A man's reunion with an estranged friend calls for some unexpected travel plans.
"What am I even supposed to do, Len?" Mack's voice sounded wrong. It was louder than Lenny's, but didn't seem to carry at all, the words coming out flat and dead. He frowned; it didn't used to be this way. How long had it been since anything to do with this sort of thing, much less since seeing Lenny? Fifty wasn't that old. He felt like a retired athlete dreaming about the halcyon days of his career. Lenny, of course, hadn't aged a single day. Mack suspected he didn't want to know how.
Find me, said Lenny. You know how to do it. You know I can't tell you more unless you do.
The flat sheet of red beneath them suddenly flipped ninety degrees until it was pressing against Lenny's back, leaving Mack floating, still motionless, over a void the same color as the sky. More chunks of sodden paper fell moistly out of existence. The blood bent and strained against Lenny like gelatin, or the skin on an old, cheap bowl of pudding; it still ruffled like water even as the mass of his body distorted it. Mack could feel the heat of the sky-patterns as they throbbed behind him and knew they would burn him to ashes if he so much as brushed one.
If you don't find me it's all going to get worse, said Lenny, his wordless words now pleading. The charnel sea started to envelop him.
"What is?"Do it! Lenny wailed, and then he disappeared into a wall of color that filled the entire universe, and then Mack's ears started ringing, and then he woke up.
This story is based on the folk legend of Tam Lin, although it takes some very severe detours from the source material.
The paintings of Simon Stålenhag were an immense influence on the writing process, particularly for describing the "waking world."
The following YouTube videos were also a not insignificant part of creating this story:
- nana825763's House Walk-Through
- Motomichi Nakamura's video for The Knife's We Share Our Mother's Health
- Andreas Nilsson's video for The Knife's Silent Shout
The highway scene was also inspired, at least in part, by the highway from The Wilderness, though very different happenings occur on each road.
I knew two things going into this thing: one, that I wanted to work off the plot of Tam Lin but not have the transfigured party change back, and two, that I wanted to go absolutely bananas with the body horror. One I was definitely successful at, though I think if I wasn't so exhausted while writing I might've been able to push two even further. Maybe that's for the best.
The work's title is an archaic Scottish term used to refer to tithes given to either clergy or the Fair Folk. Given that Mack and Lenny both tithe in their own ways, and the Gentry want to use Lenny to pay their own debts, it seemed thematically appropriate all the way down.
Providing a complete list of influences for this story would prove nigh impossible, in no small part because I poured so much frenzied effort into it (including starting over twice, once wholly from scratch) over the week I spent working on it, but in addition to the above media I drew upon sources like Changeling: the Lost, Condemned, Silent Hill 2, Psychonauts, the last chapter of Uzumaki, passers-by in Second Life, bits of the otherwise profoundly mediocre-looking PC game Agony, and certain unpleasant dreams I've had in the past. And they say video games rot your brain!
"[T]he kind of coward who'd abandon a dying man" is, of course, an Achewood reference.
Lenny's nature changed a few times as I went. Originally he was a friend of Mack's who vanished one day, and for a brief while he was not just a decoration to be shown off at parties but also a party favor; it took a little doing before I figured out that he was a collector for the Gentry, hence his vast array of owned areas, and that he was transformed in various ways to look nicer. This latter angle didn't completely dovetail with the plot until later! Also of interest is how Lenny's scar was originally a throwaway character detail that later blossomed into a proper tell. Whether he was taken away or willingly left (and what, exactly, he was leaving behind) only locked into place after the second start-from-nowhere.
Mack's relationship with his surroundings is some of that classic Iron Eater brand "person in strange or horrifying situation sees nothing wrong" POV that I love using. The movie with the patchwork man whose name escapes him is the Rutger Hauer made-for-TV vehicle Mr. Stitch. Paired with him namedropping Elric of Melniboné in an argument he presumably has rather quirky tastes.
For those wondering: Mack's "real world" is a place in which humanity has come to an agreement with some manner of mechanical intelligence, in which humanity contributes bioelectricity (a thing) and orgone (not really a thing) in exchange for not getting murdered to death. Enough time has passed since the initial events that a semblance of normalcy has returned to the world. Best not to think about the body count.
The white dogs with red ears that Lenny is so worried about are meant to be parts of the Wild Hunt.
It is, for the record, a tricky-ass thing to write a story about dickbag faeries without actively referring to them as such. An earlier draft of this story didn't call them "the Gentry" at all, but this proved to be a little more confusing than it was worth. The beings to which Lenny risked being traded are, of course, courtiers of Hell, and it's safe to assume a few of them look like Wayne Barlowe art.
The artwork was created in Clip Studio Paint EX, with the white head shapes painted with reference from a photo of a foam mannequin head and everything else just sort of shuffled around until it worked. Both halves of the head were originally painted as a single piece, which was then duplicated and given the unique half-and-half treatments. As I don't often work lineless, it was a good challenge! I'm also pleased with the wet asphalt look I was able to pull off in the first illustration (technically the last one I finished) as well as the eleventh-hour addition of a dormant machine in the distance.
Not bad for a month in which I was also averaging one full-color piece of art a day!