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Reasons

So, as I don’t trust the journal itself to try and embellish the action to make it more interesting (see previous entry), here is an experiment. This is a record of a conversation between Nik and I, as much as I can remember of it. Nothing else actually happens. We’ll see how it eventually gets written.

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During the long trail up the side of a tall hill, in order to get a better view of distant mountains:

Nik: “Hm ah, so been having meant to ask, if have said afore than apologies, but… what is such as yourself running out here for?”

Me (after decoding Nik-speak enough to understand what he meant): “I think you’re asking why I’m way out here in the Broken Lands? Well, I’m trying to get back home, for one…”

Nik nodded, waving a paw. “Yes yes, said that asmuch, yes. Is not answering whyfor behind home-going.”

“I know, I know. I was getting to that. I’m trying to get back to the city. Er, my city at least. But you might have noticed, I’m not in that big of a hurry.”

“Is such a bad thing, returning? Some strange horrible fate awaiting?”

I flicked my tail, irritated. This wasn’t something I wanted to have to bring up again. “No, but I’m not exactly welcome, either. Let me try to explain a bit. I think I mentioned that I was in, well…the closest thing would be I guess a religious cell, something like the old monasteries.”

“Ah!” Nik sounded more amused than interested, probably over the quaint concept of religion. “Your unmade godthing, yes?”

I shrugged, used to this sort of unintended disrespect. “Yeah, the Unmade God. We would study the Broken Lands and anything else we could find in the limited memories of the history forest about the Fall itself. Not a lot of material to go over, but we read and re-read what we could. The rest was…speculation, mostly, and philosophy. We called ourselves the Devoted, because we didn’t believe our God was actually dead—broken, yes, but able to eventually heal.”

Nik scratched his head, and grinned somewhat condescendingly. “Is evidence for such beliefness, then?”

I pointed at a shimmering discontinuity in the air about a mile to our left. “Shattered reality that continues to function as if it were whole? We’re standing in the evidence that something happened, back in the Fall. The Unmade one is our version of the story. It might not be true, any more than….well, do you believe that anything we experienced while trapped in those story-stone was real?”

He glanced away, and I thought I saw a guilty look in his eyes for a moment. “Long behind us, we will put that. Was no more real, only story, but… real enough as to us, seemed. Real and story not always opposites. Hm! Theories as said, though, I know well to knowing… ways of how and why and who and what, as for when of Fall time. I am much interested in the same.”

I hadn’t actually thought about his own interest in this, I had to admit. “It’s…a bit different, but yeah, I guess you are doing something similar. The difference is, I’m not doing this by choice, exactly.”

Nik looked at me sideways. “As how one can be against will wandering into these Lands, would like to know. Not easy going between, as noted when I first found you, a bit lost, hm?”

“Exactly. I was barely surviving. That’s the thing, I’m not a hardened explorer. I’m not the type of Devoted who usually went off on the trips into the unknown. I wasn’t prepared for any of this. “

The ground shifted from packed dirt under our feet to loose gravel. Nik glanced down to be sure of his footing. I went on, knowing he was just going to ask. “I’ll tell you why. I’m a Scribe. There has only been one at a time in the history of the Devoted, it’s the one whose job it is to record anything new regarding our studies. Since the world hasn’t changed much since the Fall, some of that was the history of the cities, but a lot of it was recording the adventures of the explorers who came…well, out here.” I made a sweeping gesture. “It was a nice job. I got to sit around the compound, staying in the background, but able to hear all the fun stories of everyone else’s adventures. I never wanted to have any of my own.”

Nik seemed shocked at this. “Curious not? Wonder and mystery of all these shardlings, new and excitement always?”

“Nik, I talked to fellow Devoted who had actually been out here. It wasn’t just rumors and hearsay. Wonder and mystery? More like danger and unpredictability. Exactly like the sort we’ve been through the last…” I waved my hands in frustration, “…whatever it’s been. Months. Year.”

Nik shrugged. Time measurements were meaningless out here anyway. “Right. You having then been kicked onto journey of your own?”

I nodded. “It’s not something I talk about. Look, every acolyte in the Devoted has to do the journey at some point. Usually when they’re still young. I’d been avoiding it, making myself unnoticeable. One of the elders finally noticed, and booted me out. I can’t come back until….well, that’s complicated. Until I learn something, but they never tell you what that is, exactly.”

Nik looked puzzled at that. “Is mandate to…get lost out here? Losing members too easy, if that is way, thinking.”

“It’s more than that, Nik. It’s more…philosophical. Part of our belief is that, well, these lands are sacred. Mind of the broken god, all that sort of thing. I never quite believed it, myself, but… now I’m not so sure. The idea was that we follow in the god’s footsteps, come up against something life-changing, and return to the city changed. Not to actually die, I mean, but something that comes close to it. A ‘breaking’ or ‘unmaking’ of a sort. We approximate the death-and-resurrection cycle in order that the god might follow the pattern as well.”

Nik must have caught something in my voice, as I was mainly repeating from rote. “You are heretic, then?”

I cringed. That’s what I was trying to avoid. “That is one way to put it, bluntly. I never believed that the God would ever wake back up. I still don’t think he will.”

It was at that point, of course, that the sky chose to explode.

Falling

Rhem stopped in his tracks, as a foot long blade dropped from the empty sky and embedded itself just in front of his right foot. He stood there for a moment, his heart racing, everything else shaking. “What was THAT?!”

Nik caught up with Rhem, and peered down at it. “Hm! That was random.” He pulled it out of the ground carefully, by the upper end. The blade was long and black, at first looking like a kitchen knife without the handle, but as Nik peered at it closer he noticed it was made of a hard black rock, more like glass than metal. “It’s a knife,” he announced calmly.

Rhem wasn’t going to let this be a normal event. “I can see that. It fell from the sky and nearly took my toes off. Nik, knives should not be random OR falling!” The lizard grabbed the otter by the shoulders and shook him. “What are we doing here?!”

Nik tossed the knife over his shoulder, where it splashed into the river of burning souls. A foul smell of sulphur wafted up from the water, but Rhem was too unnerved to notice. Nik was oddly casual about the danger. “Thinking we are in land of Random Falling Knives now, hm? According to map is on right coursetrack, through here.”

The lizard scribe spun the otter around and tried to push him back the way they’d come, up the riverbank and through the forest of found objects. “Oh no, we’re not walking through a rain of KNIVES. My skin’s not that thick! We’re going to find another way. I don’t care what your map says, we’ll find another way to the Cloud Mountain. Come’on!”

Nik had dug his claws into the soil, leaning back against Rhem. “No! Knowing map is not accurate but for path, we missing off path, never finding path again. Map changes!” Out of the battered and well-worn knapsack Nik pulled the old map, painted on a tanned skin of some ancient treebeast. “Already have we crossed mountains here, on path, but here is self-same now movement to upleft corner. All lands wandering lost, as we.”

Rhem stopped pushing, but refused to go any further. He turned and pointed to the open plain of empty dust, the river veering off to the right towards other accursed realms. “So you’re saying we have to cross that whole area first, without cover?”

Nik nodded, folding the map back away carefully. He pulled a small bit of dried root out of a side pocket and gnawed on it thoughtfully. “Hm yes, as likely may be day’s walk, after such we come to Schwartzchild’s Oasis, pass down through, having supplies again then. No troubles, hm? Skraw-root?” He offered Rhem half of the bitter-tasting root.

Rhem shook his head, refusing the food. “Not right now, Nik. No troubles? You see no troubles? Hello?!? KNIVES?”

Nik leaned over to peer around Rhem at the empty plain. “Is one knife, hm? Is not signifying many…..ah.” A cloud had gathered over the plain, slowly building in size to a storm. From it fell a steady stream of dark shapes, which clattered and caused a horrible noise as they piled up in the dust. “Is…storm of blades.”

Rhem shivered, then threw up his hands. “This is what this place is like! Everything always right around the corner from killing you! Or me, at least.” He looked at Nik oddly. “You seem to be functionally immortal. Should I use you as a shield?”

Nik snorted a quick laugh through his nose. “Hm! No, am not everliving, quite. Would be chopped apart as such easily as you! Chopchop is not-fun.”

The lizard grunted, then sat down in the middle of the dusty road. “Fine. I don’t know what to do, but I’m certainly not going to run out into a storm like /that/. How do sharp rocks form into clouds, anyway? Gravity makes no sense here.” Rhem glanced across the plain, then paused. “Hey, Nik, you see that?”

The otter made an affirmative noise, already staring at most recently fallen pile of blades. Several were stuck in the earth point-first, but the others lay loosely in heaps, and were beginning to vibrate. Moments later the majority of wedge-shaped rocks had floated back up to trail behind the stormfront, to rejoin the downpour.

“Oh, great,” were Rhem’s first words, “they recycle! This means the storm won’t get any smaller until all the knives are stuck!”

Nik had a gleam in his eyes, however. Rhem knew that look. He really didn’t like that look. That look was mischief and madness, and incomprehensible syllables chanted at gibbering horrors, and levers pulled that nearly dump them into waste disposal vortexes of pain, and complex pipes and tubes that must be navigated without error in order to escape the collapse of a massive complex, and long sleepless nights without tea to remedy the symptoms of headache-inducing reality distortion. Nikolai had an Idea.

The otter dashed back down the path, leaving Rhem to scramble up from his seat and dash after him. “Nik! Wait! You’re going backwards on the path! I thought you said we couldn’t!”

In between breaths, Nik huffed, “Not…cannot-backwards…only if lost path…not find again…. Am returning….forest…”

Rhem caught up with Nik, but they were already at the edges of the place and slowing down. “Right, the forest. How will that help us?”

Nikolai wiggled an upraised finger at Rhem. “Ah! Hm, forgetting what lies in forest?”

Rhem shook his head slowly. “No, it’s just a bunch of random junk… oh.” His eyeridges lowered. “You’re not…you’re not going to /build/ something again, are you?”

Three hours later, the otter scientist had indeed built something. Not that Rhem could tell what it was, of course, but there was definitely a lot of junk in the forest of found objects he didn’t recognize. Nik’s contraption had a metal frame onto which was bolted two seats, some wheels on the bottom, a large metal dish on top that looked like an upside-down mushroom cap to Rhem, tubes and pipes connecting that to a tank under the seats, with enough strapping, wires, and other fastenings to hold it all together, however dubiously. Rhem expressed numerous doubts during the building, while they were rolling it back out towards the plane, and especially as they strapped into the seats at the top of a small hill.

“You’re sure this will work? The…canopy or whatever above our heads doesn’t look strong enough to protect us all the way across.” Rhem poked at the sheet metal, wondering what the strange shape was used for before. The sides sloped down from the edges into the depression in the center, where Nik had rigged up the largest pipes. “Well, I suppose on the bright side I don’t see anything that will cause us to explode…” Rhem almost regretted that right after he said it. Things like that tended to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Nik just grinned the whole time, and said nothing, even as he pulled the brake lever, sending them rolling down the slope and right into the path of the falling blades coming around for a second pass. Immediately they both threw their hands over their ears (or earholes), as the clattering noise was deafening on the metal canopy. Rhem had his arms over his head protectively in case any of the stones punctured through the metal, so he didn’t notice at first that the vibration from their travel over the ground had stopped.

Surprised, he looked around, and wished he hadn’t opened his eyes. The ground was….well, somewhere down there. The strange vehicle was rising up towards the clouds rather rapidly, wobbling in the air as the collected blades shifted position in the tank under the seats. Of course, the stones returned to the sky if they didn’t stay in the ground, so harnessing a large number of them would have lifted them right up.

Rhem leaned over to Nik, who was busy giggling madly at the flight. “Nik! How did you know this would work? Will there be enough to keep us up in the air until we get through the storm?”

Nik looked at Rhem, serious for only a second, then laughed again. “Hah! Am not knowing that, hm? This experiment, mayhaps not worked at all! Enough in tank to lift, else we not lifted! No more to figure out. We here, in sky, so is working, hm?”

“Arrrgh. Looks like it is, sure. For now.” Rhem rubbed the sides of of his muzzle with both hands. This was exactly what drove him so crazy, Nik risking both their lives for a gamble that wasn’t even proven to work—the hardest part was that almost every time, it /did/ work. Nik was mad, sure, but his inventions got them out of trouble, when they weren’t what had caused it in the first place, which was the other small percentage of the time.

A sudden jolt caused Rhem to grip the pipe in front of him. They were sailing clear over the top of the stormcloud, but the wobbling flight was becoming even more erratic, and now the cloud was getting closer again. “What’s going on?”

Nik peered down at the cloud, then poked a few dials on the tank under his feet. “Hm! Is seeming to be falling now! Reached cloud, stones now wish to drop again… should have expected this, hm…”

Abruptly, they passed through the stormcloud on the way down. Stone blades collided with them on all sides, thick and dark. In the distance, Rhem thought he even saw a few flashes of lightning with curiously serrated edges. This was while peering between his armpit and his side, curled into a ball in the seat, of course.

Past the cloud, the ground coming up quick, Rhem was screaming at Nik to do something, anything. Nik seemed a bit distracted, trying to scribble numbers in midair while counting to himself. Finally Rhem had to shake him by the shoulders to get him to pay attention to their imminent impact with the earth.

Still counting, Nik pulled a lever in the front of the vehicle, and the bottom wheels fell off, as well as the tank filled with flying rocks. At the same time, a pair of wings made of fabric and other metal framework popped out above the dish. The wings broke off immediately, and they continued to fall.

Nik swore in some odd language, and pulled another lever. This time the metal dish loosened and swiveled around sideways and trailed above them by some wires, which caught the wind well enough to slow the fall, until the wires snapped. They were still falling,

Rhem winced, and covered his eyes, but Nik was reaching for the third and last lever. At this point their craft was down to just the seats they sat in, and some framework around it. The last lever opened a box on the top of the frame, from which a large cloth unfolded in the rushing wind, snapping open above them and finally slowing the fall, or at least slowing it enough to not kill them on impact. They struck the ground with a great speed, bouncing and tumbling strapped into their seats as the craft fell apart around them. Rhem had brief glimpses of Nik, quick flashes of him being impaled by a knife, crushed by the frame of the vehicle, falling out or being flung far free, the images getting faster and faster until a a thousand otters blurred over each other. There was a haze like smoke around Rhem as well, and he wondered how many possibilities for both of their deaths Nik had to sort through before landing on one in which they both survived.

That was Rhem’s last thought, before everything went black.


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Uh….

I can see that my journaling device has gotten even more elaborate with its fabrications. Apparently it’s not content to read my mind while I’m sleeping, but now it decides to make things up completely. Really, I’m not as hysterical as it makes me out to be.

Okay, let me explain. Yes, Nik and I have been following a weird sort of map he traced off a wall in some old place. But it’s not a quest, there’s no ‘forest of found objects’ or anything else with fancy names. Nothing out here has names. Plus, we didn’t exactly fly over the weird plain with the lethal falling rocks, we crawled under a very thick shield we’d made out of a petrified tree. It took several days, in fact, because the frakking thing was so heavy. And I only passed out near the end, from exhaustion and lack of food or water.

Actually…you know what? I give up. My story has gotten so surreal as it is, that some mundane details like above are only going to bore people, compared to what I’ve already been through. I don’t care anymore, let the journal write my story for me, maybe it’ll be nice and only nearly kill me /half/ the time. It’d be a lot better odds than I’m getting by traveling with the otter, for sure.

The journal is going to embellish the facts and make it much more dramatic to read. It might have even done so on earlier entries. I’ll try to say what actually happened, when it’s enough to justify writing it down. I no longer care which of us is writing this.

Madness

This is how the story ends. But it doesn't end, it keeps going because we're still in it, we're all still in it, we've been inside it all along, and this was just a way to tell us the truth. If this is the truth. I don't know anymore. I can't make sense of half of this, and the other half... well, I must already be mad. Mad as the scientist. The poor dead otter scientist...only he's not dead. How else can I explain it?

Some evidence of madness? Oh, just read on. Read on.




This is how the story ends.

Mer awakens, falling through nothingness. A thousand thousand million points of light tumble with xer, spinning fragments of what was once the universe. Moments pass uncountable before Mer realizes what has even happened. When xe knows, finally, what xe has done, the shock nearly pushes xer back unconscious.

Okin is dead. Mer had thought the shadows had seeped into the cracks of the entire universe, but what xe never discovered was that all matter here was built around the light. This universe was Okin's true body and mind, right down to every atomic nuclei and beyond--vibrations in the strings of curled-up dimensions translating in greater macroscopic scales as the electromagnetic spectrum. All was vibration, all was energy, all was light. Mer had tried to create the opposite of light as a counterpoint, but all xe had accomplished was the opposite creation, in the destruction of the god of light and xis entire world.

Now the vast tapestry of cosmic strings has been torn apart, and the hidden dimensions have begun to unroll into rapidly expanding gaps between the surviving pieces, pushing them apart. Those smaller portions of space that haven't unraveled--their very subatomic particles boiling away in enormous flash-points of released energy--collapse down into themselves in smaller, more stable units. Most contain empty space, or portions of stars, while some contain entire solar systems. All of these remnants are the dust that Mer sees as xe falls, even as xe passes through one or another of them.

Mer feels different, as xe surveys what has become of this place. Xe can no longer feel the presence of Heaven just outside this space, even though a door to it was opened before xe killed Okin. Mer was exiled from Heaven, but xe could always feel that it was there, just on the other side. Now, all that Mer could sense of the universe was its chaos, discordant strings striking notes broken off mid-song. This was a new sensation, however--Mer could now sense all the remaining matter in the world, touch it with xer mind, even manipulate it directly to a limited extent. This could only mean that in killing Okin, Mer had inherited some of xis powers as well, though severely diminished through the destruction of xis body. Mer now was both the god of light and of dark.

The machine, to Mer's surprise, still clung to fragile existence in small fragments of the destroyed planet. The majority of the machine had been entangled in the city Mer used to kill Okin, which kept the city together in one fragment of world. Other parts seemed lost in directions Mer hadn't been able to see before. With xer newly empowered sight, Mer saw that the machine had branched off into other parallel universes without xer knowledge, seeding itself in a several nearby timelines. All of the segments of the machine had done similar actions in each of the worlds Mer could see, and each of those worlds had also been shattered as had this one. Mer could pull and pluck at the very workings of the machine now, finding it powerful indeed, having survived the destruction of several universes intact.

Mer pulls at the connections of the closest cities protected by the machine, bringing them close enough together that the energy of each could interact with its neighbors. Xe discovers that three of these cities were in truth the same city from different worlds, each developing in strange ways just before the crisis broke them off from their planet. One city had turned green and living, the second was full of light and powerful technology, and the third was the city from the universe Mer had been exiled to, lying partly in ruins. When Mer places these three close to each other in the nonspace of freefall, the machine hums and sings with ever more power. Such power, Mer realizes, just might be enough to someday rebuild Heaven outside all these broken worlds, and from such a safe place not embedded within any of them, xe could begin the process of putting them all back together. With this new plan of action, Mer renames xerself into Meredith, god of the light and dark and the nothingness in between.

The broken lands circle each other in nonspace, but Okin is not fully dead. There lies some part of xim in each piece of the world xe left behind. The mind of the god lives on, unmade.





You see? This is the story that I experienced while Nikolai and I were trapped inside those stones. True, there were other stories before this last one, but those ended differently. All of them ended with the universe being destroyed, but only this last one ends with me--I mean, Mer--killing Okin. And this is the only one that fits the facts. Mostly, I mean. It's not what I learned as a scribe of the Devoted, that's for certain! The details don't match up--in the story I learned about the Unmade God, xe was a powerful being of light, sure, but xe wasn't slain by some upstart shadow god. We never even knew xis name, or the exact manner in which the world was broken, or why three cities would have survived intact when so many others....

It makes no sense! This can't be the truth, among so many lies and fictions in this place. And yet... if all these broken lands are the mind of the Unmade one, as seems to be verified from within the stones, then these stones and all these stories are part of xis mind, and the truth could certainly be found within...

Madness, as I said. Here is another madness: Nikolai is dead. Nikolai is alive. This will make less sense then before, to some. Please be patient, this is not easy to write down even if I did believe it.




Here's what happened: after the last of the story, and the 'epilogue' as it were, I came to laying on the pile of cages. I was still stretched out with one hand inside the forbidden cage, though my fingers were no longer touching a black stone. Instead, in Nikolai's hand was a single stone, slightly larger than the original, which was swirled with both black and white in an overlapping, endlessly repeating pattern. This would have been more surprising if Nik's body hadn't gone completely black, almost as if he had been charred to ash. Even his clothes were darkened, in the same shape but barely there. I touched his fur, and my fingers came up sooty, while the patch I'd touched crumbled into black dust. The rest of his body continued to disintegrate from there, until nothing was left but the dust.

This was too much. I backed away as quickly as I could, stumbling over the pile of cages, falling against the wall of chains behind me. Several rusted links snapped, and I dashed out of the way to the wall with the windows just before half the ceiling collapsed with a great crash. I curled myself out of the way against the wall and covered my face to avoid the clouds of dust and flying debris. Everything went silent.

Moments later, though, I could smell no choking dust or feel any of the ceiling settling. I looked up, and this is where it gets truly maddening: the cages were intact, and Nikolai stood in front of me, looking puzzled.

I threw up my hands with a shout, and gave him--rather embarassingly--a big hug, just to make sure he was really there. He most certainly was real, very solid and very confused at first.

"Hm! Whyfor so gladdening to seeing me be?" He pushed me gently off him, and looked me up and down, probably checking for blows to the head.

"I thought you were dead! Twice! Do you know what that does to me?" I was trying not to shout, but I was still so excited. "What...how... who.... where....??!" I couldn't even get all the words fully formed, an unnatural problem for me.

He just shrugged, glancing back behind him at the tangled mass of cages. "Am not knowing this! Was inside story... was god! Light and powerful! Then...remembering you also, am thinking correctness, hm? Some badthing happening, something broken, something old and cold....then here, outside, back in...hm, outer story!"

I shook my head, the vision of his body falling apart still fresh in my memory. "No, Nik... the story ended when I killed you, in there. You died, I saw you! Your body crumbled right there!" I pointed at the pile of chains, which looked completely undisturbed. The cage that had held the stones was strangely empty, and if that weren't odd enough, it was closed and locked too.

Nik looked where I was pointing, but of course he didn't see anything. "Is not being how I recall ending of story, hm? As such is not how happened, then. Not dead, certain feeling... " He prodded his own fur and clothing, very intact, grinning with a certain knowing-more-than-he's-telling-me look. "Perhaps...story was changed?"




This is what I have to deal with. This is the evidence. What am I to conclude?

Oh, and one more thing, though not the strangest by far--I had suspected my journalling device was curiously infected with some data-rot, considering so many of my older entries had completely vanished. What I never even considered was that the missing space might instead be taken up by some organism or other form of life--some telepathic parasite tapping into both my language center and my dreams, and excreting them into the device as narratives. That this assumption is the least ludicrous of all that I've had to deal with today is an indication of just how crazy I feel right about now. Really, how else can I explain the fact that the last few entries before this one were not written by me?

Between the self-generating journal entries, the stories trapped in cages, and Nikolai apparently changing the narrative to his own advantage...

...I no longer know who's writing this story.

Story

Mer, the god of darkness, was thrown from Heaven for trying to create shadows in a place of light. Xe fell, and fell, and fell through vast spaces between worlds. Xe did not know how long xe fell, but the spaces are so great that xe could have fallen for a hundred million years and never touched solid land. Since Mer was banished from Heaven and the presence of its god of light, Okin, Mer no longer had the same powers that enabled xer to travel instantly from one world to the next. Such travel required going through Heaven, which was outside all of the space and time that comprised this universe. Choosing where to exit was easy while in the plane of Heaven, and Mer considered it no accident that Okin had thrown xer into nearly empty space, when xe could have easily left xer on a planet or lonely comet somewhere. Clearly Okin wanted xer out of the way for a long time.

The machine fell too, tumbling alongside Mer. It did not have wings like Mer to halt the relentless end-over-end motion of zero-gravity space, but it was still a monstrosity powered by a drop of Mer's blood, and various spinning parts inside it afforded a gyroscopic effect to curb most uncontrolled revolutions. While Mer fell next to the machine, xe had plenty of time to study what xe had made, examining it from all angles. It was truly a work unlike any seen in the universe or in Heaven before. While xe had constructed it from both real and unreal things in Heaven, here in the matter universe it was almost completely nonreal. Parts spun in directions completely opposed to any of the usual three, gears and wires vanished in one place and reappeared in another, and entire outer areas that might have previously been wood or stone now breathed in and out as if living tissue. The shadow construct kept expanding, too, but without Mer's help. Strands that looked like ghostly wires or spinning driveshafts shot out as it fell, sometimes linking to things Mer couldn't see elsewhere, but often pulling into itself more components. Mer knew that the machine might get out of control in time and assimilate everything, but xe was not entirely opposed to this thought. Xe had already started to think of retribution for being thrown out of Heaven, and losing xis creation would certainly be a blow against Okin.

After time without measure, Mer's fall intersected with a small planet, one of several around an average-sized star. Mer fell to the surface of the planet, but the machine was not as gentle. It crashed catastrophically down into the core of the planet, fragmenting continents and forcing a huge chunk of molten debris into orbit. The surface of the planet was ravaged with quakes, covered in fire and molten rock, and much of the ocean boiled off, remaining trapped in as vapor in the upper atmosphere. Mer was battered and beaten, though not killed, and xe lay dormant beneath a mountain to recover in sleep.

The small planet circled around its star a thousand, a million, a billion times. Continents cooled and reformed, the lump of molten core that had been ejected settled into orbit around the planet and became its moon, the water in the air gradually rained and condensed back into vast oceans. The axis of the planet stopped wobbling and settled into a consistently tilted angle. Life developed, evolving in part thanks to Mer's impact setting up ideal conditions. Species came and went, changed into new forms and moved on up the evolutionary tree. Eventually a particularly stubborn species of treeclimbers evolved opposable thumbs, and shortly thereafter became sentient. The planet passed a few thousand more years in frenzied cycles of growth and fallback.

Mer reawakened after a small cluster of sentient former-tree-climbers dropped an atomic bomb on xer head. Actually it wasn't quite xer head, it being several miles below ground, but for Mer it was close enough. The mountain xe had slept beneath had long since turned into a flattened desert in the middle of one continent. The bomb was enough to bring Mer back to xer senses and take stock of xer situation. Xe could feel the dominant sentient species covering the whole of the planet, which was surprising, since until Mer woke up, xe didn't even know there was life here.

To Mer's surprise, the machine still existed, churning away deep in the core of the planet. Since Mer had created the machine, xe could feel that it had only grown larger in the length of time xe had been recovering. Despite being trapped in rock, xe could send xer awareness down through the ground, through the rock that flowed as liquid, through the iron ball spinning in the middle of the planet. Deep inside, the machine had harnessed the energy of the core and used it to spin out shadowed tendrils in all directions like an invisible spider's web. Mer traced a few of these back up through the crust to the surface of the planet, and found something else unexpected--the machine had hooked itself up to every living sentient. The darkness had a hold on everyone on this planet, and as Mer passed a projection of xer awareness among them to study this more, a plan started to form in xer mind. The machine was drawing something off everyone in order to keep running, but Mer also noted that the machine itself was what kept the planet's core spinning, generating a magnetic field strong enough to keep the life from roasting under radiation from the nearby star. Without the machine, all life would end here.

Mer realized that this planet was unique. In a universe created by the god of light, this was a fallen world, touched by both light and shadow equally. From above, the light of the sun burned down on the people; from below, the machine siphoned off some of the light inside them and replaced it with darkness. Xe knew this world would be too fascinating for Okin to not already have xis eyes on it. After peering into the minds of the sentients, Mer confirmed xer suspicion: Okin had indeed visited the planet several times, even incarnating directly into matter at least once. Okin had vowed to return at some unspecified point in the future, a fact which Mer knew was very useful. Mer planned to make the planet so intriguing that Okin would be forced to return in order to find out what was going on. Once Okin came back to the world, Mer could use the machine to trap xim and, if all went as planned, kill the god of light.

Many more years passed, while Mer started to interfere more and more with the workings of the planet. Xe used the machine to increase the infighting of different groups of sentients against each other, tweak with their emotions, increase paranoia, and generally make a mess of the place. Mer's particular fascination was with larger clusters of beings all living in very small spaces of land called cities. Beneath all the cities, the thin streams of power that fed the machine joined together into thick rivers before dropping down to the core. Cities were places of strength, focuses of energy that was otherwise spread out sparsely across the planet. If Mer could manuever Okin to incarnate in a city, xe could use it as a great lens, focusing the darker energy back into the light. The shadow machine had done nothing but eat up shadow since its creation, and after so much time it might possibly have stored enough to overwhelm Okin. It had to be done, Mer kept telling xerself. Light had its rule, and the time now was for darkness.

Finally, the promised time came--Okin returned to the small planet. The situation had been degrading ever since Mer woke up, and several times xe had stopped the sentients from completely destroying each other prematurely. Xe couldn't push it from a distance too much without revealing xer presence to Okin, whom xe knew was watching things unfold on the surface. For the third or fourth time, the entire planet was on the brink of extinction by atomic bombs fired at each other, and just at the moment it all seemed lost, Okin returned.

The god of light couldn't just return in the same way xe had come the first time, of course. Okin had to arrive with a full battalion of xis soldiers from Heaven, sounds and light blazing across the whole atmosphere. Xe was using a lesser property of Heaven's being outside the matter universe to become visible to everyone on the surface of the sphere simultaneously. Even down under xer desert, Mer could feel the power and glory of the return, and knew xe had to act before it was too late. Mer burst out from the ground on newly grown wings of pure black, rising high into the air on a surge of power from the shadow. Knowing xe was now highly visible to Okin's eyes, xe flew quickly to the city xe had prepared for the final blow, out on the westernmost edge of the continent. It was by no means the largest city, but several millions of people were enough to be the conduit for Mer's plan. All those people were now completely enthralled by Okin's show of light, but Mer needed to catch the attention of Okin ximself as well.

Mer flew up over the city and called out to Okin in xer god-voice. "Come down here, oh god of light, and inspect my work! See what I've done with the place!"

Okin, who was still peering out from the realm of Heaven, focused on Mer, recognizing xis fallen soldier. "Mer, this planet nearly destroyed themselves. You claim that was your doing? Why?"

Mer laughed, turning in a slow circle above the city. The shadows had started to collect down below, and the city grew darker despite the sheer force of light raining down above. "All this? All this was just so you would come back here! And look, it worked! Here you are! Don't you remember throwing me down here?"

Okin and xis soldiers flew closer still, until Okin was through Heaven's door and touching the upper atmosphere of the world. "I was sorry for that, after. I looked for you, but I could not find you. That machine you made is an abomination, but you at least were redeemable..."

Mer threw out xer arm in a wide circle. "Hah! This IS the machine! It's beautiful, not terrible! I would never have apologized and joined your side again, and you should have known that. No, this is my payback. Join my side instead. Take a taste of the shadows." The city below xer was almost entirely black, no light escaping the shadows that surged up from the machine. Rivers of the dark started to flow up and into Mer's body itself, feeding xer more power. Behind Okin, the door to Heaven was flooded with darkness, trapping most of the angels still in Heaven. Moments later the door closed completely.

Okin didn't even see xis escape lost behind xim, aroused as xe was by Mer's challenge. Xe replied by clothing ximself with the purest light, outshining even the nearest star. "No! You have clearly lost your mind and are too twisted by revenge. I'm afraid I will have to...deal with you." A blade so bright and sharp it seemed like a break in the world even brighter than Heaven itself was suddenly in Okin's hands. Even the shadows went dim, only for a moment. "
This... don't do this..."

Mer flew higher and higher, drawing more of the shadow through the people below up into xerself. "Impressive, but I don't think your blade compares to billions of years of darkness that I've stored up." Xe gestured with one all-black hand, and Okin's great blade dimmed, then vanished, eaten away. "
I'm sorry... I don't see another way. We have to get out of here. Nik... I'm sorry."

Okin faltered, falling back in surprise at being disarmed so easily. Mer surged forward quickly, and placed xer hand on Okin's head. "Your light has to go out," xe whispered, then xe opened the conduit directly. The machine's entire store of shadows flooded out through the god of darkness, smothering the light. Beneath them both, the crust of the planet buckled, warped, then crumbled away at the force of the flow. The entire planet started to fall apart from within, the machine pushing its way back up from the molten core on a dark tide.

At first Okin mustered xis reserve powers, burning away the dark through sheer will alone, but slowly xe was losing, and xe knew it. As Okin's life drained into the abyss, Mer realized much too late that xe had done a very, very bad thing, killing the creator of the universe xe inhabited. Reality itself started to bend and break, every star in the sky went out, a rushing wind came from the nothingness beyond. But it was too late to stop the machine.

Darkness overcame the light. Light died. The universe shattered.

Story

Once there was a god of light, and a god of darkness. The god of light's name was Okin, creator of the universe. Mer, the other, didn't start out being the god of darkness. This is how it happened.

Mer was once not a god at all, but xe was a soldier in Heaven's army. Okin had made ximself an army of winged almost-gods to help xim keep order among all the planets and worlds that xe watched over. When the soldiers were not keeping order, they lived in a place called Heaven, which was just outside the universe. Heaven was full of light, since it was also where Okin resided, and xe was the source of all light.

Mer was a very high-ranking general in Okin's army, and was trusted with many missions on her own where lesser soldiers might require a full platoon. Xe got to visit so many worlds, more so than Okin even personally manifested on. Okin was busy managing cosmic affairs, and couldn't always spend energy to go everywhere.

After so many missions carrying messages to Okin's people, stopping wars, carrying out Okin's judgements, Mer started to notice something different between the planets he traveled to and his home in Heaven. The thing was, Heaven was far too bright. By comparison, planets had a sun (which was considered a part of Okin), but they also had a side that was always opposite the sun. This produced something Mer understood was called 'night'. Heaven had no night--everything was always light, in different colors and hues, illumination from every surface. There was enough glow that no shadows were ever produced, though Mer knew what they were.

Mer decided one day (relative to the age of the universe, not the revolution-cycle of any particular planet) that xe would try to create shadows in Heaven. The whole place to xer was starting to look the same anyway, and having a bit of darkness out of the light would be nice. The universe Okin had created was full of xis light, but there was so much space in between the light, so much potential for new things. There was beauty in the non-light, but Okin would never admit it, not unless Mer decided to prove it.

Mer set about building something in one of the large meeting squares in Heaven. It was a sculpture unlike most of the soldiers had ever seen. Mer had borrowed bits and pieces from the planets xe visited and brought them back to xer home. Now xe hauled them out and started fitting them together in a pattern that at first didn't make sense, even to xer. Since Heaven was outside of Okin's creation, it could hold nearly anything inside it without regard for size. So Mer put in all manner of things that xe thought might contain shadows: mountain ranges with deeply folded deposits of coal, machines that put out dark smoke, holes and shallow caves, the dark side of several moons, nebula dust clouds, regional dust storms, the forgotten past, several flocks of crows with the occasional raven, the secret heart of a broken star, completely reflectionless rocks from a volcano, secrets at midnight, dying words poured out as ink on a white page, regret, the smell of asphalt in the rain, the bottom of a sea, the inner surface of someone's mind, iron and steel girders framing emptiness, a treasure buried away for millennia, uncounted stories in unknown books, this and that from everywhere in the universe and more.

But still Heaven would not allow shadows. The light of Heaven surged up and entered the sculpture, pushing into into the valleys and cracks as Mer worked. So Mer started adding wheels and pulleys, cranks and gears, levers and switches to the sculpture, so that parts of it could move in, out, and around. This way it might move faster than the light could illuminate, or perhaps fool the light into going in a different direction. This only worked for a few moments, and Mer saw deep within the structure a brief flicker of blackness like the space between stars. Then the light surged forward and was brighter than ever before, until Mer had to close xer eyes to adjust. Xe looked behind xer, and there was Okin, striding up into the square.

"I heard about your piece of....art," Okin said, xis voice like the glare of an open kiln. "I had to come see it for myself. What do you think you are doing, my trusted and valued general?"

Mer wasn't prepared to face Okin, since xe hadn't even finished the sculpture yet. Xe bowed xer head. "Okin, my lord! I wanted to show you this when it was finished, but you have come early. I am building something beautiful, like all those worlds I see outside of Heaven. I am making....shadows."

Okin flared up like the shockwave of a supernova, and in fact several stars in the universe exploded right at the moment. "Shadows!?! Why do you waste your time with this! Heaven is a place of light, there is no place for shadows! If the people I created weren't so fragile, I'd fill that grim, dirty universe completely with light as well!"

Mer turned xer back to Okin. Xe knew Okin would react like this. Okin was light, so light was all xe knew. There was nothing else. Mer struck back quietly, while xe added more parts to what was becoming more machine than sculpture. "Why did you, oh great Okin, create the universe? If you desired no imperfection, no flaws, no shadows at all, why did you form worlds at all?"

The god of light continued pouring forth heat and indignation. Xe had never been questioned before--all xis soldiers were usually so loyal. Perhaps it was because Mer was always down in the worlds on missions, and xe had picked up strange ideas from the sentients there. "That is not a question you should be asking, Mer. My works and my methods are not to be questioned. Perhaps I should not send you on any further missions. You should remain here and serve me more directly. How would you like to be my right-hand soldier, my second in command?"

Mer pushed a lever here, and rigged a pulley there. The machine spun its parts faster, but the light still filled it all. Xe knew there must be a catch, some condition attached to such a swift promotion. "What do I have to do for that to happen?"

Okin smiled and opened xis arms wide. "Stop building your silly contraption, stop talking about shadows, and come to me. Leave the machine, and let me destroy it. I will raise you up to power almost as great as my own!"

Mer turned back to Okin, drawing xer sword. "I will not let you destroy this machine.
It may be our only way out. It is mine, and I will never come to your side if you insist on its destruction. I will protect this with my life." The winged soldier's swords were as sharp as a beam of light, and could cut through planets. Mer raised xers in front of xer face in a defensive stance.

"No. I would not allow it to come to this. The spilling of blood of one of my own soldiers is the darkest deed I can imagine, here in perfect Heaven." Okin stepped forward without drawing xis own sword, hands out as if to disarm Mer.

Mer just smiled, and held the sword out horizontal, staring at its keen edge. "Perhaps you speak true. That only gives me an idea. If no darkness can be found in Heaven, I will create some." With that, Mer ran xer finger along the edge of the sword, opening up a deep gash. the soldiers had never bled before, but had also never been cut with their own weapons before. Nothing mortal from the greater universe could hurt them. All the winged soldiers stepped back with a gasp at seeing Mer's blood, dropping out from xer hand and staining the brightly glowing ground.

Xer blood was black, as dark as innocence lost. Mer's face was something that Okin had never seen on his own soldiers before--pain. Mer lifted xer hand to show Okin the blood pouring out. "Look, Okin. See darkness, see shadows. It is real, even here, even in the light." And Mer turned to xer machine, flicking a single drop of blood into the depths.

The machine kept turning, but the light didn't reach as far into the center. Mountain ranges and long bars of iron stopped glowing of their own strength. Dried leaves and cold frozen planetoids faced away from the light, now only streaming from Okin ximself. Turning on vast axes of time, wheels of stone and peat traded places with smoked glass and chrome, to the other side of the machine. Now there was an absence of light, in and around the vast mechanism, and all that should have been dark was truly dark. The blood of a new god churned within its new heart, and Heaven trembled.

Okin trembled as well. Xe raised a shaking hand, uncertain for the first time in eternity. "What have you done? You have brought the darkness into my light! You have ruined everything I built here! No! I refused to allow it!
I got here first! You can't take away everything from me. If you like the universe I made so much, then I condemn you to live in it." Okin made a gesture with xis hands, and a hole opened up below Mer and the shadow-machine.

As the machine was pulled down through the hole in Heaven, Mer merely smiled, eerily calm, at Okin, still holding xer sword, which had turned from pure silver-white to the black color of xer blood. "Ah, now we see the god of light's true face! This is not over, Okin. I will return to Heaven someday. When I do, you can be sure that there will be more than just shadow here. There will be Darkness." With that, Mer and the machine vanished.

Mer fell, tumbling through the emptiness, for a year and a day, for a millennia, for a few seconds. Xe didn't know how long, or how far xe had fallen. Xe kept falling, but as xe fell, xe said to xerself, "No, this isn't over yet.
But at least the world didn't end this time. I'm starting to discover how to play the game."

Story

Once, there was a god of light named Okin. Xe was quite happy spinning off balls of light into the nothingness of the universe, which often ended up making new collections of denser matter around them. Sometimes even planets would arise, though this was rare. Even more rare were the planets on which infinitesimal specks of intelligence would arise, which would eventually discover some aspect of Okin to worship. Xe was very pleased when this would happen, and made as much effort as xe could to watch over the forms of life that grew in xis light. Because xe was very large, as large as the universe itself, xe couldn't spend as much time with each instance of life as xe wanted to, but the life generally revered xim as Creator anyway. This made xim happy, and xe continued to form new balls of light and place them in space for many long time-units (relative to the god, several million or so years). Xe loved to form all the stars into clever patterns and orderly rows, making sure none were too close to each other in the entire sky.

Then something changed. A new god came into the universe. This was not in itself unusual, as the smaller flecks of intelligence were always making up names and personas for greater intelligences than them. These were completely separate from the god of light, usually formed in the image of the intelligence who made them up. Okin did not find them to be all that useful in the larger universe, though they were often helpful for interacting with a local light-ball system, as long as they didn't get overextend their boundaries in a hostile way.

This was different, though. The new god came from somewhere
outside the universe, and claimed to be Okin's brother-sister god. Xer name was Mer, and xe was a god not of light, but of dark. Now there were two gods the size of the universe, and it was starting to get crowded.

Mer was a very different kind of god. Xer enjoyment was in making small balls of dark, which were very much like Okin's balls of light, except mostly invisible. The dark balls could not be seen with the same eyes as those that could see in the realm of Okin's light-spectrums, and Okin would not have even known they were there except for the dark affecting the gravity of the light. The dark permeated the spaces between the light matter, and had an attraction towards itself, which grew into larger clumps, eventually causing a pull on the light's motion. Slowly the balls of light started to drift into larger groups, spiraling around in great discs and whirlpools. Greater darkness formed out in between the spirals of light, attracting all of them in towards it. This ruined Okin's careful patterns and star plans, throwing the universe into apparent chaos.

Now, every so often a piece of dark would get so saturated with more dark that it would collapse into itself, taking any nearby light and matter with it. For this reason Mer started to be known as a god of destruction, which bothered xer greatly. Xe felt that while Okin was likely the creator of most life, even if accidentally in most cases, Mer was a superior god, even if the dark xe created sometimes had unexpected reactions. So Mer decided to go to Okin and talk to xim, to decide who was more worthy of ruling the universe.

Okin was quite surprised and not the least indignant at even asking who was worthy. "Who are you, Mer, that can ask such a question? I have been here in this universe since the beginning, since before there was light. I have shaped the light into bright stars, and given life to countless worlds."

Mer replied, "I am the dark behind the light. Without me, everything would be light, and all the same. Who would know what light is without its opposite?"

Okin trembled at this, angered, and all the stars in the sky flickered. "I am great and powerful! Without me life would not exist! Millions of civilizations across endless galaxies revere me as Creator, and I pass my blessings down to them as I choose. Is this not how it should be?"

Mer simply asked, "Did you create this universe?" Okin was caught off-guard. "Well, no, but..." xe started to say.

"Ah," interrupted Mer, "then you are no true creator! You came here from outside just as much as I did, only a bit earlier in what passes for 'time' around here. All you did was take the light and condense it into smaller bits, which means there's less of it now than at the start of this universe. If life arose because of that then it is only because you were very careful with the variables. I'm no more a usurper of power than you are."

Okin rumbled, "But the life I've created...does that count for anything? The power of belief makes me stronger, doesn't it?"

"Only because it's mandated from the start, reinforced by occasional displays of your power, and propped up by creating elite upper classes that receive privileges for doing whatever they want in your name when you're not paying attention. Do you really think you can take care of all of those people by yourself indefinitely? Let me tell you how I have let the people take care of themselves, and we'll see who has the better plan." Mer gave Okin the use of xer eyes for a moment, to illustrate the point. "See my darkness. See that it passes through all things, is inside and outside of all matter, including your light. See how it fills the emptiness between your light."

And Okin saw, and was surprised, as he had never seen this before. The god of light's eyes could not have seen where there was no light. Mer shifted their view to a smaller perspective, of a city on a planet who worshipped the light. "See your people, see how the dark even flows in among them. This is what I have done; not only have I shaped the universe into closer clusters of stars to keep each other warm, I have also spread my influence out through the dark, so that I am everywhere. Those of your people who discover this, I allow to use my power as they choose."

Okin watched the planet's inhabitants change over several hundred cycles around its star before xe replied, "There are those who would take that power only for harming others, or for greater individual gain by exploiting the weaker among them..."

Mer laughed, and all of space vibrated for a moment. "That is no concern of mine, those who uncover my secret have often gone through trials to gain the knowledge, and are deserving of using my power. What they do with it is up to them, but certainly it is no worse than, say, the abuses done in your name by empowered priests, right?"

To this Okin had nothing to say, so xe began to draw more and more light into ximself, swelling up and threatening to become a supernova to try and shove Mer out of the universe entirely. Mer reacted in kind by pulling together the largest ball of dark xe had ever assembled in one place. More and more fell into the mass as the chain reaction grew bigger, almost as big as the great star. As they spun around in space, Mer tried to calm Okin down, but Okin was no longer listening.

"Stop this! We'll destroy this universe and all life in it if you continue!" Mer shouted. Huge streamers of fire and light started to fall into the embrace of the darkness. Okin just continued to swell the light, consuming planets and stars alike, as the black mass tried to keep the star under control, but sucked in just as much destruction.

Mer struggled with all xer power now, just to keep the swell of light from burning out all else. Xe tried one more time to get through to the light god.

"Nik! Stop it! You're in a story...we're in a story! This isn't real...stop trying to destroy me! I'm trying to helMer's voice was cut off quickly as the supernova collapsed into the giant black hole, which then exploded, taking the rest of the universe with it.

THE END.


OOC AUTHOR'S NOTE: I've noticed that I've been rather slow at updating this, and lazy in the actual writing of posts. I'm going to try and push myself into a better writing schedule and see how it goes. My goal that I'm setting for myself is going to be one entry a week. The day of the week may vary, depending on when I have ideas for the next one, it will be once a week. This one a month or less has got to stop. :-}

Cages

It's over. It's over. Nik is gone.

What do I do? He's trapped, or maybe even dead! I can't get him back... it's all gone wrong. There's nothing I can do, I can't help him, I can't....

Okay, I need to calm down. Writing here won't make a difference. Maybe I could... no, that won't work. It's so stupid, I feel so helpless. I know nothing about this place, about the rules if there are any... there's no way to know what's going on, whether I can help or not...none of it makes any sense... I'm going to stop now, and go check out the situation. God damn his curiosity. It's nearly killed us before, why stop now?

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Back for now, and a bit calmer. I've checked out the situation, and...while not comforting, I think it isn't going to change anytime soon. Before I go and do something stupid that might get me in the same trouble that Nikolai's in, I'll write down what's happened since the last entry. Am I being a good Scribe? Hardly. It's more like this might be the last thing I write before I end up dead. No, scratch that, Nik's not dead....but he's definitely not here.

I should start over. The last entry here, I just checked, was about escaping certain death by the flying ocean. All fine and good, but compared to this...well, at least we could have swam out of the ocean. Maybe.

So Nik and I popped out of the break and ended up in this place...it's a giant room, thankfully rectangular instead of some crazy sphere with headache-inducing gravity laws. This is just a big room with a very high ceiling, and windows...actual windows that let light in from the sky. By 'big' I mean at least a hundred feet across and possibly twice as long. Everything was covered in dust or rust, very run down, like nobody living had been here for a very long time. Knowing how weird some of the places are that we've seen before, it would not surprise me if the age was only a surface appearance. The room itself was fairly empty of furnishings....except for the cages.

Filling the entire ceiling of the room, stretching from end to end in endless rows and columns, were small metal cages. They hung from long rusted metal chains in ordered rows attached to horizontal poles so that the entire row could be lowered all at once. No cranks for lowering were visible, but there was a rack of long hooked rods, and experimenting with these we realized that the cages were counterweighted up above so that just tugging on one would lower them easily, and once lowered they would stay in place. Many of the rows were already down, and we wandered down a few of them to see what was inside.

The cages themselves were all the same, just rounded cylinders of metal grids with flat bottoms and tapered tops, small doors set into one side, some of which were locked. What was in each cage varied from row to row, with no immediately apparent pattern or reason. Small objects, items of clothing, jewelry, various trinkets, bits of what seemed to be trash, a few long-dead plants, statuettes made of found things and other art of questionable quality....to list everything would take forever, and I've got other things to worry about. Basically, all of the things in the different cages didn't seem like anything people might normally collect, or leave behind for that matter. We saw more than one precious gem or gold coin, tossed in among dusty clothing or inlaid in a crown. Things seemed to be thrown together without any clear connection, like the pile of rodent bones collected on top of a shiny white plastic square of some unknown technological device. Some of the clothing looked to be old uniforms, both military and domestic, combined with rocks, branches, tiny trees with no leaves, metal disks with numbers engraved on one face, gears and machine parts, even some small models of people in varying species. These were never laid out in any sort of diorama, merely tossed in onto the odd pile as if in afterthought.

It was Nik who finally figured it out. We'd only inspected a few rows, though they went on for a very long ways into the darker back of the room. It wasn't hard to figure out how many cages were there--every cage had a unique number, and we were only in the mid-4000s--and we'd checked maybe a hundred so far. Nik opened a few that weren't locked, peering into them and fiddling with the objects. He'd picked up a brittle yellowing paper technical manual to some handheld machine I'd never seen, which lay atop a beautiful blue ballroom gown with four armholes, two to each side. He looked from one to the other, trying to make a connection. I could almost see his mind churning.

Finally he looked up at me, grinning that particular grin. "Hm! Knowing what are being here encaged! Very simple. Have you guessed?"

I really had no idea, and told him so. He went on, "What things have in common?" He set the book carefully back on the gown and closed the cage. Without waiting for an answer this time, he said, "Nothing! But!" here he shot a finger straight into the air, in full lecture-mode, "Is not having nothing common, as you could create anything in commonality! How to be doing that? You tell a story."

The skin on the back of my neck crawled. "Are you saying that this place collects stories? Everything in the cages?"

Nik nodded, though he still looked a bit dubious. "Is not sense-making, but surely as much sense as expected from prior seen nonsense!"

We talked about this for a few minutes, as we wandered towards the end of the row and the wall with the windows. Nik was thinking more that the objects told stories or could inspire stories, which was the reason for the collection. On the other hand, I realized that if the whole of the Broken Lands was part of the Unmade God's mind, then of course we could very well have found where the god keeps its stories. I keep other people's stories in words on the pages of books, the Unmade one could very well keep its stories in cages. Who was to say which one was more natural or strange?

We'd gotten to the back of the room, the wall with all the tall windows letting in light. Looking out through the grime and dust encrusting the glass, we saw only blue sky and a few clouds at first, then some darker form that could have been ground far, far below. The room seemed to be only one part of an extremely tall building that stretched both up and down nearly endlessly. I wondered if we'd find stairs or a lift on one side of the room, because if this room was just one of many, there might be more cages--more stories--than any number we could even count to.

And this, of course, is when Nik's curiosity got him into trouble. He pointed off to the right, down the long side of the wall towards the back of the room. There was a tangled mess of chains and cages that we hadn't seen clearly until now (and we were distracted by the cages' contents). It looked like someone had lowered several rows, then charged through them back and forth until all the hanging chains were wrapped around each other. The weight of the whole mass dropped it to the floor, likely overcoming whatever counterweights were in the ceiling, so it made for a fairly impassable wall of sorts. I suppose that given time we could have untangled them, but some of the metal looked rusted into place. Nik and I both ran over to look.

Now I admit, we were both curious. But being curious is one thing, investigating and prodding at things even in the face of clear danger is another sort of madness entirely. Nikolai's tendency to poke and prod at things to see what makes them work is not just curiosity, it's obsession--there's no other way to explain a behavior that has resulted in close brushes with death on a constant basis. I can't figure it out. It's like he doesn't value his own life, favoring information over preservation.

It's uncomfortably close to the Devoted's philosophy of Unmaking--by breaking down the soul and rebuilding from the pieces, we become greater. The sum of the parts is greater than the original whole. Nik is...different. Methods for identity change contain within them implied threats to body and continued life--but the difference is that the destruction of the body isn't sought after. The soul might persist after bodily death, but we have no guarantee and no evidence that this is the case (though endless authorities have claimed otherwise). No information pattern tends to survive the destruction of its storage medium, unless it can be preserved or copied into another...but that's a different issue. Death is death, as far as I know. Having your soul stolen away to somewhere else...is another thing entirely.

That's what I think happened to Nik. Getting back to the story, while we were checking out the jumbled wall of chains, I noticed that there were a lot more cages clustered in one area, and the rest looked to be wrapped around that place with more and more layers. Some time ago, though, several of the chains holding entire rows to the right had rusted through, collapsing a good portion of the cages off to one side. While most of the cages being used as the wall were empty, I saw that there was one rather stronger-looking cage buried in the center of the mass that had something inside. The door was bent off its hinges by the fallen chains, and I thought I saw a crumbled lock down below it, but it was hard to tell. Nik was already clambering over the pile of cold iron links to get a closer look, when I realized what had been bugging me about this particular cage. It was in roughly the center of the chaos, surrounded on all sides by metal that was intended to keep anyone from getting to it. Therefore, whatever was in the cage was a very dangerous story, and nobody should ever get near it.

As I was trying to get this into words, about to shout at Nik, he went suddenly limp, one arm stretched out to touch something inside the forbidden cage. The rest of his body slumped onto the pile, and for a moment he didn't seem to be breathing. That's when I panicked, earlier. When I went back to check, I found him still apparently unconscious, breathing very slow, though when I pried open his eyelid his eyes were moving rapidly all over the place. Not focusing on this world, though. His 'soul' or information pattern isn't here, but it isn't gone...there's some connection back to his body, or else it wouldn't still be alive.

I'm feeling...better now that I've written this out. Because I've decided what I need to do. I'm going to follow Nikolai inside whatever he's gotten himself into.

In the locked and protected cage are simply two stones of equal size and shape, perfect spheres the size of a typical hand, set on blank grey fabric. Nik is touching the white sphere. The only one left is the black. I'm going in after him.




Editor's Note: This location has an actual visual reference.

Flocean

By gone, I mean actually gone. All the water had disappeared, with not even a trace of moisture in the ground. We were no longer on an island, but the top of a small mountain ridge. The land nearby was featureless grey dirt, a little moist but drying quickly, certainly not vast plains of mud as one might expect from an empty seabed. We both stepped out onto the dirt, being careful at first in case we were sucked down, but it was solid all the way.

Nik and I both figured that at the very least, we could now walk to the next break and continue traveling, so we packed up what we could of what we'd gathered for food, and set off down the mountainside.

It was rather tough going at first, considering that this entire area had been submerged. Most of the surfaces were smoothed out by the weight of the water, and the first few hundred feet out from the island formed a very gradual slope, but then it sharply dropped down a cliffside into deeper lands. We finally managed to discover a series of smaller canyons that led crossways down to the main floor of the sea, hundreds of feet down.

We were mostly silent as we walked, most of the arguing already finished over the last few days. Unspoken was the fear we were both highly aware of: what if the ocean came back while we were walking around where it used to be? Images of water falling from the sky filled my mind--not rain, but an entire wall of water coming down in one inescapable flood. Much like I assumed had happened in the opposite direction the night before. It was impossible, sure, but we'd already seen enough impossible things on this trip to fill time before a month's breakfasts. All the water and everything else that might have also been in the ocean--fish, coral reefs, sharks, plants, everything--had gone off somewhere into the air. That was the 'killer wave' that blocked out the stars last night but didn't crash down over the island--it was too busy crashing up. There was no way of knowing how long it might stay there, or where it had gone. This place, like everywhere in the Broken Lands, had no rules, or at least only rules of its own that did not resemble anything we were used to.

Sure, from the histories I've read, the world didn't used to be like this. It's part of our traditional stories that the god we now call the Unmade was at one point whole, perfect and incomprehensible. He (or she) created the world such a long time ago, it was even before the three cities had fallen out of it. Once there was even one set of physical laws that didn't vary by location, but applied to all places everywhere--and the world was much bigger, a giant round ball in space, with hundreds and thousands of cities, plus vast empty spaces in between. That must have been nice, to have all that. Now we've just got the three cities, and even those will probably fall apart into the breaks someday. Nobody's quite sure why they haven't fractured like the rest of the landscape, but it certainly makes life easier...for now. Maybe there's other worlds than these...but we all stopped looking for them years ago.

Well, except for a few. Nikolai, here, has this map...he's adding notes to it over there right now, actually. He really does think he can catalog and diagram the entire set of lands--not only that, but the relationship between each fragment, which is made even more difficult since they keep changing position relative to each other. He's not just a little mad, but...his being systematic may just help. Our bargain was for me to help him only so long that I could find Verdant again, which would be far easier if he had a starting position on his map. He only started the map after he was already lost in the wastes, which makes any return trip to his own city just as useless (finding one city finds the rest, there are several routes between cities that still exist).

But I digress. Let me tell you what happened. This supposed to be an account of action, not some philosophical mutterings best left for the scholars.

During the walk the sky was completely blue and cloudless, like someone had polished off the usual horizon smudges with a breath and a soft cloth. There was no moisture in the air, and the grey-white dust reflected enough sunlight to make a very dry heat, almost a desert. Nik suffered worse than I did, because of his thicker fur, but I was even overheating a little, used to far more plants and humidity. After several long hours of negotiating narrow dusty canyons, we'd finally managed to hit a relatively flat plain pitted with much smaller holes and cracks. More importantly, the break was maybe a mile or two away, less than an hour's walk if we avoided the larger crevasses.

That's when the sun, high in the sky at our backs, went dark.

We both spun around, transfixed as a huge dark bulk of water slowly blotted out the sun. It wasn't a cloud, it was a sheer bulk of water, very blue-green around the edges shading into utter darkness in the inner depths. But it didn't block out the entire sky--I could see the horizon actually below the mass, which meant it was somehow suspended entirely in the air. We'd suspected this, but seeing it in broad (though rapidly decreasing) daylight was completely different than speculation.

Nik turned and ran immediately, but I took a moment longer to take it all in, staring up at the sky slack-jawed. In retrospect this wasn't the smarter of choices, but whomever reads this in the future should be comforted that I got at least a good enough glimpse to describe what I saw before running for my life.

What I saw was this: the floating ocean had a shape, vague at first but becoming more obvious as it eclipsed the sun and its edges lit up with refracted fire. The ocean was an enormous whale, with prominent flippers and tail flukes, though no dorsal fin. With little to no surface details other than the liquid itself, the species was harder to identify, but at a guess I'd say it was similar to photos of the great blue whale I've seen. Under the surface I thought I saw smaller specks moving around, which at this distance were either larger sharks or normal-sized whales. There were flexible tendrils of some sort, plants I think, that grew through the entire mass like a nervous system. Towards the front was a convoluted mass of coral that grew twisting in and out of itself, through which tiny lights were constantly flowing. A larger sleek grey shape, possibly a dolphin, lept out of the underside of the whale in an upside-down arc, splashing back in as if it hadn't just whistle-click-laughed at gravity.

That was about all I had time to take in, as another fact became quite clear: the floating ocean was returning to its rest, heading straight towards us and downward. I turned and joined Nik in his escape, and after another twenty minutes of desparate running, leaping over cracks, and trying not to trip over ridges, we were at the edge of the break. This one was fairly obvious even in the lessening daylight: a flat plane distortion in the air that spread out both along the ground and high into the air, the other side unseen. Despite the illusion that the current landscape continued on the other side, the light was refracted at just enough of an angle to suggest a barrier, an effect I'd gotten quite good at spotting.

I had only a few minutes to check what we'd be getting into, but my meditative technique was fortunately well-practiced at this point. I dropped into a quick trance, projected a mental window onto the distortion, and peered through. "It's some sort of room, Nik, looks like on the same level, no aligning needed this time..." I commented, and before I could even finish Nik had pushed his gauntlet up against the break. A moment or two later his whole arm slipped right through, and the rest of his body followed.

I turned around to take one last look at the floating ocean, and saw that it was a mere hundred feet away, settling the great mass of water down to rush once more across the plain. Then Nik's paw reached back through the break and dragged me through, just before I was crushed by the sheer weight of water. It was really that close. My heart was pounding, everything was slightly hazy, and all my muscles were tingling from my snout to tailtip. I shouldn't be getting used to this, I don't want regularly brush that close to death....so why was I so excited?

Up

Nikolai and I had some words. Then something else happened...but I'm getting ahead of things.

Apparently his crazy glove-weapon has recharged. All we've done the last day or two (or at least sun cycles--which I suspect are actually something like 14 hours rather than 24) are eat and sleep. There's some relatively nutritious but not delicious fruits on one bush here, and there's a small amount of dew every morning that we can collect enough to drink. Nik's gone 'native' a few times to catch some fish, but he has much more of a taste for them than I do. In this whole time, he's left the gauntlet off, sitting in the sun. I really don't know what kind of energy it requires, though obviously if a fiery trash incinerator can recharge it within a few seconds, a great ball of fusion energy in the sky could probably help, just a little. So he told me it's ready to go.

Here's the thing, though. He wanted to just make another break right here and get off the gods-damned island. I refused to allow him to, not wanting to leave more damage in our wake than we already have. Sure, we ended up in the Factory's waste dump by accident (and who puts a switch to start the disposal on the inside of the disposal?), but we probably cracked the entire place in half when we left.

We argued about it last night, around a small fire he'd managed to make to cook the fish.

"But longtime stuck here, otherwise!" Nik protested. "Can't you swim?"

I pointed towards the horizon. "Not that far, Nik. Look, you might be of an aquatic species, but my kind are more used to jungle! I've been in water before, but not ocean. I can't do distances. And we have nothing to build a raft with here," I added unnecessarily. There were a lot of small shrubs and bushes, but only a few scraggly trees, and we had nothing to chop them down with even if they might possibly have made a good raft--which they wouldn't have.

Nik looked longingly at his glove, back on his hand for now. He was a bit too dependent on his technology, I realized, preferring to use it over more natural solutions. I had the sudden thought that, without me, he might just plunge headlong across all the Broken Lands, shattering them into smaller pieces as he went. I shivered, despite the sun. His face changed momentarily, and then he asked, in a slightly more petulant tone, "I don't suppose you have any better ideas, then?"

I was trying to avoid that question, but I had to be honest. "No, Nik, I don't. But causing more breaks is out of the question...it's harmful to... uh..." I realized I'd never actually tried to explain my faith to him before, so anything I might say about broken gods to someone of science (however dubious that science was) would sound utterly ridiculous. I settled on a compromise. "It's against my faith."

Nik looked puzzled, and was about to roll his eyes at this, when we were both interrupted. As we'd been arguing, a wind had picked up out on the sea. This would have been nothing to worry about normally, as it just made the ocean louder--except that the wind wasn't touching the island at all. I was too worked up to think about it, at the time, until the ground starting shaking as well. Sand shifted and doused our beach fire, but before the light went out, I saw that the tide had gone out. Way out.

I jumped to my feet, shouting to Nik, "We have to get to high ground! NOW!" I had never seen a killer wave before, but I'd read about them in a traveler's report before. All the water sucked away from a shoreline, only to return as a massive wall to sweep clean the entire land. We both ran to 'high ground' which consisted of of a small hill in the middle, stumbling over low bushes and one of the three trees in the dark. The one time I looked behind me on the way, I saw a black wall cutting off the stars on the entire horizon, wider than I could see.

When Nik and I got to the highest ground possible, we stared out across the other side of the island--the stars were vanishing there as well. Looking around where the ocean met the sky, all the stars around were going away. The water, beyond rational belief, was rising up on all sides...or the island was sinking into a hole in the ocean, I couldn't tell which. At that point the ground was shaking so much we had to sit down and huddle close to each other, certain that the surrounding wave was about to crash down and wash us away.

The wave didn't fall, though. All the rest of the stars went out, except for a small hole just above us, which was eventually closed. We sat and watched for more than an hour, completely in the dark (literally) about what was going on. The ground kept rumbling underneath, and the roaring of the ocean was loud enough to drown out any conversation. I kept expecting rain to fall on our heads, but if this was a storm, the island was somehow protected from it. This went on the rest of the short night, though at some point we must have slept, curled up against the tree.

In the morning, the ocean was gone.

Water

I suppose that since I spent almost all of yesterday hunched over this journal trying to write out what's happened recently, I thought I would be spending today on continuing the journey, not writing some more. This is of course wrong. Absolutely nothing happened today. Which is, to put it bluntly, fantastic .

Given that dates are both a: corrupted by this thing anyway, since the purge (see previous lament), and b: unreliable anyway because of time not quite measuring properly out here, it might seem like almost a month has gone by as I've been telling what happened. Actually, for our own subjective time, that whole thing with the factory was only two days (days? more like sleep cycles) ago. Don't trust the dates in which these entries appear--at worst they might end up out of order, which I'll try to correct, but I'm not going to spend time re-dating everything.

I should probably mention where Nikolai and I are right now, though it's decidedly less exciting than previous environments. I may regret saying this, but it's actually just a little bit boring--not that this is the first time I've been bored on this trip, which my volume of writing (which you can't read now) probably indicates. In comparison to nearly being consumed in a fiery tornado, though, it's rather quiet. It should go without saying that we escaped, but where did we end up? Well, when Nik used his last-chance measure to create another break, he changed things a bit...normally we try to travel through this insane land without actually making anything worse behind us. This time, though... well, we broke something, and the usual transition between was rather...rough. The universe (or the mind of God, as I see it) decided to place us somewhere we wouldn't do any harm, at least not immediately, with a great deal of prejudice for our poor, soft, organic bodies.

Where it dumped us was on a rather small island in the middle of an entire ocean.

Now, I know we're in a fragment of the Broken Lands, though most of them aren't oceans. I can see what might be a break on at least one horizon (it only takes about half an hour to walk all the way around the island), but I have no idea how far away it is. But we'd have to get right up to the break, normally, to even cross through it. Creating another our own at this point is out of the question--even if Nik's gadget had enough power to do so, which it doesn't, that last ride left us bruised and battered, and reconsidering that method for all but the most extreme emergency. So that leaves us here...on an island...with no real way to get anywhere. There's not even enough coconut trees to build a raft, like I've read about in more fanciful tales before. The water's warm, at least.

Nik has stripped down and says he's going to catch some fish. I think I might just....lay here on the sand. Nothing going on. No adventure, no life threatening situations...

This actually feels rather good.

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