter-of-fact-voice imaginable he simply says:

‘Ahhh, the universal greeting.’

I’m not a fan of Michael Bay’s Transformers films.

While the 80’s animated film is – once you take the nostalgia goggles off – honestly not that great, it’s still quite charming. Bay’s films on the other hand are almost the empirical definition of terrible. It’s not just that they’re each individually longer than the War of The Roses. It’s not just that they’re unrepentantly racist and sexist and homoantagonistic. It’s not just that they’ve got a horrible cast made of a 50:50 split between the literal worst actors in the world and people who should honestly know better.

It’s that the action is so boring.

Huge scenes of hideously over-greebled robots smashing into each other while the camera spins and pans and twirls and spins and AAAAAHHHHHHH MY HEAD MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP MAKE IT STOP


It’s like watching a jar of paper clips having a seizure.

There are lots of reasons that Bay’s ‘Transformer’ films fail harder than an alcoholic baboon taking his driving test after three nights of hitting the tequila like it owed him money. However, for me, the biggest weakness is that the action is just confusing. The robots all look the same, they all move the same and everything’s always spinning to you can’t get a bead on a thing. Even in those few moments when things are mercifully still, the camera’s so close you simply can’t see what’s going on… And even if you could, there’s enough particulate, debris and smoke smashing you in the face you might as well just be watching a YouTube clip of two buildings making furious, meth-fuelled love.

Transformers is, to quote The Bard, sound and fury, signifying nothing and the definition of Bad Action.

Sex and Violence as Storytelling Components.

Back in 1997, David Cronenberg released a film called ‘Crash’ to almost universal controversy. The film was about a group of people who found car crashes sexually arousing, and the usual peanut gallery of Daily Fail scumbags clamoured for it to be banned. Cronenberg had to answer all kinds of ridiculous questions and, because David Cronenberg is a highly intelligent and deeply terrifying man, his answers were fascinating:

Interviewer: [‘Crash’] begins with three sex scenes in a row. Again, this seems very confrontational.

Cronenberg: Yeah, it is. There are moments when audiences burst out laughing, either in disbelief or exasperation. They can´t believe they´re going to have a look at another sex scene… And they all mean different things too. Each one leads to the other one. The first scene is of Deborah Unger with this anonymous guy in a airplane hangar. Then James Spader with an anonymous camera girl. They´re parallel of course. and then James and Deborah come together, have sex, and compare notes. That´s how they develop their sexuality. In one of my little test screenings someone said, “A series of sex scenes is not a plot.” And I said, “Why not? Who says?” And the answer is that it can be, but not when the sex scenes are the normal kind of sex scenes: lyrical little interludes and then on with the real movie. Those can usually be cut out and not change the plot or characters one iota. In Crash, very often the sex scenes are absolutely the plot and the character development. You can´t take them out. These are not twentieth-century sexual relationships or love relationships. These are something else.

Now, I love this argument, because Cronenberg’s point is a simple one which I happen to agree with. Basically, you can make a powerful, moving story out of nothing but sex scenes… just so long as those sex scenes are telling a story. If those scenes just show two people humping without any further context, then it doesn’t matter how explicit or subtle they are, they need to get dropped. You might as well be watching a picture of a bear with a helicopter flying by rocket power, because it’s going to have exactly as much relevance to the plot as the random boning.

‘Game of Thrones’ provides an excellent example of how this works. Now, GoT became notorious for including loads of what became known as ‘sexposition’: scenes where the tedious task of worldbuilding is ‘disguised’ by having by having characters relay huge amounts of background detail to the viewers whilst titties are on screen. This is because ‘people’ don’t get bored by the exposition because they’re looking at titties.

(And by ‘people’, we of course mean ‘straight, white, cis men’. Everyone else’s attention span must be long enough, or else we’d be seeing more pecs, dongs and other assorted squishy bits…)

However, not every GoT sex scene falls into this category of titillation and exploitation; some are effective storytelling tools. To my mind, the ‘best’ GoT sex scene occurs in season 1.

So the Dothraki culture has been established as a bunch of hypermasculine bellends. The men justify their constant rape of women as ‘the natural order’, behaving like the horses that are the core of their culture. It’s all pretty vile.

Poor Danaerys has been sold off to their Dudebro King, Khal Drogo, as his bride. Every night, she’s enduring a whole lot of tedious and unpleasant doggy-style rutting. Again, it’s pretty vile.

Anyway, after a chat with a Dothraki woman, Danaerys realises that she actually has more power than she thinks. She’s not got a choice to say no, but she does have a choice about how. And, after some instruction from her Dothraki friend, she manages to assert herself over Drogo. She interrupts the usual doggy-style sex, in favour of mounting him.

Trapped in a despicable culture that treats her like an object, allowing her almost no agency of her own, Danaerys manages to exert what little power she has within the confines of what is possible. And this moment is critical for the development of Danaerys’ character. We see a woman who – previously – was terrified and powerless begin to assert herself. It’s only a small step, and it’s certainly not made her life better in any meaningful way, but it’s the first time that we as an audience see that this is a woman who is not content to simply allow things to happen to her. By reversing the traditional Dothraki roles – by becoming a woman who mounts a man – there’s a powerful visual metaphor about the kind of person she is.

And also – not incidentally – about the kind of man Drogo is. Previously, we’ve only seen him as a thug and a brute; a thoughtless rapist who takes her every night. But he acquiesces to Danaerys’ instruction without any complaint, and over time, it turns out, there’s a sensitivity – a humanity – to Drogo that’s never been allowed out before. Which isn’t a surprise. Nothing keeps a douchebro douching like another douchebro. Because Dothraki culture is so absurdly violent and hypermasculine, Drogo’s never had an option to be anything but this bestial thing. Danaerys’ assertion of her own desires allows him space to explore his own.

Now, let’s be very clear here: their relationship remains vile. There’s still a power differential, Drogo is still the same violent brute, Danaerys is most likely suffering from Stockholm syndrome because the alternative is complete and total despair…

However, the discussion of all that problematic-as-hell stuff is not relevant here, because my point is this: sex scenes can be used to illustrate aspects of character. And that’s exactly what this scene accomplishes. The situation remains awful, and I’m not even going to attempt to defend ‘Game of Thrones’ because they really have made some wretched choices about the way they treat their female characters. I want to be very clea that I’m only using this scene because it’s the one mainstream readers will most likely be familiar with.


Honestly, I’d have much preferred to use ‘Crash’, but only me, my friend Dom, and about five other guys have watched that.

The thing is, I believe that unless a sex scenes is revealing something about one or all the characters involved, then it’s not really doing anything. It’s a fireworks display: pretty to look at, by meaningless and therefore forgettable.

The thing is, that action scenes operate in almost exactly the same way.

Effectively Storytelling Violence

Unless they’re a squash match, almost all wrestling matches play out in a familiar pattern of roughly seven stages:

The 7 Stages of a Wrestling Match
  • Stage 1 – The Intro – the introduction is simple: establish to the crowd your role in this match: this is possibly the majority of the crowd’s first time seeing you, they want to be told how to react, so tell them.
  • Stage 2 – The Shine – this is the initial struggle, where the chain grappling takes place. The idea here is to do two things: let the crowd know you’re both trained and talented, and get the face over.
  • Stage 3 – The Heat – this is where one guy establishes that they’re willing to do anything win: the bad guy rakes the eyes, chokes on the ropes, and argues with the ref and the crowd the whole way as they take advantage of the match.
  • Stage 4 – The Comeback – the heel has the hold locked in, yells to the crowd that their hero is going to tap, and that’s when the face starts to slowly get to his feet and break the hold
  • Stage 5 – The Big Heat – this is where the heel pulls out all the stops. He’s mad and embarrassed and ready to win.
  • Stage 6 – The Big Comeback – the heel has missed a big move, both guys are down, the crowd should be excited for the face to have his opportunity now. This is about as long as the first comeback and even more explosive.
  • Stage 7 – The Finish – The match ends.

The interesting thing is that these ‘seven stages’ that are unique to wrestling matches? Well they aren’t that unique. They’re equally applicable across almost any cinematic fight.

Don’t believe me? Well, consider…

The Matrix:
Click here to watch the fight

  •  Stage 1 – The Intro: Neo and Smith face off in the underground: ‘He’s beginning to believe’
  • Stage 2 – The Shine: Neo goes toe-to-toe with Smith and ends up smashing his glasses.
  • Stage 3 – The Heat: Smith absolutely batters Neo, ending up with him punching Neo so back so far he’s at the exit. In the Real World, Neo coughs blood. Smith is obviously too powerful. Neo should just run.
  • Stage 4 – The Comeback: he doesn’t. Neo stands, strikes a pose, and unleashes a flurry of attacks on Smith.
  • Stage 5 – The Big Heat: Smith counters, slamming Neo into the wall, and, for the first time, uses his machine-powers, smashing Neo with punches faster and harder than any human possibly could. In the Real World, Neo spasms from the assault, eventually getting put through the ticket booth. Smith drags Neo down to face the oncoming train.
  • Stage 6 – The Big Comeback: ‘MY NAME IS NEO.’
  • Stage 7 – The Finish: Smith is dead. Until…

Too sci-fi for you? Well how about…

Creed:
Click here to watch the fight

  •  Stage 1 – The Intro: the commentators explain the match. We see Creed take a few hits; he’s not Superman. Conlan smiles, unworried, and fights dirty. Right away, we know who’s who.
  • Stage 2 – The Shine: Creed wins round two: ‘There’s a perfect right hand shot by Creed!’ shouts the commentators. For the first time, Conlan realises he’s not fighting a pushover.
  • Stage 3 – The Heat: ‘I’m gonna smash this kid to bits.’ Creed takes a hideous beating from Conlan.
  • Stage 4 – The Comeback: ‘Take everything that ever made you angry, and put it in both fists’ says Rocky. ‘Creed fires a hard body punch’ says one commentator. ‘The champ is in bad shape’ says the other. Creed is credible.
  • Stage 5 – The Big Heat: Conlan lands a DEVASTATING right cross. Creed drops like a puppet with his strings cut.
  • Stage 6 – The Big Comeback: Creed is down. Unconscious, he sees a vision of the adoptive mother he doesn’t want to disappoint. He sees the girlfriend he loves. He sees his adoptive father, Rocky. He sees his actual, father, the father he never saw, who never gave up. Creed explodes back to consciousness and stands.
  • Stage 7 – The Finish: they fight the final round. Conlan may win the fight, but Creed has won the crowd, and everyone’s respect.

 

Both of these are excellent cinematic fights, and you can see how they follow that simple seven stage pattern. In fact, if you look through all the greatest cinematic fights, you’ll find that, with very few exceptions, they follow that same pattern.

Which means that the fights themselves aren’t going to reveal character, because the sequence of events in a fight is roughly the same no matter the fight. Which means that the way you reveal character through a fight isn’t about what happens, but about the way it happens.

Fighting Styles as Window Into Character.

‘You cannot know someone until you have fought them’ Seraph says to Neo in the purest ice-cream koan I‘ve ever heard.

The thing is, for audiences, that’s actually pretty true. The way a character fights reveals the most about the kind of person they are – as well as giving them depths we might otherwise never see. The most direct recent examples of this are to be found in Netflix’s rather excellent Marvel series, and this becomes really clear if you compare specifics between them.

In ‘Daredevil’, Matt Murdock is a superlative martial artist; the fight scenes are a collection of intense, spectacular affairs. Whenever Murdock runs into a collection of low-level gangsters, we see him decimate his opponents; however, against more skilled foes, he’s forced to rely on more tricksy set-ups. I’d say more, but honestly, you should just click this link for a better breakdown of the artistry of Daredevil’s fight choreography than I could ever provide.

Probably the definitive scene is the massive ‘oner’ where, in one-shot, Daredevil takes on a building full of baddies. Through sheer brutality, he comes out on top. We see him deploy every kind of strike, grapple and counter, taking body blow after body blow. By the end, he’s winded, exhausted, and nursing horrible injuries, but he’s the last one standing, and the scene really rams it home: it’s not only his skill that makes him so dangerous; it’s the fact that he just won’t quit.

Standing in stark contrast to Matt Murdock are Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. Unlike Murdock, these two have actual superpowers and no training, and my Glob does it show. Jessica’s a straight brawler; in the infrequent action scenes she finds herself caught in, she relies on clumsy improvisation, brute force, and sheer stubborness. Probably her key action scene is a shootout with police who have been controlled by her archnemesis. Instead of taking them head on, she ducks and dives, surviving by a combination of guile and cleverness much more than her superstrength.

Cage, by contrast, is literally bulletproof, and if you’ve not seen the series’ incredible homage to ‘The Terminator’, it really is something else. Cage simply walks into a den of bad guys, tanks the damage, and gives everyone concussions. At no stage does he ever get above walking speed, and his signature manoeuvre – one he uses throughout the show – isn’t a punch or kick; it’s what we in the North call ‘a clip roun’t ear’: he just slaps his opponents round the top of their head. His superstrength is enough to switch their brains off, but the genius of this move is how simultaneously disrespectful and patrician this is. One of the big themes of the series is Cage taking responsibility for Harlem; that he is a man amongst boys. What attack could be more symbolic than the kind of strike that used to be used by fathers chastising errant children?

Through the way they fight, we learn about all three. Murdock is a man of skill and iron will; more than anything, his power is his determination. Jones relies on her cunning and obfuscated brilliance, always scraping through through intelligence and adaptability. Cage is a literal tank and a metaphorical father, delivering smackdowns to the irresponsible, living his life as an example to other, just like Dr. King said.

Yes, the series looks at these aspects of character in other ways too, but in each series, the fight scenes work to convey these same themes as well. In fact, I would argue that a large part of the failings in ‘Daredevil’ season 2’s latter half can be traced to the fact that The Hand ninja clan has so poorly defined a personality (as an organisation), that the fight scenes are meaningless.

Another, non-Marvel example of the absolute importance of fighting style as character trait would be in the superlative ‘Avatar: The Last Airbender’, where every character’s fighting-style was deeply tied to their personality. A classic example of the kind of absurd attention to detail this series paid would be through the character of Toph.


Like Chuck Norris, only deadlier.

In the series, there are four distinct types of elemental magic, known as ‘bending’, which allow the practicioner to manipulate one element magically. Each system of bending has a specific style of martial arts linked to it, to represent the learning of magical techniques passed down over the years. Earthbending is represented by Hung Gar Kung Fu, which is a very solid style, full of powerful, physical movement. The idea the writers had was that the style conveys how Earthbending is the most physically demanding style, requiring more brute strength than any other, because you’re ‘lifting’ heavy Earth.

Having established this, they then break their rules with Toph. Toph is an Earthbender, and, the series establishes, probably the greatest of all living Earthbenders during the era the series is set. She’s also a very young girl, and quite blind.

Her blindness is how she’s learned to Earthbend – she ‘sees’ through the floor, using her magic to inform her of the relative positions, shapes and sizes of things. As a result, she’s preternaturally talented at Earthbending.

However, as a young, disabled girl, her parents see her as desperately vulnerable… so she’s never received a moment’s training in ‘true’ Earthbending. What this means is that she doesn’t use Hung Gar Kung Fu, because she doesn’t know how. Instead, she uses Southern Praying Mantis Style. Why? Because this is a style which almost never takes its feet off the floor. In the universe of ‘Avatar’ Toph fights in a literally unique, self-taught way, built around her unique powers and disability. It also informs other aspects of her character: she never wears shoes, and doesn’t feel comfortable without a layer of dirt on them. Where other people find this disgusting, to Toph, it’s her natural state; without that dirt, she can’t see, so of course she’s comfortable with it. Toph’s personality is utterly illumined by the methods through which she kicks ass and takes names.

The other excellent example from ‘Avatar’ lies with Prince Zuko and Princess Azula.

Both are villains from the Fire Nation, and each serves as a foil to the other. Zuko is passionate, headstrong, hot-blooded. He’s one of the most talented Firebenders in the world, but the same passions which give him strength also limit his potential.

This is because it’s established that in the ‘Avatar’ mythos, lightning is simply refined fire. As a result, the most powerful Firebenders can channel lightning, for significantly more devastating attacks. The trouble is, lightning is so devastating and so pure, that it cannot be channelled by an emotional mind. It needs a mind that’s focused and in control. That’s something completely beyond Zuko, whose Firebending might be devastating, but is the literal antithesis of controlled.

Azula, on the other hand, is a psychopath from the Hannibal Lecter school of calm. She’s cruel, sadistic, and always in control. Nothing ruffles her always-immaculate feathers. As a result, she never bends anything except lightning, and the series is very clear: this makes her a better fighter than almost anyone. It also serves to demonstrate all the ways in which she’s different to her brother; not just because she’s more talented, but also because she’s driven in a completely different way.

Over the course of the narrative, Zuko learns to calm himself and become a Lightning-bender… And from his uncle, a man who is demonstrably one of the calmest, most focused, most powerful firebenders in the world, he learns not just how to create lightning, but how to take it into and through himself, rechannelling its fury without letting it hurt him: a perfect metaphor for the way his character evolves from an angry, uncontrolled boy to a focused, calm and most of all, peaceful, man.

These are just a few examples of the way that deep character truths can be revealed through action scenes. So the question becomes: how does any of this matter on the tabletop?

Character Through Action In Wargaming.

Warhammer 40,000 uses a variety of stats to determine the ways a character fights: Weapon Skill shows us their raw talent; Strength shows us their lethality; Inititative shows us their speed; Attacks shows us how much they can dish out; Armour Penetration shows how likely that lethality is to be successful; Toughness and Armour Save both show their endurance.

The way these five stats are applied is used to represent the fluff, yes… But we can also use those stats to create ‘stories’. After all, every stat determines the way a model fights, and as we’ve seen, the way something fights tells us something about them.

So, we know that an Astartes is objectively better than a basic human by several degrees. In a straight fight between an Astartes and a Conscript, that marine is going home with the human’s scalp.

But compare them both to a Genestealer, and see how much each is suddenly found wanting. Genestealers are kind of the base-line for ‘scary assault’ in the fluff, and on the tabletop, their stats bear this out. They’re strong as an Astartes, but with a ludicrously high WS and I. They hit more often, and more quickly, than any human could possibly cope with. Even an Astartes struggles, especially once those Rending Claws start to negate his armour and turn him into beef strips.

Of course, fights in 40K never take place in a clear white room, and this is where the Xenotic scum’s game falls apart. After all, if the Astartes gets to cover, the Genestealer doesn’t have any way to make that alien speed count for anything, what with the lack of frag grenades, and so the Astartes only has that high WS to count with, and without that speed, it doesn’t count for as much.

And that’s just a simple troop vs. troop fight. At the opposite end of the scale, you’ve got special characters. Dante is the Daredevil of 40K, jumping in with high initiative, high attacks and deadly AP too, able to razor enemies into chum through speed and ferocity. On the opposite end, you’ve got Marneus Calgar, who fights like Luke Cage, tanking the damage before tapping his enemies on the head with a Power Fist blow of spectacular destructive capacity.

Then, beyond them, you’ve got the Primarchs, all able to devastate any lesser model with almost insulting ease, but against one another…

Consider Rogal Dorn; he fights with bolt pistol and chainsword, the very paragon of the classic Astartes fighting style… And gets completely beasted by Angron, who’s shown up with a pair of absurdly deadly chain-axes and more Attacks than literally any other single model in the game. Of course, Angron’s not wearing more than barbarian plate, so Dorn can rely on his men to shoot the World Eaters’ Primarch before Angron can get to him… or so he hopes.

And suddenly the stats are telling you a story.

Characters, like people, are defined not by who they are, but by what they do. And in wargaming, models get to do things, meaning that those mathematical rules? They tell a story. They’re intrinsically bound to a narrative the moment they pop into existence. As a result, any storyteller or games designer should carefully consider what their ‘characters’’ actions reveal about them. The moment you allow this kind of interaction, you’re telling a story whether you want to or not.

So put some care into it, because a fireworks display is nice and all, but the truly compelling stuff is always going to be more than something that’s just fun on the surface.