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.
(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.”