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Thoughts on Karl Edward Wagner's "Cold Light" - 01/15/19

"When you seek to destroy an absolute evil, you must destroy it absolutely.  Show mercy in expunging a blight, and you only leave seeds to sprout anew.  Kill them all."
                                                                    - Gaethaa the Crusader

"Cold Light" is probably my favorite of the Kane stories penned by my favorite writer of the genre, Karl Edward Wagner, not because it’s his best story, but because it brings to question the motivation of the vigilante, and furthermore, the do-gooder in general.  I’ve always taken a romantic view of vigilante justice, to the extent that I recorded an album titled "Vigilante Romance" in 2007.  The idea of a man risking his own life to act on behalf of justice, and thereby seeking retribution for the sake of truth is very appealing to me.  By challenging the virtue of vigilante justice "Cold Light" also challenges some of my own ideals and I find myself coming back to it more often than any other Kane story for the exercise in ethics that it provides.

The longest of the three stories contained within DEATH ANGEL’S SHADOW, "Cold Light" takes place during a time of intense introspection and brooding of Kane’s immortal life.  By this point he has lived for centuries, conquered many, gained much, and lost plenty to become a malevolent legend across the land.  Cursed by the gods to wander the planet eternally, he passed the years learning sorcery, science, combat, and philosophy, simply because becoming more proficient at life was the only way to effectively challenge his biggest adversary, time.


In "Cold Light", Kane seeks refuge from the world in the once plague-ridden ghost town of Sebbei, relishing the indifference of the remaining townspeople and the sanctity that the abandoned locale provides.  Here he would spend countless days dwelling on his past and the meaninglessness of existence.  He is weary and depressed, fully realizing that there is no end to becoming the best at his pursuits, and that with each new conquest he remains forever flailing on the surface of the lake of time, eternally caught in the moment of nearly drowning.

The only thing that can pry Kane away from his introverted brooding is the call of violence made by Gaethaa and his band of vigilantes, most of whom have suffered a loss to Kane in the past.  Gaethaa, known as the crusader, has one purpose in life: To seek out and destroy evil wherever it may lurk.  The greater the risk, the greater Gaetha’s ferver.  And the greater his ferver, the more he’s prone to sacrifice the lives of the innocent for the sake of what he deems the greater good.  Furthermore, anyone who does not fully comply with his quest is considered to be in league with evil and must also be destroyed.  For example, those in his posse who were too fearful to enter the plagued land of Demorte were executed on the spot.  Additionally, the townspeople of Sebbei who, in a drunken state of apathy, were unable to lead him to Kane were tortured relentlessly.  

The story takes its title from a frequent phrase used by Gaethaa.  "The cold light of good" is how he describes his crusade against darkness, taking it to such an extreme as to claim that there can be no twilight between good and evil.  According to Gaethaa, those who do not follow the cold light (as in his own personal cold light) are children of darkness.

What I find challenging about "Cold Light" is that the fundamentals of Gaethaa’s ambition, that being the relentless pursuit of justice, are noble and righteous.  To an extent, even his methods can be rationalized to validate his malice.  However, his ethical failure lies in a deliberate refusal to define the difference between good and evil, assuming that these concepts are self-evident, and relying on heresy and lore to establish such broad sweeping value judgments of his adversaries.  If he were to approach his own life with Kane’s level of introspection and intellectual honesty, he’d see that his real attraction is to that of violence itself...that he wraps his bloodlust in a veil of altruism, but he really just enjoys the thrill of the hunt and the joy of the kill.  Such is often the case with most altruists.  

There’s usually an ulterior motive of the do-gooder, as most people are wired to be selfish, unless there is an audience around.  Like many other altruists, Gaethaa makes it a point that everyone not only understand the severity of his ambition, but also agree with his motivation.


This brings me to a brief list of the contrasting differences between Kane and Gaethaa:

Kane:

  • - Is openly selfish, placing his needs above those of others
  • - Believes that his own life is meaningless
  • - Serves no higher power
  • - Is content alone, self-validating his own decisions

Gaethaa

  • - Is secretly selfish, masking his own desires with a false notion of altruism
  • - Believes that the lives of others are meaningless
  • - Pretends to act on behalf of a higher power or calling
  • - Requires the validation of his men

Between these two opposing ideologies is Alidore, Gaethaa’s lieutenant, admirer, and long-time friend and Rehhaile, Kane’s blind, psychic, empath muse.


"Cold Light" begins with Alidore following Gaethaa blindly as he has many times before.  When he meets Rehhaile and is exposed to her sincere devotion to Kane, Alidore beings to have second thoughts about Gaethaa’s ambitions.  He slowly begins to see Gaethaa’s actions objectively, eventually becoming repulsed by the torture and malice he spreads on his crusades.  Alidore’s voice of inner reason matures as their hunt for Kane escalates with Gaethaa permitting his men to brutally rape Rehhaile.  

The story climaxes when Gaethaa decides to burn the entire city to the ground, killing all of the townspeople in the process of destroying Kane.  Alidore stands up against his former leader, not in defense of Kane, not for the survival of Rehhaile, and not for the sake of the townspeople...but in defense of reason.  With Alidore’s transformation, "Cold Light" demonstrates the pitfalls of hero-worship, especially when one follows indiscriminately.

When Rehhaile steps in to save Alidore’s life at the hand of Gaethaa, she also protests with reason and logic, asking to be left alone, and begging for a peaceful outcome.  The reasonable points she makes as echoed by Alidore are lost on Gaethaa in his emotionally-fueled rampage.  He declares her rational pleas to be a curse of witchcraft requiring her execution.

Additionally, Gaethaa justifies burning the entire town alive because they did not help him find Kane when they had the chance.  According to him, it’s his duty to punish them on behalf of all that is good.  It’s interesting that Gaethaa only comes to this conclusion in a moment of utter desperation, when all other tactics have failed.  If it is true that the townspeople must be punished for their sins, then why not begin the crusade by razing the town?  Why not spare his men and save time by destroying everything in the beginning of the quest?

This is because right and wrong are completely subjective to Gaethaa.  All crusades are fueled by the emotional whimsy of those in power.  Gaethaa doesn’t care about right and wrong, only satiating his ever-burning bloodlust.  He doesn’t kill to abide by some code of honor, he kills for pleasure, which in the end, makes him truly evil in comparison to Kane.  It is the difference between a lion who stalks its prey for survival, and the self-righteous trophy hunter who kills for sport.


Make no mistake, Kane is not innocent of the crimes for which Gaethaa and his men seek retribution.  At no point in the story does Kane attempt to repudiate the tales of his killers or justify his actions in any way.  Throughout the centuries, he has wrought undeniable destruction and havoc.  But to Kane, it doesn’t matter if his killers are justified in their actions.  Having lived for so long, it would be impossible for him to atone for his transgressions, even if it meant his death.  His life is not temporal, and in Sebbei, he only wanted to be left alone to forget that fact.

This is what separates Karl Edward Wagner apart from so many other authors.  Rather than write Kane as a victim, he creates a multi-dimensional character in a story where the line between good and evil is often blurred and sometimes nonexistent.  

Kane exists beyond the boundaries of good and evil, and by avoiding such declarations, he avoids the moral contradictions of ideologs like Gaethaa.  This is what makes “Cold Light”, and all of the Kane stories, engrossing and thought-provoking, taking the reader beyond many of the cliche trappings of the genre.