Chapter 7 - The Road of Trials Begins

Our group of, let’s call them adventurers, ran far and fast and fleet and foiblesome - no, not that last one, sorry. They angled northeast, which led them a little away from where they hoped Pythagoras was working at zeppelin repairs but a lot away from the volcano.


They were caught once more in the reverse pull of time that surrounded the fiery mountain. Fortunately, they were in much less danger then, and they spotted it quickly enough that they were able to sit on Iona before she became worrisome.


When at length the trio felt safe and the sun felt heavy on the horizon, they decided to make camp. “Erm, Edna,” Highmond approached her sheepishly, in part because he still had no pants. He was fidgeting with a small, flat, round rock, placing it back and forth in the pocket of his waistcoat. “Is it possible,” he continued, “That is, would it be alright--It’s only, we’ve run quite a lot today and these old bones,” he laughed a low, harumphing laugh, “are not as sharp as they used to be, I tell you…” he trailed into more harumphment.


“Your bones used to be sharp?” Iona said, from where she sat building a fire (mostly by cursing at it for not yet being fire).


The gentleman scholar stumbled out of his laugh, but Edna only said, “Highmond, ask what you mean to ask.”


“Er, right. Yes. Sorry. Could I skip building the cabin tonight?”


Edna was lost. “The cabin?” she asked.


“Or the shack, I suppose you could call it. The shelter I built the last time we slept in the woods. You know.”


Ohh, that, she thought. “Ohh, that,” she said, “Yes, of course. Highmond, I never expected you to build us a house every night we slept outside. We can just,” she paused, failing to find another way to say it, “sleep outside. It’s one of the least terrible parts of adventuring.”


“Oh! Oh, good then,” he said, not sounding as relieved as Edna had expected. She pointed her sharp chin at him and after a moment it worked like a knife, cutting him open so he spilled, “I only thought, perhaps you thought, that it was sort of my, well, my thing you know, as an ad--,” he stopped himself, the lie already broken, “as an aspiring adventurer.”


“Your thing? Highmond, building cabins in the woods to avoid camping can’t be your thing. It’s far too small. Your thing is bigger than that.”


Iona chuckled from her spot by the (almost) fire. Highmond blushed some more. “Er, perhaps we should call it my, well,” he paused to think, then once he had found a suitable replacement, finished the sentence as quickly as he could manage, “modus operandi.”


Edna wasn’t fazed. “The cabin is a quirk,” she said, adding, “and that’s fine,” in an unconvincing tone. She had been wanting to talk about this with him for a while now. “A few quirks can enhance your thing - make it more impressive or unusual,” Highmond’s face went lava hot, and he looked down - at the ground or his pantslessness, Edna did not know. “But you can’t build an identity out of them,” she continued, “there isn’t enough substance there.”


“I see,” he soon said, but Edna wasn’t positive he did, and she needed to make sure the zeppelin-riding scholar who always wore a tuxedo, used jetpacks in place of parachutes, had a robotic turtle sidekick that lived across multiple bodies, and kept trying to make canes useful understood.


“I once knew an adventurer, an archer, called the Great Greg,” she began.


“Oh, dear,” Highmond said involuntarily. Archers were a dime a dozen among adventurers. You could hardly fire an arrow without hitting someone who knew how to fire it back at you. Because of that, the ones who made archery their thing had to be always innovating. Explosive arrows led to knockout-gas arrows, which led to fist arrows that punched, which led to therapy arrows that turned into blow-up couches and listened as their targets talked through their traumas.


“To avoid the arms race,” she went on, “he experimented in other areas.” She was suddenly very tired of standing, so she moved to sit by the soon-to-be fire, helping Iona as she spoke. Highmond followed and sat across from them both. “First he added roller skates,” Edna continued darkly, “which worked alright, as long as he stayed in the city. But soon that wasn’t enough. He needed people to pay attention to him, so one day he built a kind of wearable sound system that blasted up-beat music as he skated along.”


“No!” Iona cried, shuddering.


Highmond was visibly unnerved. “But, what of stealth?” he added.


The fire peeked into life at the end of Edna’s poker. She leaned in as it gained strength, and the others followed. Their chins and the bottoms of their noses were glowing in the swimming, orange light. “What of stealth? It was dead to The Great Greg.” She darkened even further, her eyes darting between her friends, her head never moving. “But it gets worse, for even that would have been workable, if he had meshed it all into a cohesive image. He could have called himself Party Archer or The Rad Bow or something similar.”


The others looked dubious, but she just shrugged and continued. “It would have relegated him to the b-list of action-adventurers, but he’d still have a career. Instead, one day, Greg had an idea. He realized that arrows are really no good in tight-quarters, and so got to work on bringing a new talent into his arsenal.” She paused, looked back and forth, then enunciated as clearly as she ever had, “Close. Up. Magic.


Gasps from across the flames!


“How could he!” Highmond roared.


“What was he thinking!” Iona yelled.


Edna leaned back, satisfied, as she waited for them to calm. Finally Highmond asked, with great fear and no pants, “What happened next?”


“He got a job at the headquarters of the Adventuring League,” she started casually, then lowered her voice as she leaned back in. “As”, she looked to Highmond, “an” she looked to Iona, “Accountant!” She bellowed over the fire and the others screamed in terror, for this was the worst fate any adventurer feared. Neither death nor dismemberment could haunt their dreams so much as sitting at a desk all day, adding numbers in one column, then subtracting them from another (or whatever accountants actually do, most adventurers can’t be bothered to figure that out). Edna, of course, thought it sounded like a nice, peaceful life, but she had known how it would affect her companions.


When the screams and the laughter were done, and Highmond had wiped his eyes and straightened his mustache a thousand times, he asked, “Is that true?”


“Yes,” Edna said, her voice back to normal, “but whether or not it happened doesn’t matter. The truth of it - the important truth - is that when you create quirks, by faking interests or manufacturing choices, you build them like walls around yourself. Eventually the world will only see the walls - flat, boring walls, devoid of meaning - while you suffocate inside.”


Highmond nodded, a little sadly, so she knew he understood. To soften the blow, she added, “If your quirks are genuine - actually a part of you - that’s different of course. Then you’re just eccentric, and that’s--” Edna stopped herself from saying what she actually thought of eccentricity, “--fine. It’s fine. Yeah, it’s fine.”


She stopped, watching Highmond. He sat there in the light of the flame and still no pants, nodding slowly at the fire. Iona excused herself so it was only Edna and Highmond now. The longer he stayed silent the worse Edna began to feel. Had she been too preachy at the end? He didn’t ask for her advice. Why did she always feel the need to give it? When he finally spoke, Edna felt like she’d been waiting a thousand years to hear his answer - like she was a distant descendent of the true Edna Star, who had heard in prophecy and myth that one day this old bobble-head might utter a response to a long-forgotten parable.


Highmond suddenly jumped to his feet “HAH! Edna Star! Giving me advice! Oh, how lucky I am!” he said, fulfilling the prophecy - like all prophecies - in a confusing and unexpected manner. “You’ll turn me into a proper adventurer before we’re through!” Then he began to dance around the fire.


Edna was so relieved she hardly knew what to say. She felt a little tap tap at the back of her mind - Grief was whispering something through the mail slot, but Edna let the joyous sounds of Highmond’s raucous, pantless dance drown it out. Iona soon returned and, never one to miss a dance or an opportunity to be in her knickers, hiked her dress up and began to jig.


Soon they pulled the laughing Edna up, too. Her Pain was stood doing the washing in her head. She worried it wouldn’t let her join, but Pain smiled and nodded at the door of her mind. Go, have fun, it said, but be back by eleven or I'll come and pull you back myself! Edna raced to join her friends, yanking her pants down so as not to come overdressed to the party.


And they danced until they fell asleep, and it was the most fun Edna had ever had on an adventure.


***


Edna was woken by the choking smell of smoke filling the air. It was neither the savory woodsmoke of the campfire nor the sulfurous smoke of the volcano, instead it was the sickly sweet smell of cigarettes. She sat up, rubbed her eyes, and blinked the slow, forceful blinks of morning, looking around for the source.


The sky was dark - gray and heavy - which is how mornings felt to Edna anyway. Over and beyond the ashes of the dead fire she saw a shifting silhouette, clad in black and half swallowed by smoke and mist. An ember-orange glow lit the figure’s left hand down by its waist. Focusing her vision Edna realized the person wasn’t dressed totally in black but rather a boxy, pinstriped suit. A dark fedora sat on a head of even darker hair - it was angled in the way fedora’s are legally required to be: jauntily.


Before Edna could panic, or scream, or say something rude about how rude this intruder was being, they turned, lifting their cigarette to their mouth as they stepped from the swirling cloud. “Iona?” Edna asked, shocked fully awake.


“That’s the name, kid,” Iona replied, the words squeezing out around the cigarette clinched in her teeth, her accent changed along with her clothes. She squatted down in front of Edna and draped her elbows on her knees. One cupped hand she angled up and out and Edna understood it as an offer to help her stand. She took it.


When she was up, she dusted herself off, trying to be cool and casual about Iona’s change. “Have you seen my pants?” she asked, coolly and casually.


Iona said nothing but cocked her head at what had been the fire. Looking down, Edna saw her pants inside, burnt and ruined.


“Right,” she said, remembering a moment of solidarity with Highmond where she had thrown them in the fire.


She was about to ask Iona if she had any spare boxy suit trousers, for Iona was the only one of them with any spare clothes. Just then Highmond emerged from the underbrush into their little clearing. He was wearing a huge grin and also pants.


Well, to call them that is generous (which of course I am). Really, they were a bundle of long grasses, thin twigs, and stripped vines that Highmond had fashioned into the general shape of pants. He hobbled happily over to Edna, holding out a similar mass. “I’ve made us trousers!” He bellowed.


Edna winced from the volume, her head still swimming in morning goo.


“Is that what you call ‘em?” Iona said, feeling less generous than me.


Highmond gave her a look. He was about to say, ‘I should like to call YOU trousers,’ but Edna saved him from that.


“They’re lovely. Thank you, Highmond,” she said, taking the “trousers” and crunching them on.


“I see you’ve met the new Iona,” Highmond said saltily, and Edna was comforted to see her two companions had returned to their resting state of bickering.


The trio packed what amounted to their camp and got ready to leave. At Edna’s request, Iona put her cigarette out. She dropped the butt in the ashes of the fire then took the whole pack from her jacket and threw them in too. She surprised Edna by stomping on them.


“Thanks, doll,” she said when she’d straightened back up, “I found those in the suit this morning, felt like I should smoke ‘em, ya know?”


“No,” Edna said. She didn’t know - had never felt that way at all about cigarettes.


“It was the same borrowed instincts that’re makin’ me talk like, well, this.” That Edna understood. She nodded sadly. She knew what it was for the world to shape you into something you weren’t. Iona went on, “But you just reminded me that I hate cigarettes.” She laughed, a small, lone chuckle. “I think that’s the first thing about myself - my real self, before all the changin’ - that I can remember.”


“That’s very sad,” Edna responded truthfully, “I hope - at the end of all this - we find what you’ve lost.” But that part was a lie. She wanted them to do as she’d said, but she had no hope that it would come to pass. Pain and Grief had taken her Hope on a spa trip a long time ago, and had come back without it.


***


They marched on toward where they guessed Pythagoras awaited them. Edna fiddled with her watch as she thought about her new friend, floating along in time like the rest of them but without the anchor of self to keep her steady.


She marveled at the extent of the Change. Even Iona’s air had altered - and not just from the smoke. What had been a kind of strict, shoulders-back confidence was replaced now by a loose, flowing swagger. But even that gave a glimpse of the real Iona. She was a woman bathed in confidence, wielding a loofa of self-assurance, splashed in bubbles that smelled of lavender and power, and… Edna abandoned the metaphor, now hopelessly longing for a bath.


They continued on their trek for another two days, moving in and out of the odd quirks of time that littered Earth the Second. They passed through a grove in the woods where it was never tomorrow and a town where it was always last Tuesday. They discovered a lonely little cottage in an unmelting snow and a stormy field where the lightning was slow. They met unionized chipmunks and onion-sized bees and a band of tanuki that sang the oldies. And in it all, Highmond lost seven canes.


Time, in short, suffused itself. It moved like watercolor across a map, ignoring the lines that were drawn, tracing instead through imperceptible troughs in the details of the page. Edna could see no pattern or end or reason to be annoyed, really.


In the travels and travails hoisted upon her, the great Edna Star had wandered into every kind of wonder. She had passed through the center of a gas giant, discovered the magics of Old Craig, met and subsequently became the Mayor of the Ocean (a fish called Edna). She had done the things her childhood friends had dreamt of that night under the stars and things they had dreamt of other nights, secretly and afar.


And in it all, she found so much fault. Wonder, too - sure - but more fault. The center of gas giants, she learned, was beautiful, but heavy. It’s weight pushed in on you from all sides, crushing your body, and your perception, and your favorite mug (the one you got at that renn faire from that lady with the hair). Old Craig’s magics were powerful, but also mean, a little too self-assured, and bearing strong and strange opinions about ventriloquism. Being Mayor of the Ocean came with prestige, but the job itself she found tedious and wet. You have been told what Edna expected of her friends’ childhood dreams, and she found she was mostly right.


All of this is to say that here and now - whatever that meant in the wonkiness of space and time - the balance had shifted. Edna was tired, yes - in pain, of course - dreading the inevitable crisis of soul when this all crumbled in around her, you know it. But. She looked forward to their nights around the fire, and she looked forward to each new day after, seeing the mysteries and joys through Iona’s wit and the curl in Highmond’s mustache.


She had had sidekicks and partners before, but the burden of them had always outweighed the boon. Somehow though, she felt a kinship with these two - like they had gone missing at the start, and she had been working her way back to them all along. Edna pulled back from her mental reverie, feeling herself too close to declaring them a ‘ragtag band of misfits’. She tucked her watch into her ruined vest, adjusted a stick in her pants made of tree, and kept walking.


***


As the sun set on the third night, the volcano still loomed so high over the horizon that Edna wondered if she would ever not see it again. It had ceased its cycle of eruption and what they were calling ‘noitpure’ not long after they had left the grasp of its strange reversal.


This was not as comforting to Edna as it might have been, consumed as she was in wondering why. Why had it started when it had? Why has it stopped now? Why did it end after a noitpure instead of an eruption?


On top of her whys was a smallness that consumed everything else she had ever known. The mountain seemed to grow even as she watched it, filling her vision from the outside in until all she saw was mountain - beautiful and terrible and sacred and big.


Together they built their little fire and sat at their little camp and talked and laughed and argued about whose pants were good and whose “weren’t even pants”. They were eating a stew Highmond had made when Iona caught Edna looking back to the volcano.


“Mountain got your goat, kid?” she asked, still cursed to talk like that.


“Hmm? What? No. Yes. Yeah. I suppose so,” were her various replies.


“Yeesh. It must be some distraction to make you sound like Highmond.”


Edna expected Highmond to take offense at this, as he did with most things Iona said, but when she looked at him he just shrugged and stirred his stew. “You, well, you know -- do sound like me,” he said.


Edna’s eyes flashed a little wider, her neck too, “Sorry,” she said, “I’m just full of questions.”


“I know what you mean,” Iona said, chewing on her spoon, “Me too.”


“Yes,” Highmond agreed, “and me as well. Like, for instance, what if Iona had died in the eruption?”


“Not a great start, old boy,” Edna replied with an admonishing look.


“Nah, I get what he’s sayin’,” Iona waved her spoon at them both.


“Thank you,” Highmond nodded at her, “What I mean is, if our amnesic... friend here had died in the eruption, what would have happened in the noitpure? Would she have come back to life?”


“Which raises its own questions,” Iona jumped in, “Like what would that have felt like, huh? Yeesh.” She started checking her teeth in the reflection from her spoon.


Edna nodded. “I’m sorry for doubting you, Highmond, those are good questions. Mine are more,” she moved her mouth like she was trying to push her thoughts out of it, but they just wouldn’t come. She knew it would be better to say them now, had promised herself never to fall for the trap of pushing off hard questions for a short escape from inevitability. Still, when the words didn’t come right away, she gave up, shaking her head. “Nothing,” she said, “I’m just remembering a story I once heard…”


And she told them a tale from her Earth, of a mountain hidden just above the top of the world, where the storm and the stairs never end. And they listened, and they laughed, and they interrupted all the time, until, at story’s end, they all went to sleep. Except for Edna, who laid staring at the stars of a sky that wasn’t her own.


She wondered for a while, as she watched them, if she hadn’t made the right choice. Perhaps it was okay, sometimes, to put off what must be said or done in order to win a little more peace in a life that could have so little. She debated this in her mind with every part of herself that cared to listen. Her Pain was there, and Grief - whom she had let in to use the toilet - and other parts of Edna you haven’t met, and may never.


Her watch traced its course around her hand and round again, over and over - the mastered movement helping her to focus on the thoughts and selves springing into her head. When it became clear that there would be no rest for Edna this evening, she pocketed the timepiece, stood quietly, and wandered off.


She didn’t intend to wander far - it was the woods and dark and her pants were made of stick - just enough to feel alone. She stumbled out of the tiny clearing where they made their camp, cursing her way through the underbrush as it scraped by. In this way she traveled for several minutes - or what might be minutes, if time were doing its job.


Edna felt, in that walk, that she was alone, and mostly she was right. There was her, and the trees, and a gentle, warm breeze. There was the song of the crickets, and the song of her rude remarks every time a low branch or a spider web swept across. There were the spiders, understandably upset at the destruction of their homes. And there was nothing else.


Edna had been looking up as much as she could, trying to glimpse the stars in the gaps of the canopy above. This had contributed to the amount of low branches and spider webs that had swept across her. She came to another small clearing, or so she thought, using an outstretched hand to round a tree. The branches of her helper tree faded to their tips overhead as she stepped away from the trunk, giving Edna a clear, beautiful view of nothing.


No stars shone down. No clouds rolled by. No planets or moon or moons (as some Earths had) could be seen anywhere at all. She turned to look at this unusual patch of sky from other angles. It would be easy enough for the trees to block her view of some obvious body floating in the black.


As she turned, Edna took a step back, further into this unexplored clearing. She had the thought, as she stepped, that she hadn’t looked down since entering this little glen - that she had no idea what could be waiting here.


This was a huge mistake for an adventurer. There could have been a bear, or two bears, or a spiky pit, or five bears. But there were no bears. Indeed, there was nothing, and more of it than Edna Star had ever known.


But just before nothing, the answer was a rock, which, if you ask Edna, tripped her. Edna tumbled backward. She would have landed on her butt, but for all the nothing that waited. Instead she continued to tumble backward, out of space and time and the other things that aren’t those but matter just as much. She tumbled out of memory and song, and forests and petrichor, and the idea of chairs. She tumbled into the Great Nothing that lived before the Everything, which was understandably upset at the destruction of its home.


***


Edna fell through the nothing for a time immeasurable to humans. It was neither short, nor long. It was in between and without. It was the time it takes to wait for a friend to put their shoes on when you’ve been ready for ages: infinite and unbeginning.


It was two minutes, thirty-two seconds. She knew this, because she had a watch, which measures time and is not a human.


Now, Edna’s watch doesn’t open, of course. It never has as long as she’s had it. But in the heightened adrenaline of her fall she could feel it tick tick inside her pocket - constant and reassuring, and she had had the presence of mind to count those precious ticks.


After the first set of sixty Edna became bold. She pulled the watch from her pocket, eager to feel it tick tick against the bare skin of her hand. She didn’t roll it round as usual. Instead, the watch seemed to nestle itself between the folds of her hand, sinking and turning and sinking and turning.


Until, after another sixty ticks, she saw that her finger was sat atop the latch. Edna felt a desire to open the watch greater than she ever had before. But logic and history and certainty all told her it would never work, for it never had. Then despair added its voice to the chorus. Don’t even try, it told her, you’re stuck here.


But that was too much. Edna Star would not be piled upon in this dark nothing. She clicked the latch.


And her watch opened.



***


An Interlude for Rock


Rock had no idea what had happened on one side of it - not because what had happened was so strange and unknowable (which it was) but because rock was a rock, and rocks have no ideas about most things. That’s not to say rocks are dumb. Rocks have an intricate, infallible counting system, incomprehensible to humans, with which they tick away the many eons of their existences. Rocks have moss, which is neat. Rocks have society and recycling and no wars. Rocks are doing pretty well, they just don’t get a lot of ideas.


Something tripped over rock. Rock, in addition to neither knowing nor considering the unknowable, inconsiderate nothing that had engulfed one of rock’s faces, did not feel this trip. Rocks do not feel this sort of thing. Rocks feel wet, and joy, and balanced, and movement, and green. That is it.


Rock moved a little, pushed deeper into nothing by the unfelt trip. Rock noticed this, but rock had no notions about what could have happened. Rock did not feel balanced. It teetered - a thing rocks do well, better than people - on the precipice of reality itself.


Rock fell into that improbable abyss where - for a time immeasurable to humans (but perfectly measurable to rocks and also clocks) - nothing happened. This Nothing Time, which rock enjoyed, was followed by a great, wet bolt of Something. This Something came to rock with a pang of purpose.


Rock knew what rock must do. Rock knew how long rock had to do it. It was a time immeasurable to humans, which, in the counting system of rocks, came to about 124 pages.


Until then, rock raced through nothing, on adventures of its own.

0 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All