It began, as so many things do, with a bad hand. Decisions are both the privilege and the burden of power, but the two edges of that sword were unknown to him. Born poor, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, he nonetheless believed himself the master of his own destiny. He had been told, innumerable times, that each would rise to the measure of their worth, been shown endless galleries of successes to praise and of failures to scorn. There was a war of all against all, and it was skill at arms, not Kriegsglück, that determined the victors. The great and the worthy stood impervious, untouched by the stray bullets and bombs that outrageous fortune, now modernised, counted in its arsenal. To bow was to be broken, to flee was to fail, and to pause was death. The humility of his origin was no excuse, for his merits were products of himself and not his birth. A strong arm clad in rags could seize riches, just as a weak arm in tailored sleeves could surrender them. This was his catechism, and he was a devout soldier of its faith, a crusader whose fervour would surely propel him ahead of the unaware and the impious. The men of modern legend had earned their status just as he would earn his – by baptism in the font of self, by genuflection to no symbol but that of their own design, by being the sole recipient of their own prayers. He set out into the world, armed with his own virtues, armoured with temerity, and all too eager to fight.
His philosophy could endure any amount of success, but was threatened by any hint of failure. How, then, to withstand the inglorious salvos that life would inevitably levy against those of poor, average, or even good fortune? For each perceived affirmation of his exceptionality, he was faced with multiple affronts to it. For each clear success, there were handfuls of weak or mediocre outcomes. For each suitably impressed observer or suitably bitter enemy, there were throngs of men who did not envy him and of women who did not desire him. Around him, he saw victories granted to those who had not earned them, those who were oblivious even of the battles they had won, those who mocked the faith that was his strongest weapon, who preached weakness as strength and strength as sin. Fuelled by anger, he fought on. To pause was death, and he would yet have his glory.
This motivating anger could only persist so long before slumping into bitterness. Trapped in a prison of mundanity, logic would dictate that either he was deficient, or else his perspective was. His dogma would afford him neither compromise. To flee was to fail. With this noose of paradox around his neck, the only path left was an imaginary one – as we know, a mirage is no different in effect to a truthful image until the traveller reaches it. Seeing two harsh desert expanses and one crisp oasis, he naturally ventured towards the latter, not knowing that his subconscious, parched for affirmation, was defining the image for him.
And so, increasingly, he sought out and claimed signs of his own dominance where none existed. He turned his individualist fervour away from the pursuit of victory and towards the denial of defeat, shifting his war chest from armament to propaganda as so many outmatched belligerents before him had, never giving a thought to surrender or peaceful alliance. He married, to a woman who did not love him, but who was timid enough that he could convince himself otherwise. He barked at the weak (in his eyes) to convince himself of his strength, and quarrelled with others who were similarly disposed to him, each walking away the virtuous conqueror in their own histories. He found solace in others who had walked his same path, but only because he could maintain the belief that he was their leader. To bow was to be broken. He ignored the failings that would, in the past, have been abhorrent to him (and still were, when evident in others), denying their existence outright or else claiming them as successes according to his own, superior metrics.
The doctrine of the past was all but gone. He no longer acted on its commandments, and was dependent upon self-deception in order to keep faith in its veracity. Still, the mirage remained, and he was its devout pursuer.
It was in this desperate state, this continued flight from heathen compromise, that he would allow one final heresy, this time disguised as a miracle. He invited an usurper to take his throne, beseeched a saviour that was not himself, praised the words and symbols not of his own design but of a new hierophant’s. Envisioning an indomitable army of one, he took up arms once more as a pawn to the new king.
And so, defeated and in subjugation to this new master, he believed himself the hero of his phantom war.