Arden Baker, "The End, in Five Strokes," Cycle Six, Intrepidus Ink, May 2024

Speculative Fiction

        Héng. Horizontal, left to right.

        The brush travels slowly across the parchment.

        Sseong-hi watches the black ink bleeding from the line he has painted on the yellowed page. It spreads along the grain, but he holds the brush steady from start to finish. His robes are rolled up and bunched, perspiration soaking his tunic. Concentrate.

        The stroke moves like the five Banner Armies of the Unbroken King as they cross the River Nuan from west to east. The ink spreads across the sides of the stroke; the King’s raiding parties disperse across Kan-tsu Province.

        A perfectly executed strike.

        A carefully drawn stroke


        Nà. Diagonal and downwards, left to right.

        The pressure chokes out the defenders, black pigment cutting through the white.

        Sseong-hi remembers the fires on the ridgeline and the smell of roasting flesh. He hears the cries of the refugees crowding into fortified auls, waiting for the militia to break the siege.

        He wonders how many make it out of that hellish mountain valley.

        The sporadic resistance of the Kan-tsung militia offers little challenge to the bronze-armoured legions.

        The leximancers band together to break the back of the Banner Armies with their word magic, to no avail. No matter which beautifully articulated phrases they use to focus the arcane into crashing waves and thunderous winds, they can not stymie the endless tide of soldiers and siege engines.

        The Unbroken King waters every inch of ground with blood. 

        Sseong-hi stains every fibre of parchment with ink.


        Tí. Diagonal again, but upwards.

        The rising hope. A burgeoning promise of salvation.

        Sseong-hi knows the Profane Word. The gods made the Word at the beginning of it all when the land undulated and bent like an ocean. The fearful leximancers hid it away eons ago, and it remained there until Sseong-hi’s desperate expedition unearthed the fragmented carvings.

        He remembers the faces of Kan-tsu’s Council of Mancers. Even as he gives them his proposition, they look down on him the same way they always have. The threat of the Word forces their enemy to halt, to broker a peace–but the Council will not listen to a young upstart. They never have.

        They unanimously condemn Sseong-hi’s recklessness, opting instead to continue fighting their rear guard action in a futile effort to outlast the Unbroken King and his legions.

        The war is already lost, but the Council stubbornly refuses to see it.

        With their ink, they sign the death warrant for a battalion of brave Kan-tsung soldiers.

        With his ink, Sseong-hi signs one for the world.


        Shù. Vertical, top to bottom.

        Straight down. The rapid descent.

        Sseong-hi tells them that their walls will fall–and fall they do. The Council is crushed beneath the stones holding their tower aloft for centuries. Their leximancers are hunted down by the King’s finest, then gutted and strung up for all to see.

        The capital is surrounded, and the fields set aflame with sulfurous fire. The people cry out for mercy and are shown none. 

        The Unbroken King’s legions march through the streets, slaughtering the innocent and burning their homes. They advance methodically on the palace, the last bastion of defence.

        Even now, Sseong-hi hears the rhythmic chanting of the battle-priests. 

        He focuses on the darkness of the stroke against that endless void of white. He lifts his brush from that intimate embrace of paper and ink, returning it to the ebon dyestone to draw upon its powers one last time.

        One last weapon.

        One ultimate Word.


        Diǎn. The dot.

        Finality. A punctuation mark at the end of civilisation.

        Sseong-hi shakes but lowers the brush to the page one last time.

        Nothing sways him from this moment. Not the screaming from outside, not the pounding on the heavy wooden door that seals him inside the chamber.

        Not mercy.

        The ink soaks into the paper.

        He lifts the brush from the page and places it beside him.


        Outside his study, Sseong-hi knows the world is being unmade, piece by piece, returning to the great primordial nothingness.

        And yet, beside the shimmering blackness of the Profane Word, Sseong-hi sees the blank page beside him on the desk.

        Just as one word can break the world, perhaps another word can build it.

        He lifts the brush again.

Arden Baker, author of "The End, in Five Strokes," Cycle Six, Intrepidus Ink, May 2024

Author Bio

Arden Baker, author of "The End, in Five Stroke," Cycle Six, Intrepidus Ink, May 2024

Born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, Arden Baker is a lapsed translator and emerging writer of short science fiction and fantasy. After working in China, he returned to his home city, where he now works as a consultant. In his spare time, he brews mead, plays TTRPGs, and runs a writing collective. He has previously been published in Aurealis.

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