Cover illustrated by Taylor Yerdon
“I want to forget,” I said.
“Do you?” a rhythmic voice called. The Dragon, easily mistaken for a moth, landed on my shoulder. She stood on top of my fur. Her scales shone violet tinged with green.
“I want to forget it all, Peridot,” I knelt in the long blue grass. The air was cool, the suns were warm, the plants stranger colors than I often saw. A more pleasant planet than most. A good place to forget what came before.
“You don’t want to forget, Opaline,” she said. She always seemed to know the truth—my truth. Peridot was a god. Perhaps knowing things was to be expected. She spoke, voice sounding like a song, “You don’t want to hurt anymore, but forgetting isn’t going to get you there.”
I wandered, and had done so for some time. I wandered with no intention of stopping. Trekking, adventuring, exploring—most often they were for purpose. Fulfilling.
Wandering was not so bad a thing to do. Not when the mind needed to be quelled, or one had to find answers. Sometimes doing the most aimless of things brought about the most focused consciousness.
But wandering is best left limited. Too long as an aimless nomad and a degree of complacency devours the innocence in “nothing.” There was danger in such a state. A danger I’d unhappily surrendered too.
“This place is beautiful,” Peridot said. The Dragon, no larger than a human fingernail or the tip of my paw, fluttered from my shoulder fur and hovered in front of me. “How many worlds have you seen like this, unique and perfect? You don’t want to lose what you’ve seen, heard, smelt—felt.”
“Maybe I do,” I said. “Fifty-five years on one planet. . . stolen in the blink of an eye. Their faces, their names. . .” I set my jaw and pulled my scarf over the lower part of my face, leaving only my nose and whiskers free. Two little tears drizzled into my scarf. “I will never see them again. And they’ll never know where I’d gone. I knew one day we would blip away. But never knew when. How long before we are trapped on a world for another thirty years? Or forty? And with no promise of settling for good.”
Most gods don’t reply. Peridot, despite our proximity, was no exception.
That planet was precisely what I needed. At least in the moment, all was lifeless, and empty, and not even the weather wished to interact. A perfect place to vagabond my heart out. I had blipped to the planet weeks prior and hiked about for days on end.
No food, no water, not much sleep. Sleep meant dreams. Dreams meant memories. And memories, well. . . happy ones weren’t so joyous in the grieving times—merely a tease.
I tried to be nothing. I wandered. I admired.
Blue meadows were dotted with bell flowers, whose petals chimed pollen to the waves of wind. The dark sky held a blue deeper than seas, with a horizon softening to a lovely reddish hue. I’d seen all kinds of skies in my travels. This sky was particular, peculiar. I ponder still what gases comprised the red fringes of the horizon.
Even a century after my change of form, and I still appreciated the stature of a human compared to being a true mouse. A “mouseman,” or “mouseling,” body gave me the perspective I’d always desired. I could see insects for their true size, and animals as beauties and not threats. The world teamed with life, though none sentient as I could tell. I could feel a civilization’s presence. I’d see one soon. My height a definite aid in that.
Better to be a meter tall than ten centimeters.
In flora terms, this world lacked leaves. Most of the landscape was littered by enormous blue cacti. Black spines struck out into the wind and howled like drowning horns. Some cacti flowered pink and violet petals, others did not.
“This place is beautiful,” I said.
A boulder lie ahead. I scaled the stone quite quickly and squatted down on its peak, enjoying the view.
“How much longer, Peridot?” I asked. “How much longer will I be trapped with you?” A century, or longer, had passed since I’d first been cursed to this life. Peridot and I were torn from planet to planet without any remorse. Sometimes, days went by on a new world. Sometimes, hours, or even minutes. But sometimes we’d be there longer. Weeks. Months.
Last time, decades.
“I’m sorry,” Peridot said, voice quiet and low, “Opaline, my brave boy. I’m sorry you are trapped with me.”
“It isn’t your fault.” I assured her.
“My affliction, now yours in tandem. My fault indeed.”
“Our affliction, now. Together,” I smiled. “We’ve been friends how long, now?”
“A long time.”
I lie back on the rock and rested my paws behind my big ears. My trousers, gambeson and scarf were all beaten and ragged. My rucksack—a legendary Boundless Bag—slid down my shoulder into the grass. I settled, and looked to the grand sky.
I asked her how many worlds she’d seen before I ever came along.
“They don’t have words for those kinds of numbers.”
That scared me. More than I could admit.
I nodded and pulled down my scarf to take a long wind of fresh air. Every world tasted different, ran through the whiskers in a new way. Embracing the subtleties of immersion remained a luxurious curse.
“There is never enough time,” I said. “We stay in one place for a day, or a year, or a decade. . . but there is never enough time. No time to build friendships, lives, settle down and enjoy it all. How do I keep going when I never know where the end will be? How do I help anyone—do anything—if I don’t know how long I have?”
Peridot rammed into my chest. She felt like a pestering fly. I peeked up. She said, “Look, out there.”
Far on the horizon, above a forest of the great cacti, plumes of smoke barreled into the horizon. A terrible feeling struck my gut. I’d seen that kind of smoke so many times before. Battlefields, raiders, genocidal burnings, sacrifices to mad “gods.” As well as the much-preferred village bonfire.
But that was no bonfire.
Screams. So many screams.
“Opaline?” Peridot said. “I can hear them. . . I know you can too. What are you going to do?”
I didn’t stand up. I didn’t march across that field. I didn’t help those people.
Because I was tired. So tired. I wanted everything to end. I wanted to forget about Peridot, and her universal, temporal Curse. I wanted to forget everyone and everything I had ever known. Why should I see that fire? Perhaps their village was being destroyed, but why help if I could blip away in the middle of the fight?
“Opaline,” Peridot landed on my nose. She hugged my nose.
And my eyes caught a beautiful little Dragon, with butterfly wings sparkling violet and green, her silhouette a dark stain on the fiery horizon in the distance.
Smoke curled from her form. For a brief moment, it looked like the flames had engulfed her. As if she’d been burned alive. And my stomach tied in a knot. What would I do without her, if the time ever came?
She was my friend.
And out there, beyond those weird alien cactus trees, someone else’s friends were in trouble. Someone was burning, or being burned, and even if I had only a minute left on this planet, I’d spend that minute marching to help those people.
My pain didn’t matter.
My grief didn’t matter.
My love didn’t matter.
“The multiverse doesn’t care for my excuses or intentions. No one ever changed history by watching cities burn. One is either the fire, or the ashes. And so long as I live—Cursed or not—I’ll always choose.”
My choice mattered.
“Peridot?” I said.
“In my Boundless Bag. . . could you get the Kaihan Helm?” The Dragon fluttered off my nose. With her magic, my rucksack rose off the ground and opened wide. In the depths of its pocket dimensional horde a shining golden helmet, now scuffed and weathered with time, vibrated.
I took the helm in my paws.
“I thought you said you wanted to forget That Time?” Peridot said, “All fifty-five years. . . you said you destroyed this helmet?”
A gift, from an old friend, the Kaihan helm—or the Gremlin Lord Helm—was fit for the gremlins I’d once known so well. Their noses were comically long, and thus fit my rodent frame well. The piece was a lithe helm whose visor was forged to mimic the top jaw of a dragon. With visor up, the helmet was a golden dragon’s skull opened wide in fury.
I folded my ears into cylindrical coils. They slid into the two long horns in the top of the helm. The bottom jaw locked into place, and I clipped the visor down.
“You were right,” I said and drew my glowing starspear from the Boundless Bag, “I don’t want to forget. I want to make sure no one loses a friend, as I have so many times.” My eyes shined in fiery orange sorcery. I drew my saber.
Spear in tail and saber in hand, I took a deep breath.
Peridot said, “Fire it is.”
I charged across the field of blue cacti, and followed the scorched sky through thickets of succulent bush. My saber cut down the brush as my sorcery burnt a runway.
Fifty meters into the thicket and a town of large white towers came into view. Black smoke rose into the air from shattered towers. Fungi-folk, heads capped in red toadstools, fled the scene. They were half my size and flooded the streets of their little town.
A muscled red quadruped trampled two of the white towers. Three wicked eyes shot beams of hot yellow energy towards the mushroom folk and cooked them up into pulpy piles.
“HEY,” I called and charged a crystal sorcery. This beast was about the size of an average human, though titanic to these fungi-folk. He did not appear very magical, outside the energy beams. This would be an easy kill.
Three eyes squinted to me, and a long tongue slithered through fangs. He growled. I taunted.
“Come on, you stupid lug,” I spun my spear in tail and cocked back.
The beast roared and charged his hammer head. I ran up a tall white tower and flipped back behind the beast. He slammed into the building—but didn’t break it—and tumbled away disoriented.
He backed away right into my saber.
I slashed his hind leg. Severed. Blue blood poured from the knee and he screeched so loud that the blood trembled. Spear cocked, I was about to stab with my tail, but three eyes whipped back glowing hot yellow.
Barely, just barely, I slid out of the way from a triple blasted energy beam. The ground scorched and the beams pursued so quick that the end of my tail was nicked by the heat.
The fungi-folk surrounded us. Many were armed, and cheered me on. Some tossed stones in slings and others stood stark against the flames behind them with polearms and farming tools.
My tail wretched from the burn.
I cursed and adjusted my spear. The beast growled. Still disoriented by his collision, he stumbled forward and tripped on his own blazed dirt.
With a sorcery boost I jumped four meters into the air and twirled my spear. Like a trebuchet I flipped my body down and my tail followed—spear in tandem ready to stab the beast in its three eyes.
Fungi-folk cheered for victory, flames rose around us, and the sky swallowed smoke. I will never forget that feeling. Assuredness. With my help, those people would be free of this beast. I’d fought kings, queens, demons and gods. I had faced armies singlehandedly and made empires kneel with words alone. All I had to do was get my spear into its flesh. Then those people would be free.
My weapon never made contact.
High in the air, spear inches from victory, I blipped to the next world.
The sky swirled violet pink and the orchards rustled a green-gold blanket dotted with apple buttons. Beautiful, how a place so very far from my origin reminded me of home. This sunset, this orchard, this serenity, all took me back to when I was a mouse and not a mouseman, when apples fed the family and weren’t merely a snack.
My saber fell from my paw. My spear fell from my tail. I ripped off my helm and tucked it away in my Boundless Bag.
I collapsed alone on the peak of a far viewing hill, beneath a beautiful autumnal tree. A rain seemed to stop moments before, and left a hint of chill on the breeze and dew on the grass. I smiled.
For the first time in a long time, I really smiled.
“If I could see a thousand more sunsets like this. . . everything would be worth it,” I said, expecting Peridot to be near.
The minuscule Dragon perched on my shoulder, “This is beautiful.”
“This reminds me so very much of home. My true home, back where the orchards of white apples stretched horizon to horizon, and humans were sorcerers and towered above our mouse villages.” I didn’t even need to close my eyes to imagine my old life. A glance at the horizon gave me all the dream I needed. I looked down at the speck of green and violet on my shoulder fur, “That town. . . those people. . . I was so close. What do you think happened, after we blipped away?”
“Does it matter what I think? What do you think?” She spoke softly.
“I think they died without my help. Or they killed the demon. Or some died but not all of them. Maybe it slaughtered every last person—no remorse. It could be anything, Peridot. How am I to know?”
“You’re beginning to understand, now.”
I collapsed, not in body, but in spirit. I cried harder than I ever had in my life. I wept across from the gleaming golden sun and prayed to stay a moment longer. Just a moment. “Only a moment.”
“Opaline?” Peridot said.
“How. . . how can I do this? I’ve chosen a path but how? If every world I walk on can slip away at any moment, any friendship, any home, or love, any effort will blip away without so much as a warning. How do I go on? Because this choice I made—to choose—isn’t a single choice. Every moment is a decision. What is any of this worth without knowing I can follow through. . . what am I worth?” I wiped my eyes and wondered what happened to that town I’d just abandoned against my will.
What became of my friends on all the worlds before. Were they dead? Did they miss me? Had I abandoned them, even if I had no power over that?
A bench lifted me from the dewy grass. Peridot fluttered before me and landed on my knee. I said, “I thought you couldn’t use your Divinity to interfere on others’ worlds?” I patted the bench.
“Interference is uprooting gods, shifting continents, awakening old volcanoes. This bench is only comforting a friend.”
I ran my hands along the fine polished wood, amazed at how easily a Dragon could use Creation. Her magic was so far beyond anything I could fathom.
We sat in the grief. I wept on and off, unable to control any of how I felt. The sun never quite set. The breeze kept going, and the birds sang songs in the trees, but the sun never finished setting.
“Peridot?” I said, wondering if she’d gone off, or was still near.
“Yes?” She rose like an inch tall angel.
“It’s the ignorance. I never know how much time. . . that’s what breaks me.” I laughed, “On my homeworld, sunsets only lasted a quarter hour at most. It’s been an hour and on this world the sun stays setting, I suppose you never know. . .” I wiped my eyes again. “You never know how much time is left.”
Peridot twirled like starlight.
Her divinity outshined the sun behind her, who was shadowed in her resplendence. A scream so quiet that only the gods could hear it echoed into my soul. Peridot reached to her back, and plucked free a spine. The speck glistened as she coaxed it towards me.
My heart thundered out of my chest.
I knew how powerful a Dragon spine was. I’d seen one before. They go by many names, on many worlds, but have one name to silence all others, in a language so ancient the word could only be sung, and not spoken: Syndel.
Pure Creation. Unfiltered magic. A Divine Spire.
I mumbled in objection. My words slurred to an atrocious collection of nonsense. My point, however, was made: I could not accept that kind of gift.
“It’s not what you think,” Peridot said.
“A weapon,” I stuttered, “to forge worlds. . . or destroy them.”
“Let’s put this in mortal terms, shall we?” She shook her head, “Steel is forged to a hammer, or a blade, or a shield. But steel can be a pot, or a ring, or a coin. Steel is an expression of its artisan, smith, or jeweler. All things are just that: expression, interpretation, belief. Simply because you have always seen Dragon Spires as weapons, does not mean they are limited by your thoughts, and your experience.”
I reached out and took the nail-sized floating spine in my paws. The touch against my skin was radiant. Never had I been so high.
Peridot said, “You want to be decisive, but you never know how much time you have left? Choose, my brave Opaline, and let me carry the rest.” As she spoke, the Syndel grew, and spiraled, and shaped itself like a ceramic wheel to clay. She continued, “A great creator once said, ‘All we have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to us.’ Here’s the way to carry his words.”
The Syndel formed in full:
A single, silver, spinning top.
Peridot said, “Spin this every time we blip to a new planet. The sooner it falls, the less time you have on that world. The longer it spins, the longer you’ll be on that world. No more ignorance.”
I couldn’t speak.
Peridot flew up to my face. She batted my tears away with her wings. She smiled as best a Dragon could. “A little spin of divinity for you.”
I grinned like a child, and gave the top a proper spin. Gravity had no effect on the trinket. The top rotated in the air, but fell after a single revolution. Not even a second.
I gave it another go.
Not a full second once again.
“I tried to hold out as best I could,” Peridot said. “I suppose it’s time to go, now. It’s been ‘a moment.’”
The sunset faded to night as Peridot glowed in magic, and the whole world reverted to normal. I laughed in disbelief.
“You aren’t supposed to interfere?” I set my jaw, trying to hold in the last bit of cry I held onto.
“You’re my friend, Opaline. If the god of this world is that upset about me holding their sunset for you, they can pick a fight and pretend they’ll win.” Peridot motioned to the top, “I think our moment has passed.”
I tossed my top into the air. The trinket spiraled not even a blink, and then fell to my paws.
We blipped away.
My last sight of that world was the top spinning amidst the golden set sun, as the stars came in and the night crawled forward. A gift upon a gift.
Perhaps some would say only a god could slow a sun like that, and keep one’s spirits high, and give the gift of life, and hope, of love and optimism.
But only a friend claimed that kind of power.
When we appeared on the next world, Peridot was nowhere to be seen—she tended to disappear for lengths of time. And high on the edges of an alien waterfall I admired the next moment, the next life, the next choice.
A plume of smoke appeared through endless red canopies. I charged through the jungle, saber in paw and spear in tail, to face whatever lie ahead.
I spun my top, and knew I had time.