Belief, more so even than knowledge, can drive people to actions that appear to be beyond reason - like readying themselves for an apocalyptic war of magic and mysticism.
I am not alone in my quest for the truths that most will never know. There are fellow explorers, scientists and philosophers seeking to codify the outliers of the experiences that the world has to offer and, sadly - inevitably - those who look to exploit the miraculous for personal gain, for wealth and power and dominion. Hearteningly there are also those motivated, whether I share the specifics of their beliefs or not, by a sense of righteous purpose, of philanthropic duty. The most remarkable of those whom I have met, Lyros, intends to defend us all from an unknowable magical cataclysm they believe to be inevitable. I have been fortunate enough to cross their path several times, and have been entrusted with sharing their story.
It took something over a decade, all told, for the work to be completed. Most of that time was spent gathering information, researching all the symbols and sigils, the names and phrases that will provide them with protection, spiritual and psychic armour. Lyros travelled relentlessly, obsessively, seeking out the most arcane and powerful words from prayers and spells alike, the secret marks and hidden patterns that would make their soul unassailable. Every culture and their many faiths, both extant and extinct, were exhaustively scoured until at last they were, if not satisfied, then... sated. Afraid to let their research spread for fear of diluting the power they amassed, they took their work into exile, hiding variously amongst the abandoned places of power, the ruins where strands of potential praxis were forged, made perfect.
The penultimate six months were design and experimentation - mapping the marks onto a plan of their body in order to maintain complete fidelity, maximum efficacy. Most will work as tattoos but there are those few which must be mapped out in scars and brands, those which require sacrifice and torment in order to work. Eventually they reached an impasse: Two marks, both too close to vital for either to be excluded, were required to be positioned over Lyros’ heart. There have been other problems; the necessity of keeping their hands, face and feet unmarked in the name of discretion and anonymity has caused them to abandon certain potential armaments in favour of other, more subtle traps, but this last crisis seemed insurmountable. They were building an inescapable cage, impervious to the damned and to the divine alike, and the heart is the key or, rather, the lock. In their plans they left the space blank as they worked out the most effective use of the remainder of their canvas.
Eventually, barring the final sigil, the design was finished. They had created a pattern which would turn their skin into armour, stave off the touch and taint of the unearthly, the wicked and the ill-intentioned as well as their holy opposites. For seven days and seven nights they sat in meditation, searching for an answer that might have been endlessly elusive. Without both seals their cage would have been half-finished, vulnerable, and without either they would be binding powers inside themselves that they believe would eventually rip and tear their way out. The only answer that occurred was compromise, an untested third option that might one day be their undoing. The work to check its potential was arduous, necessitating more travel, more research, but they believed they had the beginnings of a solution, and set about recruiting the assistants they would need for such a singular endeavour.
The pain of the marking was exquisite, blinding and transcendental all at once. Some of the inks were merely that, but others, in order to activate the power their forms traced, were more atypical. Burning acids and animal venoms beneath the skin causing a constant itching and maddening, like imaginary insects that Lyros will never be free of. At the sharpest edge of the pain they bit down on a stick wrapped in tough, coarse leather and felt it crack between their teeth. They stifled their cries out of necessity as well as pride, knowing that they must be resolute in the execution of their plans if they are to have any hope of succeeding. Their knuckles were taut, bone pressed hard against weathered skin as they gripped the chair and tried to remain still under the ministrations of the three mercenary neophytes, bought and paid with the material gains of an otherwise ruinous quest. The buzz of their needles and the metallic tang of aerosolised blood in the scorched air added to the hellish feel, and for the first time they approached a true awareness of what their vocation would eventually come to cost them.
The three working on them were artists all, and the almost-tender dab of a cleansing cloth and their deftness seemed perverse in an obscene charnel scene, a cruel tease set against the sting of needles and knives. They worked in silence, partly due to the concentration required for their precision work but mostly because they shared no common language, another precaution against Lyros’ plans becoming known. It was a slow process, a carefully coordinated dance of criss-crossing needles so that the work never stopped, never even slowed. There could not be any delay; as the design was drawn into skin they feared it would shine like a beacon in the aether, alerting their foes to their plans, with only the last mark providing a shroud and baffling the signs of their intent. Eventually, and it took several days of continuous labour and no small pangs of concern and conscience on the part of the armourers, the purifiers, it was time to begin work on their back. Laid on the freshly traumatised skin of their chest, slick with pinpricks of blood and anguished sweat, they came close to passing out but didn’t. Soon after they were rendered essentially numb by the shock and the trauma, aware of the pain as sensation without judgement, neither good nor bad, unpleasant nor pleasant.
Once the work was done, hesitant and fearful hands lifted Lyros out of the chair, suspended between two of the artists. The third offered them a sponge dipped in water - pragmatic mimicry, prosaic parody - and scooped cooling handfuls over and onto their head in order to revive them, mistaking their fervour, their grace, for insensibility. Feeling strong but still unsteady, they took faltering steps to a nearby table, and unwrapped a rough hessian swaddle. Inside the last mark, the final piece of their body as arcane and functional sacred art, was engraved in relief on a short-handled brand. The design was of their own devising, a marriage of the two most powerful seals, a desperate plan born of necessity. Lateral application of contraindicated energies, rather than a structural compromise, they hoped.
Each of the three artists knew what was coming, but only one could stand, grimly fascinated, to watch. The fire was ready, fuelled and stoked to a horrendous heat which seemed to sear the air. The brand was red hot in a few seconds, white hot and spitting in the humidity after not much longer. Deep breath drawn in, they pulled it from the fire and readied it over their chest, above their heart. They could feel their skin tighten immediately in the livid glow of it. The silent second that passed is anticipation rather than hesitation, the instant of stillness that precedes inevitability. In the first moment the smell is stronger, more shocking than the pain of murdered nerves, but as the brand is pulled away with a wet hiss the cumulative agonies of the day fire in their brain, nerves overlapped and concatenated in their rush to overwhelm. They heard the brand clatter to the stones as they finally let themselves yield to the pain, collapsing into soft unfeeling darkness.
For three days they slept in fevered silence, in perfect stillness. Inside they’re kicking, screaming, as the new power seeks equilibrium. When Lyros awoke they awoke alone, only a bandage over the still raw brand and a glass of stale water by the bed to show the final kindnesses of former employees. The dressing peeled away painfully, the mark throbbing with every pulse of a tortured heart. Their skin itched with power and they could feel the firing of every nerve, every pull of muscle, every burst of renewed motion in their blood. The unmarked skin of their hands and feet and face felt scalding, the only outlets for the excess of the thousand warring intents within. Their clothes felt too heavy, like hair-shirts scraping and scratching at raw nerves and flayed skin. Their making was finished, their work not yet begun.