On the nature of murder

9 March, 2014

With thanks to Baldur’s Gate II and The Throne of Bhall – one of the last CRPGs with an actual story.

It was business as usual in the Hall of Judgment in Sigil, where the gods wrangle over souls. All the avatars were there, great and small: from Pelor, god of the Sun, to Annoya, goddess of things getting stuck in the kitchen drawer.

They were arguing without much interest over the soul of one Lady Jane Marchmoor, of Marchmoor Hall: a spoiled teenager, cold and ungrateful wife, and finally mean and sharp-toungued old lady. Nothing much to distinguish her, saving perhaps not a single sincere prayer from a mortal to plead her case. An all-around horrible person, but what was her crime, exactly? To which fate ought she be consigned? One more for the Grey Waste seemed to be the consensus, with only one or two halfhearted objections.

Then the new god stepped forward. Jason, last child of Bhall, now god of murder. “I claim this soul”, he said, and the various aspects of the gods became more focused, more aware, subtly, indefinably more there.

Mask steeped forward. “But this is preposterous! The woman has never done a murder in her life! Never taken a soul! You’ll have to argue sharply, Jason old boy, to take this one.”

The last child of Bhall replied, “Then it is in order that I make my case? I shall take that as a ‘yes’. Very well.”

“This one has been mine for many, many years. I noticed her when she was nine – full of envy, spite, and anger. All her circle fawning over her friend Constance and her new dress. The sincerity, the purity of her hate! How could I not hear it? I came to her, I spoke to her, and said, “Everything would be much nicer if Constance were gone.” I gave her the lie to speak, and I did not fail to warn her conscience. She understood. She acted. Oh, Constance did not die – it’s true – she was merely sent far, far away, never to bother Jane again.”

“From that day, Jane needed almost no prodding at all from me. She destroyed the futures of young men who irritated her, she told the most poisonous lies about romantic rivals, she won marriage to young Lord Marchmoor (whom she treated abominably) by blackmail, and once married she ran her little society with an iron hand – not merely cutting acquaintances who “bored” her (in truth, any person with any backbone or decency at all “bored” her) but had them banished to the frontier, stripped of their titles, destroyed financially, utterly ostracised. And should I even speak of the sheer number of servants that she dismissed for even the most trifling of causes? One after another, dismissed with a simple “Get. Out.””

“Never once did she reach an accomodation with another person. Never once did she honestly contend, take and give ground, agree to disagree. She could never bear the slightest difference with anyone. Needless to say, she never had a friend. But even that is not the core of her.”

“Far from here, in another reality altogether, there was a great tyrant named Joseph Stalin. One day, one of his courtiers came to him and said “We are having a problem with a man”. Stalin replied, “No man – no problem.”

“Oh, she never actually killed anyone. I only spoke to her twice more in her life, and one of those was to dissuade her from poisoning a rival.”

“But the truth of her is this: her first and only reaction to the smallest difficulty with anyone was always to make the person be gone. Make them be gone. This is the heart of murder, whether of one or ten or a whole society. To address difficulties by erasing people. To choose that as your means.”

“I say again, this one is mine.”

It was the aspect of Mephistopheles who spoke next. “Interesting. And what is to be her fate?”

Jason replied: “I am not cruel. She will suffer the fate of a murderer, which is to be alone. Perhaps she will wander an endless desert, or row across an endless, calm sea. Whatever fate her mind constructs. More likely, she will wander the halls of her mansion, untroubled by any other. I shall not grant her timelessness. Nor shall I return her to the wheel. I will permit her to fade, until even the stain of her spirit is no more. Then I will reclaim her cell and be last to forget her, as is my duty. I am her god, after all.”

Mask spoke again, “A fine tale old boy, but the proof is in the pudding, as they unfortunately say. We will need a demonstration.”
Jason replied, “You wish me to test her, then?”.
“A tempting!”, Mephisopheles exclaimed, “By all means a tempting! And by the new god of murder no less! This should be diverting, to say the least.”

The other gods, many of them with faces stiff with disapproval, assented.

Jason approached Lady Jane Marchmoor, of Marchmoor Hall. The spirit had adopted, as all spirits do, its true form, the shape of its truest self. In her case, that of the pinch-faced, querulous old woman she had become in life.

“Good morning, your ladyship.”
“Who are you?”, Lady Marchmoor replied, “I don’t recognise you, but I’m sure I know you from somewhere. Speak!”
“Oh, I’m sure we have spoken. You know that you are dead, don’t you? That this is the afterlife?”
“Well, yes, I suppose so. I can’t say I think much of it”, she sniffed.
“And the gods? How about them? I suppose it’s very impressive to see them all here like this.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” she said, her tone turning peevish, “they are not at all what I expected. It turns out they are rather…”,
“Demanding? Insistent?”, offered Jason.
“Rude, I was going to say.”
“Oh, I know just what you mean. And of course, you’ll be spending forever with them, you know. It’s the afterlife, it’s rather their nature to be telling people what to do.”
“And they get all the people running around after them, I suppose.”
“Oh yes, that too. They impose on people, you know. Judge them.”
“Well! Well, it’s not really what I was expecting.”
“I know. Of course, matters could be arranged …”

Lady Marchmoor’s eyes narrowed, grew focused. Every god in the audience saw her calculation. It was the nature of the testing that the absurd impossibility of what the god of murder had just suggested did not occur to her, only the possibility that she might spend the rest of eternity doing exactly as she pleased.

“And what do you mean by that?”
“Well, your ladyship, I think you know what I mean. I can arrange for the gods to be – shall we say – done away with? They’ll never bother you again.”
“And, just supposing now, how would we go about that?”
“I have just the thing with me.” Jason pulled out of the air a murder contract. “Here, I’ll just put in ‘all the gods’ here, and as you see – I will arrange for them to be no longer a concern for you.”
“And then what will happen?”
“Well, you’ll be in the afterlife, of course, other people will arrive in due course”
“And what about Elsie?”
“And Elsie too, will arrive, yes.”
“Well! I’m not sure I want to spend an eternity with Elsie! Insufferable! Always going on about her feet.”
“Not a concern! We haven’t signed, yet, so I’ll just put ‘Do away with all the gods, and everyone.’ on the contract. That covers it all, I think. Ahh – you understand, don’t you, that it won’t necessarily be very nice for them?”.

And all the gods each held their breath. Here was the point of decision, here was the moment when the truth of this soul would manifest. Completely. Inarguably. For good or for ill.

“I don’t care. Now, what do I need to do? Does it have to be signed in blood or something?”
“Ha ha! No, not at all. But you have to mean it, your ladyship. There’s no turning back, you understand.”
“But you will do it? Do away with all the gods and everyone?”

And so Lady Jane Marchmoor, of Marchmoor Hall, signed a contract with the god of Murder for the doing away with of all the gods, and everyone. Her spirit grew transparent, faded into mist, and blew through the quill she held, leaving a splendidly florid signature on the page.

Jason turned the page over. In complete detail was a drawing of her ladyship’s drawing-room in Marchmoor Hall. At the moment, she was snoozing in her favourite chair. “As I thought”, he said, generally addressing the assembly, “she goes to home to the hall she won by disposing of others. Strong ink on this page, but it will fade in time. So who gainsays my claim to this spirit?”

No-one replied. After a moment or two, the faceless angel that calls the souls of the dead summoned another, and the attention of the gods moved on. Mask and Mephispheles lingered.

“Nicely done, old boy!”, said Mask to Jason, “I must say you have quite expanded your ballywick!”.
“And done so without taking more of yours, which is the important thing,” Jason replied, “we will probably work together a fair bit, so we should be on good terms.”

“Indeed,” said Mephistopheles, “but you will necessarily intrude on someone. After all, the souls of the wrathful who do not actually go on to kill someone are usually mine.”
“Infernal one,” replied Jason, “with respect, yes I may take a few. But I can no more claim all the wrathful than Mask here can claim everyone who tries their hand at shoplifting once or twice. This woman, murderousness defines her. My claim is just.”

“And do you intend to discharge this contract on ‘all the gods, and everyone'”?
“Well, in effect”, Jason replied, “the contract says they are to be done away with, and now they are away from her. No-one is complaining. Not even her.”
“And the fate of the woman herself”?

Now at last the eyes of the last child of Bhall grew cold and black, his smile fell away, his face spoke of implacable purpose. For the first time, he truly looked like the god of murder. “The contract specifies ‘and everyone’. That includes her. I will do as I have agreed. I am her god, it is for me to murder her. Finally and completely. As I said: she shall not return to the wheel.”

There remained little to say. But Mask did offer a parting shot. “You know, she would make a useful demon.” “I have some others, but I will not make a demon of this one.” said Jason. “I suppose I am like her, in a way. I also do not wish my life to be cluttered with a lot of horrible, nasty little people.”

Mephistopheles chuckled like a devil that has just gotten a useful snippet of information. Then they each departed. One to Hell, one to Pandemonium, and the newest god to back to earth, to seek souls ready to do murder.