The King in Yellow
Mastigoi PI, theárch, dreamwalker
A worn leather jacket over the only nice suit he owns. An unreadable look creased at the edges with a calming smile. A glint of ambition in the depths of analytical eyes. Hair riding the line between intentional mess and unintentional laze. An aura of quiet confidence underneath a veneer of assumed authority.
Played by: Josh
-Shadow Name: Witness
-Full Name: Tomasz Bartosz Nowak
-Order: Silver Ladder
-Birthday: January 28, 1992
-Birthplace: Warren, Michigan (Macomb County)
-Nationality: U.S.A.; Polish, 3rd generation.
-Weight: 155 lbs.
-Mother: Barbara Nowak
-Father: Jakub Nowak
-Siblings: Eliza (27), Antoni (22), Idzi (20)
-Profession: Private Investigator
-Additional Notes: History of paranoid schizophrenia.
- S: Experience a Dramatic Failure.
- S: Talk my way past someone.
- L: Establish “Troubled Youth” Cryptopoly
-Biography (Summary; full dive below): Witness grew up in a poor but loving family in the primarily Polish neighborhoods of Warren, Michigan. While his parents punched a long clock, his older sister and himself wrangled his younger brothers and helped keep the plates spinning. Witness grew up keenly aware of the machinations of a system designed to keep families like his where they were in the world and edged into his teenage years rebelling against the whole damn thing in an escalating tide of petty crimes. It was during this paradigm shift that the first hints of his mental illness began to take hold of his mind and, soon, his life. A stint in juvie became a stay in a bleak parade of psychiatric facilities until overcrowding saw him ejected onto the streets. Not long after, in a stroke of good but misguided intentions, he fled his family into the homeless populace of Detroit to escape the fact that the machine had finally caught his guts in its gears. There, a kindly theárch guided his soul to an Awakening that freed him from the shackles of his illness and set him on a path to help struggling minds find their own greatness. He pours this passion primarily into his self-started career as a private investigator where he finds such a degree of overlap with his pursuit of the Mysteries as to nearly make them indistinguishable.
-The Philosophy of a Witness
—Tenet of Strength: It is the duty of strong minds to challenge weaker minds. It is the duty of strong minds to protect them from those that would prey on their weakness before it has developed into the beacon of greatness it yearns to become. By and large, Witness detests most religions, politicians, despots, and any other individual or organization spewing ignorance, fear, or hatred in an attempt to cull and cower the masses.
—Tenet of Weakness: People should focus much less on warring with each other and much more with warring with themselves. They should rage against their weaknesses and constantly break themselves down to build something new from the rubble. This is a process that will never be done, but each iteration of the self will be better than the last. Complacency is death. With this in mind, Witness revels in defeat because it exposes weaknesses to be ground down and blown away if not reshaped into a new strength entirely.
—Tenet of Desire: We are what we want and, so long as it does not violate the Tenet of Strength, what we want should not be denied by ourselves out of a preconceived notion of ethics or danger as preached by the Fallen World and it’s hidden masters. What matters isn’t moderation, but control. Any sentient creature should be allowed to indulge in their vices as deeply as they wish so long as they maintain the ability to exit even at the height of their pleasures. That control is what separates desire from addiction.
—Tenet of Dreams: The Astral is even more real than the Fallen. In the Fallen, lies of all shapes and sizes can be hidden and what you see too often cannot be trusted. In the Astral, however, every thought and every secret takes form and stalks its ethereal fields. The Fallen is a prison and the Astral is a freedom limited only by will and imagination.
—Big Picture: As with most other willworkers, Witness seeks Ascension. More than most other willworkers, however, his real goal is initiation into the Oracle fold once he breaches through to the Supernal. Only someone worthy of the name could possibly pit themselves against the Exarchs directly, where his final goal lies. He wants to set his mind against theirs and crack them open like an egg, spilling out the same psychological ingredients every human possesses and showing both the followers that venerate them and the enemies that fear them that they are just as fallible, familiar, and flawed as any living thing. He would throw back the curtain and show them all the sniveling men behind it.
—Slightly Smaller Picture: The above goals will require great power and even greater experience, both fed through the pursuit of rare knowledge and grand Mysteries. The paths the common Awakened community flow through are important, but they will not be enough to get him where he wants to go. If they were, the Wise would be Ascending at an alarming rate and the struggle against the Exarchs and their lackeys wouldn’t have gone on for so damn long. In addition to all of that, he wants to assert himself in reality, to conquer its obstacles and achieve greatness so mighty it hardens into myth even should the unlikely event of his failure to Ascend occur. He doesn’t want that because he thinks he’s better, but because he feels it’s what all people should be doing instead of just daydreaming about it. That said, Witness believes there is no need to dedicate his mind to such heights of temporal greatness. If he achieves everything else he wants, becoming a legend for future generations will happen organically and almost as an afterthought.
—Childhood (Year 0-15): Born and raised in Warren, Michigan, in a lower middle class neighborhood where generations of Polish immigrants and their kin had brought up families, Tom’s early years were modest but happy. His mother and father had met as teenagers apprenticing under mechanics at General Motors and their summer romance had bloomed into a warm, steady love for one another that would come to define Tom’s idea of the word even into adulthood. Even when times were especially lean, the Nowak family never worried about full stomachs and only rarely saw the lights turn out or the water turn off. Keeping all of these plates spinning meant both parents working long shifts, now mechanics themselves, and sometimes they didn’t walk through the front door until well after the sun had gone down. Whereas a weaker family might buckle under such pressure, this made the four children close and taught them self-reliance at a young age.
Tom had always loved and respected his parents with all the blood and sweat they poured into keeping the family engine going, but there was always a part of him that saw their acceptance of the limited mold the world was forcing them into and resented them for it. Even as a child he saw the cogs of an invisible machine designed to chew through the labor of families like his and spit out their bones just in time for the next batch to come through. As a teenager, the bitter anger this brought him would inspire a rebellion in his bones and the first stirrings of his Sleeping soul.
As the two oldest often tasked with herding their younger brothers and making sure they went to sleep clean and fed, Eliza and Tom shared a particularly strong bond. Where Eliza was drawn to the family trade in her free time, however, Tom found his off hours occupied with his spiritual struggle in the form of questionable friends and escalating crimes. Despite the patient pleadings and guiding hands of his parents, he was on a crash course that could not be turned around. Little by little, he brought stress and anxiety into a home that had before been a refuge from the harsh cold of the Fallen World. Though he never had the time or the desire to join a proper gang, Tom walked Warren’s streets slowly accumulating a following of like-minded malcontents who believed in his simple philosophy that the world was a broken place and they wouldn’t get their due from it if they didn’t push back against the machine that kept them small. Before long, locals began to refer to this group of young vandals and anarchists as the “Bower Park Boys.”
At the ripe age of 15 Tom had already accumulated a laundry list of convictions on his rap sheet including vandalism, underage drinking, possession, destruction of public property, disturbing the peace, and theft. Only the heartfelt appeals of his parents, a sympathetic judge, and hundreds of hours of half-assed community service kept him out jail. Eventually, however, that judge’s sympathies waned and no amount of tears from his mother could save him from himself. By the time he finally found himself inside of juvie, Tom felt the shadow that had been growing in his mind over the last year become a storm that would signal both the end of his sanity and his youth.
—The Mirror Men (Year 16-17): Tom’s schizophrenia came upon him in full once he was behind the cold walls of the detention facility. It was as if all of his raging against the machine had kept it quiet, kept it fed, but once it was shackled by that machine it tore through his mind with the rabid ferocity of a caged beast. Whispers that would initially keep him company quickly turned into voices of constant criticism that laughed at his homesickness and sneered at his sorrow. This cruel chorus whittled down his strength and self-image almost entirely within the first year, leaving him skittish and withdrawn; an afterimage of the Bower Park Boy of yesterday. For a long time, he managed to keep these voices to himself in fear of being forced to stay longer if someone knew – or so the voices insisted – but even that would not last.
As Tom was nearing his seventeenth birthday and the end of his sentence, a realization entered his brain like a switch being flipped. He began to mutter about the “Mirror Men” to himself and anyone that would listen; eyes desperate, hands wringing. In his mind, the Mirror Men were eldritch beings that lived just outside of creation using mirrors to manipulate the minds of humanity and shape the world to their liking. Those that were on to their sinister plan would be replaced with their mirror selves, perfect servitors for their masters, and to Tom he was the only one who saw the truth. The stellar workforce of the facility never bothered to report this change in behavior, happy to join the inmates in having their fun with his madness before they were rid of him. Tom had no real perception of up or down anymore, however, so in this his illness spared him from their cruelty.
On the day of his release his parents saw clearly the change in their son. When he looked into their eyes he did not see confusion, but knowledge; knowledge, and sorrow.
—The Bad Years (Year 18-20): Though Tom wouldn’t be able to truly digest it until much later, Tom’s father would come to tell him after his release that his brother, Tom’s uncle Bartosz – after whom he’d gotten his middle name – had struggled with the same symptoms for much of his life. It would lead to the suicide that had always before been the only topic not up for discussion in their home. Before Bartosz, Tom’s grandfather Filip suffered the voices, landing him in the facility he still lived in, little more than an empty shell after the lobotomy had snuffed out his spark. Tom’s parents had hoped his father’s freedom from the affliction would mean their children would also be spared, but such was not their lot.
Over the next two years, Tom would spend his life in and out of psychiatric hospitals, his months a constant rotation of home, doctors, and sedated zombie fugues. The cycle of his sickness became almost atomic in its predictability. First they’d find a new combination of meds that quieted the voices and made him a fair facsimile of the boy – now young man – they used to know. Then came his failure to take them, or their failure to maintain their changes, and he would find himself huddling in dark rooms away from reflective surfaces, smashing every mirror he’d pass, or attacking whatever bystander he’d become convinced was a “Mirror Thrall.” Only once was one of these attacks truly harmful, but given that it involved him concussing Eliza with a plate and nearing severing her carotid artery with the broken pieces, it was enough. After that, though his family still came to visit him in the hospital, they no longer came to take him home. He had been declared a serious threat to the safety of himself and others, and they didn’t argue the point.
When Tom was at his healthiest, he couldn’t stop thinking about that night with Eliza and the look of animal terror on his big sister’s face when he slashed at her upheld arms, howling incoherent curses at her with every frantic stroke. Though most of his family’s’ visits began to dwindle, either out of the despair seeing him brought to them or a guilt they couldn’t face, Eliza never faltered in her weekly visits, seeming completely undeterred by the fact that he had almost murdered her. It was this unconditional love and the memory of that night that motivated Tom to finally fully engage with his treatments. When eventually overcrowding and good behavior earned him an early release a year later (a fine showing of the system’s treatment of the mentally ill, to be sure), these also gave him all the reason he needed to disappear completely from her and everyone else he had ever burdened with his sickness. He knew it would claim him again, as it always had, and he wanted to be far, far away at the bottom of some black hole when at last it did.
—The Tent Cities of Detroit (Year 21-23): Tom knew the best way to disappear would be to head towards people instead of away from them. Under this criteria, no place in Michigan was better suited to get lost than Detroit. With no money and no prospects for employment, Tom resigned himself to living out the rest of his days among the city’s sprawling homeless population, just another face in a crowd people already had trouble looking in the eye.
Now only a little over twenty-one years of age, Tom eked out an existence recycling what little he could find and relying on the sparse generosity of others for the rest. Hunger and cold became familiar friends, another couple voices lost in the cacophony that followed him wherever he wandered. In the back alleys and tent city sprawls of Detroit, his illness didn’t cost him company. There were plenty like him, the ill that had been failed or abandoned by a rusted system, but there were also others that had simply fallen on hard times and never found their footing back up again. Regardless of which side of the homeless fence they fell on, they helped fight back the worst of the loneliness. Some even began to migrate with him through the forgotten avenues of the city’s bowels; a pale reflection of his life back home without all the fire that had once brought him strength and clarity.
Roughly six months into his new lost life, a new player stepped out from behind the curtain. Word spread of a priest – Father Abe – making a circuit around the tent cities, providing food, water, and blankets in exchange for an hour of their conversation. This stood out not for the act itself – there was always some organization or another vowing to end Detroit’s homeless problem, but they rarely stuck around – but because these sermons weren’t cut from the same cloth as the rest. There was no talk of God, or Christ, or any of the other nonsense Tom had always seen as another shape for the great machine’s chains to take. Instead, this priest spoke of climbing a ladder of will out of the oppression thrust upon them by the cruel whims of society’s corporate masters. No one was coming to save them, he said. There were no angels coming to lift them out of the dark or gods to soothe their subdued suffering. He could give their bodies sustenance, but they and they alone were responsible for the health of their souls. Father Abe told winding tales of a deep sleep that had fallen over the world and kept humanity complacent, and pliant, and numb to the plights of their fellow man, all while passing around a communal fifth of Wild Turkey. He urged them to make one step a day forward, towards freedom, towards open eyes and stronger minds, and it spoke to Tom. Many came for the distraction, for the food and the booze, but several others were held in the same rapture as Tom. A hum was beginning to pick up volume just behind his forehead, like a third eye straining to pry open, and even the whispers in his head couldn’t drown it out.
—The Awakening (Year 23): Over the next year and a half, Father Abe tightened his orbit around his flock. He held private gatherings with less alcohol and more philosophy, trimming down the group more and more with each passing day. Eventually, only Tom and he remained, their meetings moved to Father Abe’s apartment without the predatory vibes one might expect from such a scene. Tom hardly noticed. When he was around the priest, the din of the voices in his head dipped to a murmur and that old spark of his, long lost, began to warm his marrow again for the first time in years. The voices railed against it, sometimes convincing him to flee, but the patience of the priest knew no end. Always he would find him, and always Tom felt a little bit closer to a truth that had been just beyond his reach for all of his life.
When Tom’s Awakening came upon him, it started with the voices. Instead of the usual derisions fished from the vast pool of his self-hatred and self-doubt, the condemnations they uttered spoke of strange and alien things. They talked among themselves about a Silver Ladder he was too weak to climb, the depths of an Abyss he was too scared to plumb, and a Watchtower he was too stupid to find. More than the words themselves, it was the voices uttering them that began to shake him from his Sleep; his sister, the Boys, Father Abe, and anyone else he had ever felt indebted or connected to. They spoke of failures he didn’t understand with a sneering malice that, rather than deflate him, brought his blood to a boil. Every second that passed brought that heat higher and burned away the voices one by one until there was finally silence.
In the quiet, Tom’s ego struggled for a while to maintain simple cohesion. It was as if he was stepping outside of his body and truly looking at himself for the first time. He saw the boney, bedraggled man he had become with the clear head of the boy he used to be and threw a wild punch against his temple with all the strength he could muster, barely registering the desire to do it before it was done. It rocked him back into the driver seat seemingly free of his illness but now viewing a world that had been painted over with the brush of a surveillance dystopia. The veneer of the Lie had been scrubbed away and he was viewing the Fallen World now through a lens of Supernal truth.
The back alley Tom had awoken in, hands still over a barrel fire, had replaced cracked asphalt with flawless iron. The other people there, some with him around the fire and others halfway in tents and cardboard shelters, all stared at him then with eyes gone white. As he began to move toward the mouth of the alley, compelled by a tugging in the pit of his stomach, their fixed looks and shuffling footsteps followed. He could feel their minds anchored to his, riding shotgun in his waking dream, but it didn’t feel wrong. It felt natural, it felt good; developing consciousnesses looking for purpose and being given a mainline to the cosmos.
Stopping just short of the open avenue, Tom absorbed the sights before him, breathing in every symbol and exhaling understanding. Pale, faceless drones wearing the same frumpy suits and lugging the same black suitcases hustled along polished white cement with heads hung low and eyes kept firmly on the ground. Lining their path, evenly spaced every twenty feet, were street lights casting a bright fluorescent glow from above. Crowding around their poles, the red eyes of dozens of security cameras pointed in every direction. The only vehicles on the road were slick, black glass vans with “FOR YOUR OWN GOOD” blazing in a feverish red on their sides. Occasionally the vans would stop by an idling drone, spill out a couple metal men with whirring joints and pumping pistons to haul them screaming into the back, and pull away casually as you like. No one stopped, slowed, or even cringed in simple empathy. If anything, their pace quickened and their heads hung a little lower.
Stunted buildings of the same white cement as the streets filled every spare inch of ground like a mainstreet thoroughfare, promising distractions to the drones in the form of FOOD, SEX, LOVE, ESCAPE, and THINGS in a big black font as boring as they were. Further in from the street, other buildings dripped red with blood, convulsed and rearranged themselves with booming crashes of stone, took shapes with impossible angles, or crawled with pulsing veins black with hate and disease. In further still, worse than the rest, were black glass skyscrapers so tall they disappeared beyond the ceiling of the night sky. Midway up each of these constructs, pressed into every side, were blinking, inhuman eyes. It was the skyline of a nightmare and it was the most real thing he had ever seen.
Gazing upon all of this, Tom suddenly knew the full truth about the Mirror Men and how limited his insight had really been. There were invisible beings from beyond reality as he knew it, shaping it as their whims demanded, but they didn’t work alone. The world was riddled with all manner of things with their clawed fingers hooked into the brains of humanity, hiding in plain sight as easily as they did in deep, forgotten shadows. They did their works with the certainty that they were invisible and untouchable by the meek human herds.
Tom uttered the words like a mantra, the throng of followers behind him echoing along, and with each verse his fingers began to glow brighter with the fires of Prime. The abodes of these creatures showed plain to his new eyes and he would mark them for what they were.
Just as this plan took shape and cemented in his will, filling him with an unyielding pride, the path forward into the drones became blocked by some that had begun to jerk and change until they were no longer men, but demons. They became thin, almost skeletal things with dark blue skin covered in darting eyes and mouths that moved with the same haunting whispers that had followed him through most of his adult life. Their hands clenched tight over their ears as if they were being beleaguered by their own words and where a normal set of eyes should be were instead a pair of sockets sewn shut. They didn’t move, but Tom knew if he tried to press through them that their hands would fall over his ears instead and it would be his eyes that were shown shut once again, this time for good. He had to break through, but how?
As quickly as he understood the Mirror Men, so too did he understand here that between him and the buildings he sought lay no actual distance at all. He was connected to the unnatural edifices through a cord of fury and familiarity built over nearly a decade. It made him feel close to his tormentors, his oppressors, and so he was. He felt them just behind his back, always, and so they were.
What followed next was a chain of tugging on these cords and appearing next to the buildings just long enough to drag his burning finger across their faces in the shape of an open eye; a branded accusation and threat that said I am the watcher of watchmen, and I see you.
Each leap through space dragged an ever increasing following with him until, when at last he came to his final spot, he was an army strong. Waiting for him there, however, was not a building to mark. Staring him down with pitch black eyes was himself as he was now, dirty and unkempt, but with a shroud of whispers all around him, fingers capped in gnarled, yellowed claws, and a grinning mouth full of rows of bloody teeth sharp enough to chew through steel. At his back stood an army of his own, a legion of the lesser demons that had tried to stop Tom from getting here. He knew as instinctually as he had known everything else that this greater demon was himself, the embodiment of his cruelty and madness, and if Tom was going to complete this long journey it would have to be through his defeat.
Their battle would not be with fists. Instead of squaring off with one another, they pressed their foreheads together, each grabbing the back of the other’s head, and disappeared into a world of soul and thought; a dream within a dream. They fought in shifting landscapes with equally mercurial laws, each one feeding so quickly into the next that Tom felt himself constantly teetering on the edge of being swallowed whole inside of it. Titanic will clashed against titanic will, neither willing to give an inch of Astral space, but each time Tom felt his hold slipping he would think about Eliza, about the night she almost fell to his weakness, and about the world behind the world he had glimpsed. People were exposed to the countless machinations of unseen puppeteers, vulnerable, and without people like him to show the way out from under their strings the world would be led willingly into absolute dominion. He wielded this knowledge like a warhammer against himself until he gained an advantage and never stopped pressing it.
When he came to from the dreamscape, still in the hold of his Supernal sight, he had mounted the chest of his other self and was pressing his burning thumbs against his eyes, screaming with the demon as eyeballs hissed and steamed. When he brought his fingers away, victorious, he saw scorched onto the demon’s corneas the golden sigil (High Speech, he would later discover) for the most important word he would ever read. It was in this moment that he realized all his brands across the city connected back to those eyes like a constellation, forming the same word in an oath that would mark the rest of his Awakened life: Witness.
—Gripping the Ladder (Year 24+): Though Father Abe encouraged his membership in the local Silver Ladder Caucus, Witness remained Nameless for the first year after his Awakening. The Order initially felt to him like another set of chains, gilded as they may be, and he had no desire to escape the prison of the Lie to willingly join another. More than that, he needed time to understand just what he wanted out of this second lease on life and what he planned on doing with the new power that coursed through his soul. With time and magical maturity, however, he began to see the serious benefits that the Pentacle had to offer and finally conceded to his mentor’s requests for a trial membership as rounded into his second year amongst the Wise. It wasn’t long into his induction, however, that Witness realized just how in line his philosophies and goals were with the théarchs’ and that the sheen they presented to the public didn’t dull behind closed doors. They weren’t perfect, but he could see his membership with them being a mutually beneficial arrangement that wouldn’t compromise his new principles. It would be there that his path truly began.