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.
Jason allowed himself one last unstifled yawn, then shifted his car into park and turned off the ignition. For a moment he sat in his seat, staring at the three-storied office complex in front of him, its many-windowed surface reflecting the gold of the rising sun. It was actually very pretty, but Jason was too lethargic to feel moved by it.
The alarm on his watch buzzed, reminding him that the morning meeting started in ten minutes, and before it began he needed to be to his cubicle on the third floor, logged into his computer, and with his breakfast oatmeal microwaved.
“Perfect timing,” he sighed.
He pocketed the keys, grabbed his laptop and keycard, and stepped out of the car. Just as he closed the door he heard a caw from somewhere so near that he actually ducked for fear of getting razed. The dark outline of a bird passed over him and he looked up just in time to see a seagull swooping by. The bird craned its long neck downward, made eye contact with him and gave one last caw.
“What, am I too close to your nest?” Jason shot back, then tried to shake off the nerves as he made his way into the building.
“…because it’s not a question of whether the front-end needs to be updated, it does,” Jason droned into his headset a half hour later. “It’s just whether we can prioritize that over adding new features for the four-to-six months that it’ll take to do a full rewrite.”
“I still just don’t see why a rewrite is necessary,” Janice from Customer Relations spoke up.
Jason groaned, this was the last person he had wanted to have chime in. He stood up and began pacing the walkway that ran along the cubicles. If he was going to have to listen to her rant once again, he would need to be walking off the frustration.
“Look, if I understand you correctly you’re not even talking about doing a facelift to the UI. Just replacing already-existing code with new code that accomplishes all the same functions. How am I supposed to explain to our customers that their new features aren’t coming because we are making the web portal do the exact same things it already does?”
“Yes, at first it will be functionally the same as today,” Jason replied, “but the road ahead will finally be clear to do some of the changes we keep talking about. Support for newer browsers, turning the web portal into a single-page application, finally being on a framework that is still actively supported–“
“None of which the customers are asking for–“
“Yet,” Jason forced in. “They’re not asking for it yet.”
“Alright, but if they ever do, then let’s cross that bridge when we get there.”
“But then there won’t be a bridge to cross!” Jason raised his voice more than he’d intended. “That’s the whole point of–“
“Alright, alright, let me cut you two off there,” Nels’ weary voice piped up. “We’ve been through this all before, thank you both for restating your positions. But let’s be realistic. This is all a moot point with the Kronos Release ahead of us. Until we get that out, we don’t have capacity for any front-end reworks anyway. There’s no point in making a further decision now.”
Jason hastily reached up to the side of his headset and pressed the mute button so that he could vent his feeling in privacy.
“What do you mean ‘no point in making a further decision?'” he retorted to no one. “Not making a decision is making a decision! It means we’re still not getting our stack up-to-date.”
His pacing had brought him up to one of the wall-high windows that tiled across the entire length of the building. Out the window he could see the man-made canal on the other side of the office parking lot, and beyond that the rest of the city sloping down with the valley, with street lamps still shining in the dim morning light. Eventually the streets and houses sloped back up again, as the valley rose into the foothills, and then the suburbs gave way entirely to the hulking mass of the mountain that lay beyond. Mount Charon.
“…and at 4:30 we’ll have our release retrospective,” Nels was saying. “Last meeting of the day. Any questions? No? Alright, let’s get to it.”
Everyone said their farewells and then came the series of beeps as they all disconnected from the call. Jason switched his own headset off and turned to face the neat columns of cubicles before him. Office management hadn’t turned on the ceiling lights on the west side of the building for some reason, which cast everything on the floor into a strange half-shade. Jason was able to count only six other workers present, making the little cubicle-city feel like a ghost town. Where was everybody?
The mostly-absent building gave Jason a strange feeling, like he was missing out on something important. Like everyone else had remembered some event or holiday, and he was missing from where he was actually supposed to be. But no. It was August 6th, about as far away from a holiday or special event as you can get in the year. There wasn’t even a company party coming up. So what was it he was waiting for?
Jason knew that if he went to his desk he would just stare blankly at the screen without getting anything done, so he walked down the aisle instead, letting his thoughts spiral round and round. As he passed his own cubicle, he paused to kick his slip-on shoes under the desk, then proceeded marching on in his socks. With so few people present today, he really didn’t expect anyone to complain.
There was the droning voice of a news anchor coming from a television set mounted by a doorway. “…when the mining crew found an unexpected surge in heat, located at a point nearly four hundred feet beneath the summit of Mount Charon.”
Jason turned his head to look over his shoulder, back to where the real-life Mount Charon stood as a solitary sentinel over the city. Meanwhile the image on the television changed to that of a professor at the local University.
“To be honest it’s a very hard thing to explain. We’ve been drilling holes and taking temperatures, trying to find out the shape and size of what we’re dealing with. And usually you would expect to find some sort of conduit, like with a mantle plume, which is when hot magma is pushing its way up from the rock below. But that’s not what we’re seeing. We have measurements from above, beneath, and on every side of this heat spike, and the heat really does seem to be coming from a single, localized point, right in the heart of the mountain. And that’s–well that’s just baffling!”
Jason turned all the way around. The other six employees on the floor were each standing in their cubicles or wandering into the aisle, eyes locked on the television screen above Jason’s head. Each of them exchanged bemused looks, then turned their eyes to the imposing figure of Mount Charon.
Reylim didn’t need telling twice. She put her dagger back in its sheath, turned on the spot, and sprinted back towards the mountain. She was already panting, though not so much from exertion as from the tension of the moment. She knew she rushing into the moment of decision, and she was trying to push down the fresh waves of doubt and fear that were trying to break across her.
Instead she focused on the path ahead, watching as Glimmer’s light revealed the ever-increasing incline of the mountain. The grade was getting steep enough that she had to rein in her pace and lean further forwards. Then, suddenly, there came into relief a massive cliff face only a hundred paces ahead of her. She squinted through the darkness and saw that this mountain was truly nothing like what she had seen on her homeworld. It seemed to be comprised of a series of sheer walls, each stacked on top of the other with narrow ledges to mark where one ended and the next began. The whole thing ascended at an incredible rate, piercing high into the sky.
“I don’t know that I can scale this, Glimmer,” Reylim said, a slight panic to her voice.
And yet you must.
She glanced behind her and saw that Bolil and his band were already gaining on her. She may have had a headstart on them, but they were bounding forward with superhuman speed and would surely catch her before long. She steeled her brow and looked back to the cliff face, scanning its surface for every crevice and hold. She plotted out an approach in her mind, then turned up her pace, building up momentum as the dark stone expanded to fill her vision.
Reylim exhaled sharply and then leapt up towards the first ledge. She sailed higher than anticipated, catching the rock lip on her stomach. She was winded, but didn’t dare to pause, instead rolling all the rest of the way onto its surface. After that she scrambled up a particularly pockmarked portion of the next rock face, hand- and footholds coming easily so that she reached the next ledge and mounted it in a flash. She bounded to the back of this ledge and ducked inside a wide fissure in the rock face that stood there. She placed her hands and feet on each side of the fissure, then began scaling up it like a spider.
This crevice ran upwards nearly the full length of its rock face, which then capped off and sloped inwards to form the next ledge. As she climbed, Reylim glanced downwards and watched as Bolil and the other void-possessed shadows spilled onto the ledge directly beneath her. Bolil continued to lead them as they streamed into the fissure and followed her up its shaft.
Reylim glanced upwards. She was nearing the point where the fissure tapered down into a crack, one that was much too narrow to admit her. She would have to get out onto the face of the rock, which was sure to be a difficult maneuver. Looking downwards she saw Bolil hurtling upwards, pummeling his hands and feet at the rock and propelling himself upwards in a series of bursts. He would be crashing into her in mere moments.
“Um…” Reylim said anxiously, but suddenly an idea flashed in her mind. Without time to evaluate it she simply trusted her instincts and pulled her hands and feet from the wall. She slipped into a fall and Bolil seemed to rush up to her at twice the speed now. She saw his eyes grow wide as she collided with him, the two of them momentarily frozen in space as their opposite momentums cancelled one another out.
Reylim’s eyes were narrow and focused, and she used the split second to reach into the folds of Bolil’s clothing, grip the handle of the sword she knew he kept there, and pulled it free. Then she drove her feet back into either side of the fissure, careening wildly and spinning her arms to try and preserve balance. Meanwhile Bolil was knocked loose into a freefall, and he tumbled downwards, smashing into his compatriots and dislodging them as he went.
Reylim didn’t pause to watch the cascading fall, though she heard the sickening thuds down below as she continued her scale up the crevice. She held Bolil’s sword between her teeth, carrying it with her all the way to the top. Here she drew the blade out and thrust it upwards into the narrowing crack above, twisting it so that it locked in place. She wrapped both hands tightly around the hilt, giving a tug to be sure it would hold her weight.
“Glimmer, I think I’ll need some help,” she panted.
Of course, what can I do?
“Just invigorate me. The same as you did when I was fighting Bolil in the village.”
Glimmer sunk into her chest, and she felt her heartbeats grow deeper and stronger, pure energy flowing through her veins. Her arms and legs stopped shaking so much from fatigue and she took a deep, calming breath.
Reylim let go of the rock with her feet, swung her whole body backwards, and then kicked powerfully forwards. As she did so she also hauled in with her arms and flexed her entire core. The result was that she swung swiftly like a pendulum: out of the crevice, then up through air, and finally landing on the sloped rock above. She slapped her open palms down on the ground, gripping it to be sure she wouldn’t slide forward and down.
She was face-down looking at a sheer drop to the narrow ledges below. She could just make out all of the void-possessed bodies broken and scattered across the rock there. As she watched a darkness seemed to leak out from those bodies like black water. It pooled, spread, and quickly consumed them entirely. Shuddering Reylim began crawling backwards, moving up the slope until it eased out enough for her to get onto her feet and turn around.
You did well, Reylim, I am proud. I’m afraid we must keep moving, though, there is little time remaining.
Reylim looked to Glimmer as it emerged from the billowing folds of her robes. She noticed it was even further diminished, more dull than she had ever seen it before. She frowned in concern as she obediently continued her ascent, now scrambling over a series of boulders.
“You are hurt,” she observed. “I’ve never seen you so faded.”
Yes, Glimmer’s message came heavily. It is not just the strain, though. Our presence is bringing the shadows of the future into clearer and clearer focus. Their reality is straining against the shroud, overrunning our own. As you have seen.
“And that’s bad?” Reylim reached the top of the last boulder and now began climbing hand-over-hand up a narrow crack in the next rock face.
Here it is. The reality that is spilling out in this place happens to be one that is very dark. In the future the void will come to hold great sway here, and masses of men will overrun the land, almost all of them deeply shadowed. It drains me.
“This seems to be a particularly conflicted place,” Reylim observed, remembering the story Glimmer had told her of the villagers down below.
Yes, well, it is the Nexus.
“Glimmer,” Reylim said thoughtfully, “what will happen to this world? Do you know which side will win out in the end? Whether the void will just take it back over in time, or if it will eventually find its peace?”
Child, that is what we are deciding right now. If you and I fulfill our purpose then, in time, this world will find its way. You can be certain of that.
Reylim’s eyes grew misty. She could feel a fear lifting that she hadn’t recognized before. In this moment everything was calm enough that she could feel a flush of success rising within her. “Well we’re not seeing anyone else coming to attack us. Perhaps we’ve won already?”
I wish that was the case. But they know what we’re here for, and they’ll be pooling their strength just ahead of us.
Reylim rolled up onto the next ledge. She was breathing very hard now, and she felt her every movement coming slower and with less finesse. She looked upwards to see how far she had left to go, and to her surprise found that she could already see the summit of the mountain. For as sharply as it was rising it did not actually extend as far as she had feared. There remained one more craggy cliff face, and then a gentle slope that curved back beyond where Reylim could see. She was here. Taking a deep, steadying breath, Reylim began moving up the handholds of that cliff face, keeping her face turned up to that final destination. As she watched a wreath of darkness began to extend around that final ledge, spilling over its lip, seeming to reach out for her.
An incredible mass of dark entities was waiting on that surface above.
Reylim felt the panic she had been trying to ignore returning. She realized that she had subconsciously chosen to believe that the sentinel and Glimmer had been mistaken, that somehow she would be able to succeed without it costing her life. Seeing the mass awaiting to destroy her, though, she couldn’t ignore their prophecies any longer. She hadn’t grown as selfless as this moment called for and she wasn’t going to be able to see this through.
Reylim’s fingers began trembling, her legs began to shake. She was going to fall all the way back down to the ledge below. She was going to bounce off of that and down the next cliff face, all the way to the foot of the mountain. She had come all this way and was going to fail even before seeing the Nexus.
Her heart burned and she saw Glimmer’s glow emanating from her chest.
I know you don’t want this, Reylim. You can’t want this. But I promise you that it will be alright. I promise you. It will be alright.
Reylim bowed her head and fresh torrents of tears washed her cheeks. Her whole body shook with sobbing.
It is very hard.
Reylim raised one arm and gripped the next handhold.
I am so sorry.
She lifted a knee and stepped up.
I don’t want to die either.
She was too heartbroken to process that. She simply kept climbing. The ledge was growing very near now. A thought flitted by that she should have a strategy, a plan for what she was about to face up there. But the tears were still silently flowing and this moment seemed to stretch as eternity, filling all her capacity.
The clifftop was only five feet away. Why was it so quiet up there? Four. It seemed so surreal to be at this moment. Three. It wasn’t how she had envisioned the culmination of her life. Two… One… Reylim crested the ledge, far more smoothly now that she was being strengthened by Glimmer.
The mass hit her instantly, a swarming wall of black figures, their pitch darkness overflowing such that the details of the individuals beneath couldn’t be made out at all. Glimmer flashed a blinding brightness, and Reylim felt herself lifted in the air as the figures were propelled out in every direction. She rolled, landing on her feet in their midst. She ignored the dagger at her waist, instead sprinting forward. Ahead she could see a stone outcropping with two vertical pillars on either side. It had to be the Nexus.
Glimmer lowered down to her side, somehow both bright but strained at the same moment. As the dark shadows stumbled back to their feet they met its fury as it streaked back and forth, bursting crippling light across them at every turn. From their folds the phantoms drew out swords and daggers, all bristling with dark energy. They swiped at Glimmer, and Reylim had only just wondered whether they could actually do any harm to it when one of the blades connected. A visible gash seared across the orb of light, luminance trickling from it like blood.
“No!” Reylim screamed, turning away from the Nexus and diving into the horde crowding around Glimmer. As she sailed into them she flung out her foot, kicking one back to the ground. In a flash she drew her dagger and swung it in a wide arc, clipping through several of them at once. They hardly noticed, instead reaching out their dark arms for her now.
“Go, Glimmer, go!” She cried. “You need to get to the Nexus, not me!”
We both do. Glimmer’s usual calm communication now seemed so weak and faint, yet still strained with incredible urgency. Glimmer started floating away, heading in the direction of the Nexus.
One of the dark figures leapt for Reylim, she side-stepped it, but plunged her dagger into its center. She rolled with the torque, flipped round to the other side, then drew the blade out and turned to run after Glimmer.
She had barely gone three paces before another of the enemies barreled into her from the side. The dagger clattered to the stone, and the two of them tumbled to the ground. She turned the momentum into a roll, moving away from the thing’s grasp and bounding back to her feet. Another foe leapt at her but she ducked. It reached out as it overshot her and gripped her wrist, pulling her down to the ground again. She slammed into the stone, but ignored the pain, instead swinging her foot up to kick the creature’s grip loose. At the same moment a kick from another shadow-form caught her side, lifting her briefly into the air and then dropping her back to the ground.
She couldn’t react before two more forms landed on her back. Another gripped her wrist. Others continued spilling onto her, drowning her in their darkness. Between them she could barely make out Glimmer, having sensed her plight and now streaking back to her.
“No, Glimmer, no!” she pleaded. “It’s okay, I’m ready. You just go on!”
But Glimmer wasn’t listening. It barreled into the masses, billowing explosions of light at every turn. Before it had seemed to be pacing itself, expending its energy in a controlled measure. Now Reylim got the distinct sense that Glimmer was furious, a ball of burning rage. After each scorch of light it reduced down to barely a candle’s worth of illumination, but somehow still summoned enough essence for another burst.
The dark forms pressing Reylim down writhed wildly, trying to fling themselves from the light. At each flash the area around Glimmer loss all contrast, melting into the same fervent, white heat. Any portion of a shadowy figure that was caught in that brightness did not return after the illumination faded back down, resulting in severed limbs and bodies tumbling bloodlessly to the ground.
Though the dark forms leapt away as Glimmer flashed, they leapt back as it summoned power for its next blast, driving at it with their dark blades. Glimmer wound through their weapons with great dexterity, bobbing and spinning in a deadly dance. Yet their numbers, though dwindling, could not be denied and every now and again they clipped and chipped away another piece from the orb.
Reylim struggled against the few remaining enemies that had stayed to restrain her. She twisted with mad energy, contorting her body like a living pendulum into their dumb forms, knocking them loose one-at-a-time until at last she stood free.
“Glimmer!” she called bounding over to its continuing battle. It was not far to go, yet she could already tell it was too late. Glimmer’s movement was slow, sluggish, with only the occasional jerks of movement to throw its assailants off. One large shadow lifted a great axe, lifting it high into the air and swinging down with extraordinary force. The blade caught Glimmer full at the core, cleaving it cleanly in two.
Reylim dropped to her knees, skidding the final inches to Glimmer with hands outstretched to catch its falling halves in her hands.
“Oh Glimmer,” she cried softly, feeling its last embers melt into her palms, bleeding its heart into her own. The light was fading and all was turning black. The encroaching emptiness made the dark phantoms lose their definition, and they stopped moving after being absorbed into the pitchness. Everything became dark, just as it had been when she first arrived at the planet. Simple nothingness.
On Monday I spoke of the importance of few characters instead of many when it comes to making a story resonate with a reader. While a major point of Glimmer is that the world of Nocterra needs to be illuminated, more important is that Reylim needs to become the hero. Most of us cannot relate to the sensation of a world crisis, but her hesitation and fear can be recognized within us all. The idea of having a chance to do something powerfully good, but only at great personal cost, is something we both desire and dread in the same moment.
Though the struggle between those two emotions at first blush appears small enough to exist within a single individual, the reality is that these are two great infinites locked in eternal warfare through the medium of our souls. Mankind is the agent of the eternities and the quest for a single heart extends to time immemorial both in past and in future.
What does all this mean for the pragmatic writer though? Treat your individual characters with respect. Don’t just give them a personality and an arc, give them a soul. Make that soul worth something, make the reader care for what happens to it. Do this and you can make a fictional character an immortal person.
It was my intention to wrap up Glimmer with today’s post, but the tale needed to be drawn out a bit longer. Therefore I’m afraid you’ll need to wait one more week for the end of this story. Before that, though, I’ll take some time on Monday to examine the common themes that I’ve incorporated into all three of my short stories during this current series.
These themes are actually ones I didn’t consciously intend for them to share at the outset, but they occurred naturally. As I’ve reflected on them I’ve come to realize that they represent a particular style that I seem to fall into by default. Every writer has these default themes, and there’s a lot to be learned from discovering your own. Come back on Monday to see what I’ve been able to glean of it, and until then have a wonderful weekend!