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Chapter Unknown (Mercury)

Mercury

© Michael Eric Oberlin, Dec. 24, 2014

 

“You claim to be one of them, material. You do so with your mind and intellect; but had you consulted with your wisdom, and your heart, you would know that you are one of us.”

Her voice moved like oil over water, a drizzling cascade of color and feeling. There was conviction and power in it, a contagious form of conviction, which made one wonder if the sheer sound of it could compel the sky to fall and the ocean to part.

A man with long dark hair and a thin and pointed patch of beard turned in the darkness, hands outstretched. He was shirtless and barefoot, watching, feeling, and knowing. “Either the mind is wrong or the heart is wrong; they can’t both be correct in a deterministic universe. If my spirit bets on my mind, what good could come of listening to the heart?” He spoke with poetry and rhythm, every syllable a self-solving riddle that rolled off of his tongue.

 

Fire and smoke send some creatures running, and others rummaging to investigate. So it was, with the village now called Dust.

The town was riverside amidst jungle and brush, inaccessible save by water. A drought had lowered the river and dried the structures to the point of being brittle and flammable. Uncontrolled fires were a low risk, so close to the water, but one day the compulsion to expel flames was countered by a greater compulsion to set them.

By the time the local sprite princes, the dragons, went to investigate, it seemed that everyone was gone or dead. Homes lay broken, cracked, and smoldering. The smell of ash and soot was unmistakable and overpowering, along with a very vague malignance. Cerdwyn walked among the ruins, fearing no heat against her dragon feet, but worrisome of the loss of all evidence to entropy.

It could have been an accident, she supposed.

 

“Yet you, young Raven, remain indeterminate in your deterministic universe. Your heart strays one way, your mind the other. Trust, now and then, in what you do not know. You may rely on more than what your experience alone tells you.”

The man grinned for a moment, almost snickered, then exhaled. This cavern was as black as ink, but he knew the voice so well he welcomed it more than sunlight. He would find her. “Then that is the real riddle; the one that doesn’t resolve itself. What may I rely on, which I cannot yet know?”

 

She moved like silk through one broken home, scanning for signs of struggle and strife. Her tail coiled and a ball of raw force formed in her palm, bending the light with its tensile vibrations. The broken town made her angry.

She had never made any effort to reveal herself to the people of the village, and never imagined that she would gain any interest. Dragons are reclusive spirits, more prone to melting into rocky dens and insurmountable peaks than roaming socially among materials. Still, there was a peace to this town. If a raider was responsible for this, then her bones ached to fight it.

As she turned a corner, a vision, in the corner of her eye, gave her the most extraordinary start. The ball of force burst in her hand; her left claw raised up to shield herself; but the interloper in her universe was not a threat. So small, yet so still.

 

“If you only rely on what you have seen before, then you are living entirely in the past.” The voice was in his ear now. He slowed to a stop. “And if you speculate too much, you are living only in the future; a future which very much depends upon your heart. This is the wisdom I have for you, your own solution is yours to find.”

Of course it was. She didn’t know, she couldn’t; unfortunately, neither did he. At least not yet. “I always appreciate your advice, Cerdwyn; but whatever you think of my heart, you my body is not a sprite’s, let alone a dragon’s.”

 

A boy, perhaps no older than two, in a cradle of a bed. There was the deepest sadness on the child’s face, and yet, even before the enrapturing eyes of a dragon, so much courage. He was the only living person left, hopeless against the wilderness, and yet, so resolved. She felt the air, felt for movement and intrusion of others amidst the home, and satisfied, knelt before him.

He met her eyes so easily. His eyes were red from crying, but long since dried. He had the strangest of hopes behind them, the kind that one only felt when so much horror had passed, he could only hope for dawn to break, and even the slightest good to come down upon him.

Something else caught Cerdwyn off guard. The nameless boy ran forward, suddenly, off of the bed, and hugged her legs. Protect me, save me, take me. Maybe it was the moment of recognition that she wasn’t here to hurt anyone, wasn’t here to hurt him, that did it. Maybe it was just a plea to get on with it.

 

Lips pecked his cheek, and an arm wrapped around him with a jovial love. Her scales seemed to shimmer even in the darkness, her nails almost glowing. Raven never knew his real parents, and if they were alive at all, didn’t have much of an interest in finding them at this point; he was found, in the ashes of Dust, by Cerdwyn.

Of course, the dragons had nothing to do with the calamity that befell the village. None of them ever found out, either; but a select few roamed down, off of the mountain side, to investigate. Cerdwyn was among them. He was rescued by her strong heart.

 

Cerdwyn almost spoke, but recognized the danger in it. The voice of a dragon was unparalleled, every breath a weapon. She didn’t speak to the child for quite some time. What she did do was lift it, above her head, grasping his torso with two of her strong hands. She looked up at the child, and she saw something familiar.

It was not unheard of for dragons to take part in the raising of a child, but to raise one themselves was a rarity. It might even be a unique occurrence. However, the light and life in the child, the shimmer of intelligence, was something that needed protection. Perhaps she didn’t find him at all, perhaps he found her.

 

Raven knew how fortunate he was to ever have witnessed a dragon at all, let alone to be raised by them. They remained at the edge of myth, yet very real. He remembered little or nothing before that moment, save for his first witnessing of Cerdwyn.

The stories of enormous fire-breathing and flying lizards were barely the shadow of the truth. Her skin shone like it was made of gemstones; her four slender arms moved like waves, each half-foot long finger and its magnificent claw extending gracefully from the end. Her wings were ten feet in span, every bone twisting the light ever-so-subtly like they were made of some golden damask.

Most enchanting of all were her eyes, not piercing or flaming as the stories said, but hypnotic. They seemed to glow with a soul of their own, tickling Raven’s skull with all of the possibilities that her mind contained.

In the end, it seemed that he had an affect on her as well; as for whatever the reason, she raised him, a material child of a much shorter lifespan than any dragon, as her own. He had no idea what his original name was, but for his intelligence, the dragons simply called him “Raven”.

Raven turned and hugged Cerdwyn back, careful not to prick himself on the row of spines along her back. Her golden tail swayed in the half-light, and beneath the many veils of her voice, of his mother’s voice, he found the slightest twitch of a certain kind of sadness. It used to be strong, but was lesser all the time, and this could only mean a single thing. “I’ll be leaving soon, won’t I.”

The same golden eyes looked into his. Raven already knew, she didn’t have to answer; but she did. “It’s in your heart. All dragons are itinerant. You will carry a mixed and unusual legacy with you.”

Dragons, elusive as they are, are manifestations of Mercury. The many legends say that they guard treasure, or they seek treasure, but the truth was so much simpler. With all the wisdom that they gathered throughout their long lives, they were treasure.

Through all of their travels, Raven had felt Mercury manifest itself within him, too; though only as it could for a material. He wasn’t made of the stuff, not like Cerdwyn was; but he had developed an enormous amount of power in it. He could conjure up the dragon’s breath in an instant; he could freeze water and throw ships to land.

“When?” said Raven. He thought that he might have something more sophisticated to say than that, but there were far too many possibilities to weed through. There were too many unknowns. He didn’t particularly want to go.

A tear streaked down Cerdwyn’s face, as she smiled, just a little. In what felt like the blink of an eye, she was across the room, snatching a small glass vial up from a table full of alembics and mortars. She brought it to her face, and captured the tear, then with the press of her hand, melted the vial shut, rounding it in her warm palm into a bead with the slightest of hoops over the top.

She slipped a silver chain through the hoop, and hung it on Raven’s neck, like an amulet. He’d never seen her cry before, he wasn’t sure it was even possible. She kissed him on the forehead. “Whenever your heart is in it, go.”

 
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Posted by on December 27, 2014 in Fiction, The Alchemist

 

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1: Other Powers

Other Powers

    The café was lit by a warm and sacred sun, the heat seeping into Marc’s skin as the coffee seeped into his heart and bones. He sat across from a man with a golden goatee, dark eyes, and a needle-sharp smile. The occasional glances of the wait staff and the patrons around them always slipped right around his odd company, seeing him, so rarely perceiving him, instead letting their gazes wrap around the scar-like smile lines and glowering confidence of the most treacherous priest in all the world.

“You and I aren’t all that different, you know,” came the serpentine words of his companion. He struggled to keep his espresso steady, through a tremmoring hand. As slowly as he could, he set the ceramic ounce glass down on its plate, struggling to steady it with his other arm. “Strange as it may be for me to say this.”

Over the overture of finely ground coffee and cinnamon and biscotti was the smell of stagnant rain puddles on scorching hot asphalt, the faintest hint of exhaust, and a tinge of hot rubber. A thousand sneakered people must have passed on the sidewalk that morning, the lifeblood of urbania, each destined to a different faceless concrete tower. Deferred raindrops slid slowly down the canopy overhead, dripping to the ground below

“I’m sure we have plenty of differences,” said Marc.

“But not enough,” said the man, before he could continue. “You are a turncoat. You’re a back-stabber, in the eyes of many of the gods. You will help them one moment, and scold them the next. You will risk your life to bring them closer to their goal, then cripple them before they get there. You would do the same to me, were the moment to arrive.”

“No,” said Marc. “Any shaman would. The only difference is that I have the knowledge to go through with it, and the dignity to be open about it. Also, the talent to receive such opportunities. But I’ll give you this, I do have intentions of my own. I have goals of my own, representations, things I hold to be sacred. I don’t keep them secret, either.” He stared down into the inky blackness of his coffee cup, pondering how to continue.

“If only anyone ever listened,” said the man. “But then if they listened, you might not have such a reputation. These ‘opportunities’ would never come about. These crimes, well, they would never be committed. They would never need to be committed.”

Marc smiled, and nodded to the man, taking another sip. “Perhaps I’ve underestimated you, just a little. Maybe, at least socially, we do have a thing or two in common. But knowing that, I wonder how much I would trust you with. How much I would tell you about myself, I mean.”

“We are outcasts, you and I. The only difference is your mortal blood. Your,” he said, pausing, tasting his words before speaking them. “Forgetability.”

“Oh, I imagine I’ll be thought of long after I’m dead,” said Marc. “Just, you know, by other names.”

“Death. Reminds me. You know I’ve been responsible for that more than once now.”

“Yeah, you’ve actually done that a lot,” said Marc.

“Most famously Baldr.” The man smiled again, toothily, the kind of facade of happiness one wears when inside, he is being torn apart by wolves and lions; the smile of despondence. “Of course I didn’t kill him directly. Höðr did that, kind, jovial, and drunk as he was. Also blind.”

“I’m sure that helped.” Marc gave him a look somewhere between cynicism and aloofness.

“But contrary to popular, and rather arrogant, belief, I never imagined that I would get away with it. Not once. One does not orchestrate the assassination of a loved god, and then just live it down. I gave them a run, but I was caught, and tortured for a very, very, long time.”

“So the stories go.”

“Also in opposition to popular belief, I didn’t do it for myself. I did it to maintain a sacred balance in the universe, a balance that these other half-wits were aching for the chance to defy and destroy. They tried to make Baldr immortal. Truly immortal. Without opposition. And believe me, before you accuse me of overreacting, that immortality and immutability would become a punishment for him that was much greater than anything I dealt out.

“See, that’s what we have in common,” said the old god. “We’re both turncoats and back-stabbers. We are both opportunists, even war profiteers. We are rust, and ash, and all of the wearing things. We are the stress that makes metals break, and the water that bleeds the words from the page. We are the slip of the tongue and the birth of the rumor.

“That’s the only thing we need to have in common. And do you know why this is? It’s because we know how the world works, we have a rough idea where it came from and where it has to go. You hurt them out of love, not hate; and then you just let it go.”

Marc choked back a laugh. “You aren’t trying to recruit me, are you? Because for a moment there, that’s what it sounded like. It sounded like you were trying to get me to swear allegiance to you.”

The old god smiled back, the one reflexive expression he seemed to have left. His fingers trembled again, his breath quick and heavy; he struggled to still it. He was mildly offended, but let it go. “No, you fool. Those that take oaths are never true followers, they are bound by a few words, maybe a burn or a little blood if they want to look tough, nothing more. You follow your own path, that’s what makes you so beautifully dangerous, and frankly, it’s a path I can get along with. But in the end, after you cross them,”

“—if I cross them,” Marc interjected.

“After you cross them, they will catch you. And maybe they won’t be able to take your life, or your memory, or your legend, or whatever; but they can be surprisingly petty. And they will find what means the most to you and take that. For such petty people, they can be very patient and persistent in doing it.” The god lifted his espresso once more, with a visibly trembling hand, and watched the disturbed rippling of the syrupy liquid within it. “They took more from me than I ever thought that they could.”

Marc observed the symptoms of his anxiety, and made an effort to pay his words at least a little attention. “So that’s the point of this meeting, then? I’ll try and remember it.”

“Do that. But no. Sometimes I just want a little company. I was locked up for a very long time.”

“Well, Loki, feel free to call me up. When you’re feeling sociable.”

“If I’m feeling sociable,” said Loki. His lips twitched, the kind of honest smile that one tries so desperately to hide. He waved his hand to one of the wait staff, slipping like liquid back into the world of the perceived for just a moment, then dropped it back to the table. “Check please?”

 
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Posted by on October 23, 2014 in Fiction, Stygian Quartet, The Magus

 

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Chapter One (Water)

In the real world, people are seldom so clear-cut as to be good or evil, hero or villain. Often, we are a little of both. My own stories are patterned off of this, along with the knowledge that we each strive not so much for domination or comfort or righteousness so much as we do the comfort of equilibrium. While the diviner himself may carry the story, the predator is, in many ways, the centerpiece of it; enemy, friend, teacher, student, and conundrum. It is fitting to open the story with an introduction to it, even before the protagonist. Even in the classical sense, there are no heroes without villains; and while to make an enemy a friend may destroy the enemy, doing so is always with a sacrifice and a price.

Water

© Michael Eric Oberlin, August 15, 2013

    A dark and hungry figure darted rapidly through the water, too quick for any prey to avoid. It moved in synchrony with the wind and the currents, a force of nature in and of itself. It snatched what life it had use for with delight, without fear and without hate, playing its part in the grander meaning of the world and the cycle of life. It swam out of the river and onto the shore, among the rocks and the fungus, carrying a startled fish in the grasp of its claws. Its weapons and tools were many, spines and hooks of polished stone, refined by the erosion of the water, sharpened to lethal points.

Where the myriad creatures of the wetlands were concerned, this beast’s hunger and intent marked the inescapable will of a god. They were the ink where this beast was a god’s pen, they were the paint where the animal was the brush, they were blood where the predator was a god’s heart.

The shadow crouched over the stone, and sank its teeth into its catch. In an act of mercy, it snapped the fish’s spine in its bright white teeth, numbing it to its demise. The beast had no animosity with this creature, only a strong appetite. The dark flesh of its fingers pulled away the skin and bone that it had no need for, as it gnawed on the raw meat. It picked its pointed teeth with a rib, sucked its fingers clean, and buried the remains beneath the deep red soil of the land.

No trace of its prey remained. The beast would come and go in a flurry, straight to the jarring business of its meal. The predator accepted the fish as part of its being now; a teacher, a friend, a lover, and a meal. It stretched, as a beast would, and standing upright and tightening every muscle from its toes to its fingers. That was a good meal, and it was grateful to the fish that no longer was.

It would go on, because of the fish. It would exist in the fish’s place, and continue its life where its prey could not. It thought that there was something strangely romantic about that. It would accept the lessons and responsibilities of its prey, like so many others, as their lives merged together in its consumption. Its stomach had stopped growling. It was complete.

The hunter was the very guardian of the wetlands, the embodiment of all of the things that forbade mortal man from entering. It stretched as a cat would, and stepped more slowly along the stones in its river, with a more casual strut in its legs. The swamp life shimmered around it, glimmers of fluorescent animals and fish shining through the mists; they signaled their cohorts and sometimes drew in their own predators. Sometimes, it was their prey. They formed an orchestra of glow, a language of light, in a world so shrouded by mist and fog that it had never known sun nor moon nor star.

The hunter wondered if it could glow, too, but was only darkness. It was the only one among its kind that it knew. It had no need for communication or schooling, nor even a context for it.

It climbed the rough bark of a tree, and stretched out in its canopy, flexing its lithe muscles. With a full stomach and a sleepy head, it could take a moment to consider the edges of its knowledge. It had learned a great deal over endless time from its traditional prey, but the one thing it could not learn was what it meant to have an equal, or a better.

It thought on this for a long time, and should have, for out beyond the boundaries of its mists and its waters, there was another land. Within it, there was another creature, who complimented its knowledge. This was a land where it could not survive, and a land it was destined to walk among. Someday, it would meet this creature, and with their meeting would come their perfect and beautiful destruction.

 
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Posted by on May 1, 2014 in The Diviner

 

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Chapter Two (The Road Home)

Solomon’s story begins on a world after man, but it is not a traditional post-apocalyptic story. It is that of a man living on a world that has left humanity behind, and continued to evolve without us, leaving relics of a world that once was, or might have been, scattered throughout, slowly reclaimed by decay and erosion. He and Isaac make up the last of humanity on Earth, the rest of the world divided by social strata into those that could afford to reach the stars and those that were left to devolve socially into something less than human, under the pressures of an environment of desperation. The others became the Titans, strong and fast and powerful in an acute sense, but devoid of intellect or love or brotherhood and doomed to eventual extinction. As prodigy newcomers, abandoned there as children after a survey accident, the binds of society exist exclusively between them; they live in a library on a mountainside outside of the ruins of New York, their world existing in a space betwixt the nightmare outdoors and the one that they created for each other.

I introduce this story from its second chapter, as the scope of its world forms the foundation of its plot, and the second chapter is the core of its description.

 

The Road Home

 © Michael Eric Oberlin, April 29, 2014

The way home was long and treacherous, but nothing that the two weren’t accustomed to. It was nothing that they were unfamiliar with meeting and, if necessary, beating. How Solomon and Isaac came to be was an unusual story in itself.

This was Earth, though it was no longer humanity. The change was nothing recent, it was a gradual process, as the well-to-do left the planet for the glittering firmament and the poor, sick, and uneducated remained behind.

Resources burned away like a wick, and with time, even the ozone vanished. A white sun burned fiercely in a white sky, glimmers of day-stars visible in the early morning and late evening, its heat hot enough to smoulder the archaic asphalt and concrete. The stress on the local populace grew, twisting their minds in fits of desperation to a more carnal state, no longer knowers but doers, while the ones that did know, that must know, remained comfortably suspended above like gods.

To fail to understand what happened next, one would need an unusually firm faith in humanity, one that Isaac and Solomon did not share. The strong turned on the weak, the weak betrayed the strong, and only those with the most raw of strengths, those with a fire in their hearts and at long last a total lack of respect or love for their brethren, became the fittest survivors.

The problem is, one man makes not a species, and in time, there wouldn’t be any left. Well, a problem depending on one’s perspective. Solomon and Isaac just called the things “Titans”, a fitting name derived from Greek myth, the ancestors of the gods. Creatures powerful yet abandoned and forgotten, feared, and forever delegated to times passed.

How Isaac and Sol arrived was quite a different story. Both were thoroughly human, though they served as each other’s solitary reference for what that meant. Why would anyone risk getting stuck on such an extraordinarily dangerous planet? One wouldn’t, and didn’t. They were brought there as youth.

Think what you will of the kind of parent that would bring a child to such a place, under any conceivable circumstances; losing them was not intentional. They didn’t even know each other until their marooning. The pod severely underestimated the ruthlessness and sheer number of the Titans, to say the least. Memory was faint, Sol didn’t even speak at the time, but the walls were overtaken by a perversion of humanity, what was now a distant memory, and Isaac just remembered running.

They were toddlers at the time. Sol was in terrible shape. His clothing was torn and his flesh scraped, his eyes shining with a form of panic and fear that Isaac couldn’t even find a word for. Isaac wasn’t much better off. All the same, together, they managed to find shade during the day and persist through a jungle of un-men, in the ruins of the city of New York. Within about a decade, they were a shoddy stand-in for a society.

The ruins resembled hollowed out skeletons, the frames of composite materials standing where concrete and mortar had crumbled into dust, leading the numerous skyscrapers to a stature as gothic spines reaching up into a deadly sky. The tips would glow in the late evening, the latent solar heat raising their temperature to that of an ember, winds bending them into claws jutting out of the earth.

They had only ever climbed one once, in a time of absolute desperation. It was a distant memory.

The cloak of solar light was a comfort in that it defended them from the creeping denizens of the ruins, the ruined people, who knew no friends. They could not cross the light. Daytime was passively the most dangerous time to travel, but against the hunters in the shadows it was by far the safest. Sol and Isaac were a good bit smarter.

They wore suits of insulation and reflective fiber, and retractable smoked lenses that guarded their eyes. The titans wore nothing. Periodically one would lurch at them in a desperate rage, but the ultraviolet fire would drive them back or kill them quickly. The new-world composites of the railways sustained themselves longer than the iron and ash of the old world, providing an easy enough way into and out of the necropolis for those that had the skill to use them.

After the death-like silence of a three block hike through piercing sunlight and haunted shadow, the two boarded an armored rail car. They unshuttered the emergency solar panels and brought a contact down to the restored composite electrical rail, and began a three hour journey between black river and white sky. A sequence of LEDs lit up to display the origins of their power, it was not uncommon for one of the many redundancies to fail. They were all taken seriously, and corrected as quickly as they could be.

A narrow window in the middle of the day provided direct sunlight in the middle of Manhattan; it rained down from above, through the scar of the composite canyon, for roughly two hours depending on the time of year. They had to take off particularly early to reap the full benefit of the solar exposure. It was the safest time to travel through. When shadow overcame the streets again, there would be nowhere truly safe, and the jackal Titans would roam it unbounded.

It was difficult to imagine the origins of the city, though they both knew them well. The fingerprint of half-molten spires no longer suggested the industry of man so much as that of nature. The composites were perhaps the last remnant of civilization beside the two of them, the one thing that could not arguably be formed tectonically. The many subway tunnels were now halfway submerged, along with a large part of the island; tattered lines of copper and superconductor littered the roads like the broken bones of a sophisticated telecom system.

There was no question, among the two of them, as to how this happened. Not anymore, there was once. It was a cultural evolution, the stratification of man and the descent of his nemesis. A little care might have prevented all of it, but in a universe of causality Sol doubted that any of us truly had free will beyond that for which we were designed.

The programmed track brought them back to the base of a refurbished cliffside library, south of Fort Knox. The concrete structure was once quite different. They had discovered it when they were perhaps six, not too long after the fall, and took refuge within it. It had ample reading material at the time, particularly for a couple of kids with nothing else to do other than learn and survive.

The sun was at sixty degrees on the horizon, they had another twelve degrees before it began to dim to an exposing level. Sol stepped out of the rail car, Isaac right behind him, and sealed it up with a heavy padlock. They unlatched their elevator, slipped inside, and hand-cranked their way to the balcony.

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2014 in The Mechanist

 

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Mud

This is an introduction to a major character in “The Diviner”, who travels one of the hardest of roads. Dux has much more to be said about her than I could fit into this; the same can easily be said for her tribe. I’m not sure that this story will make it into the main book, but it serves as an excellent introduction to who she is and her wisdom, as much as her latent confusion and inner conflict. Enjoy, and as always, comments are welcome.

Mud

© Michael Eric Oberlin, April 24, 2014

 

The wet earth was cool on Dux’s tattooed back, the sweat still dripping down her brow from the thundering drum dance. Her heart still pounded in rhythm and beat with the entire tribe, the entrancing vapors from the fire still filling her nose and sending her into another kind of state. Limbs and tail in the muck, big blue eyes high toward a sunless and starless sky, every breath an act of worship of things unseen and ever-present.

Around the dying embers of the fire, some danced still; their feet beating on the planks of lumber and salvaged driftwood, fastened tightly to floats and the great bark of the canyon of trees. Whether they were farther from equilibrium than she, or she simply better knew her way back, was a mystery that she would never quite solve.

To the chemist, the past, present, and future were indistinguishable at this point. Everything tied to everything. Her mind was crystal here in the mud, all frivolous concerns danced away save for food, water, and air. The river called her back, and twixt sparking spirit and thundering drum, she found her ground. The whole tribe did.

Her student, Wilhegka, continued to throb in the dying beats on the planks above her. He was overworking himself even in dance. The younger man’s mind was not yet honed enough, he chased everything that Dux did but never fully understood. His mind was still white-water, nearly a crystal of ice bursting from the lake and contradicting even its own flow. He would learn in time, or she hoped so.

Her own visions were of her singular piece of history, beginning to end. Sensations were a very strange thing. Most of the time, she grasped at them, fraying the threads of where they came from and what they led to, but under the aroma of balché and nutmeg and so many other gifts of the wild the threads became ribbons and sheets. Amongst bittersweet taste and flowery fragrance, they would coagulate together, until they were a solid, each inextricably bound, cause to effect to effect again.

She closed her eyes, sinking a little deeper into the umber shoreline.

This burning of concerns was more than a reflex, more than a stress response; it was the inescapable religion of the community. This was the work of their hidden and nameless goddess, intrinsic to all of nature, forever present and forever unseen, friend and enemy and family and teacher. This was the work of the unknowable. High above, through kilometers of mists in the acropolis of the giant trees, there was another society that took it all loosely, the strange practices of their kindred by the river below. Behind the drums and sacred incense and imbibes the universal truth remained, and they did not know what they missed.

Her passion and pleasure and stillness and calm aside, Dux subtly remained perplexed. When the trance faded, she would forget all but that. Her beginnings were clear, her present was perfect, but at the end of her immutable time was an impossible beach of black glass, still water, and eternal clarity.

In her vision, she looked down into the pool.

She did not see a reflection.

A moment or an aeon later she was pulled out of the mud by Wil. He threw a cup of water in her face, and she shook the trance off. (It was traditional.) Her eyes lit up like incandescent bulbs as the mud dripped off of her. She pulled her sullied hair back and tied it out of her ink-stained face. The young man appeared to have pulled himself out of his own trance only a moment ago, the somber and flaccid look of his eyes betraying his reluctant wakefulness.

“My apologies, Dux, but we don’t have long before our next scheduled appointment,” he said.

“How long, Wil,” asked Dux, her voice tearing at the edges as she struggled to remember how to use it.

“I could count it to you in pān̄cavāṁgaddī*.”

“Five hells. Where are we again?” The visions of the trance were already fading from her mind, she was disoriented.

“By the water, near the bonfire. The stompin’ ground.” He raised a wooden bowl to her, with a deep red liquid in it. She took it, the remnants of her vision still wisping out of her mind like trails of smoke.

“Right.” With that, she downed the incoction in a single gulp. Her face flushed and she sweated, just a little, as the colors became more vivid and the present became a larger concern. All traces of hypnotic agent raced out of her, and after a moment of discomfort, she was fully present.

Her mind cleared, and clouded; blinders on toward past and future. She had a memory, but couldn’t say much of it. To meet the stresses of a medicine woman, she needed, like a pendulum, to stay balanced between clear conscience and clear head. Pity they were antithetical.
*In a world without sun or moon, there are no easy natural ways to tell time. While we have hours and minutes and days, they have cycles of a layered metric clock, the pān̄cavāṁgaddī being one of the shortest generations in a standard clock.

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2014 in The Diviner

 

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Chapter One (Sight)

Now that “The Diviner” is completed (and in its final stages of editing and formatting for publication), I am free to work on two of its parallels, “The Alchemist” and “The Mechanist”. It takes a while to really get a feel for how a book should look and feel to its reader, and I only really have so much control over that; but they both have been working out beautifully so far.

I present you here with the first chapter of “The Alchemist”. It was very late when I wrote it, so it’s of course still under scrutiny; but I believe it sets up the kind of mystery necessary to entourage the reader through the book. “The Mechanist” is much further along. Enjoy; when I’m done, not a single word will be a red herring.

—Mick

Sight

© Michael Eric Oberlin, April 15, 2014

 

Starlight filtered in through an icy glass window, onto the planks of an old and lived-in room. A woman’s bare hands lit a candle on the wall and a lamp on the cluttered table. She cleared it with a sweep of her arms, waving her hands to deter the effluent dust.

She wore a skullcap over her shaved head, and a dark wool overcoat. Skin like an apple petal and eyes hazel, trembling hands pulling out an ornate box full of something precious, and expensive.

She undid its string with as much caution as she could manage, took a deep breath, and lifted its lid. A deep green glow burned from the bottle inside, something magical and hidden, something living and rare.

The woman’s name, for the time being, is rather irrelevant; but the important thing to remember about her is that she is a material. She bleeds when she’s cut, she diligently follows all of the laws of physics that pertain to her, she eats material food and drinks material drink. But in this world, there is another kind of thing. There are materials, and then there are sprites.

This sprite was not what you might imagine. It was a worm, luminescent and greener than grass. It was a lesser sprite, but still. The great difference in sprites is that they were a manifestation of an elementary magical principle, occasionally two of them, embodied in a living creature. They were happy in the element that they manifested, understanding on instinct things that a material man might take decades of study to comprehend. Many of them were as full of mind and soul as any human. This one was full of endless potential, a creature in its youth, not yet entirely manifested.

What she would do with it was not easy, and was generally frowned upon. Her hands trembled for a reason beyond the simple cold. She struggled with the lid, attempting to unscrew it, then stopping and warming her hands on the lamp.

When a mere mortal, or at least an ordinary mortal, managed to acquire a monastic understanding of one of the principles, they became mages. They became the engineers of the natural world, which would fold on itself under their guided will. They developed powers that astonished and impressed other materials, but often did not phase them. To them, it was simple, even obvious as they looked back upon their training. They saw as the sprites see, sometimes better; they felt and saw the underpinnings of their magic around them.

The young woman inhaled deeply, and allowed her hands to come to a stillness. She removed the lid, and, very carefully, reached inside it to pick up its occupant. It was larval, incomplete, as young in its life as she was in hers. She had to trade a great deal away to acquire it. The grub-like sprite wiggled in her fingers, making her gasp.

“It’s alright, it’s alright,” she said. “I’m here.” She held it closer to the heat of the lamp for a moment, then realized what it really needed. It was the same reason that she had decided that she needed it.

“Okay.” Of course the worm didn’t really understand her, not yet. She brought it closer to her face, warmed it a little with her breath, and got its attention. It raised its forelimbs, looking straight at her now, and she brought it closer like child.

The sprite wormed its way onto her upper lip, and began to crawl along her face. She hyperventilated briefly, then took deep, slow breaths to calm herself down as the magical creature moved past her nose.

She saw it in the corner of her eye, then over her eye, and did her best to stay amicable and still. It crawled over the white, then under her eyelid, and back into the socket. After that, the world seemed to stretch and warp before her.

She teared up as the creature began to integrate itself with her flesh, a magical symbiote, and she began to see the world as it might. Butterflies riddled her stomach as the world became liquid, and she collapsed out of her chair onto the small carpet below.

She huffed in a fetal position, drooling onto the floor, her world contorted into a half-reality. The candle would burn out before she was able to stand again, but slowly she would see the light of the half-formed sprites of gestalts. Her eye would change color, and in a few days, memories of the symbiote would dance with her own. In a couple of weeks, the distinction would no longer be appropriate.

Her mind was tormented by growing pains as two worlds became a third, as she became the rarity of a delicate fusion of magic and matter. As for the sort of desperation that would lead her to make this sacrifice, that’s a much larger story.

 
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Posted by on April 15, 2014 in The Alchemist

 

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The Nightmares That Look After Us

tarantula hawk

New Mexican Tarantula Hawk (not actually a flying tarantula, but just as scary)

I’m in the completion stages (what I like to call the “sand, buff, and polish phase”) of a speculative horror story, and it has led me to a number of introspections on the nature of fear.

Not just any fear; proper fear. The kind that leaves you checking your hair and looking over your shoulders for hours, or even days. The kind that is unsettling on a deep level. I have no interest in panicking people (although doing that in literature is a feat in itself), I want to make an imprint on them. It isn’t an interest in their detriment as sentient beings, not an insult or a mock. It’s the same interest that brought us beyond the small children we once were, frightened of bees or spiders or shadows, and into the adulthood we know today.

The great catch is that we’re only fundamentally afraid of the things that we admire. As a youth, I for one was afraid of spiders, terrified of them. I would freeze, too chilled to respond, to move, to dust them out of the way.

Why was I frightened of something so small and squirrelly as a spider? I live in North America, the only deadly spider out here is the black widow, and last I checked, the antivenom was even more deadly than the venom itself. You get bit, you have a ninety nine percent chance of surviving after mild to severe flu symptoms, and I’m not even rounding. Spiders are beautiful out here.

Was it the eight legs? Irrelevant. How about the sheen of the exoskeleton, or the soft fur? That ranged from cute to gorgeous. Maybe it was the multiple eyes, or the pincers? Not particularly. Looking back, it was the way they were so cool about everything. They were trappers. Everything they caught had a singular intention that was bent back against it, stuck in an invisible web, bitten, envenomed, and wrapped into a helpless ball. The spiders are the lords of their universe, they do not panic.

They have no need to panic.

As a small child, I could think of dozens of reasons and many incidents in which it was an excellent time to panic. I was a pro at it back then. Small, kind of scrawny and frail, short-winded (no one ever did figure out why); maybe I was at the top of the food chain but I wasn’t feeling it. And yet, today, I am no longer concerned with spiders, in fact I welcome their company. They’re intelligent, they’re pretty, they keep the place tidy, and unless I do something stupid like roll on top of one in the middle of the night (again), they aren’t generally inclined to bite me.

Today, in many ways, I now am a spider. I have learned from my nightmare, and adopted its ways. Among many native cultures, this would mean that I have a spirit connection with the animal, a belief that I am inclined to follow. After all, they’re adorable.

A proper monster, the kind that remains as a relic of the film or book, in the imaginations of its viewers, long after completion, must also on some level be beautiful and majestic. It must be the kind of creature that we are intimidated by, because we doubt that we can overcome it. It must be everything and everywhere, inescapable, and inevitable; it must become a god to us before the end of the story.

(No, the story I wrote does not involve spiders in any way; but the principle is the same.)

As an addendum, I am now on Twitter as @MickOberlin. Every now and then I’ll come up with the prose equivalent of a limerick, and throw it there instead. I politely encourage you to follow it.

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2013 in Fiction, Meta-Media

 

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