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.”