A place for new ideas to settle.

20 November 2014

The parable of the psychosis mists

Because you can never have just one. Any similarities to the empires in this story and hyperbolic keyboard warriors in the wider Internet are almost certainly mist-borne figments of the reader's imagination.

Once, a very long time from now, there was a village. Life in this village was hard, but the people in the village were content with what they had—no matter the hardship, they believed that the Universal Law rewarded hard work with ample reward, and they knew not to beg for more. But this was not a peaceful life. Occasionally some mysterious tragedy would befall the village: in the night, with no discernible frequency but often enough to keep everyone on edge, someone would die horribly. Their mangled bodies would be found in their houses, or in the village green, or in one of trees of the forest... or in several trees. Every death was subtly different, enough to unnerve even the village elders each time. These events were frightening, but the forest was dark and full of malevolent beasts, many of whom were more stealthy, more cunning than any villager. The villagers had long ago accepted that this was merely another reflection of their Universal Law, and tried as best they could to get along with their lives.

Then, one day, a stranger appeared at the village gates. He wore a very strange mask, and his hands and feet were tightly wrapped, but otherwise spoke the local language and was exceedingly polite. Nervous, but never one to turn away visitors, the village admitted the stranger. He immediately went to the public square and began speaking, seemingly to the empty air. At first, nobody paid him much attention. This was highly irregular, but the villagers were not closed-minded and he wasn't really bothering anyone, so they let him talk.

Then someone actually listened:

"Villagers! Hear me! I know of your terrors in the night! This world is shrouded in the psychosis mists, which sometimes induce a fugue state during sleep. Those affected are driven to acts of terrible violence against their fellows, and awaken with no memory of such acts! My village discovered the truth some time ago, and fashioned this protective garb; but not only has your village not seen through the mists, you have thought it the will of the Universe?! I say to you now: there will be no tolerance for such backwards thinking in the New World to come, so forsake these beliefs and don masks, or be swept aside!"

His words were a great affront to the villagers. They had just emerged the day before from a customary week-long mourning period, in memory of the most recent victim of the nocturnal terrors. Now, to be told that they were murdering themselves, because of some invisible psychosis mists, and in fact were actively denying the truth? This was intolerable!

But some of the village youths, naturally empathetic and rebellious in equal measure, took interest in the speaker's words. They asked how they could learn the truth about the mists, to which the speaker replied:

"My comrades have set up camp on the other side of this forest, where we also brought extra masks. If you wish to repudiate the sinful ignorance of your ancestors, come with me."

There, despite the strenuous protestations of their parents, the youths of the village followed the stranger into the forest.

Shaken and not a little outraged, the village elders convened an emergency meeting. The stranger's tale was compelling if true; now, how to weigh the balance of evidence? Surely some, if not most, of the deaths were by ravenous beasts—the elders did not know whence the stranger came, but he had not seen the claw and teeth marks on so many dismembered corpses, which were not made by any human hand or mouth. And some more, though still a minority, of deaths were at the hands of villagers who had gone quite publicly mad—this was an unfortunate trend in the village aristocracy, who liked to intermarry, and whose psychotics seemed to prefer their victims come from the lower classes. But those madmen were summarily executed after a fair trial before the village elders, and so could not be carrying out a sustained agenda of bloodshed.

That left a fair number of deaths unaccounted for, but was it enough to conclude that it was the effect of an undetectable, world-shrouding mist? The elders honestly couldn't say—though some were more sure in their doubt, if only because they feared the utter upheaval of the village's sacred traditions, and were still quite sore that so many youngsters left with the stranger.

Some days later, the lost youths returned, wrapped in foreign garments and wearing those strange masks. They spoke earnestly, even zealously, to anyone within earshot about the mists. They implored them to go to the camp and receive a mask for themselves, before it was too late—in a fortnight, if the village hadn't entirely adopted the wearing of masks to purge themselves of the mists' influence, those who did wear the masks would leave... and the Masked Ones from beyond the forest would put the rest to the torch. After all, there was no place for barbarism in the New World.

Outraged, the elders immediately demanded that the youths remove their masks or else leave the village forever, in an exile of their own creation. Yet this was not the hard choice they supposed: too few of the youths decided that lifetime separation from their families was worth the safety of the masks, while some adult villagers were swayed by the youths' pronouncements and left to get their own masks.

In the end, the village became bitterly divided. Those elders who venerated tradition brooked no compromise, and made plans to leave the village in search of anyone still free of the Masked Ones' sway. Those elders who still hoped for the truth to win out tried to invite the Masked Ones to their council hall, that they may better understand the nature of the mists' effects. But the Masked Ones sent only curt replies: "We will not speak to anyone unmasked, for we do not believe in unnecessary risks to our safety." Soon, after several failed entreaties from the village, the Masked Ones sent nothing at all. And the end of the fortnight approached.

At last, the remaining maskless villagers fled into the forest, away from the Masked Ones and the flaming ruin that was once their home, until they came across a caravan of maskless merchants and soldiers. These people welcomed the refugees and identified themselves as loyal subjects of Em-Ra, Pharaoh of the Clear Air and sworn enemy of the Unity of the Mask in the west. The refugees were welcome to join the caravan, which was heading back to the capital, if only they promised to pledge their life-long service to Em-Ra and take up arms against the blasphemous Unity. Many villagers, including the more tradition-minded elders, eagerly accepted the soldiers' offer of protection.

Some of the villagers saw too much of the Masked Ones' demands in these soldiers of Em-Ra, and broke away to the north. They came across villages, camps, and other wandering tribes, and each group told them the same story: of a great war, perhaps waging across all the world, between the armies of Em-Ra and the missionaries of the Unity. The Masked Ones demanded a renunciation of the old ways, and the soldiers demanded obedience to one who claimed immortality. Either way, the message was the same to these poor souls: Join us, or die!

The tribe had seen enough of this conflict. They moved farther and farther north, encountering many peoples and many varieties of civilized life. The tribal elders looked closely for any shred of evidence that might settle their questions about the mists' truth or falsity. And yet, questions remained. So the tribe found themselves at the foot of a glacier hundreds of feet tall, and hundreds of questions plagued them. With nowhere else to turn, they settled in the taiga, and prayed that the Universal Law did not decree that the war between Mask and Pharaoh did not find them there...