Character Profiles: Taver, the Zealwrought Penitent

 

The story begins the same way each time: in an age of crisis for someone–perhaps a single town, perhaps a city, perhaps all of Creation’s Fringe–a man emerges from the quiet life of martial study he’s spent in an isolated village. Each time, it turns out that he appeared to this or that inhabitant when he was no more than a toddler bearing clothes clearly meant for a grown man. “Call me Taver,” he always says to the first person he meets, who always happens to be the one willing to raise a child–though, as with all things concerning this wandering warrior in an ultramarine surcoat, the story immediately gets more complicated.

First among the wrinkles–Taver almost never speaks aloud. Across every incarnation, he remains a powerful psionic who uses telepathy in place of spoken words. This seemingly has less to do with personal preference and more with pragmatism: it’s claimed that Taver’s words often take on their own life, and when they do they shred reality’s normal laws. Whether this is true has proven impossible to verify. He’s agreed to be a real person, or perhaps entity might be a more accurate term, but there are a few too many penny-tales asserting that the warrior in the blue coat summons demons or seduces gods–or seduced at least one goddess by accident as a byproduct of challenging her to a duel. This last might be true.

Most nations on the Mangle-Planet claim that Taver has appeared there at least once, and the facts grow thoroughly buried. Naturally, whether the average local knows the story only makes it harder to compare notes. Aside from the lands most traveled by the Frost-Sentinels of Mirtulla and among the Marrowscours, who are fascinated–or perhaps concerned–with his purported powers, most upon Creation’s Fringe have heard only wisps from the myths, and wouldn’t necessarily recognize Taver as their subject if they met him in person.

Those who knew Taver, or at least claimed to have known him, wrote down many observations about his personality, powers, and actions. These friends weren’t always professional writers, however, and real accounts have often been discredited for “being so bad they must be fake.” Mirtulla’s Frost Sentinels seem to have particular insight, and have collated certain truths for those with a dire need to know. They guard these jealously–enough so that scholars speculate Taver’s appearances serve a more vital role than is sometimes apparent. Somewhere among the winding centuries, Taver let slip a descriptor applied to him ever since: Zealwrought. He or another eventually suggested “Penitent” and this too stuck.

Across all incarnations, Taver retains certain traits. He moves, acts, and even emotes with inhuman fluidity, but this never manages to seem graceful. His muscles do not twitch; they’re static one moment, and sliding through motion the next with no visible transition. Each hip-pivot, each sweep of his current weapon, even a lip-quirk or other facial expression: they fuse machine-like consistency with serpentine smoothness to the point of seeming hallucinatory, motions so exact as to make some people ill when seeing them made by a human.

If Taver is human, of course; there’s considerable reason for doubt. The Penitent’s facial structure only worsens this; it appears handsome at a glance, but closer examination reveals such geometric perfection it’s clearly unnatural. A sculptor who managed to obtain a cast of Taver’s face remarked that it looked like it was crafted by a creature in love with symmetry and numbers, not the human form itself.

There is also the matter that Taver, despite his own best efforts, cannot manage to stay dead. In a legend popular among the Novgori communes, he safeguarded a group of greenhorn adventurers in the hunt for a ravenous Chemorsk–a muscular amphibian with interlocking coats of scales and blubber in place of fur–slew the twenty-foot predator himself, and died about a minute later when a boulder fell on him while talking with the group’s Tinker about plans for the future.

So ended Taver’s alleged first appearance upon Creation’s Fringe in 596 of the Ninth Era; cobalt fire vaporized the pulp and blood seeping from beneath the boulder, and this was the last time the hunters saw him. Before this they’d witnessed him drown, bleed out after fighting off a hundred raiders by himself, and simply collapse of exhaustion; each time he returned in short order. His next incarnation might have happened in any of five countries based on competing myths, but all were on the opposite side of the world. A “life” for Taver involves many deaths and rebirths before a final one which sticks only in the aftermath of achieving a paramount victory or suffering an irreversible defeat.

Until this pivotal moment arrives, the same rules apply: Taver can be killed by anything which would kill a normal human, though he usually forces his foes to utterly eviscerate him along the way. The problem they always encounter: Taver reincarnates at the same age in the same surcoat instantly and not far distant. If they can kill him a second time, he’ll stay dead for all of one day. This makes Taver’s victory against some threats–wild beasts, entities chained to a single location–inevitable. As all too many stories tell, however, greater foes can learn to use the system against him.

On the lighter side, of course, there are many legends in which Taver’s newest group of companions confront him over particularly humiliating deaths. Taver’s response is consistent through the tales: “Ah, but I remember the turtle!” Devotees to the Penitent’s myth have been arguing about which turtle he might mean for years; the favorite as of 1196 of the Ninth Era is the Segmentus Maw, an enormous arcane construct in the shape of a snapping turtle which has plagued shipping between the continents of Savber and Plenth for thousands of years.

As with everyone else, there are legends and then there is reality. Taver knows which stories hold truth and which do not; for a multitude of reasons, the Penitent refuses to clarify.

Among Taver’s most infamous powers are what can only be called a Cleaving Presence and his dreaded Words. The former is a devastating psionic effect generated by rough proximity to Taver, but how far away from him counts as “safe” varies wildly between accounts–and this doesn’t break down by timeline! At various points in history, the Frost Sentinels’ own estimates suggest a normal person could speak with Taver from just ten feet away. At other times, however, being within three hundred feet of the Penitent inflicts swift mental collapse.

The Cleaving Presence seems loosely connected with the threats Taver must face in the current life, but even this is questionable; he had the Presence in full during the Chemorsk Hunt, but the beast was only a threat to the livelihood of a single town. Meanwhile, at the onset of a quest which ended with a full-scale war against the planar being Fon Kerrick, most people only felt Taver’s effects from twenty feet away or less.

The symptom remains the same, varying only in intensity: those meeting the Penitent are overtaken by hallucinations of themselves plummeting against an immense sword forged from raw stellar fire. They meet its edge and fall against it endlessly, never released by final splitting, all their consciousness and every nerve feeling suctioned against the awful blade until it rends their last sanity. For those who actually reach this point, death soon follows–perhaps an aneurysm, but often a far more dramatic end as cobalt energy blasts through their bodies and burns so brightly in their veins that the skin around them flashes to ash.

At the risk of breaking my lore-voice, this was Taver’s original design from last year. As you can see, both he and his sword have received some upgrades! Also, I got better at sketching. This helped.

The Frost Sentinels say this effect can be mitigated, but refuse to explain how. It permeates even Taver’s telepathy; most conversations with him come from close friends in that current life who seemed defended from his presence in some way, or else in bloodshed’s immediate aftermath. Children hearing fables about the Penitent usually ask, “why doesn’t he just talk?” Then it’s time for their guardians to sigh, ruffle their hair, and explain Taver’s Words.

When the need is dire or the threats so great he cares nothing for the side-effects, Taver can speak aloud. Whenever he does, however, there’s a higher chance than not that some or all of the words emerge in an apocalyptic tongue which unravels and reshapes reality on the instant. This always reflects the ideas behind his words somehow, but not necessarily in a way healthy for those around the Penitent. A jibe at the enemy’s poor combat performance may strike them dead on the spot or immediately empower them. A chance remark about needing a drink might rip open a portal to a strange tavern known as the Unsleeping Ferryman, or afflict Taver and those around him with impenetrable drunkenness for a full week.

No matter the Words’ other effects, they wreck the other minds which hear them clearly. The symptoms, again, vary with the Words themselves, but they always involve an acute madness driven by the word’s meaning: mentioning food may turn the hapless listener into an insatiable glutton who hurls restaurant patrons aside and, through slavering screams, threatens the kitchen staff with death if they aren’t fed. Even compliments hold peril–a street busker might freeze to death, face trapped forever in gleeful frenzy as their fingers struggle for one more note, or a soldier’s courage become a threat to all around him when he refuses to give ground to the enemy even though the time to stand and fight has gone.

It’s all well and good to write about what others have written over Taver, but sooner or later a sapient being must be known through themselves. Below are a few of the answers Taver might give if he found the right people to give them to.

The Words’ effects are quite real. It follows that Taver rarely speaks, and he rarely spends much time at all around ordinary people. This makes Taver’s existence a lonely one, for the most part. He makes few friends for fear of what his Presence might do to them in the process, always running back and forth between crises and searching for the one that will allow him to die and to rest. On his latest incarnation this scant comfort was stolen too. This time Taver has returned with enough memories from past lives to know the path he walks. Scourging him more fiercely, he also remembers what he’s doing penance for in the first place.

The Zealwrought Penitent finds himself once again without a sword; the murderous odachi in older depictions disappeared many years ago for unknown reasons. Taver feels certain he’ll see it again when he’s earned it. In the meantime, however, his supernatural strength and psionic powers make it all too likely he’ll break any mundane weapon he finds. He’s pleased enough to acquire a greatsword, since this is the weapon he knows best–the good ones give him a whole five strokes before snapping off midway through some sod’s rib-cage! In his own estimation, Taver’s no more than a passable duelist at present, but he does have certain advantages beyond weaponizing the presence and words which force him into solitude.

Emberzeal stands among the principle ones–an ecstatic fury fed by bloodshed and chaos which fills Taver with blue-star fire and drastically boosts his abilities for the duration of a battle. The Marrowscours develop this ability via gradual exposure to the Uncanny Marrow and eventually pass this on to their children. Taver has lived with many peoples, but never the Marrowscours. He lets the stories work in his favor on this count; if he wanted anyone to know how easily he found Emberzeal, they already would.

Otherwise, Taver deeply understands martial arts, weaponry, and tactics across cultures, but encounters a sort of mental wall when it comes time to apply his knowledge. Strikes seem wobbly and imprecise, opponents are often more skilled than initially judged, and his battle-planning always shows loopholes after the fact. Every human grapples with these things, so the Penitent knows he shouldn’t be surprised; still, he can’t help but feel he should be better than these mistakes.

He also likes to sing. When he has someone to share his personality with, Taver shows himself to be quite animated. He’ll rip himself to pieces (metaphorically!… usually) for missing a parry in sparring, but always has a pep-talk ready for a friend who needs it. In doing so, he chooses to focus on highlighting strengths rather than shaming for weakness. This may be connected to the Zealwrought Tenets Taver often alludes to, but he’s coy about discussing them in detail even with those he trusts.

Beyond these things, Taver cherishes two competing sets of ideals. On the one hand, he puts morals above laws and believes he holds the sacred duty to defend the innocent and avenge them when he fails: either way, this demands he cleave the wicked. He has no qualms about misdirecting guards so an older sister stealing to feed her siblings can escape–maybe society should make sure children aren’t starving if it wants its precious laws followed!–and will just as cheerfully carve a rich prince to pieces in his own court on finding out that said royal is a sexual predator.

When he fails in these or other charges, Taver enters a quasi-catatonic state. Overwhelmed by self-loathing, he staggers to a quiet place to collapse and may remain there for hours, alternately keening, clawing his scalp or snarling mad ramblings to the emptiness around him until he musters the will to rise and return to action. He does his best to keep this state secret for very simple reasons: he knows that it’s irrational, despite his inability to overcome it, and that it can easily be used against him. A few past enemies have done just that–after killing Taver for the second time in one day, they’ve often been able to gain a head-start on the next by slaughtering a few villagers in the right place. Taver poses no threat at all if he’s debilitated by guilt the moment he reappears.

In direct contrast to his ideals, Taver thrives on violence–be it a quiet duel in an isolated glen or the final breach and street-fighting which fell a great city. Where most psionics can be reduced to gibbering husks by constant deaths, Taver seems invigorated by all of it. He often refers to battle as a source of lessons or something to look forward to, and has no trouble affirming that he’s a warrior before everything else, and a warrior who doesn’t kill is just as useless as a hollow shovel-blade. Even his psionic powers seem drastically more effective when used for violence; whether this reflects only his own enjoyment or something deeper, Taver won’t say.

Taver does believe that everything worth doing is worth doing perfectly. This makes asking him for feedback a risky choice; if he has the knowledge for it, he’ll often be able to deliver several paragraphs of points on the spot! He loves art and song almost as much as battle–though his feral grin during any fight makes his true love clear–showing a special adoration for crisp geometry, vibrant colors, and flamboyant expression done skillfully. He’s given to poetic or even oratorical speech patterns which carry through in telepathy despite its being a direct transmission of ideas.

Perhaps unconsciously, but likely not, Taver himself tends to move with far more flair than any given action demands. The only exceptions, again, are his actions during battle. Taver somehow finds a way to throw half-spins and surcoat-stirring snaps of the leg to a simple look for street-signs, but doesn’t so much as twitch a finger when using telekinesis to spit two foes on the same spear.

As to the question of why he must wander Creation’s Fringe and what purpose he serves there, Taver himself may not know or else will not answer.

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