The wheat grass straddled the horizon, broken only by patches of sun-scorched rock. “Out there lies a great city,” said a reptilian shepherd I met high in the mountains, “but the people left their city behind.”
He warned me not to go there.
He told me something vile lurked in the old stones baked under the harsh sunlight. A foul creature, who came for vengeance.
I enjoy freeing good people from vile things. So off I trekked along the ancient mountain trails. I avoided the peaks—the sun was violent if I went too high—and stayed along the ridges of the rust-colored valley.
In the distance a vast shadow cut through the clouds. Instinctively I cowered behind thickets of sun-bleached brush.
A fear of the sky and all its predators remained instilled from my time as a true mouse. My Beep buzzed quietly alongside me as a comforting tune against the silence of that far off predator.
“Careful with the skycriers up there,” said my guide, Yazad, a reptilian female. “Do not make too much sound or it will come nagging.” She was longer than the shepherd—more serpent than lizard—with two front leg-arms and no hind legs at all. Rusty orange scales with beige fringes camouflaged her in elegance.
She passed in front of me, beaded head-scales clinking along. I said, “Those skycrier creatures are dangerous?”
Yazad said, “No. But the fear of them is.” She flicked her tongue towards a pass to our right, a hundred meters ahead, “That is our passage.”
Yazad slithered through the gravelly rock in effortless grace. I did not. Every step was more a crawl than a walk, reverting to a true mouse stature. Each paw took a moment to settle, securing every stone’s integrity before putting weight on it. The fall down the mountain wasn’t sheer, but a tumble promised a fair bruising, along with a dust trail for that skyward predator to follow me by.
My Beep landed on a bud on a single tree. She seemed invested in the flower. Poor thing wanted nectar, but nothing was left. Yazad laughed—a very hard, single HA—as if it should be common knowledge that flowers were empty.
Yazad admired the flying beast in the distance, “You took pause when your eyes caught the skycrier. Why is that?”
“I was small, once,” I showed the scale in my paw, “a mouse, if you know what that is. Tiny, vulnerable, rodents. Where I come from, everything is enormous. You’re stuck looking up most of the time.”
Yazad hummed in contemplation. “I understand this, yes. Always looking up, in both awe and terror, at the insurmountable stories we tell. The skycriers are a danger, yes, but not like the stories say.”
“And what do the stories say?”
“That they cry in hunger, and fly about to devour all who are full. Tales are told to keep the gluttons from gluttony, and the lustful from lust. ‘All who over-indulge shall be slaughtered by the hunger of the skycrier.’ That sort of mystical shaman talk.”
“But that isn’t true?”
“Legend goes on regardless of truth. Most shepherd don’t see them as animals, anymore, instead as spirits—ghosts—hauntings in fables. They have risen above animal. And in rising, we must keep our heads to the sky, lest we be snatched by those above.”
With a nod, I accepted her words. This language was jagged but fit together like a puzzle. Each language was as new as the air to a world. How did I understand these languages? How did I speak them?
I met a witch, once, who taught me an old and favored song—a magic which kept the ears open to all intent, and the throat ready to speak your own intent. Powerful stuff. Fun to play with. Especially with languages like Yazad’s, in which every word held a surprise.
Yazad led way into the passage. Spiky yellow reptiles skittered across the stones and retreated to their crevices. The dark cracks formed like eyes and mouths who hungered for me. In a place so vast and lifeless, the land itself came to life, yearning for those peoples lost.
In the dark cracks real eyes reflected back on me. True hunger, they had. As Beep buzzed by, these eyes widened. I took out the Beep’s page and tapped the paper. She was transported back into her scroll, unable to commit any mischief.
“Quiet, Magician,” Yazad said. My rapier and spear clashed into the chain of my Boundless Bag. I tried to hold everything in place, but the saber at my side and spear at my back were impossible to control as I crawled.
“This is a flood channel, isn’t it?” I asked Yazad as I struggled up more loose boulders.
“Yes. How did you know?”
“These kinds of ravines are only carved by time and rainfall. This size of boulder is only carried by water.”
I slipped and rode a rockfall only a meter or two, but the clanking of my equipment enticed the land with a teasing echo. The land replied with a grumbling:
Yazad glared to me.
“What. Was. That.” I rose an eyebrow. “That growl shook the mountain.”
“You insisted on coming to the Old City.” She hissed, “My and the shepherd’s warnings have gone unnoticed until now.”
“Nobody told me that the ‘vile thing’ could shake mountains with its roar.” I shook off the dust and asked what lie ahead.
“We speak of the enormity of legend? You face something grand, magician. A great beast, thwarted once, and laid to rest, only to return centuries later in defiance of its death. The Abadnuun, so say the stories, and those tales are far greater than ones whispered of skycriers.” Her golden eyes were shadowed by a bowed head, and the fringes of her scales all seemed to dim.
“This Abadnuun—a demon?”
“An angel. One who fell from the clouds with shredded wings. And in anger, let loose a rage upon all of the Old City.”
“An angel in truth, or in tall tales?”
Yazard grinned, her tongue flicked as she pondered, “Such stories were told before I hatched. Perhaps they are not so true. Then again, none have gone beyond this ridge for fear of the Abadnuun’s wrath. There is truth in that.”
“And a truth in how your people fear skycriers, even if they aren’t so bad?”
She nodded, “We will see, magician. The last one to put Abadnuun to rest was not so talkative.”
“Say the stories told before you were ever born.”
“You have me there.”
“How did this Old Hero of the Old City defeat Abadnuun?” I said, hating the way it sounded to say both in tandem.
“They say the sky reigned blue fire, and a great heat washed over the lands, destroying all we once had and forcing Abadnuun to slumber. The city was abandoned. A monolith erected in the hero’s stead, for the legend Ollan died the day he saved our civilization.”
Sacrificing one’s life in heroism occurred far more often than you may think. I had heard countless stories of such situations.
It always sounded falsified—as if an old poet told the sacrifice as a way of romanticizing the story—but sounding false and being false were not the same.
“What are you?” Yazad slithered to the top of the ravine, where a beige adobe stood humbly against the backdrop of the sky. I was still meters behind. Her pace exceeded mine to an embarrassing degree.
“A mouse. Mouseling, mouseman, all kinds of names for it.”
“No, magician, not your race—your being. You come here out of nowhere and wish to aid us? You ask for trouble, the shepherd said. As if you seek conflict.” She did not mean this in accusation, or contempt. A simple observation—one few made when offered help.
“I don’t seek conflict.” I paused a moment to catch my breath, not wanting to waste any sorcery on energy preservation. I let her words sit for a moment, before saying, “I have had a lot taken from me, Yazad of Nuir. All I ever knew, and care to know, has and will be taken from me. There is no life in which I am humble, or allowed to be so.” I bowed my head, “There is too much I have seen to not empathize to action. There is so much I can do, that I cannot be idle. So no, I do not seek conflict. I’m not sure I seek anything.”
Yazad slithered beside me and offered me to climb on her back. I held on as she carried me the rest of the way. She said, after a pause so long I believed our conversation ended, “You are not finding. You have found. You know what you are and what you must become.”
“And what is that?”
I explained my answer was not humble, to which she replied, “Do not confuse your assuredness for hubris.” But I told her I wasn’t comfortable with saying it aloud.
“Why is that?” She slithered quickly down a long road, past several small adobes and old gardens flanked by sun bleached fences. Down below, a long valley stretched end to end, littered with rock, and cracking clay, with a few patches of shrubs baked brown by daylight. She reiterated her question.
I told her I didn’t know.
“There slumbers Abadnuun,” Yazad pointed her tongue down the valley, where the ruins of a small city sprawled amidst the brush and shrubbery. “Do you see the black streak amidst the town?”
“That is no canyon. Abadnuun lies stretched, awaiting her next meal.”
I dismounted Yazad, bowed in thanks, and let my Aura fill with sorcery. I charged my stonefire. A fallen angel fifty meters long was going to require some serious magic to tackle.
I didn’t draw my weapons, or my shield. This would be a different kind of fight. My favorite kind, if candid.
“Blessings, magician. May you live up to the heroism of Ollan.” Yazad said.
I took my crystal shield from the Boundless Bag and pressed the switch in the handle. The gemstones aligned to make a long tower shield but smoothed over to mold a sled. I jumped on and surfed down the sandy clay into the valley.
With sorcery I pushed the sled harder, making me go faster and faster. The faster I moved the more dust spewed into the air. Halfway down the long mountainside, the black sprawl that was Abadnuun slithered up from her spot amidst the ruined buildings and charged across the valley towards me.
Always bring the enemy to you. Be a pest if you can. Especially with demons, or gods, or “fallen angels,” like Abadnuun. Powerful foes hate when something else tries to be bigger. And in this case, my dust cloud was pretty impressive.
“ABADNUUN,” I called the angel’s name until she heard me.
The huge fiend crawled across the mountainside like a starved cat. She appeared to be skinned—all her muscle and flesh shown—and looked to be a bat three stories tall. Lanky, sly and foul. Her eyes were lidless and stared from their sockets with a horrifying expressionless gaze.
From the mountainside she was black. But down here, her flesh was the pink and red tone of under-skin. Odd.
With a skid of my sled, I stopped and retracted my crystal shield. I perched on a small leveled ledge and let my eyes glow bright with sorcery.
“Leave this place,” I said to her. She crawled twenty meters away. We stood like duelists, my being up the mountain and her being down, though with her height we were eye level.
“How do you speak this tongue,” her voice echoed through the crackly shrubs. “None speak the voice of Shalazaph.”
“I speak any tongue which I can hear. Shalazaph—your god?”
Her voice sounded divine. At the very least, partially divine. So there was a truth in Yazad’s tale of a fallen angel? This surprised me.
Most times, gods and angels and demons were merely egotistical mortals. The stories and faith of zealots gave them their power.
But no. . . Abadnuun was not simply a story. She was no false angel called so by title alone.
Abadnuun growled, “How does one foul rodent know of Shalazaph?”
“You were an angel, I was told. One who fell from your divinity. I feel your power. . .” I inhaled the scent of godhood. “I thought perhaps you were nothing but a monster.”
“To some, perhaps.”
“Why is that?” I said. Shocked was an understatement. I intended to speak with her, but never thought it would actually bring a conversation. A terrible prejudice. Never underestimate anyone from civility.
“But you aren’t only a monster. You are far from a beast who eats children and burns cities.”
Abadnuun lowered her head, “I am what those say I am. That is the price of power. Am I an angel? If they believe it—yes. Am I a sinner? If they chant my name in hate, then I shall be cast from the heavens. . . and stripped of myself.” She raised two shredded wings. Fresh blood still dripped from the membranes.
“Shalazaph is your creator?”
“Is he. . . a Dragon?” I sung the true word. Capitol “D” Dragons had a different tone to their name. They were the gods who built worlds. From what I had seen, and what Peridot had told me, only Dragons were real gods. All else were their children, their blessed scions, or imposters. “Shalazaph forged all I see now?”
“Shalazaph is a great Dragon. My Father, forger of all we stand upon, and hear, feel and comprehend.”
I discharged my sorcery and sat cross legged on the ledge. “Shalazaph cast you down, didn’t he?” She had mentioned that she became what others believed. I’d seen magic like that before. So I said, “You are Instilled with others’ belief, aren’t you? Shalazaph knew what the mortals believed of you and forced you to fall. Rather than staying his angel, you became a fiend.”
“If you have come to lay me to rest, do so. Do not tease me with such questions and conversation. The last one to face me did not wish for diplomacy or understanding. He only wished to destroy me.”
“I’m not here to destroy you. I am here to stop vileness.” My top appeared above my palm and spun. “No reason to destroy anybody, if there’s time to talk.” There was ample time, given long the top spun.
Abadnuun (translation of Traitor to the World), true name of Alshazaph (Girl Child of God), told me her tale. She had been a goddess to these reptilians for centuries. She showed them how to harvest crop, and raise domesticated lizard-cows—Porbiyo would have loved those. For many centuries she provided knowledge, assistance and grace to the reptilians of the valley.
But Alshazaph did not have power over the weather. For she was given the domain of Harvest. As an angel to mortals and their efforts in domesticated existence, she had no station to control other natural phenomena.
“The drought came, and the heat burnt away all that remained,” she said. “And soon my gifts were not to giving, and my wisdom not so wise. For my brother had brought storms and rainfall on the tails of the mountains, far to the south, where a great civilization flourished. And in bringing wind to them, left my people in the dust. . .” she raised a hand from the rusty-clay mountainside, sand poured through her fleshy bat fingers, “he left us all in this lifeless dust.
“They could not hatch children,” she said, “so they had to cook their own eggs for food. Far worse occurred but none need be said on such acts. But I tried. And tried. And failed again and again. When you gift for all your life, and suddenly the gifts stop, none appreciate what came before: they expect more, and more, and more. I was a gifter, and in my failure to aid, I betrayed them all.”
“And because they saw you as a betrayer. . . as a demon. . .”
“I became so,” she motioned to her flayed hide, and shredded wings. “And have remained this way. I fell from the heavens and tried to continue my duty, but my domain had shifted. . . and I found my power was gone. All I had was anger, ire, hate. . . and so I embraced all that they saw in me.”
I stood and set my jaw. The wind batted my ears and shook what few trees lined the mountain. There was a peace upon that mountainside. I said, “What if I do not believe you are a beast of hate, and ire, and anger. Does my faith matter?”
“Does a single voice silence the choir?”
“If the tune is strong, perhaps the others join in.”
“My tale is too long, my pain too great, my heart too heavy to be changed. The past has shaped the tale here.” She bowed her head, lidless eyes letting go tears without any expression of sorrow. I cried. That was. . . hard to watch. She said, “I live beneath a great vision of what I am. A tiny truth beneath an enormous tale. It is time this story come to an end. Be the hero. . . take Ollan’s legacy. . . give these people their land back.”
“Leave. . . you can always leave. Change what they believed you to be. Be an angel, again, and not a demon.”
She said, “I am a monster. Nothing more.” She leapt and thrashed her claws at me. Wicked eyes glowed red. A breath of pulsating red magic seared past my face.
I begged her to stop. But she wept, and fought all the way.
I put her down. I won’t tell you how. That was not an act for recitation. Just know it was fast. And painless. And when she died, she died an angel. I burnt her corpse so none could defile it, and cursed Shalazaph.
After the deed was done, I hiked up the long mountainside, and Yazad lie slumbering beneath a rock. I tossed a pebble on her nose and spooked her awake. A couple of curses later and she mumbled, “You have survived the duel with Death herself?”
I nodded silently. Exhausted, Yazad let me ride on her back down the mountain in the other direction, where we met the shepherd and many other villagers. For several days, we collected groups of interested individuals from nearby settlements and traversed the desert to the valley of the Old City.
I promised Yazad I would venture into the city with her people. I did. It was morning, so early that the dark still clung to the sky, and I skulked through the ruins of sandstone brick and limestone temples. Broken, and decayed. Nothing remained but remains.
But then my eyes caught something. Like a great obelisk piercing the clouds, a tower came into view. Except not a tower at all.
“What is that?” I asked Yazad, who cautiously slithered through an old home. She told me her father said it was the statue for Ollan. The Old Hero. Before Abadnuun returned, the reptilians constructed an idol to their sacrificial hero.
Yazad said, “He flew into the Abadnuun’s fires, and disappeared into the blaze. A great sacrifice. And so a great memorial was erected. Seeing as no body remained, a statue was carved from the limestone in the hills.”
As the others scoured their history, I marched alone to where the temples and homes were no more. In pure solitude the statue stood stark upon its twenty meter pedestal. Twenty meters tall, carved from limestone but worn with time.
The sun rose behind the monolith. A shadow cast down across the pedestal, swallowing me whole. In the dark I saw Ollan clearly.
Fur stood across my body.
Chills tingled down my spine.
My heart nearly burst from my chest.
I stumbled back but didn’t retreat. A statue of a mouse towered above me. The carving was rudimentary, esoteric and ancient. . . but somehow, in some way, my soul could not escape it. . .
This was a statue of me.
“None could contest his greatness,” Yazad said. She slithered beside me. “Ollan, our Old Hero. A true legend. He came from the sky and unleashed fires of blue and orange. . . turned Abadnuun to stone! Until she broke free.” She turned around, “You resembled the shape. . . interesting, magician. This ‘mouse’ race you call yourself, funny to have both our heroes be furred.”
I trembled and cautiously stepped to the statue’s base. With shaking paws, I reached out and set my paws upon the stone. For these reptilians, Ollan lived many years in the past. For me, I hadn’t been to their past, yet.
I was the “hero” who froze Abadnuun. I was the “hero” that solidified her destruction. I could have saved her. I should have saved her. But sometime, many years from now, I’d arrive in the past of this world. I would unleash hell on that fallen angel.
What did I become?
I ran my paws over the statue and stared up to the mouseling face. He was at peace. No heroic pose. No smirk. No raised brow or frown. Simply a hero that finished his duty. A figure so grandios that these people built a behemoth in an attempt to keep him alive. . .
Was this what I left behind? World after world, people after people? Stories of heroism without the perspective? Inspiration without accountability? Invasion of myth, and culture, and ethnic passion in exchange for an outsider’s single great deed?
“Have you decided yet?” Yazad asked.
I turned to her, “Pardon?”
“I asked you, days ago, before you trekked to face Abadnuun—what are you, and why do you not share it? You have had days to ponder the thought. You know who you are—what you are—yet wouldn’t share.” She opened her hands and stacked her serpentine coils, as if settling for a tale.
I told her I still was uncomfortable sharing my thoughts on myself, and my journey, and all the rest. I told her, “My answer is not humble.”
Yazad flickered her tongue, and said, “Once more. . . do not confuse your assuredness for hubris.”
“It isn’t assuredness, Yazad.” I stared up towards the shadow of myself, and said, “So very far from assuredness.”
“Hm,” she said, “Perhaps you fear how large you have become, little mouse, from that humble beginning you so spoke of. And fear even more so how large you will become.” She pointed her tongue to Ollan, “You have continued the legacy of Ollan. Do not fear what lies above you, any longer, and do not lie furtive in the shadow of greatness. Be free of that feeble humility. Accept what you are now.”
I smiled, “What is that, my friend? What am I, to you?”
“To me, a hero—an angel. To yourself: that is the key. . . that is the key. You have found it, now accept it.” And she slithered away.
I slept beneath that statue for days and nights. In the depths of introspection I dwelled hard on the reptilian’s words. She brought me water in a pale daily and we shared dialogue for hours a day. But what Yazad did not, and could never, understand, was that accepting who I became was not so simple.
In that moment, to the reptilians, I was a hero. To Abadnuun, I was the merciless villain who locked her away, and the mouseling who gave her mercy. On every world, to every person, what I left behind was out of my hands. My legacy became their interpretation. . . their belief.
I spent my entire life in fear of the sky. The terror of the forests, owls, eagles, humans and the rest. Everything had been so enormous, then. Predators wanted nothing but to devour us mice. That fear was instilled in me. I saw myself as a mouse. Vulnerable, small, feeble.
No matter the gods I slew, or the kingdoms crushed, or the allies at my back. . . I always kept one eye on the sky—for fear of the shadow above.
Like a predator stalked me from the sky, my legacy loomed. The shadow grew greater with every world, every decision, every action. To some I was a hero. Others, a monster. Some would build statues of a mouse and others would burn effigies.
Who is Opaline of Dahn?
Your answer may be a hero, may be a villain, maybe a martyr, a messiah, a pariah, a murderer, a rescuer, a WorldWalker Cursed to an eternal existence, or maybe simply a traveler.
I feared my answer would change.
It had always been, “A mouse.”
Beneath that statue, under the weight of an eternity of story, I felt my answer slipping away. There, a twenty meter Opaline looked down at his younger self. I looked down.
Mice. Look. Up.