The mountain lay to the west, and therefore the morning sun was just starting to shine on it from the opposite horizon, casting a blanket of pink color over its natural green and blue and gray and brown. Jason was sure it was just his imagination, but it seemed almost as if there was a discoloration in the spreading sunlight. It seemed to be disrupted by a golden arc, right at the point that he imagined the pocket of heat was emanating from. And as the sun’s pink light continued to crawl down the face of the mountain, he imagined that the arc continued to follow with it, widening to a point, then narrowing to make an almost-perfect circle over the mountain’s rugged terrain.
Jason blinked twice to clear the image from his mind, but the golden arc was still there. Was it actually his imagination, then? Jason walked up to the glass wall until his nose only an inch from the glass. Out of the corners of his eyes he could see all of his coworkers doing the same.
“What do you think it is?” Jeremy the intern asked.
“It’s–” Jason started to answer, but he was cut off by the power suddenly cutting off. The humming of the fluorescent lights, the white-noise of the mounted speakers, the muttering of voices from the television silenced so immediately that it startled them all.
“What in the world?!” Megan from Customer Service exclaimed. All of the employees gave worried looks to each other, but then turned their eyes back to the mountain.
The glow was increasing every moment, building in brightness, size, and intensity. Several times it seemed to reach as bright as it could possibly go, but then it pressed onward. The employees had to hold their hands over their faces to block most of it out, staring transfixed through a narrow slit between their finger. None of them said another word. None of them tried to leave. What would they even be running from? Where would they even go?
The locus of heat had changed from its golden hue to bright yellow to pure white. It was brighter than fire, brighter than the sun, brighter than the heart of lightning. The rock beneath the face of the mountain had started to melt, started to ooze out of any opening it could find.
Then, all at once, the outer face of the mountain burst apart in a single, shattering explosion!
Though Jason and the others were miles away from the mountain, the shockwave struck their building instantaneously, bursting every window into glassy powder and slamming the employees backwards through the air. From the hole in the mountain a sudden beam of white light burst out horizontally. It was as focused as a laser, but more than thirty feet in width. It stretched from the heart of the mountain and across miles of the sky, scorching the overhead clouds and evaporating them into steam!
Jason tried to raise himself out of the middle of shattered cubicles where he had been blasted. His legs were still shaking too hard to support his weight, though, so he had to settle for sitting in the middle of ceiling tiles, smashed monitors, floating sheaves of paper, and spilled printer ink.
All of the other workers were moaning softly in pain, nursing wounds that ranged from rough bruising to broken bones. One of them wasn’t even visible anymore, having been blasted clear out the other side of the building. Jason tried to stand once more, and this time, legs still quivering, he rose to his feet.
Before him was a complete scene of destruction.
They had been lucky that their building was still standing. In the valley before him were many that had not. In fact any construct within a two-mile radius of the mountain had been entirely obliterated, reduced to a black scorch all along the foothills. All throughout the city fires were raging, streets were upended, and cars were littered like little toys flung off of a blanket. The bodies were too small to see, but Jason knew they must be sprawled about in the tens of thousands. There came a new sound of crumbling, and the office building next to Jason’s gave in to its structural damage, folding downward in a cloud of smoke and debris. There was a moment of shouts from everyone that had been inside, but all was quickly muffled into nothingness.
Jason knew he ought to check himself for injury, ought to tend to the others, ought to run for safety before his building fell, too. But he, like anyone else in that valley who could, still had his eyes locked firmly on the mountain.
Surprisingly the whole thing hadn’t been blasted to rubble. Only the section that the beam burst through had been expelled, and now that the beam was dying down there was revealed a giant, black hole right in the heart of the rock. It was like a lake-sized bullet-hole.
And out of that hole things were emerging.
Tall things. Giant things. Things that were generally humanoid in shape, but seemed to be hewn from the rock that they emerged from. Staggering Titans of unknown ages, marching down the slopes of the mountain on legs that moved shakily after millennia of not being used. But with each step they moved more confidently, finding their old strength restored in the light of the sun.
Jason watched them descend, and as they did his lips narrowed to a line. His hands curled into fists. His hair ruffled even though there was no breeze. And then he started to rise. Up and up, until he was floating halfway between the floor and the ceiling, feet supported by nothing.
I never did see the sun with my actual eyes. How could I? There was no light in that place at all, the sun emanated darkness. And yet, I was intensely aware of everything about it. I could easily tell you how it appeared, what its volume was, and how many tons filled it. It pervaded every empty nodule of my mind, and then pressed forcefully through the fibers into my every thought and memory. And so it was that I seemed to see and know the Black Sun everywhere. It had scorched the backs of us Treksmen all the journey here. It had pulled me with its gravity all through my youth. It had darkened my face as it stood over my infant cradle.
It was a perfect sphere, cracked and broken all about its surface, pitch black, and emanating a dark heat such as I had never felt from our old, gray sun. That old sun was no more. I could feel the surety of that fact without the slightest doubt. It was not merely hidden, it had been consumed in an instant, just like the rest of us.
Only now does a slight understanding come over me. That pulsing that pervaded everything, it was a resonance. And the wavelength of that resonance was attuned to all the universe. When the Black Sun vibrated all nearby matter was shaken loose, all color was disassembled, all light was disconnected. My atoms were no longer my own. They floated, near to each other, but no longer able to associate together. I hovered, sensing my own thoughts slowing towards nothing. My synapses still fired, but their neighbors could no longer receive the signal. I had a sense of having a million separate thoughts all at once.
And then a new rhythm began.
The Black Sun’s first wave had liberated us from all our ties, but now it would establish new ones. A massive crack, a single blade of light, vertical and extending to eternity. It barreled into our place and in an instant every person and every thing was blasted into the finest of grains, exploded out into a perfectly distributed cloud of matter.
Except for me. Where the Black Sun began reordering things, I was left as a phantom in the midst. I was not aware of body, I was not aware of my senses, I was only aware of self, and the streaming flow of matter and light all about. My conscience was an island in the midst of coursing chaos, watching as that chaos began to funnel and divide, reform, and give new inventions that had never been conceived of before.
There were great beasts in that moment. Massive titans with many heads and many arms, able to redistribute their mass as they saw fit. They congealed into corporeal form for a moment, and then burst outwards, scaling themselves out so far that entire nations lie between each of their atoms. And today no one knows of them, no one believes in them, but if you could scale yourself out to the cosmos you would see that they do exist, and that you have lived within them forever.
After the beasts came the forces. And I had a sense that the forces were the descendants of the beasts, come to fill the vacuum left by those progenitors. There were forces to draw together, forces to pull apart, forces to spin, and forces to arrest all motion whatsoever. Around each force spun the matter that had been turned to powder by the blade of light. Whirlpools of the elements, that spun at great speed until they became molten. And these whirlpools expanded and expanded until they intersected with each other. And where two whirlpools’ molten matter intersected there flew out sharp sparks and flashes of light as large as mountains. And in those sparks came torrents of black soil, fine as sand, rushing forth as a new landscape which slid under my feet and sprung up on every side. Black sand became all the ground, mounds of it became like hills and mountains, tumbling streams of it became like rivers.
And as those whirling cyclones continued to spit out more and more of that black powder they began to be buried beneath the mass, becoming hidden away, until they were sunk deep down to the world’s core. But though they are out of sight, still they spin, still they reach tendrils of new creation through the crust and onto the surface, but we see the evidence of it much more slowly now. And so it is today that the black powder will on occasion burst out of the ground without warning, spilling about in every direction as if it were flowing water, an incredible, pent-up mass that overruns an entire city and its countryside in a single moment. And where it covers, that which had once been is found no more. If you dig through the black powder you do not find the old creation beneath, for it has been dissolved in the new resonance. Many the explorer has searched that sand, only to disintegrate themselves in it.
These outbursts happen now about once every decade, but they do still happen. Each comes more slowly than the last, each comes with a greater rush of pent up matter. And so these upheavals will continue until the entire world has been remade in this new creation’s fashion. It may take millennia, but I have absolutely no doubt that it will be. For these forces, though slowed by their thick surroundings, are unending.
At the moment I have been discussing, though, that of the Black Sun’s first rising, the entire landscape surrounding me had already been changed in a single instant. Looking to the East I could make out the tidal wave of black sand rushing outwards, until it had consumed everything as far as the eye could see.
And then I looked back to my more immediate surroundings. I say I looked, but of course, there was no light anymore, nor did I possess eyes anymore. But all this new matter was interconnected, a shared consciousness, and so I saw them in my mind in just the same way as I saw the Black Sun. And all about me nothing appeared like how it had when my companions and I had first arrived. There were no people, indeed no form of life at all. There was no Coventry. There were no blackened trees with invisibly thin leaves. There were no caravan wagons or scrying sticks or roads. There was not even a void anymore. There was no Mira.
Or was she everywhere?
There was the Black Sun hanging over me, massive and very, very low in the sky, like a great weight about to fall upon my head at any moment. And an ocean of sand about my feet…or at least what would have been my feet if I yet had had a body. No doubt the material of what had once been my body was now a part of these black grains blasted all about.
Then the Black Sun acknowledged me. It flexed and the black soil in my area began to snake up over my space. It covered over me and rippled through many forms before settling on something that resembled a tall-legged man with no face.
Then all the ocean of granules began to raise and lower in waves. Everywhere they were trying to congeal together in strange shapes and mounds, then collapsed back into flatness. Then tried to congeal together again. Pulling together, releasing, over and over, like a pot being stirred until the batter grows thick.
And it did grow thick. Over the years the bonds between the grains became stronger. They slowly became more reluctant to falling apart, and they held their forms with more intricate detail. They were many layered, interwoven, creating a tumbling landscape that defied any I had seen before for intricacy.
And across these landforms other compacted soil-mounds crawled, meandering and climbing and falling and splitting and merging like some sort of artificial life. Or perhaps authentic life, but in the basest of forms.
And this was when I wondered if Mira was all about me. For just as she had spoken of the nothingness of the Void, and how it compensated for that non-existence by projecting life and exuberance through her, now I saw how this black sand of nothingness was actually the atomic material for everything. And given enough time I was sure it would become all possible forms. And as that thought occurred to me, I realized that I was witnessing a great chaos of life that was just starting to burst forth from this place in slow motion.
And with that thought my consciousness slipped into the future and I had a vision of a world where living beings and the elements of nature were one and the same. They resonated at different frequencies for a moment, projected different colors for a moment, appeared as disparate beings for a moment…but then always collapsed back into each other, back into the black dust, and from that formed new individualities.
But while they stood as individual, they appeared as all imaginable things. Yes, mountains and grass and water and fire and creatures and a form of people…but also sentient geometric patterns, volumes of light and color, masses in constant fluctuation, forces of gravity that possessed consciousness, veils that defined entirely new realities when passed through, adjacent regions of land that flowed in different directions of time, entities that had slowed in time until they only existed one moment every hundred years, galaxies in miniature scale upon a speck of dust, which galaxies held within them the entire world that the speck of dust resided in. These things and many more, existing and unexisting in turn.
I beheld them only for a moment, then the vision ended and I found myself back at the present. I knew that the future of chaos I had witnessed was still many eternities off, but the rumbling mass of sand I saw now was the foundation of it. It will come, and I will be there when it does.
For I am a consciousness apart of this world now. I am enclothed in black dust, but I am not that dust. When the dust loses its bond and falls away from me, I simply take on a new shroud, and continue wandering this world forever.
I can take the form of anything that I wish. I now take the form of you, my once-fellow mortals. I hear you speak of the destruction that happened eons ago in the Damocile Region. I hear you proclaim that the place has been covered in dead sand for its sins. You think of that event as past and done.
Fools. It was not a limited cataclysm that rang out once and then went cold. That first explosion is still churning, still rippling through the earth, and soon it will consume you as well.
This is not your world anymore. Indeed, it never was.
And now, at long last, we have concluded Raise the Black Sun. My stories have been getting quite long of late. Raise the Black Sun represents the end of a series that started with the first post of The Soldier’s Last Sleep, back on January 23, almost 6 months ago! It does make me wonder if it is worth continuing to make “series” of stories, or if I should just let each story stand by itself without a link to the next.
In any case, I do want to recall what the original ideas which got me to write this story were, and consider how I implemented them in the final work.
A Fitting End)
First off, I preceded this story by discussing elements that give a story its sense of closure. I talked about endings that have a sense of transaction, where the movements that make up the body of the story directly result in an opposite movement at the very end. I tried to replicate that in Raise the Black Sun by having its themes of gloom and destruction then make way for chaotic creation at the end. The somber march towards the finale suddenly takes up a rapid dash when it finally arrives at the end. Everything changes…but hopefully it feels fitting, like a sudden outburst from the long-building tension.
I also talked about stories ending with a new invention. We want the conclusion to be the high point of the story, and so it needs to show us something that we haven’t seen elsewhere in the story. This is why it works so well to have that long-bottled tension suddenly rush out in cathartic release. It ensures that the story will reach new heights, while not feeling out-of-sync with the rest of the tale.
Obviously there was a literal sense of new creation here at the end of Raise the Black Sun, too. Throughout the story I’ve had episodes to explore novel ideas, such as the Treksmen surrendering their bodies to automation, the Scrayer with his strange weapon, the witch with her mind invasion, and the Coventry with its mind-synced subjects; but here at the end I tried to introduce as many new ideas as all the previous ones combined. Graye’s vision of the far-distant future was meant to throw out ideas that could be an entire story themselves, all crammed into just a few isolated sentences for a huge climatic flourish.
I also spoke about stories that end with anticipation and surprise, where the reader both sees the end coming from a long ways off, yet somehow is also surprised when it comes. If your story is going end on a dour note, it is good to prepare the audience for it with a sense of dread. They don’t have to know what the exact fulfillment of that dread is going to look like, but they will be expecting there to be something waiting for them at the end.
And that was my number one objective when I began writing Raise the Black Sun. I wanted to start the whole work by tipping my hand, and stating that we were going to witness the end of the world, and then continue cultivating a sense of doom throughout the rest of the tale. As such, the audience would be extremely well prepared for a cataclysmic finish.
But then, my hope is that this ending was still surprising in its own way. I hope that the actual culmination of the sacrifices and the summoning of the Black Sun was different from what anyone had imagined. But beyond that, I also wanted it to feel like a twist that the cataclysmic destruction was also the flourishing of a new beginning. Yes it is an end of the world as we know it, but also the birth of a world we do not know.
Transaction, invention, anticipation, yet surprise. I’m pretty proud with the story I came up with, and how it answers to all of the points I had originally intended. As I suggested on Monday, I do see several ways that I would improve the story in a second draft, but there’s definitely a good foundation to work on. I have no immediate plans to do start that second craft, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I walk the caravan road to the Coventry again one day.
It was the longest night of my life, and when at last I did fall asleep, my dreams were unlike anything I had ever experienced before. There was no narrative to them, no sequence of events that my dream-self walked through. There was only a single image, a single presence: that of a massive black orb covering the entire lower third of my vision, with a golden haze around its perimeter, and an empty grayness above.
And that orb was pulsating. It wasn’t a sound or a tremor, but every so often I felt a slight anxiety, which escalated into an undeniable foreboding, and then peaked as an all-consuming dread. And then it was gone, and I felt nothing, until the entire sequence returned a minute later.
And so it continued through the entire night, until all at once my eyes flew open, and I could not say whether it had been only a few moments that had passed, or entire weeks.
Mira was staring back at me, each of us bathed in the cool gray of morning. Both of us knew that it was time for us to go. We raised to our feet and made for the Slab Altar at the back of the Coventry. As we wove through the streets we were joined on all sides by the rest of the citizens, each being pulled by the same thread as us, each answering the same call. In the years since I have been made aware that throughout the entire Damocile Region, all citizens were drawing their eyes to the western horizon at this time, watching that line with intense fervor, not even knowing what it was they waited for.
By the time Mira and I came into the square the Priests were already making preparations before the altar. They had procured a massive metal table, which rested upon a pin that ran down its middle, so that the sheet could be either rotated up vertically or laid flat horizontally. Upon this table they had deposited the dried bracken that I and my compatriots had delivered, and four of them were crouched over the wood, moving the pieces about in a very deliberate, staccato fashion, as if in a trance. On occasion they would lift their hands off the table entirely, and flex their fingers in strange ways, as though there was an electricity crackling between their digits and the pieces of bracken.
I was not sure what the point of this was, but after fifteen minutes of them repeating the pattern I noticed that the ends of the dried bracken began to lift up towards their fingers when they lifted them from the table. Then, they touched the pieces again, moved them about, lifted their hands, and the wood raised still higher and began to sway. Over and over they repeated this process, and as they did so the bracken became more and more animated. Individual pieces of wood started to slowly fracture into splinters, then reassemble back into the whole when the Priests lowered their hands back down to the table.
I was so caught up with the process that I had not even realized that three more Priests had taken their old stance on the middle of the Slab Altar, and had begun the grim working of filling the last of the blood-quota. How many souls could be left, I wondered. Given how precise everything was in this place, I did not doubt that the number would be exact. One moment the Slab would lack a single drop of blood, the next it would be perfectly filled and no more.
“How much longer do you think this will go for?” I whispered down to fair Mira at my side.
“Not long,” she said distractedly. “No, not long at all left now.” Suddenly her eyes flashed and she came back fully to the moment. “Graye! Hold my hand!”
She spoke with such earnestness that I immediately took her palm in mine. She squeezed her fingers tightly around mine, as if terrified that I might slip away.
“It’ll be alright,” I said.
“It will be what it will be,” came her response.
“I–” before I could finish my words there came a loud crackling sound from up ahead, and looking forward I saw the Priests at the table now had an entire ball of splintered bracken trembling between their outstretched hands. The trembling was so severe that I thought for a moment that the wood was turning fluid. But it was only perfectly pulverized dust. The particles of bracken now flowed freely over one another, began spinning round in a tight circle, appearing more and more silver as they streamed faster and faster.
The Priests withdrew their hands and stepped back, but still the powdered bracken continued to twist and contort. It was moving entirely under its own power now. And all the while the methodical slice of the executioner’s blade hummed through the air behind it.
“It’ll be alright,” I said more earnestly to Mira.
“It doesn’t have to be,” she whispered.
“Yes, it does. Whatever follows, I will come for you. I will stay with you. It’ll be alright, we’ll be together. I promise.”
“Graye,” she shook her head sadly, “you have to–”
It was a high-pitched whine that distracted us this time. The bracken churned violently, oscillating at tremendous speeds until molten globs of it flung outwards, then slowed and flung back to the center mass. The Priests at the center of the Altar were repeating their movements at an exaggerated speed. The first one rambled exchanged words with the victim in a rush, the second scribbled the name furiously into his ledger, the third instinctively swung his blade even before the hammer touched his shoulder. And then, even before the victim had been fully consumed by the stone, the next subject began their approach.
And though it was morning, it seemed that the sun was setting. I looked up and saw that it still stood in the sky, but the light was draining from it. Strangely it was the portions of the sky that were furthest from it that still retained the memory of its illumination. Long shadows began to stretch over our congregation, dancing wildly as the light that cast them waned for the last time.
A dull throbbing resounded now from the molten bracken, and I realized that it was slowing. The mass came apart in a million fluid strands, each weaving one direction or the other, splitting and converging as they began to draw out a tapestry. It was a great circle, just as had been described to us by our host, when he recounted the first time my ancestors had brought bracken to these people’s ancestors. That circle was composed of so many parts, but each fitted together perfectly, so that they congealed into a single whole.
And down the center of that circle was the shaft. Not empty as it had appeared all those generations ago, but full and complete, with the last fibers flowing into place even now at the very center of the whole, doing so in perfect time with the last subjects making their way to the center of the Altar.
“I promise,” I clutched more firmly at Mira’s hand, though every I spoke word tasted false. “I promise we’ll be together. I’ll never let you go.”
“Graye.” She said it with such a tone of finality. “I said to you yesterday that you should take what gifts we transient souls can offer.” She stared firmly into my eyes. “But also, do not tear yourself by trying to hold onto that which can never stay.”
And then she drew her hand away from mine. I do not know how she managed it, for I had been gripping it in a fearful vise. Yet somehow, seemingly effortlessly, she pulled back. Then gave a sad sort of smile, said “goodbye,” and turned to walk away.
I remained dumbstruck, watched as she wove through the crowd, made her way with purpose towards the Slab Altar. Even then I did not understand, I suppose the reality of what was happening was too awful for my mind to accept. I did not comprehend what she was doing until she was but five paces from the Priests at the center, who were waiting for the next and final victim to come.
I mouthed the word “no” but no sound came out. Indeed, it seemed that all the air had been forcefully removed from my lungs. You might wonder that I did not fight to reach her and drag her back, but I could not. There were forces at play which I was powerless to resist. Somehow, I had always known that she was the one to fill the quota.
Mira did not speak to the first Priest, though, she did not have her name transcribed by the second, and she did not approach the third for the killing blow. As she had said the day prior, she was not like the rest of the Coventry. She was the keystone at the top, not subject to the rites and rituals of all those below.
Every eye fixed on her as she spread her hands out wide, giving a broad salute to the dread horizon. She turned to look at us and the last embers of light flit across her pale skin, making it seem as though her face was contorting between a thousand expressions every second, like she was mad, or possessed by innumerable demons.
Then, everything stopped. All the light rushed to one point, the one where she stood, and it illuminated her in perfect clarity. She appeared divine. And the rest of us were plunged into total black and ceased all movement and all noise. We were the vacuum now, and she was the only spot that existed in all the universe.
And though I was lost in the void, still her eyes were able to feel through the emptiness until they met mine. She stared straight at me, and gave that sad sort of smile again.
Then her body slammed to the ground in a single instant and pounded into nothingness! All that made her was expelled and consumed faster than I could even see. The entire surface of the Slab Altar flashed, and every Priest that stood upon it disintegrated into dust.
A dull roar emanated beneath our feet, pounded up through the earth and quaked us where we stood. There was a rushing feeling, as though we had all dropped into a free-fall. And to that “great beneath” to which we fell there came once more the rhythmic pulsation of doom. It grew in intensity and frequency, each new cycle overrunning the tail of the last. Though it made no noise, it became deafening. Though it made no pressure, it became crushing. My hands quaked over my face, trying to protect me from it, but it pulsated from within me as much as without.
On Monday I wrote about how stories introduce themes and remain consistent to them, providing a pleasant sense of closure and catharsis to the reader. But sometimes I feel you need to pull away from those themes, so that you can then return to them with real momentum. One of the reasons why I created the character of Mira was that the story had been so relentlessly bleak that I felt the ending might land to little effect. For a moment I needed to introduce a single bright spot, something to breathe hope back into Graye, all so that the ending could have its dour impact again.
Thus introducing her might have felt like it contradicted many of the themes that had preceded, but hopefully here at the end of her arc it all seems to fit once more. Perhaps a part of us wants the story to have a happy ending, but clearly it was never going to. Given what this story has been, this is the right way for it to finish.
Speaking of the ending, I want to circle back to the original intention I gave before starting this work, which was to strongly signal the ending before it came, and still have it land in a way that was novel and satisfying. I’d like to bring that focus back to the forefront as we prepare to see exactly how that ends plays out.
Because, though I have been anticipating an end to this story for a long while, really and truly I promise that the next entry in it will be the very last one. Raise the Black Sun is the longest piece that I have published on this blog by a considerable margin. Looking back, there are things that I am quite proud of in it, and there are things that I think are a bit off. Given how extensive a work it has been, I would like to dedicate the next post simply to examining it, as well as considering how I would approach it if I were ever to make it into a full-sized work.
This, of course, is my account of the Priests of Oolant and the sacrifices they made to summon the dread eclipse. The final night. The burning horizon. The Black Sun.
Many names. Each trying to express the same idea, yet each only able to give definition to the smallest part of it. I shall attempt to discuss around the matter with my own words, though I too will fail to properly account for what transpired that day. I know as much, and I happily accept that failing, for there is no shame in not being able to explain that which is inexplicable.
I have, of course, read the many partial and second-hand accounts of that day, which to my utter disdain have tried to gloss over the void truth with fanciful allegories and symbolism. These things are an affront and a blaspheme to the true gravity of that moment. You cannot make an image of so unholy a scene, you cannot make a fantasy of that which is most terribly real, and you cannot write a drama around pure, unfeeling destruction.
Rather than try to explain things, we should be content to leave them unknowable. Thus I am not here to satiate your curiosity. If you desire fables look elsewhere. I have come only to help you resolve your mind to the fact that you will never know. How could you? I myself know, yet do not know what that knowing is. It is like a worm lodged in my brain, which churns through the folds of that tissue unceasingly. I cannot see the worm, I cannot hear the worm, I cannot feel the worm…for my brain has uselessly placed all its sensors without itself. All that I am able to perceive the worm by is how it weighs and pressures upon every other cranial activity. It squeezes against the synapses and makes them fire differently, makes them all tainted by the shadow of the Black Sun.
I was there.
I wish for this to be made very clear. This is not another second-hand account. I was present my own self that day. How did I escape then, you wonder? I do not know. Perhaps I did not. So frail has my connection to this world felt ever since, so ignored by my fellow man have I been, that it would not surprise me at all if I am nothing but a specter anymore, a ghost whose record must go unheard by the world. But perhaps if I write it now with all my soul, if I strain myself with all my strength against the shroud, then I will leave an echo that some may bear witness to on the other side. I have heard of such things before. But enough now, I have digressed from my matter.
As I said, I was there.
I was not one of the Priests of Oolant, I frankly had no business with them whatsoever. I was not even raised in the Damocile Region. I called my home Omayo, a small hamlet two levels and fourteen strata beneath groundscape. Though of course not true groundscape. We thought it was, but back in those days we did not know that that which we called the entire world was but only a single arm of the greater Kolv Mass.
In any case, the hamlet of Omayo rested on the fringe of the Peyrock plantation. Like most of the boys that grew up in my small village, when I came of age I sought employment from that plantation. Some of us went to work in the fields, some of us to transport the goods in far-traveling caravans, the greatest of which were many miles long.
It was the caravan work that fell to me, and I made many sojourns with our dried bracken, all through the Eastern quadrant of the groundscape (or what we then thought was groundscape). When we received a special order we would carry it directly down to the specific level-and-strata, otherwise we left our goods with the surface depot, to then be disseminated by great lifts to the masses below.
It was not often that our circuit included the Damocile Region, and absolutely never to the Coventry of Graymore. Of course I was aware of the place and the work performed within its blackened halls, for its fame was common knowledge to us all. But never had I seen the Slab Altar, nor the masses of their artificially inflated population, nor contemplated how one could so freely choose such a fate as the Consigning.
But all this was to change, and I confess I felt a thrill of boyish curiosity when I read the destination listed for our next circuit. It was Torrin who saw it first as we caravan-boys crowded around the notice board.
“Graymore Coventry?!” he exclaimed. “Foreman, is that a joke?”
Our foreman, Ayeseus Blott, had remained waiting behind while we looked over the posting, no doubt anticipating our reaction when we came to that particular listing.
“No jokes in the employ,” he frowned seriously. “You know better than to ask a question like that.”
“But…why are we going there?” I ventured.
“Because we have been summoned. What other reason is there.”
Though we peppered him with questions for a while, there was nothing else that we could glean from him. For he was hardly of any higher station than us, and thus not privy to anything whatsoever. All that mattered was that an order had been made, a purchase given, and that now we must make our delivery.
And so we prepared for our journey, and the closer we came to it the more our initial excitement mingled with a growing sense of dread. By the time we reached the week of our expedition, we were equal parts enthusiastic and horrified for the sights we might see when we came to the Coventry.
To be clear, we were not so foolish as to fear that we, ourselves, might be made sacrifices by those strange priests, for we knew that the Slab Altar was considered one of the most holy relics in all of Gaverenth, and that only those who had been kept pure by a strict life-regimen were worthy to be offered thereon. But there is, of course, a natural dread to know that one might witness the taking of another’s life. Of course it would theoretically be possible to not walk into the square when such events were happening, but when you are a young man of ravenous curiosity, you know that you must see.
Thus we were preparing for our excursion against our own better natures. Pushed by marvel past our reason. If this were all, already I would say that we set out on our journey with a black sign over us. But in truth, even before we set forth on our circuit, we encountered not one, but three more dark omens.
First was the matter of our foreman, Ayeseus Blott, who grew deathly ill three days before we were supposed to leave the Plantation. Now everyone knows that it is terrible bad luck to set out under a sudden change in leadership. So much so, that though we were anxious to see the Coventry, we had to approach the management and request the trip be cancelled. They told us that they could not satisfy this request. They apologized that such was the case, stated that under normal circumstances they would have, but proclaimed that this journey was too essential to cancel. They could not say why, it was a great secret apparently, but they did assure us that it was not simply a matter of business, not something so simple as supply and demand, nothing as crude as a matter of money. No. There were deep matters at play, ones so great that the worse luck would be in us not seeing this campaign through. And so, though it meant we would ride out under a cursed sign, still we must go.
Of course this all only served to deepen our two-mindedness. Apprehension and fascination ratcheted higher than we knew was even possible. Our previous dread anticipation had now been touched by a sense of destiny. We were being driven, compelled even, towards some great fate. The call had been made, and whether to good or evil we had to answer.
Of the two, evil seemed the most likely, what with the unholy nature of our destination. And though it might seem strange to set out to what seems to be an evil fate, if it is your fate, then it cannot be resisted. We were like young Avalow, moving step-by-step towards the fire, eyes staring unflinchingly forward to his own destruction, unable to turn, because it was the one purpose for which he had been made. So, too, we must go and see for what we had been made.
The second sign of ill things came on the day of the Pledge. In all the seventy-one voyages I had made previously, I had not given a second thought to the solemn words that bound me to my mission. They had been meaningless mutterings every time, for I never had had any reason to not obey them. Indeed the process had always been so routine, that after the first six times I hardly even noticed the heartdrag of it anymore.
But this time I did notice it. Not only noticed it, but was shaken by it. So much so that I thought I might collapse right there, halfway through the second stanza. And this time, for the first time, I understood why the ritual of the Pledge affects our hearts so, why it makes our life-organ slow its beats, and thump them out heavily, even painfully. For the heart knows that it is being taken from you and submitted to another, and by its nature this is a death to it. And that is what the heartdrag truly is, the slow death-agonies of the heart.
Thus you must not pause in the ritual. You must hurry through the words and rush out your final “Amen,” which finally releases the heart back to its regular, though somewhat sadder, cadence. If you do not get through the whole Pledge quickly enough, then the heart will grow silent for too long…as we all bore witness to that day.
For no sooner did I finish my pledge, and my heart burst back into rapid life, then young Yalli came behind me for his turn. And as I was catching my breath I noticed that he was already quite pale, and that his words were very shaky. Right from the first sentence he was speaking too slowly, which meant his momentum would never be able to carry him on to the end. I wanted to shout out to him to stop, to turn back…but it was too late. He had just cleared the first stanza, and so that escape was forever closed off to him.
I could see the panic set in his face, see how he came to the same realization that I just had. His lips fluttered wildly and turned blue, but already the words were drying up. Three staccato whispers and then no more sounds came out of his mouth.
“Yalli!” I cried. “Breathe in!”
But it was not a lack of air, it was a lack of strength to expel it. He jerked horribly, trying to force out a single syllable, then we all heard a muffled bursting and he collapsed to the floor, never to rise again.
There were only three Treksmen left to make their oath after Yalli, but of course not a one of them would dare utter a word after what they had just seen. Though they knew it meant banishment from our order, there was simply no way that they could make the Pledge without hesitating in the words. And as we had all seen, to hesitate before your fate was to die by its wrath.
It was inevitable that the story of what had happened spread through the entire body of Treksmen, such that no others would agree to complete our partial company, no matter how great a bonus they were promised for it. And so we came by the second and third dark omens of our quest: the premature death of a Treksman, and the necessity to set out with an incomplete crew.
It was a black morning when at last we set out on our way.
On Monday I talked about how to bring a fitting end to a story. At this point we are still a ways off from the end of our tale, but we can discuss how I am setting up for it in the beginning. As I suggested in my previous post, I am tipping my hand right from the outset in this tale. Though the terms “Black Sun” and “Priests of Oolant” mean nothing to the reader, they should immediately understand that this story is going to end with the raising of some terrible, cataclysmic event, wherein a great many people are going to die.
This might seem to be contrary to my stated intent with this latest series: to focus on stories where the ending has some sort of “turning” element, one that goes beyond all that has been alluded to before, and gives new definition to all of the story’s themes and arcs. But I believe that I will be able to write the ending of this story in a way that is still surprising and satisfying, no matter how much of it I have already revealed.
To do this I am relying on two things. The first having a journey that redefines what the ending means. At the outset the reader is promised a cataclysmic event, but what that really means remains a mystery. I hope that by exploring the context of this world, the eventual destruction at the end will be cast in a light that the reader had not anticipated from the beginning.
The other strategy I am depending on is being able to still surprise the reader with how this destruction takes place. Saying that the region is subjected to a terrible catastrophe is pretty vague, and leaves a great deal open to the imagination. My hope is that when I finally get to laying out all the details that the reality of the moment will pack a few surprises for even the most imaginative of readers.
Before we get to that end, though, I want to take a moment to consider world building in stories, and how we create the systems within them. If rules are constantly changing, then they mean nothing; and if they are set in stone, but disinteresting, then–well–they’re disinteresting.
How can an author bridge the gap of providing constant new inventions in their world, but also avoid introducing elements that make loopholes in what came before? We’ll take a look at some ideas on Monday, and how I have composed the world-systems in this current story. Come back next week to check it out.
“Ungrateful beasts!” Jeret snarled as he swung his arms, sending the little attackers buzzing for safety. “I’m sorry it’s not a perfect world, but I gave you everything that I could. I tried over and over!” He picked up a rock and threw it at the nearing cloud. The Seclings easily swerved to avoid it, but it gave them pause. They hovered in the air, waiting for more numbers.
Jeret took the opportunity to reach down to his waist, where a self-made belt held the cylinder. He waved it, throwing haze all about him in the air.
“A dome,” he said. “Transparent, but thick and strong.” A vague bubble start to form all around him. “It’s made of glass, and has minute holes to let air in, but they are all much to small for any creature to pass through.”
The dome popped into existence just as the Seclings rushed forward in their attack. They bounced harmlessly off the glass-like surface, entirely unable to penetrate its protection. Jeret stared at them darkly.
“But why?” he asked them. “I’m not a Firling, I’m not an Impli. I did make them, but you don’t know that, so why would you attack me?”
Even as he said it he knew the answer was not based on reason or logic. It was just in their nature. He might as well ask why he had picked fights with strangers back home on Amoria.
Jeret shook his head, trying to dismiss the thoughts. That was then, but this was now. And now he had every justification for the destruction that he was about to cause. Waiting for these species to destroy each other naturally was no longer an option. Who knew what sort of trouble they might get up to if they were left alive together? Things would have to be expedited.
What would he use? A flood? A fire? Bolts of lightning? Drop a mountain on them? A cloud of poison? Creation was miserable and hard, destruction was just so much easier.
Jeret grabbed the cylinder, readying it for use. He would dig a tunnel out of here first, get beyond the gardens and up on a tower. There he would be out of reach, but could still see everything. And then he’d kill these miserable convicts.
Jeret’s hands started to shake, it felt like the world was somehow spinning beneath him. He fell onto his side, head cradled in his arms. Maybe…maybe he did know why he got into so many fights back home. And maybe he knew why the Seclings behaved this way as well. They had been hit so many times, that now they were in a perpetual fear of where the next strike was going to come from. No creature could be trusted, and it was better to destroy than be destroyed. Something about Jeret had always been afraid, and he had always fought. Fought against his neighbors, against the community, and even against himself.
“My poor little children,” he wept. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make you better. I tried. I wanted you to have a chance. If someone else had made you, you might have been happy. It’s not your fault.”
Jeret lifted his head, and touched his hand to the dome, pressing it against the point where the Seclings clustered most densely. They were still trying to break through to him.
“I’m sorry that I made you… when I was always just going to kill you in the end. Hopeless. It was hopeless. You were always doomed. And now I’m going to kill you, and whatever I make to do it, then it’s going to kill me, too.”
The words came out without a thought, and even as he spoke them he was surprised at their sound. But somehow he knew they were true. Everything he tried to do here, it escalated. Every violence always came back round in the end. He didn’t know how, but if he destroyed his creations, he would destroy himself, too.
But maybe that was the right thing to do.
For the first time Jeret felt that he deserved to be here on this forsaken piece of rock. He really was unfit for society, wasn’t he? Given utmost power, and all he could do with it was destroy.
Jeret looked down to the cylinder. He would die violently, that much was certain. But did he have to die fighting anymore? Maybe there was still a chance for peace inside at the end.
His hands worked quickly, as if afraid that if he paused to think about it he would lose his nerve. He raised the cylinder and traced some haze against the dome.
“A very hot rock, cupped against the glass. A piece of burning metal, held in a steel cradle, melting through the dome.”
The Seclings started to lift off of the dome surface as it became too hot to bear. Even Jeret could feel the heat growing from where he sat.
“And the glass is melting, opening a wide hole to the outside.”
A glob of molten glass dripped down to the ground. No sooner had it cleared than the swarm of Seclings funneled in, making straight for Jeret. He closed his eyes, accepting the end. He felt their insect-feet perching on him, felt the small shift in their bodies as they lifted their stingers high, felt the sharp pinpricks score up and down his body.
The toxin flowed into him and he felt numb all over, as if fat cotton was being pumped through his veins instead of blood. His thoughts went fuzzy, and he was vaguely aware of falling backwards, though he did not feel the impact of his head against the ground.
The sounds all about him were fuzzy, too. The buzzing of wings sounded distant and echoing, not unlike the sound of the surf crashing on a beach. Even his thoughts were slowing down. It was as if he watched the ideas and sensations flow by like a river, and the water was receding until he could see each thought individually and clearly. And then he didn’t see the stream at all, he was alone on the shore of nothing. He was only aware of his awareness. And then that awareness lapsed, and came back, and lapsed again. And then he had only a vague notion of himself. And then the vague notion was gone, and it was just himself. And then…
And then, inexplicably, there was something. Not nothing, as he had expected, but an actual something.
Slowly awareness was coming back. Jeret couldn’t move, couldn’t open his eyes, but his mind was moving again. Slowly sensation was coming back as well, and his body felt…normal. There wasn’t any toxin in him. Or if there was, then it wasn’t toxin any more.
Jeret blinked and he was laying on his back, looking up at his garden. There was a pleasant buzz of Secling passing overhead. He sat up and a wave of them took off from his body. As they passed by his eyes he noticed that their stingers were falling from their abdomens. Somehow he knew it was because they didn’t need them anymore. Because all of their toxin had dried up.
There was a sudden rustle at Jeret’s side, and he looked down to see three Firlings wrestling on the ground. It was play. They were not trying to harm one another. They were not trying to hunt the Seclings flying all about.
They had changed. Even though they had been fully defined before, somehow they had changed.
And then came the strangest sensation of them all. A rumbling directly beneath Jeret, and the whir of machinery. Jeret squinted at the garden paradise around him, and had the distinct sensation that something was hiding behind it. Not only behind the garden, but behind the entire asteroid that was his home. Behind his entire consciousness, as if it was only a screen, and another world was underneath.
“And he’s coming out of simulation now.”
The garden wavered. Something was behind. If Jeret could just see beyond what his eyes told him he saw…he could almost discern it now. He felt his body regaining its sensations again. And not the pretend sensations this time, the real ones.
All at once Jeret opened his eyes and the garden was gone. He was in a dark room, with a ring of dull, orange lights around the perimeter which were slowly turning brighter. He was laid back on a half-reclined chair, facing a man pressing buttons on a control panel. Every now and then the man glanced up, to see how well Jeret was coming out of his hallucination.
There was a sudden stripe of white light across the still-mostly-dark room, a door had just opened off to the side. Jeret turned, and against the blinding brightness he could see the silhouette of a rotund man, balding on top, but with a tangle of stray hairs bursting from the sides.
“Mister Jeret!” the man boomed jovially. “How are you feeling?”
Jeret’s brow furrowed in confusion. He had seen these men before, but his mind was still trying to remember where. Oh that’s right, it was the men who had administered the sedative immediately before his exile, the last people he had seen on Amoria. What was so confusing, though, was that his mind seemed to be of two ideas whether the time on the asteroid was real…or only a dream. Perhaps he had never left this room?
“Looks like you’re still coming to,” the man concluded when Jeret did not answer. The perimeter lights were now bright enough that Jeret could see the two men clearly enough to make out their details. Somehow, the more he saw them, the more his mind was pulled towards reality.
“I was…dreaming?” Jeret suggested.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“There was no asteroid?”
The man smiled.
“A–a simulation. And you put the cylinder there on purpose?”
“Jeret, I’d love to stay and chat, but really I’m just here to ask you one thing. Do you think you are ready to rejoin society now?”
“What? But I’ve been exiled?”
“Yes, yes. So you were told. But that was when you insisted on being a threat to everyone around you. So let me ask you again, are you a threat anymore?”
“No I–I rather think I don’t want to hurt anyone at all anymore.”
“That’s what our records show as well. Congratulations, man, you’ve been rehabilitated.”
The man extended his hand. Jeret winced slightly as he pushed himself off of the chair and to his feet. His muscles were still tingling from lack of use. He felt awkward taking his first, fumbling steps, but the man in the doorway smiled patiently and waited. Slowly feeling returned, and Jeret reached out and took the man’s hand.
“Let’s get you back home now.”
And together the two of them walked out of the room.
So here we are at the end of our story. I mentioned on Monday that this story had two possible endings. The first option–the tragic and violent end–was more in line with Jeret’s initial trajectory. He came as an unrepentant and bitter man, and the natural culmination of that character would be an act of self-destruction.
But then he would not have developed as a character, which was something I very much wanted for him to do. And so I wrote about him learning to care for other life, and to take responsibility for his actions. By exploring the power of creation, he slowly lost his need for destruction.
Hopefully this transformation was communicated effectively enough that the new ending felt earned. It would not have made sense for him to have had that conclusion from the outset at the story, but I think he deserved it by the end. Similarly, had he still received the somber ending after his transformation, I think it would have felt off.
As I stated earlier, my intention with this series was to wrestle with all sides of responsibility and duty, particularly related to the guiding of wayward children. Jeret was himself a wayward child, completely devoid of any sense of responsibility. His family cast him out (seemingly at least), but gave him an opportunity to be a father in his exile. As we just discussed, the weight of that power had a redemptive effect on him. Yes, power can corrupt, but I also sincerely believe that it can refine us as well. None of us can improve if we cannot choose, and none can choose where they do not have at least some power.
In either case, I feel I have had my fill of these themes, at least for a while. Come back on Monday when we’ll go somewhere new!
Jeret was deeply intrigued by this development, and made himself a journal to track the creatures’ progress. It soon became clear that while both the Firlings and Seclings could adapt, the insects were far quicker at it. When he had fashioned them, he had made them as prey, and so had felt obligated to imbue them with greater cunning to defend themselves. Never, though, had he mandated that such cunning had only be used in defense.
And this explained the adaptation that Jeret saw them taking next. At first it was so subtle a change that he didn’t catch on to it. It seemed mere chance that from time-to-time a single Secling would be out, wandering the flowers on its own, a perfect victim for a pack of Firlings. Surely enough, the pack would come, attack, and devour their prey. Then, as they departed, they would suddenly hiss and recoil in pain. Only then Jeret would notice three or four Seclings that had burrowed, stingers up, in the vines around their solitary comrade. Those assassins quickly wriggled away, leaving the pack of Firlings to die.
After this same drama had played out multiple times in a week, Jeret knew it was an intentional behavior. He started watching for how these ambushes were prepared, and noticed that one Secling would land near to a flower first, and then stick its rear legs up into the air and rub them in a rhythmic humming.
That humming would attract any passing Seclings who would land by their partner, and attempt to burrow into the vines. If the burrower found three or four other Seclings already laying in wait, it would continue on its way.
There were quite a few points of this behavior that Jeret found shocking. For one, it seemed to suggest that the Seclings were able to collaborate with one another beyond a basic pack mentality. They were adapting their behavior in the moment, assuming separate roles according to need, and were prioritizing the colony over self. How else could he explain an individual Secling offering itself up as bait so that the Firling population could be more quickly diminished?
Perhaps the most shocking thing of all, though, was that it worked. It took some time for the new strategy to have a noticeable effect, but after a while the number of Firlings began to dwindle. If things continued unchecked, they would go extinct. The Firlings seemed to be aware of their decline, and they became more desperate in their hunting. Each attack on the Seclings was quick and ferocious. They still traveled in packs as they hunted, but would often fight with one another for the greater portion of any meal. As such, even when there wasn’t any Secling trap, they might still kill off one or two of their own number by themselves.
Of course the Balan parasite strove to bring these trends in check. It released its pheromones, both increasing the rate of Firling reproduction, and restricting that of the Seclings. It began to reach extremes, such that only one in a hundred male Seclings was capable of fertilizing eggs anymore.
But the Seclings were inadvertently taking steps to resolve that issue, too. They had been getting wise to their other predator as well: the Impli flowers, and they started developing tactics to eradicate that nemesis as well.
Thus far they had not learned how to tell the Impli flower from the ones actually grown by the tree…until the Impli closed up around one of their kind. And so, whenever a Secling passed by a flower wrapped around a corpse of their comrade, they would fly down to the base of that flower and sting it repeatedly.
Jeret had never put a limit on the range of effect in a Secling’s toxin, and it appeared that the Impli flowers were not immune to it. After being stung, one of them would wither and die within an hour.
At first Jeret saw no problem in this. He had anticipated the Impli having a short lifespan, due to the Firlings stealing their food source, and had dictated that they would spread their seeds very quickly after ingesting their meal. The Secling toxin was relative fast-acting, but still not fast enough to prevent most Impli flowers from spreading their seeds and securing the next generation.
The real trouble was that the larva Balans were losing their host before they could transfer to the Firlings. They were dying before they could progress to their final state and lay their eggs. And as their numbers dwindled, there were far fewer of the moderating pheromones being released in the air.
It took some time for the Secling onslaught to have any perceptible effect, but all at once their reproduction rates boomed back to normal, Firling numbers stopped replenishing so quickly, and the Balan parasite was all but extinct! Before long the Seclings would be the last remaining fauna in the garden.
“Well, perhaps that’s all there is to it,” Jeret said in exasperation. “Tried to setup a balance, it seemed to work for a bit, but in the end survival has to be earned, doesn’t it? The Firlings had a good run, and no one can say I didn’t try to keep them going.”
But of course, he still had that sense that he had set the Firlings up for failure from the very beginning. He had created the species without any sustenance, had then given them sustenance, but then made that sustenance cunning and lethal. The Firlings had never stood a chance!
“If I intervened again…what would I even do?” he wondered. “Add yet another species? And try to keep that balanced as well as all these others?”
He shook his head hopelessly. Course correcting was such a hard thing to do. Alterations didn’t take full effect until long after they were implemented. And so to curb an immediate threat required a powerful deterrent, which deterrent would then carry long term consequences, and likely tip the balance again.
Unless he could make a change that was limited in its nature. What if he could create a one-time effect? Something that struck in a moment, corrected the balance, and then went away.
An exodus. The Seclings were simply too lethal. So long as they remained with the Firlings and the Impli, either they or the other two would have to be destroyed, and each of those prospects was unacceptable.
So they could not remain with the Firlings and the Impli. If there was a divide, then the Seclings could live off of the trees’ flowers without being molested. They would preserve the garden, and be preserved by it. There would be no predator behavior whatsoever.
Meanwhile the Impli would receive a new pollinator, and the Firlings another food source. The simplest solution would be a slight variation on the Seclings, one that wasn’t so ruthless and didn’t have any toxins.
Jeret thought through the proposal a few times. He could see no way for it to backfire…but he had felt that way before. Still, he might as well go through with it. In the worst case, the species would still prove unsustainable, and he would be back in the same situation as he was right now.
And so he started to prepare a second garden alongside of the first. It was identical to the first in its flora: the broadleafs, the tendrils, the trees and the flowers. It also had a high perimeter of containing rocks, and as the Seclings were the only species that could fly, they alone had access to the new area. It did not take them long to explore it, and it quickly became a regular stop along their circuit. They did not, however, entirely abandon the first garden area. Apparently competition-free sustenance was not compelling enough to give up half of their available resources.
No matter. Jeret fashioned a fungus that he placed along the rock-tops in the old garden area. They didn’t like sharing their space with any other creatures, and put out a repulsive scent to drive them away. Gradually the Seclings retreated onto the uninfected quarries of the new garden area.
During this time, Jeret began introducing his new variation on the Seclings to the first garden. He called them Thirlings. Thirlings were almost identical to the Seclings, though he omitted their intelligent and aggressive nature. He ended up deciding that they should still have their stingers, to defend themselves, but he reduced the potency of these. They could momentarily paralyze a Firling and allow the Thirling to escape, but they were not lethal any more.
The tree flowers were still pollinated by the Thirlings, and the Impli flowers were still able to trick and consume them as well. Jeret specified that the Thirlings were closely enough related to the Seclings to be affected by the same pheromones, and so the Balan parasite continued to moderate the ebb and flow of the populations.
And once again there was balance.
Jeret divided his time between each of the two gardens, and each seemed to progress well. The Seclings thrived without any predators, and so the trees and flowers that they pollinated did as well. It seemed to be an entirely mutual arrangement, and Jeret wished that he had been able to set things up this way from the very beginning.
Meanwhile the Firlings flourished as well, in fact to a shocking degree. Jeret had expected them to revert back to solitary hunters once the threat against them was removed. But they didn’t. They retained the new techniques that they had had to employ against the Seclings, and proceeded to hunt the Thirlings with just as much ferocity, gorging themselves on the far more timid quarry. Jeret observed them eating to the point of vomiting, and then continuing with their meals. They had been traumatized by living off of a species that was more dangerous than themselves, and the terror of those necessary walks with death were not so easily set aside.
Of course the Balans had to release pheromones to drastically suppress the reproduction rates of the Firling population, while strongly boosting those of the Thirlings. Rather than improve things, though, it only made them worse. Now there were Thirlings all over the place, and the insatiable Firlings became even more mad! They spent their every waking moment in the hunt. The females joined in as well, given that they weren’t spending any time raising young. The hunting packs were entirely dysfunctional. They would still patrol in groups of three of four, but the whole way they snarled and scrabbled and outright killed one another.
Meanwhile, over in the second garden, things had taken a turn for the worse as well. Without anything to threaten or moderate the Secling population, it had exploded ridiculously, and done so far more quickly than that of the trees and flowers. Soon their numbers outstripped the sustenance that was available, and their one colony fractured into vaguely defined factions emerged, each vying against the others for control.
The Seclings had been instructed to preserve themselves at all costs, and now they perceived their own kind as a threat. They were ruthless, slaughtering themselves off by the thousand. Of course this did provide its own form of regulation, but at such a terribly violent cost. It got so that Jeret could not walk through their garden without his every step crunching upon the carpet of dried insect corpses.
And they did not stay within their bounds either. Though they were repulsed by the fungus on the rocks, they managed to push through to the other side from time-to-time. These rogue groups did not come here to live, though, they came only to satiate their desire to destroy all hostiles. They murdered their cousin-Thirlings in droves, but more especially they sought out and killed Firling packs. Sometimes the Firlings prevailed, but most times they did not.
The animals had learned to kill for killing’s sake. Kill out of fear, out of competition, even just for sport. And this led to perhaps the most troubling development of them all. It took place one day, while Jeret was walking through the gardens, racking his mind for a solution. A hundred options occurred to him, but he had lost all confidence in himself. Every plan he implemented backfired, things only became worse because of his involvement.
Indeed, he wondered whether it wasn’t finally time to leave things to their natural course. Would it not be simpler to just let the species work out their own ruin now? Yes, it was simpler, but even after all the frustration and failure …that choice still pained him. He had felt such a delight as he invented each creature. He knew the beauty that was in them, the delightful little nuances, the reasons that they deserved to live.
But all that beauty was tarnished by this predisposition to violence. It was a black mark that spread like a cancer. But it was only in them because they had been made of him, and it felt wrong to punish them for his own mistakes.
Suddenly all his thoughts were interrupted as a sudden pain shot through his hand. It was a localized heat, which then pulsated down his veins, making his entire arm twitch involuntarily. Looking down he saw a Secling drawing its stinger out of him.
“What? I didn’t do anything to you,” he said softly.
Then another sting, this one on his right thigh.
“Stop it!” he cried.
A third Secling landed on his back and stabbed him. Now Jeret could hear the buzzing growing louder, the din of an approaching swarm.
He breathed quickly and his eyes narrowed. He looked down at the offenders with deep bitterness.
On Monday I discussed the idea of a main character creating their own nemesis. I spoke about how this can be used for a poetic hubris, where the fatally-flawed protagonist impales themselves on their own sword. I also said that it could be used in a redemption arc, where the hero sidesteps the destruction by proving that they have overcome the flaw that set it in motion.
In the past few sections we have seen Jeret work to create a peaceful utopia, his own Garden of Eden. But doing so is impossible, because he is not a perfect god. He is a flawed mortal, and his flaws bleed into his work. He seeks to evolve and adapt them into something better, but it is their violence which advances most quickly of all. The more he tries to fight it, the more his own nature looms right in front of him.
Now we are going to come to the decision point. For the first time the violence is coming all the way back to him. He has been stung by his creations, threatened by his own hand. This makes him angry, and will compel him towards violence. At this point there are really only two ways that the story can end. On the one hand, he could give in to his old nature and attempts to squash his subjects. Of course, they are merely an extension of himself, and so by trying to destroy them he will doom himself in the process. On the other hand, he could overcome his anger, forgive the offending creatures, and at last discovers true inner peace. Of course, they are merely an extension of himself, and so by cleansing himself of violence they will become peaceful themselves in the process.
I am certainly leaning towards one of those endings over the other, but I will have to write it and see if it feels authentic. In either case, we will see the culmination of the story next Thursday. Before that, though, I’d like to examine this situation a little more closely. We have two possible endings, and each seems a fitting closure to all that has come before. On Monday let’s consider how such dual-path stories exist, and what some of the defining characteristics of them are.