Saw The Avengers finally last night. Great superhero movie – tons of fun, lots of good stuff for comic book fans, enough for non-fans to enjoy, and with snappy dialogue and good pacing. A popcorn movie, certainly – nothing terribly profound or emotionally compelling about the whole thing – but the exact kind of movie the big screen does so well.
Anyway, it isn’t a spoiler for me to point out that, at some point in the movie, a whole bunch of bad guys attack New York city from a portal they open above it. If you’ve seen the previews, you can surmise as much. It also isn’t much of a spoiler for me to reveal that, through much trial and tribulation, the Avengers win the day and the portal assault fails. This failure, however, I feel has as much to do with poor planning on Loki’s part as it does with the interference of the Avengers. Indeed, Loki is committing the same errors that every portal assault plan executed by every alien/extradimensional being has made since they started doing this portal thing.
The Portal’s Advantages
The primary benefit of using a portal to teleport your army into battle is that of surprise. Since you can get your army to show up anywhere, this is a useful way to hit the enemy where and when they least expect it. I suppose, in the long term, it would also serve as a logistical benefit, as well, since supplying your troops could be as easy as trotting down to the Stargate room and lobbing through some sandwiches and spare clips of ammo. Given that I’ve rarely seen a portal assault go well enough for this to come into play, I’ll leave that part by the wayside for the nonce.
Anyway, surprise is great. Surprise can turn a battle in your favor. Surprise is a big deal. Surprise, however, is not the only factor you need to consider. You also need to consider when and how to use surprise to your best advantage. Attacking New York City, for instance, is a crappy place to utilize this surprise attack. Why? Well, New York City isn’t a direct threat to your invasion. It’s not a fortress. It isn’t an armed camp. Hell, the place can’t even feed itself. If you conquer New York City, you don’t ‘win’ the battle for Earth automatically. You definitely ruin the investment portfolios of many millions of people, but that’s much different than conquering the Earth. Plenty of military forces still out there, ready to mess you up.
Besides, attacking New York City from right out of a portal isn’t likely to work, anyway. This, however, speaks to the portal’s various disadvantages.
The Portal’s Disadvantages
Portals suffer from a number of very important disadvantages. First among these is the size of the portals themselves. Typically (such as in the Avengers) they are portrayed as being only large enough to admit a relatively small number of troops at a time. Now, any general will tell you that trickling your forces through a narrow space into a hostile landing zone is a great way to get yourself walloped, as the Persians learned at the Battle of Thermopylae. This is part of the reason why amphibious assaults are such dicey propositions and require so many resources to successfully execute – you’ve only got so many guys in so many boats. Each boat you lose means you lose a proportionally large part of your assault force.
Related to this, portals also suffer from the ‘eggs in one basket’ problem. If you’ve only got one portal and the enemy closes that portal, you instantly lose the battle. Bummer. Why, then, do the bad guys always seem to open these portals in places that are easily accessible to the enemy, in positions that allow the enemy to easily engage them, and at times when, far from surprising the defenders, gives them sufficient time to organize a counter-attack?
Well, bad planning, obviously.
How to Do it Right
If you want to bring in your otherworldly invasion force through rifts in space/time, then I have some advice for you:
- More than One Portal: You are going to need more than one portal to deliver your forces. These portals need to be operated in a decentralized fashion – i.e. if one is taken out, the others still work. This kind of redundancy is crucial in warfare, and why the Allies stormed the beaches of Normandy in lots of little boats instead of one big giant boat.
- Establish Beachhead/Regroup Forces/Invade World: Don’t have your alien locust swarm stumble in all disorganized and piecemeal right into the jaws of the enemy. Pick a better spot–one softened up beforehand somehow, or one that is relatively undefended. Move your whole damned army through after your shock troops punch a hole, get everybody organized, and then attack all together at the target of your choosing. For this to work, you need to put your portal somewhere less obvious than, I don’t know, floating in the sky above the most populous city in the US. Idiots.
- Set Realistic Early Invasion Goals: Conquering a city of millions takes a lot of time, no matter how many damned space jet-skis and aero-whales you have. You aren’t going to conquer the place in an afternoon. Probably not even for a week. Pick something else. I’d, personally, advice ambushing the forces most likely to toss you back through the portal. SPOILERS: I suppose Loki was going for that in the movie when he took on SHIELD HQ, but he didn’t do a very good job of it. That would have been a much better place to open the portal on or near–then you can use your space-whales to eat the main threat without the distraction of shooting random people going to the mall. Once you’d focused your power on eliminating them, then you can worry about conquering New York.
So, there you have it. The best way to use your portals is to use them carefully and, ultimately, with a mix of caution and long-term goals in mind. Shock-and-Awe only works if you are dropping hundreds of portals producing hundreds of thousands of soldiers into the mix, so if that’s not in the cards, don’t try it.
This time there was no emptiness, no cold void between worlds. Draminicus stepped directly into the hell that was Ogga. This time, though, he was calm. He knew what he had to do. He had solved the puzzle.
He found the hatch in its usual spot and entered before he burned alive, and then dropped off the end of the ladder, twisting his ankle again. He laughed at the pain this time. Of course, of course…
The answer had been in front of him the whole time. It was the answer to everything, too. The test was not to see if he could defeat trogs or solve what happened to their predecessors. The test was to see if he understood, on a fundamental level, what made worlds the way they were. The answer was so very simple: Their People.
The takoo vendor sold him takoo that was exactly what takoo tasted like in his Avriado on his Daledas. What’s more, every takoo vendor in every city in the vendor’s Daledas made takoo the same way. Their collective wills—their sentient acknowledgement, conscious or otherwise, of the way their world worked—was irrefutable. Takoo, there, tasted like that. It was a fact, a simple reality to them. Draminicus could no more change that and remain in their same plane of existence than he could have made them walk on their hands or spit fire. The vendor’s solid understanding of the world, bolstered by the countless masses that agreed with him, overcame Draminicus—Draminicus was, after all, only one person in a sea of sentient people.
So it was, also, with the mender. The mender knew Draminicus could not disappear, conventionally, from the world since, as the mender well knew, there were no known phrases or compositions that would achieve such an effect. Draminicus, though, was just peculiar, just frightening enough to allow him to entertain the possibility that there was. This weakened the mender’s resolve and, indeed, tapped into a reservoir of doubt held by all of the literates of Daledas—that there were words unknown and unspeakably powerful, hidden in the dark places of the world. All Draminicus needed to do was to tap into that inherent weakness in their understanding of the world, and he had made a direct portal here, to Ogga.
Belief was the key. Just as he himself had learned how to control his own perceptions and beliefs and, therefore, alter the world around him, he also had to learn how to exploit the beliefs of others to his own advantage—their beliefs were every bit as potent as his own, but they, unlike him, lacked control over what they believed. Nowhere was that more important than in Ogga.
Ogga was dead because the only sentient beings still living there—the trogs—only accepted it as dead. Their world, by definition, was a dead one. They could not imagine it any other way and, with all the knowledge and beliefs of their forbears erased, Ogga could take no other form and still be Ogga. The trogs made their world what it was, without even realizing that they were the ones doing so. It was a circular symbiosis—they were like they were because of their world, and their world was like it was because of them!
As Draminicus entered the long-dead command center, he finally realized what Wollow meant by ‘Transcendence’ and the significance of what he had become under the strange old man’s tutelage. Draminicus was free of that loop that trapped others within their simple, rigid worlds. He was able to entertain other possibilities, to explore worlds limited only by his own imagination.
The feeling was heady, exhilarating, terrifying. He was an individual adrift in an infinite sea, surrounded on all sides by those enslaved by their own dependence on what they termed ‘the real world’. He was assaulted by mental images of trials for heresy, of being burned at the stake, being drowned as a witch, being tossed off the edge of the world as a devilspawn, and worse things. It was the culmination of the quest he had undertaken, all those years ago, in Avriado when he read the First Word; when he had been banished to the wilderness. He was now alone and terrifying to the sentient beings of the world—a black sorcerer, an otherworldly terror. Still, he could not but feel that the understanding was well worth the risks. It had all been worth it. He was free.
Picking up the phoenix rod from its battered box, Dramincus stood with his back to where the trogs would enter, and sat in the chair with the mine. He knew that the trogs didn’t know the mine was there, and so he tweaked the mine out of existence without difficulty. The solution to the problem of his transcendence was to use the beliefs and superstitions of a people against them. He had to do not what they expected, but what they feared and hoped and dreamed, and, in so doing, gain power. The expected always went the expected way, but the unexpected, well, that could mean anything.
The trogs expected a fight or they expected their prey to flee, but they didn’t expect it to ignore them. Steeling himself to be calm, Draminicus waited for the creatures to burst into the room before raising his hand and stating, “I am not to be interrupted.”
There was the briefest of pauses from the massive trogs, and Draminicus felt the grim hold they had over reality waver slightly. Capitalizing on it, Draminicus stood and faced the beasts, the phoenix rod cradled delicately in the crook of his arm. His robe had become resplendent white, glowing with quiet power. On his brow he had tweaked a simple circlet with a device in the shape of a great, flaming bird—the image of the phoenix. He stood and beheld those that he had fled from for oh-so-many permutations of his life, and sculpted his expression into that of disdain. In that moment, knowledge of how to work the phoenix rod fluttered to the surface of his mind. He marveled at how simple the things were—all he need do was point and hate.
The trogs’ small, yellow eyes narrowed at this new, strange intruder who stood with the authority of one superior to themselves. They paused and circled slowly, gauging Draminicus, who still stood firm and haughty before his chair. The trogs’ violent natures could only be cowed for so long, however. The biggest one—an elephantine creature with a hide festooned with one-foot spines and barbed wire—scraped cloven-hoofed feet across the ground in preparation to charge.
Summoning the malice he bore these creatures for the untold ages of pain they had inflicted, Draminicus leveled the phoenix rod at the beast and snarled, “Unwise.” Instantly, a beam of the purest white light shot from the arcane weapon’s tip and struck the trog, incinerating it with a flash of nuclear fire. The others, howling in dismay, retreated into the winding labyrinths of Ogga’s underbelly. As they went, their barks and growls undertook a different tone. “Danger,” they called, “stay away.”
“So, now you see. Finally.” Wollow announced, sitting again on his stool, writing, while his multi-talented beard puttered around the tiny cottage.
Draminicus turned the phoenix rod over in his lap. “This is a horrible device.”
Wollow nodded. “Yes, but it does it’s job very well. Too well, you might say. Are you going to keep it?”
Draminicus considered, but did not answer. “We are not gods, are we?”
Wollow grinned and adjusted his kaleidoscope spectacles. “Stupid question.”
Draminicus looked helplessly around the one-room cottage. “What do I do now?”
“Are you speaking about vocation, or about what you ought to do this very moment?” Wollow asked, sipping tea offered to him by a scrap of beard.
“What does someone who can go anywhere and do anything…do?”
Wollow snorted out a short laugh. “Everything and then nothing. Now you come to that delicious realization that I came to myself, so very long ago. Transcendence—the power I, and now yourself, wield—is not a reason for being. You have, up until now, lived to learn the secrets of the universe. Now you have them, and you have realized that they do not answer any questions that really matter. They don’t tell you what to do with yourself. You banished yourself from the only home you ever knew, divorced yourself from almost every other sentient being in existence, and for what?”
Draminicus breathed deeply. “The…the understanding was still worth it.”
“Was it really? Doubtful. The secrets of the universe are, ultimately, worthless for someone like you.”
Draminicus blinked. “Someone like me? What does that mean?”
Wollow shrugged, “It means anything you like—in an infinite universe, all things are. I will, however, tell you this: You are, I think, too needy to survive with the knowledge you now possess.”
“What?” Draminicus stiffened. “Why? Why are you telling me this now?”
“I, of course, have told you this before. Numerous times, in fact. Indeed, when you found me and forced me to tutor you, I told you this precise thing would happen.”
“I…I forced you to…”
“Don’t be so coy. Think, dammit—you’ll remember.” Wollow’s spectacled eyes glittered in the firelight.
Memories floated up out of the depths of Draminicus’s mind. Disjointed images of Draminicus kicking over stewpots and lighting fire to bookshelves in Wollow’s cottage, all of them threaded together by a tenuous, convoluted narrative. The sound of his voice, shrill and imperious, grated against his ears. He felt his face flush with embarrassment. “I kept coming back. It took me what—years? Longer?—to convince you to teach me.”
Wollow nodded slowly. “Eventually, teaching you seemed the easiest way to be rid of you. Of course, in some reality we are still having our little fights, while in others we are the best of friends. I am most relieved, however, to be currently in this reality, where you will go soon and leave me to my hermitage.”
Silence fell over the cottage for a few moments. Draminicus watched the fire. Eventually, he stood up. “Why can’t I survive?”
Wollow grinned. “Because you ask too many questions, why else? You have chosen a path that is fundamentally solitary by nature—you are a lone consciousness skimming across the cosmos, constantly out of place. The more you look for answers, the more you will become frustrated and, eventually, insane. Whereas I have thrived in my solitude, you are going to be miserable.”
Draminicus opened his mouth to ask another question, but shut it again.
Wollow’s spectacles remained fixed on Draminicus’s face. “I cannot help you decide what to do with your Transcendent self, but I can tell you were to go.”
Wollow grunted. “Away from here, of course. Get out.”
Draminicus frowned, “That’s it, then?”
“Your tutelage has ended. Go and never come back.”
Draminicus put the phoenix rod down on Wollow’s writing desk. “I will survive, Wollow. You’ll see. There are plenty of questions to be asked of plenty of people—enough to keep me going forever, if need be. I may be leaving now, but I will come back.”
It was Wollow’s turn to frown. “In an infinite universe, Draminicus, all things are.” With that, the strange cottage and its bespectacled master faded away into the endlessness of the cosmos.
Draminicus shut out the sizzling, radiation laced air of Ogga as soon as he felt it on his skin. He didn’t want to be here. This place wasn’t what he needed. Holding his breath and squeezing his eyes shut, he banished the world of Ogga like a child escapes a nightmare. He slipped back into the void.
The nothingness clung to him more tightly this time. A million images and secret places across the cosmos skittered past his mind’s eye and then vanished in the emptiness forever. With all his will, Draminicus sought to focus on a memory, any memory. Huge chunks of his psyche spun off into oblivion in the moments it took him to find it — a sound. Chimes, infinitely varied and beautiful, tinkling in a honey-scented breeze.
The chimes were real, he told himself. He was with the chimes. He saw a broad emerald river from between tall, airy columns of ivory stone. A settee of gold wire and russet moss cushions beside a fountain of sky blue water, clear and cool. He felt his feet upon strangely warm tile and his fingers, spreading, could feel the air moving.
This was home. This was Daledas.
Attunement came quickly, like slipping a hand into a worn glove. Draminicus knew the sound of the shopkeepers’ chimes in the nearby market, each collection of tones an audible lyric advertising the quality and value of a distinct ware. A pod of vatoo sailed overhead, their wide grey bodies rippling like sheets in the wind as they passed. It was a warm day, and Draminicus’s stomach rumbled.
He left the great columned hall in which he had appeared and stepped onto the quietly bustling streets of Avriado. Dales like himself—tall, thin, clad in ankle-length robes of many colors and designs—silently went about their business, eyes downcast. The street vendors politely jingled their chimes on tall poles, looking left and right for a prospective buyer, but held their peace as the others did.
Draminicus sighed in relief. He strolled through the crowd, letting his fellow dales brush past him without looking up. The silent sense of community and oneness he remembered having with his people as a child came back with palpable force. How long had it been? He had no idea. Any record of time was impenetrable to him; besides, he didn’t even know which stool he was on.
Draminicus approached a street vendor who was sizzling discs of takoo over hot coals on a flat pan. “One, please.” He said, eyes downcast.
The vendor stopped jingling his chimes long enough to flip a crispy takoo onto a broad, flat strip of orange banu hide and held up two fingers. Draminicus tweaked a pair of small, shimmering crystals into existence in the sleeve of his robe and paid. Stepping away, his mouth watering, he took his first crispy bite.
The takoo was crunchy, sweet, and tangy all at the same time. Draminicus immediately spit it out, coughing. “This…this is vile!” He said aloud. Several dales stopped and stared at him for a moment and then continued on their silent way.
Draminicus brandished the flat, round vegetable wafer under the street vendor’s nose. “What is this? What did you sell me?”
The dale’s purple eyes were wide with confusion. “Takoo. Words of my fathers, it’s takoo! What’d you think?”
Draminicus shook his head. “This isn’t takoo. This is horribly sweet.”
The vendor threw up his hands. “Takoo is sweet, you yotter!”
Draminicus blinked at the profanity. That was very unlike the Avriadoan streetvendors he knew. He stepped back from the vendor and threw the abominable food down on the street before walking away. He hurried between the quiet crowds, hearing them whisper among themselves. “What’s wrong with that one?” and “Careful, he may have the Sallow Madness.” They parted for him, unwilling to touch their cloaks or shoulders against his. He felt angry and ashamed, but kept on going without looking back.
There was something wrong. The streets of this, the city of his education, did not run the same places they did before. He was quickly lost in his childhood home, sitting beside another fountain, gazing at a plaza of blooming sweetling banu, their yellow blossoms raised to snatch the buzzing tribeeta from the air with soft, slushy tongues. He had never seen such a plaza before. Above him, the daystars looked…wrong; the old, familiar constellations were blurred and unclear. He stared upwards for what must have been hours, trying to find the imaginary lines in the sky that had so helped him understand the secret laws of cryptomancy. They were not there.
Memory—his memory—came trickling back into Draminicus’s conscious mind. He remembered his time at the schools of Avriado, when he was young and calm in spirit. He had shown great aptitude—the greatest in a generation—and so he was permitted to learn to read and write. It was a heavy responsibility, but he rose to the challenge. He rose too well, he recalled. Arrogance and entitlement became the keystones of his personality. Somewhere he crossed a line; the precise circumstances were still shrouded to him, a peculiar mercy of his compartmentalized mind. He was expelled, banished, his name crossed from the Great Ledger, his chimes taken from him, his family chimes altered to hide them from his ears. He was suddenly alone in the wilds.
Draminicus chuckled bitterly as he recalled a mental image of himself, standing with a tattered cloak on a windy plateau overlooking the blizzard-choked depths of the KnurrBasin, facing an armed party of his fellow students, couplets of warding glowing on their breastplates. “I will return,” he had hissed through parched lips, “One day I will walk the streets of Avriado again.”
He heaved a deep sigh, savoring the sour irony of it all, and kept looking up at the unfamiliar stars of his home.
“This is a waste of time.” A familiar voice spoke from behind him. Draminicus turned to see Wollow crouched upon a bench, his great beard bound into locks that were tucked beneath a heavy aquamarine cloak. His spectacles twinkled in time with the daystars above.
“You’re wearing an unwise color.”
“You dales—so obsessed with symbolism. What if I like this color, hmmm?”
“It is proscribed. It is the color of the Quay barbarians.”
“You aren’t as smart as you think you are. As it happens, the Quay wear red.” Wollow announced.
“I should know the customs of my own world.” Draminicus snapped. “This is my home.”
“No.” Wollow waggled a finger at him and then pointed at the flow of steady foot traffic filing past, “This is their home. You are not one of them.”
Draminicus sighed. “This isn’t my Daledas, of course.
That’s why everything is strange.”
“Correct, though I would hasten to add that its strangeness would be undimmed even if it were ‘your’ Daledas. Any world where literacy is illegal—and justifiably so—is truly, truly deranged.” Wollow sighed. “What are you doing here? Are you quitting my test, then?”
“I needed time to think. I needed something familiar to calm my nerves.” Draminicus answered.
“You did, eh? Well, how’s it working out for you? Comfortable here?”
Draminicus shifted in his seat by the fountain. “It’s too different. I feel…askew.”
“Do you know why?” Wollow said, the tufted tips of his beard drawing his cloak more tightly around his tiny frame.
“What is the point of all this testing, Wollow? What does it matter? I can already slip from world to world at will, I can tweak reality to my whim—what’s left? I have all the power I’ll ever need.”
Wollow chuckled. “Oh, yes—all the power you’ll ever need, eh? You can’t even tweak a street vendor into making the right kind of vile vegetable snack for your warped dalish tastes. I’m not even going to get started on Ogga.”
Draminicus shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about the test, you yotter.” Wollow snapped.
Draminicus stiffened. “Don’t use such language. It’s wrong on your lips.”
“Insufferable pedants, you dales; comes from upbringing, no doubt. Answer my question.”
“I feel askew here because it isn’t my Daledas.”
Wollow shook his head. “Circular reasoning — you feel askew because it isn’t your Daledas and it isn’t your Daledas because you feel askew. Hmph! Very convenient.”
“What do you want me to say?” Draminicus asked, throwing up his hands. “I don’t understand!”
There was a jingle of chimes—a mender, judging from the tones. He came around the corner and began to cross the plaza where Draminicus and Wollow sat, bearing a pole half-again as tall as himself from which his chimes of office were hung. On his hands he wore fine, white mittens that matched the white trim on his luxuriously embroidered green robe. He moved with the stately grace expected of a literate professional.
Wollow’s beard pointed at the mender as he passed. “What is that person’s job?”
Draminicus closed his eyes to speak with the proper reverence. “He is a mender. He knows the words that, when written, will heal injuries and knit together sundered materials. Menders are powerful and feared, for their eyes have gazed upon the Words and have been taught in their use with pen, brush, ink, and awl.”
“You might have been one yourself.” Wollow stated, nodding.
Draminicus sighed as he watched the mender call at the door of a wealthy house at the edge of the plaza. His crimes came rushing back to him. “I was taught here to become one, but I became too curious. I read too much. I saw the First Word.”
Wollow’s kaleidoscope spectacles glittered in the starlight. “What was it?”
“It cannot be spoken, and I will not write it. They were right to banish me for it.”
Wollow snickered. “Sounds powerful, I’m sure. I take it, then, if you read so far, that you learned how to break things as well as mend them.”
Draminicus scowled at his teacher. “Why are you smiling? How is this funny?”
“What could you do to that mender, there?” Wollow asked, his smirk so broad his beard could not hide it.
Draminicus shuddered. “Here, in Daledas, I am very powerful. With a word etched in the sand, I could destroy this very city.”
Wollow laughed aloud once—it was a hard laugh, like flint being cast down stairs. “Posh. You’re a eunuch. No wonder you are failing my test.”
“What? You don’t believe me?” Draminicus blinked.
“Of course I do—that isn’t the problem. The problem is that I ask you what you could do, and you think of the cryptograms you could write and the fire you could rain from the heavens. You are a dimwit if you think that means anything. Such power is impotent in the face of what I teach you, and yet you rely on it. You bumble with phoenix rods in Ogga’s endless dungeons, and wonder why you fail—bah! I offer you Transcendence; I give you a hand up from the quagmire of reality, and you only come halfway out and complain. You think we are immortal, unto gods? Yotter, I call you!” Wollow stood up.
“I don’t understand!” Draminicus said, catching the hem of Wollow’s cloak.
Wollow’s beard brushed him back with a savage swipe. “Ask yourself this: how can a god not get a decent takoo in a city street? How can you slip that tunnel into an Ogga where there was none, and yet cannot escape a simple drainpipe when chased by trogs? Why is Ogga always destroyed? You think you are alone in the universe—that you’re an outcast, a freak—and you are both right and utterly wrong. Until you figure out why, stay out of my cottage. I cannot abide any more whining about how ‘you don’t understand.’”
Draminicus opened his mouth to protest, but even as he did Wollow was gone. Where he stood there was nothing, and there had been no sign of his leaving—no pop, no flash, nothing. His teacher has simply edited himself out of the world entirely; it was as though he never was.
As Wollow vanished, so, too, did Draminicus’s knowledge of him begin to fade. In a world where there never was any Wollow, knowledge of him was also impossible. Fighting with all his mental discipline, Draminicus managed to retain the balance of their conversation in his mind, but in so doing found himself feeling even more alien from the city around him. The air smelled too sweet, and the sounds of the mender’s chimes were harsh in his ears. Frowning, Draminicus sat in thought for some time, re-attuning himself to the world around him.
Was he a god? The dales—the civilized dales, that was—had long since rejected the idea of ‘gods’ as such. There had been the Words, and that was all. Words did not think or plot or grow angry with their ‘followers’ in the fashion of the gods and spirits clung to by so many beings. Still, as far as he understood the concept, the power Draminicus wielded—the power taught to him by Wollow—was certainly godlike. From that bench in Avriado, he could go anywhere, see anything. He could fashion for himself a world of his own design instantly.
But this was merely arrogance, he reminded himself. His memories of Wollow scolding him for ‘thinking like an egoist’ echoed quietly in the back of his mind. One did not create reality when slipping between worlds, one merely found something that was always there. It had permanence and substance all its own, that world. It existed with or without you.
Why, though? What made those places permanent? How was it that Draminicus could find a dozen different Avriados sprinkled across the cosmos, and know that the other ones still existed, somewhere? Why couldn’t he make the takoo taste right?
Draminicus’ attention was drawn to the mender who, finishing some errand, slipped his mittens back on, took up his pole and jingled his way out of the plaza at his stately pace. As Draminicus watched the literate dale go, a tiny itch of an idea nibbled at the bottom of his mind. He stood up, “Excuse me! Excuse me, sir!”
The mender turned to face Draminicus, a faint curiosity in his eyes. “Is there some service I may provide?”
Draminicus shook his head as he trotted over to the man. “No…well, yes. I have a theory I’d like to test, and I think you can help.”
“Are you a student? You look a bit old, if you don’t mind me saying…”
“What if I told you I could disappear in front of your eyes—would you believe me?”
The mender chuckled. “Of course not. Are you a street performer? Where are your chimes?”
“What would it take for you to believe that I could?”
“Why, you’d have to do so, of course.”
“But you don’t think that I can?”
“No.” The mender considered for a moment, “Are you literate?”
The mender squinted at him, “Then perhaps you know some couplet or verse that would allow you to perform this ‘miracle’, if you’ll pardon the phrase. Are we speaking hypothetically here, or…”
Draminicus nodded, and as he stood there, he attempted to slip out of the reality, right then and there. He went nowhere. He felt…resistance. Suddenly he was as firmly present in Daledas—an unmalleable, rigid Daledas—as he was in Ogga. The idea eating at the bottom of his mind came to the surface with a great crash. “It’s you.” He breathed quietly.
“It’s me what?” The mender said, “I don’t understand.”
Draminicus willed a piece of chalk into his sleeve, and produced it. “Are you surprised?” He asked.
“That you have chalk? No—should I be?” The mender took a step away from Draminicus, his wispy eyebrows drawing together in concern. “You are a student, yes?”
“Oh no—I am a master.” Draminicus couldn’t help but smile. He imagined it made him look rather demonic to the stately mender. In a flowing hand, he wrote the word ‘Ogga’ upon the wall of a house. It was a meaningless word, here, or at least it was conventionally. This time, though, Draminicus imbued it with meaning from nothing but the wellspring of his own will. He wanted it to mean something. He wanted the mender to believe, heart and soul, that it was a real word the old man did not know.
The mender, his eyes wide and mouth agape, backed away from the word as it glowed upon the simple stone wall. He quickly produced a simple talisman with the Sigil of Fortune upon it from around his neck. “Begone!” He stammered. “S…spare us this blasphemy!”
Draminicus laughed as he felt the mender’s fear—the mender’s belief—sunder the resistance knitting together the reality around them. It was all so simple. It always had been. “Amazing!” He breathed.
The word ‘Ogga’ fell inwards upon itself, and where it had been written, a blazing orange hole appeared. It grew in size, belching heat and radioactive sand from its depths, until it was large enough for Draminicus to enter. Waving gleefully to the terrified mender, Dramincus darted through.
Blackness, void, horrible solitude. Wollow’s cottage swept out of Draminicus’s perceptions like a cozy but poorly sketched memory. If time passed in the darkness, Draminicus had no knowledge of it. He only felt afraid. He held onto the void for as long as he was able, but part of him knew that to do this was suicide. To tarry in nothingness for too long was to become it.
He conjured up the horrors of Ogga and let himself slip into the nightmare.
Once the world of Ogga had borne a different name and, accordingly, it had been a different place. There had been a sophisticated civilization, with achievements in science and philosophy paralleled by only the greatest of worlds—cities to rival mighty Trajan, technology to equal that of busy Earth, and learning to match that of even the wisest institutions of Daledas. But, unlike Trajan or Earth or Daledas, this world’s name was now forgotten, replaced by its new name and, along with it, its new self—Ogga, the Ruined World.
Draminicus opened his eyes to the sound of his flesh sizzling. He was on the surface of Ogga, under a harsh purple sky. The pain from his hands hit his brain just after the sound, and he snatched them off the scorched pavement beneath him. The air was as hot and dry as the innards of a kiln, and it bore along with it a fine, grey dust. Around him stood endless cairns of rubble, climbing into the hot, dusty air like mountains—the dissociate, featureless remains of a once great civilization.
Blisters already forming on his arms and hands, Draminicus ran. To stay here was to die. Remembering his training (but from whom?), he focused his conscious mind upon running across the uneven, treacherous terrain. Harnessing his unconscious, he tapped into his desire for survival—a primordial, powerful force within every mind—and used it to tweak the very existential fabric of Ogga. There was an ancient, rusty hatch nearby; it would lead to safety.
As his blistered hands worked the old, stubborn lock, Draminicus marveled at his ability to will something from nothing. How had he done this? How could a single, sentient being warp reality to his will?
Draminicus’ cloak had begun to smolder just as he tore open the hatch and dropped into the narrow, black passage it concealed. He closed it behind him, and felt instant relief as the unbearable heat and radiation of the surface was blocked out all at once. Climbing down a metal ladder in the dark, an unbearable sense of déjà vu once again descended upon him. This all had happened before; the hatch and the tunnel beyond it were like old friends.
His arrogance was enough to make him wince. This was not a new hatch; this was not some mystical bolt hole he had summoned up from nothing. It had always been there, even before he thought of it. It was he that had come to it, not it that had come to him. The Ogga where there was no hatch had been tweaked slightly into an Ogga where there was. It was a petty trick that solved nothing.
But what was he here to solve?
There was a puzzle. Draminicus thought about it as he reached the bottom of the ladder to find nothing but air and darkness beneath him. He knew there was a floor—there was always a floor—so he let go and dropped. This time the floor was two feet lower than expected, and he twisted his ankle on the uneven detritus scattered about. He fell onto his back and kept himself from crying out. The trogs, he knew, were always listening.
The puzzle, the puzzle, the puzzle—what was puzzling about Ogga? Many worlds might destroy themselves, had destroyed themselves. It was well known that Earth had died by many hands down through the ages, and yet Earths where those same hands saved it from destruction were also numerous—this was the way in almost all realities. For every nearly infinite set of factors that created a world (in Daledas, the daystars, the Great Disc, the feral Quay tribes, the heat of the mountains, the smell of roasted lodan wood meat and spinebird), there were infinite permutations of those factors, creating infinite versions of that world. There was a Daledas where the spinebirds were deadly predators and another where they were but prey. There were a million different shades of sky, different tastes in the air, a great spreading web of history that undulated over the fabric of the cosmos with every shift and twist of fate. Each of these places were still Daledas, but each of them were also separate, distinct places. Just so on Earth, and on Trajan, and across every world in the infinity of existence.
Draminicus knew he could slip from reality to reality, from plane to plane, and change the fundamental makeup of any single thing in any single world until, eventually, he could tailor anywhere to his choosing. Every world a paradise; every reality a perfectly formed reflection of Draminicus’ own expectations.
But not Ogga.
The Ruined World would not be perfected. Lying on his back in a hexagonal chamber of concrete and breathing in the stale, dead air, Draminicus knew this to be irrefutable fact. Every permutation of Ogga was destroyed; every cosmic reshaping of the trogs still resulted in ultimately the same, horrifying beings. It was as though the whole of the world’s history was one of death and devastation. The civilization which had so clearly built the chamber in which Draminicus lay seemed to have never existed in any form but the current one. It was paradoxical, and yet it was. In an infinite world, all things were possible—even contradictions.
The reason for this contradiction was Draminicus’ task. Again, the knowledge seeped in from hidden warehouses deep in his mind. Part of him wanted to dredge them up and throw their contents into the light—to finally have full understanding—but he thought better of it. He was just now becoming attuned to Ogga, learning how existing in it weighed upon his limbs and tasted in his mouth. To allow himself to remember and visualize other worlds would only pull him further away from this one. Then, when he returned, he would have to ‘remember’ this all again.
Draminicus rose and tested his ankle gingerly; it was sore, but useable. The exit to the hexagonal room was behind him, and beyond that he knew he would find something of use. Doing his best to move stealthily with a limp, he found a broad chamber dimly lit by some kind of phosphorescent moss and filled with dusty, abandoned consoles of steel and glass, their fish-eye screens staring blankly out from black, scorched walls. The usual array of crumpled trash, grey dust, and rubble filled the corners of the room, but, incongruously, at the center of the room stood a chair of rusty metal. It was the first intact object Draminicus had seen since arriving in Ogga. It strangely troubled him. He did not sit in it, nor touch it.
Instead, Draminicus searched throughout the great chamber. It must have, at one time, been a command center of some kind. It must have, but wasn’t. Draminicus could feel the finality of the room’s current condition. For all existential purposes, it had always been thus—the scorch marks and the pools of glass where some white-hot fire had raged were permanent features of Ogga. No amount of will from Draminicus could change that, despite his training. The people who must have once lived and worked here had died before their world began, somehow—their existence was impossibly erased.
Brushing away a layer of black ash six inches deep, Draminicus found a box on the floor, its lid dented and warped open by some unknowable force. Hands trembling, he opened it. Inside, white as a sun-bleached bone, lay the yard long metal shaft of a phoenix rod. Draminicus saw it and sighed—he’d found this box before, many times. Picking it up, he heard the distant bark of a trog echoing through the vast underground labyrinth.
“It’s not fair.” He muttered. The words were dry and meaningless on his lips. The trogs knew he was here. They came now to kill him. They would kill him. He had failed again.
He looked down at the strange, cool metal of the phoenix rod and turned it over in his hands. Its length was inscribed with small, blocky lettering in a foreign alphabet that could only be seen when the dim yellow light of the strange moss hit it at just the right angle. Draminicus’s mind produced tightly controlled bits of information, again unbidden. The phoenix rod was a weapon, named for a legendary creature of apocalyptic significance—well, apocalyptic in Ogga. Other places, other worlds, he knew, had other ideas of what a ‘phoenix’ was. He dimly recalled that they were not all so grim and final.
The trogs were closer now and more numerous. They roared to one another as they crashed through distant piles of debris, moving towards Draminicus in an unerring line. It wouldn’t be long now before they appeared.
There was a drain cover in the corner of the room, and through it Draminicus knew of a long, dark pipe full of polluted water that might lead to safety. It also lead to death, many times over. Focusing his will, he tried to tweak the world into giving him another solution, but the existential fabric of Ogga refused to wrinkle or bend.
Another stomach-trembling boom let him know that the trogs were very close. Draminicus could hear every heavy, steel-shod footfall, steady and inexorable. They were in the hexagonal chamber. It was too late to run.
Raising the phoenix rod and leveling it at the entrance to the room, Draminicus planted his feet and steeled himself. There was no trigger or control stud on the weapon in his hands; he could not and had not ever discovered the secret to the rod’s power. He doubted it really mattered. When the first trog arrived, he would be as good as dead, anyway. His feet felt leaden in his boots and his heart jerked wildly against its moorings.
The first trog was small for its species—only about eight feet tall and six-hundred pounds or so. It had the meaty, thick physique of a draft animal standing on its hind legs, but encased in plates of concrete and barbed wire. Its eyes, sharp and yellow with pinpoint black pupils, focused on Draminicus instantly in the dim lighting. Whirring, chainsaw talons extended from its fat, heavy paws and it charged at him, roaring from a mouth obscured with stained yellow tusks. Draminicus, waving the phoenix rod like a fly-swatter, ordered it to halt. It probably didn’t hear him as it knocked aside the strangely placed chair at the center of the room.
The chair, it turned out, concealed an ancient mine. There was bright light and a noise so loud it brought the world to silence. Draminicus felt his body ripped apart by shrapnel. He struggled to remain conscious for long enough to slip his fading existence from Ogga and into the bleak, cold emptiness of the void. He did it, but barely.
He awoke on a cot, covered in heavy blankets that smelled of mildew and old grass. The heavy, smoke-stained thatch roof of Wollow’s cottage pried itself into his conscious memory. Draminicus lay still, feeling the piercing pain in his chest and legs, and let the tiny reality of his master’s cottage congeal around him.
Wollow sat on a stool, his flowing, prehensile beard lighting a lantern and tucking books and scrolls into half-secret cubby holes in the walls. The kaleidoscope spectacles were fixed on a phoenix rod, which lay in the strange old man’s lap. He ran his hands along its length. The cottage was silent and dark save for the lamp, which flickered weakly.
“Am I…are we…immortal?” Draminicus asked finally. He was surprised at how hoarse his voice was.
Wollow did not look up. “Nonsense. You just died, didn’t you?”
“But I died and here I am!”
“You are many places and times, Draminicus. In many of them, you are dead. You have died in that very cot over two-dozen times now.” Wollow snorted, “and from the same mine, no less.”
Draminicus considered this. “So I haven’t returned on occasion, as well?”
“Of course! In an infinite world, all things are.”
“How many times?”
“The number is irrelevant.”
Draminicus forced himself to sit up. “I can’t do this forever!”
Wollow ignored him, and brought the lamp close to the phoenix rod. “Fascinating, isn’t it?”
Draminicus peered at it intently, as though trying to work out its secrets from across the room. “How does it work? Is that the key to the test? Is that how I succeed?”
Wollow looked up and shook his head. “Questions which you have asked before and have been answered in turn. You grow tiresome, boy. I had expected you to succeed by now.”
“What do you mean ‘now’? How do you mean ‘before’?” Draminicus rubbed his eyes, “Time and reality—it’s confusing. You keep saying I’ve done this and that before, but time here and time in Ogga are not the same time, are they?”
Wollow’s beard fished two square stools from under his writing desk and set them side-by-side. Motioning to the stool on his left, Wollow said, “This is my cottage, a self-realized world created by myself and apart from the rest of existence; this other stool is Ogga.”
“You mean, if I open the door to your cottage and go outside, there will be…nothing?”
“Ridiculous question—you will note that my cottage has no door. You are changing the subject, too, which is cheeky considering how I’m trying to help you.” Wollow scowled. “Are you done asking stupid questions?”
Draminicus nodded, and Wollow went on. “Both of these stools—Ogga and the cottage—have time and space. We shall think of that as the length and width of their seats, like so.” Wollow lined the stools up so that their edges were flush with one another.
Tracing his finger along the length of the stools, he said, “Time is length, and as the length of the cottage stool unfolds, so, too, does Ogga’s. In one sense, you are hopping back and forth from stool to stool, time to time,” Wollow made a skipping motion from the Ogga stool to the cottage stool and back again, zig-zagging down the length of the stool.
“But it seems like Ogga is the same thing, the same circumstance, over and over again.”
Wollow frowned at the interruption. “That’s because you are thinking about it wrong. These stools don’t have to line up, you know.” Wollow moved the Ogga stool towards himself, so that they were now askew. “You have been leaping from here to there, but while time might pass here, you are leaping to the same part of time there. Simply put, the Ogga stool is moving as the cottage stool is holding still.”
“You said that one cannot exist in the same world at the same time as yourself, though! I remember that!”
“That is true, but, despite what you might think, you haven’t been going back to the same Ogga. Each time you attempt the test, a new stool is swapped out for the old one. One of the reasons that it is impossible to exist simultaneously as yourself in the same reality is because no finite sentient being can travel to the exact same reality twice. At this moment, in a slightly different version of my cottage, we are having this same conversation, except your face is bandaged instead of your chest. In another version from that one, you are the master and I the student. In another one, I have poisoned your tea and am dancing with glee over your bloated corpse. All things are, remember.”
Draminicus digested the enormity of what Wollow was saying, and he felt suddenly very tired. “This test has no solution. The puzzle has no end!”
“You are going back now.”
Draminicus shook his head. “I won’t! I won’t do it! I can’t!”
Wollow shrugged. “A wretched human businessman of Earth once said that the only similarity between a person who says they can and one who says they cannot is that they are both right.”
“I need more time.”
The cottage was fading now, and as it grew darker, only the glittering kaleidoscope spectacles of Wollow could be seen. “The universe is infinite, Draminicus. You have all the time you need.”
Draminicus opened his mouth to say something else, but he had no mouth. He was in the void.
(Author’s Note: This story won an Honorable Mention from the Writers of the Future Contest about two years ago. Since then I’ve tried to get it published in various periodicals, but it never got picked up and I’ve pretty much run out of paying markets to send it to. So, I’m putting it here–probably in 4 parts, since it’s pretty long. I hope you enjoy it.)
The trogs were closing in. Draminicus could hear their harsh barks echoing down the drainage pipe and feel their heavy legs powering through the knee-deep water somewhere behind him.
Gasping foul air into his burning lungs, Draminicus kept running, noting various gratings and side-passages as he went. Each one had a distant, instinctual familiarity for him. It wasn’t anything he could dissect logically, but he felt his subconscious plumbing up images from the depths of some unimaginable mental abyss and splashing them across his eyes: The grating in the ceiling made him see himself boiling to death from radiation and heat exposure on the surface; the passage on the left and covered in slime was a dead end, and he vividly remembered (remembered?) himself being torn open like a plastic bag by the barbed fist of a trog; the second passage on the right turned down at a slick angle, and he felt himself drowning in radioactive sludge and soot-black water.
He blinked, shook his head, kept running—he had to stay in the present reality, stay focused, solve his problems. He fumbled again with the phoenix rod in his hand, hoping to get some reaction. Nothing happened. How creatures as abysmally stupid as trogs could manage to use these weapons was totally beyond him. He hoped the yard-long shaft of white metal would at least make a decent club, but a half-remembered image of the rod breaking over a trog’s steel-rimmed head guaranteed that particular plan was a last resort.
Draminicus’ foot fell on nothing but air as the drainage pipe emptied abruptly into a massive, underground cistern. He tumbled, head first, towards the yawning abyss below. Flailing his arms, he managed to catch a piece of steel piping dangling from some distant, unseen ceiling. His feet dangled over nothing and his hands, still wet from the sewer water of the pipe, began to slip ever closer to the end of the smooth metal.
There was very little light, and Draminicus could only barely make out the drainage pipe just above him. The roar of the water as it fell past him drowned out all but the most piercing of the trogs’ rough shouts and roars. They couldn’t be far now. This was it—in a few moments, a trog would ram its fat, pyramidal head through the mouth of that pipe and, probably with a laugh, find some awful way to kill him.
Still, Draminicus felt an odd sense of triumph. The feeling he’d been having—that looming, instinctual certainty of the circumstances of his death—was very much absent, which made his situation strangely encouraging. As his hands slipped lower and lower on the pipe, he felt the adrenaline surging through him. He might live! There were no images of his impending fate—no horrible fall through the darkness, no foul murder at the hands of a trog. He certainly could imagine these things, but the fact remained that they seemed removed from his present circumstances—they were possibilities, not certainties.
Draminicus lifted his legs and waved them around in the darkness, praying for a foothold—nothing. He squeezed the pipe for all he was worth, but his weight was too much. From above there came a howl of delight, and, looking up, Draminicus saw a pair of glowing, yellow eyes set inside a head made of equal parts horn, scales, flesh, and steel. The trog opened its wide mouth, showing a jigsaw puzzle of fangs and tusks. All hope died right then. He knew he had only a split second to decide between the trog and the drop, and he made it with time to spare.
Draminicus let go.
The wind blew past his face, ruffling his long hair and deafening him with the roar. He closed his eyes as the bottom rushed up to meet him, pushing out everything—all feeling, all sight, all sound. In one instant he was a ragged, pathetic soul in torn, muddy clothes who was falling to his doom, and in the next he was nothing. With a skill that could no more be practiced than learned, Draminicus erased from his perception everything that he was or would be experiencing. He did not feel his body strike the jagged steel rubble sticking up from the cistern at the bottom, he did not hear his blood spurting from his wounds, or his heart slowing. He did not see the hulking form of the trog, far above, as it turned away. He was aware of none of these things, for none of these things happened, nor could they. The world in which Draminicus had recently been tenant did not exist.
There was emptiness, paralyzing and complete. He could perceive nothing, as there was nothing to perceive. He had become a pure consciousness, alone and absolute in the void. Methodically, Draminicus summoned up from some recess of his own mind a new set of images: A smoky, cluttered room under a thatched roof; a stone fireplace over which boiled a half dozen copper pots; the smell of old paper and mildew; the scratch of a fountain pen on a writing desk.
Draminicus then brought himself into the picture. His eyes were closed, and he was lying in a heap on the floor. Beneath him was a hand-woven wool rug. He had no shoes. A cat rubbed up against his face, her purrs rumbling in her throat like dice in a tumbler. He took a breath—the air was warm and filled with smoke. He opened his eyes.
Behind the writing desk, peering through his kaleidoscope spectacles, perched a wizened old man with long, delicate hands and a thick, bushy beard that seemed to run in all directions. Elements of this beard spread throughout the tiny, one-room house, each pursuing its own agenda. Some parts stirred the pots over the fire, some dusted isolated corners, some flipped through books, and others seemed intent upon ruining the good work the others were doing by tipping over bowls, scattering papers, or otherwise making a nuisance of themselves.
As Draminicus watched these things happen, remembering them as familiar, the old man looked up from his writing. “Well? How did it go?”
“You died again, didn’t you.” The old man said and went back to writing.
Draminicus sat up. “Where am I?”
The old man didn’t look up. “Stupid question.”
Standing up, Draminicus found a stool. When he tried to sit on it, a piece of beard pulled it out from under him, and he fell on the floor.
The old man looked up again. “Be more careful, will you please?”
“Who are you?”
“I will not answer stupid questions.”
“It is not a stupid question!”
“What is the definition of a stupid question?” The old man asked. As he turned away from the writing desk, a piece of beard took over the pen while another wisp removed his strange, kaleidoscopic spectacles. His eyes were pure, electric blue.
Draminicus frowned, “A question to which you should already know the answer.”
“Very well then—what is my name?”
“Wollow.” Draminicus answered without hesitation.
“And you are where?”
“In your house.”
Wollow nodded. “There, see? You remember.”
Strictly speaking, Draminicus did not remember. The feelings and impressions he received in Wollow’s strange cottage were familiar, yes, but still distant and somewhat foreign. It was like paging through a favorite childhood book for the first time as an adult—images that were at once so well remembered, and yet nothing like what they were.
Wollow’s beard had brought each of them a bowl of broth, and Draminicus took it and drank deeply. The liquid was hot and finely spiced, and its exotic vapors made his nostrils curl and cleared his head somewhat. “Good, you’re feeling better.” Wollow said.
Draminicus licked his lips. “What was that place? Was it a dream?”
“Are you still confused? I’m going over this with you so many times, you’d think you’d catch on.” Wollow set down his broth, at which point a wisp of beard started to splash in it.
Though foggy in his mind, Draminicus still felt as though the horrible place he had just escaped, with the trogs and the dark pipe, was floating there, just beyond his vision. He had only to close his eyes and it would come creeping back. “It’s called Ogga, it’s a world destroyed. I was there.”
“I’d be careful with your tenses, Draminicus. You weren’t there in the past exclusively; you are there now, and you will be going back soon.”
“I don’t want to go back. It was a horrible place—I think I died.”
Wollow nodded. “Of course you died. If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here now. You still haven’t passed my test.”
The question ‘what test’ was almost to Draminicus’ lips before he stopped himself. Taking a deep breath, he let Wollow’s statement—“You still haven’t passed my test.”—wash over him. He knew what Wollow was talking about—he had to. He knew Wollow’s name, he knew the wasteland-world was called Ogga, so it stood to reason he knew about the test. This was an assumed fact, he had only to accept it as true and truth would follow.
Wollow, watching Draminicus closely, smiled. “You are remembering my teaching—good. You must know, boy, that slipping from reality to reality is not easy on the finite mind. Should you pass my test and leave my tutelage, you will find that you will be confused more often than not, but confusion is…”
“…evidence of an overworked mind.” Draminicus cut in. “A sentient being need only accept what he is assumed to know, and knowledge will follow.”
Wollow nodded. “You quote me very well. Understanding is not a requisite of knowledge, nor is it wholly achievable, and when you are slipping between planes of existence, you will find that there is almost no common precepts or explanations upon which you can rely.”
“This has nothing to do with Ogga or the trogs.”
“It does and does not.” Wollow’s beard replaced his spectacles and he returned to his book.
“I can’t defeat them, Wollow. Every time I try, I fail.” The words tripped off Draminicus’ tongue without prompting. It was an admission he knew to be both true and mysterious. Defeat them? Why?
Wollow snorted, causing his kaleidoscope spectacles to slip down his nose. “That claim is self-evidently untrue; in an infinite universe, all things are possible.”
Draminicus considered this as he nursed his broth. The trogs and Ogga were a test, the final step in his training. He was training to become something…something powerful. Something without limits, almost godlike. Or, at least, he thought so. The enormity of his experience was overwhelming to his mind; it felt too small to fit it all in. How had this begun? Try as he might, Draminicus had trouble remembering anything beyond the interior of the warm, smoky cottage. The memories were floating there—a string of vivid images that stretched back and out into the depths of his own personal history—but they were behind him somewhere. When he turned his head to see them or closed his eyes to summon them up, they moved away, shyly lurking in the periphery of his vision.
“Stop thinking about all that!” Wollow slapped a hand on his desk. “You must focus on the reality at hand, or you will slip out of it. Your mind is not yet disciplined enough to entertain two states of being simultaneously. You’ll lose yourself!”
“But I need to understand. With context…”
Wollow snorted again. “With context one becomes enslaved to the assumptions of others. It is not to be relied upon for understanding.”
Draminicus sighed. “Perhaps if I stay for a while…”
“You’ll be going back soon.” Wollow announced, peering at a twelve-handed cuckoo clock that ticked and rattled quietly in a dark corner of the cottage.
“I’m not ready.”
Draminicus stood up. He could feel his mind’s grasp on Wollow’s cottage slipping, as though he might blink and find it gone. “What if I fail?”
As Wollow spoke, his voice grew indistinct and incoherent along with the rest of the cottage, like a dream that was drifting to a close. Draminicus struggled to hear what Wollow said. “In an infinite universe, all things are. You have failed. You will fail. You are failing. Good-bye now.”