20191101

inktober archive

I wrote a thing "every day" for Inktober, which is an event which apparently started as one person's idea to do an ink drawing every day in October and has become an event as ubiquitous as Nano Rhino, but without the inherent impracticality that the aforementioned novel-writing event brings to the table. I am bad at drawing so I wrote fantasy vignettes about life in a dying empire and a dying world. With two exceptions, I used the "official" prompts from this year; on those exceptions I used prompts from previous years because I liked them better. Below I've collected links to all of these vignettes for your convenience.


ripe

I did settle down, eventually. I always thought there wasn't a road long enough to take me away from my old world, but I found one in the end. A quiet little village, hidden away in the lee of the mountains. They let me work to earn my keep even though all I knew was war--honest work, not the sort of work people usually find for people like me. The first few months I was there, I kept mostly to myself, and they respected that. They knew, I think, that I carried some scars. So I spent my days working the orchard, and when I had the time I'd walk the forest, learning the landscape. I was content, but it all felt temporary.


The orchard belonged to a woman who had recently inherited it--I didn't pry into the details, but there was too much to tend to on her own and there weren't enough people in the village to help. I stayed in a room in a house that was much too big for her, and though we spent most of the day working together, we seldom spoke of anything personal. Still, she seemed to enjoy my presence, and I liked working with her.

As a beautiful autumn started to give way into winter, the village prepared for its annual festival, celebrating the harvest and the turn of the seasons, honoring the spirits of the land. "It's a time of transition and transformation," my host explained. "Those are worth celebrating." And, she added, it was a festival for the dead--not to mourn, but to celebrate. "And to show them we're doing well. I imagine they worry."

She insisted that I attend, despite my initial reluctance. "You're part of this town. You helped make the cider we'll be drinking. This is your celebration, too."

I relented.

The whole village was alive that evening with revelers gathered around bonfires, drinking cider from barrels that I'd helped fill, feasting on foods grown and harvested here or gathered in the forest--apples, yes, but also pumpkins and corn and cheese, wild berries and meats. Children in costume ran around, shrieking happily as they ran and played in this somehow otherworldly landscape.

Now and again someone would recognize us and compliment the cider. "Your finest since, well, since your folks were still with us," was a common sentiment. And she would smile and say that I deserved some of the credit, and they'd clap me on the shoulder or shake my hand and thank me, not out of politeness, but because they genuinely appreciated my efforts.

As the night wore on and the crowds thinned, my host and I walked through the orchard, spreading cider for the spirits--"They work hard, too," she said when I asked, a levity to her tone I wasn't quite used to. Then we sat on the steps of her house watching the distant fires, waiting for the first light of dawn.

"I don't know who you lost," she said, after a long silence, "or whether they can see you tonight. I'm sure that they'd be very happy if they could, though, just to see you smiling. To see you living well."

"Am I living well?" I asked.
 
"I think so. I think you've allowed yourself to be happy, despite the darkness. And I think that together we can do our best to keep the dark at bay in this little part of the world." She took my hand in hers. "And just maybe, remind each other to smile now and again?"

"Maybe," I said.

We sat there like that, my head on her shoulder, her arm around my waist, until the first light of dawn glimmered on the horizon. In the morning there would be more work to be done, but perhaps allowing ourselves the time to have fun was not so bad a thing after all.

20191031

wreck

I had planned on coming back, at first. Even after the shipwreck, when I found myself washed ashore on an island that, as far as I knew, was uninhabited, I was planning on finding a way home. Burn the wreckage to signal a passing ship, perhaps--the island was thickly forested, so I had no real worry about shelter or forage. I could afford to waste time thinking about home. Even once I found the village--or rather, once they found my makeshift shelter and insisted that I come back with them--at first I still dreamed of home. They were nothing but kind to me, but even with war looming, even with everything that had happened--everything she did to me because she thought I'd let her--I missed it.

If we're being honest, I still do. But the war never touched the island, and if I managed to lure a ship here, would that change? I certainly didn't look like I'd survived a shipwreck. After they had gone to such lengths to elude the grasp of empire, would I bring empire to their doorstep? Was finding a way home worth destroying someone else's?

So I stayed. I stayed and I promised I wouldn't let myself wallow in regret and nostalgia--they had offered me a life here, and it would be rude of me to squander it by living someone else's life. We had hard times, of course--I don't think anyone fully escaped those--but it was peaceful. And I felt like I was part of something bigger than me or any one person, far more than I ever did back home.

But yes, I planned on returning, and a part of me still wishes, no matter how I try not to think about it, I'd managed to at least send a message. But I suppose no matter what you do, the past will always tempt you with the idea of closure, of what-if. And no matter what you do that will never be enough.

injured

The first time I almost died, my friend--arguably the only real friend I had in the whole ragtag lot of us--gave me a charm to keep me safe. That night I had a strange, beautiful dream, full of doors leading to a world more beautiful than my mind could comprehend. All I remember of that world is my emotion upon seeing it, an overpowering sadness that I could only access it in dreams. I awoke the following morning in tears, still overwhelmed with the sorrow and beauty of it all. And for some reason, I could only glimpse the world these doors led to.


The dream lingered in my mind through the day, distracting me from the thoughts I should have been having, like the fact that I felt much better than I had previously, far better than a single night's rest should have been able to accomplish. And more importantly, it made me forget about the charm. I still wore it, of course, because it was a gift from a friend, but nothing else about it struck me as noteworthy.

Two things changed from that point on: every now and then I'd have some variation on that dream--never exactly the same, but always just as powerful as the first time; and I seemed to bear a charmed life. Every time I should have taken serious injury, whether due to my own mistakes or some misfortune, I somehow escaped . . . if not entirely unharmed, then at least with less harm than I ought to have taken.

I came to rely on it, without entirely realizing it. I could use it to protect my comrades, to keep everyone safe, to make sure we all made it through to the end. It seemed important, somehow, as if maybe if everyone made it out alive I could finally access the beautiful world of my dreams.

I couldn't, of course, and as the years wore on I found that the charm didn't extend to my friends and allies. Sometimes, no matter how I tried, I couldn't protect them. And every time I'd walk away and wonder why I had been spared, what I was supposed to see, or do, or if it wasn't just there to torment me.

It was years later that I finally ran into my friend again, and from the look in her eyes they had been no kinder to her than they were to me. She smiled when she saw the charm, though. "I'm glad it's kept you safe all these years." And like a spell being broken, I remembered. A few weeks later I met a traveler who still had the spirit to fight, and gave her the charm--"For good luck on the road," I told her. "It's kept me safe over the years, but the fight's gone out of me." She smiled, and thanked me, and continued on her way.

The dream never changed. Every time I had it, I would awake with the conviction that there was something vast and beautiful out there that would be forever beyond my reach. But there was a hope behind the sorrow now. This world didn't seem quite so bleak as it once did.

20191030

ride

In the days before the end, she sent me--and everyone, really--on a lot of errands. Everything, no matter how trivial it should have been, took on a level of absolute urgency. We knew the end was approaching, both from a strategic and logistical standpoint, and because you could feel it. I could, anyway, and I think the others could, too, even if they didn't know it: there was something oppressive in the air, like a storm building, except it didn't break. It just kept getting worse, and it put everyone on edge.


And, yeah, part of it was the princess. She was getting desperate--there was a reason she was losing followers--and desperation pushes people to strange things. And I don't mean "strange" as in "making poor strategic choices," but strange as in "sending urgent letters to people who wanted no part of the rebellion." And she still had that way about her where if you weren't careful you'd just go along with her ideas, wouldn't question it until you were already committed.

Sometimes I think she'd stopped trusting anyone, even those of us who had stuck around, and was trying to get us out of the way so we couldn't stop her. Other times, when I'm in a particularly dark mood, I'm convinced she just wanted to separate everyone right before she destroyed everything. And very occasionally I entertain the idea that maybe she did it to save us from the fallout.

That night she pressed a sealed envelope in my hand and told me to ride for the estate of some countess or other--it would be several days' ride for me, and I was equipped to deliver messages quickly; any meaningful help the countess could provide would arrive too late. And yet, the way she asked, with such confidence, such conviction . . . maybe she knew something I didn't. Maybe this would avert disaster. What choice did I have but to ride?

20191029

coat

One of our friends gave my sister and me a coat she'd inherited from a family member, and since we couldn't both wear it at the same time we decided we'd say it was mine. I wore it quite a bit, and eventually it became my thing. That is, people associated me with the coat and vice-versa. The princess--this was before she inherited that title, I suppose--liked to tease me about how much I liked it, and it was too much energy to argue. And it was a nice coat, I suppose. 


My sister liked using it when we were pretending to be each other, especially once people got wise to the trick and started looking for the little clues they thought we'd overlooked. Somehow it only reinforced the idea everyone had that the coat held some deep sentimental value for me, and at some point everyone else's attachment to the idea of my attachment to this coat stopped wearing on me and became something fun and whimsical I sought out.

It was the coat I wore when they appointed me as her protector, the coat I wore as the fragile order of our world started falling apart. I was wearing that coat when I earned some of my scars, and each time I cleaned it up and patched it. Each patch was a mark of pride, or at least a reminder of what I'd done.

When most of us parted ways for the first time--we could feel disaster approaching even then, years before the war--I gave the coat away as a token of friendship. If she's to be believed, she wore it until it fell apart. By then, she told me, it became something of a legend--but then, she likes telling stories, so of course it did.

The world is altogether less sentimental now, but there's still a place for whim, I think. Even if there's not much hope left there's no harm in a smile and a story about that time your lucky coat protected you from harm.

20191026

dark

Growing up in the capital, it never really got dark--not in the sense that I always imagined it, so dark you can't see your hand in front of your face, the kind of dark where you're lucky if you can see the suggestion of shapes. I didn't think about it often, but every now and then I'd catch a glimpse of it. It used to frighten me, as my imagination would fill the darkness with horrors or, worse, would imagine it completely empty, a void that would swallow everything given the chance. My heart would race every time.

It's normal for children to be frightened of the dark, I suppose. And perhaps it's normal for that fear to linger--why else build a city where there is always light enough to see by? The monsters may be gone, but surely we must believe that there is something lurking in the shadows, something that can be banished if only the lanterns stay lit.

I don't know when I became obsessed with the dark. Perhaps it was the sheer novelty of it--in the city the darkness was hard to find, but out here, all it took was a cloudy night and the shadows would overtake everything.

I remember one night a storm rolled in after everyone was asleep. I wrapped myself in a cloak and felt my way away from camp, off the trail, and into the woods. The wind and rain and hail were impossibly loud, and my only illumination came from the occasional flash of lightning--too quick to do anything but disorient me further.

When I'd gone far enough--far enough that I wasn't sure I could find my way back, perhaps, or maybe I simply couldn't bring myself to go any further--I found a tree to sit down against, and let the storm rage around me. I was cold and lost and I don't think my companions could have heard me even if I shouted for help.

I still couldn't tell you why I felt the need--no, the compulsion--to do this, but I can tell you that it felt amazing. Surrounded by nothing but storm and darkness, with so little protection against the world, my heart racing like it did when I was a child--I felt alive, like I'd found something I didn't realize I was missing.

I made my way back to camp when the sky began to lighten enough for me to see. By then the rain had let up, and I wanted to start a fire. No one asked why I was up so early, or why I was soaked and grinning. My companions, I think, understood me better than I did.

tasty

I picked up the habit of carrying around an easily accessible pouch of red pepper from an old friend who started a lot of fights and told me she found it a lot easier to fight when the opponent is blind and in pain. I figured it could help me out of the occasional scrape, but these days, I mostly keep it around because it's tasty. There's a lot of empty road out there and after a while having a bit of spice to your meals helps make them more tolerable. My friend was the one who did the cooking back before we went our separate ways, so I guess it's nostalgic in a way. I'm not as good as she was but it still brings back memories when I cook something up in the evenings.

I met a merchant on the road the other day and she gave me a look when I asked if she had any red pepper. "It's funny," she said. "Just yesterday I ran into someone else asking for pepper. Don't usually see travelers looking for it."

"This traveler. Skinny, scruffy, talks a lot?"

"That's the one."

"She was heading north on the road here?"

She nodded. "You could probably catch up if you hurry."

I paid and hit the road again. Prior to this little exchange I was just wandering, but now . . . well, I was just saying how I missed my friend's cooking. Maybe I can catch up to her on the road. No luck so far, but I have a good feeling.

20191025

dizzy

I never liked crowds, but it got worse over the years. Every time I was forced into a large gathering, I was afraid that I might lose a piece of myself to the crowd and never be able to find it again. Sometimes I was afraid that I would return diminished; others, that I would return different, changed. It didn't help that I was good at people--not as good as my sister, but we had both learned to use a smile as a mask. So inevitably, when we needed to win someone over, one of us would be sent. And every time I would steel myself, hide behind my mask, and try my very best not to drift away.

It worked right up until it didn't. The princess needed allies--this was just before she got too paranoid to continue trying to build a coalition--and she wanted any support we could muster. I tried to protest, as I always did, and she brushed off my concerns, as she always did. So I traveled, I dressed up, I tried to steel myself, and I put on a smile.

Panic gripped me as soon as I walked into the ballroom. My heart pounded, the world spun, and I stumbled my way into a corner, murmuring apologies to the guests, hoping this would eventually pass. Someone--my traveling companion, I assumed--guided me out to a balcony, and sat with me until I calmed down.

"I'm fine," I said, once the imminent sense of being attacked had faded into something somewhat tolerable. "Just got a bit dizzy." And I smiled immediately, while my companion frowned at me.

"That must be it," she said. "Poor rations on the trail. Entirely my fault."

"Right," I said, and spent what felt like another eternity trying to get my breathing under control. If I could just get my breathing back to normal, everything would be fine.

"You know," she said, "if you're feeling faint, there's still some food at the inn. I could cover for you here." She hesitated, then added, "It was, after all, absolutely unconscionable of me not to take care of you on the road." And there it was: a way out. Give up, go home, and take care of myself, or hope that my fear of crowds had abated enough that I could endure the evening and maybe achieve someone else's goal for them.

She escorted me through the crowd and out the entrance. We'd think of a story to tell the princess on the road. Much later, we'd wonder, over a bottle of wine she nicked from the cellar, if this was what sent her down the road to paranoia. None of us were quite the same after.

20191024

ancient

There's an argument I have with the princess all the time, where I ask her why she has any right to rule and why any of us should be following her, and I pick holes in her responses until she gets tired of me and kicks me out. It always comes down to this: her family has been there the longest, so the throne is hers by right--you know how it goes. Tonight something I said must have stuck with her because she's sitting outside my tent when I get back from wandering the woods.

She's tired of trying to find an answer I like, and wants me to give her one. So I tell her to follow me and lead her off into the woods. There's an old ruined shrine here--the kind that's been ruined since before any of this started, so overgrown and decayed that you could miss it if you don't know how to look. "Why do I like places like this?"

"Because you like anything that reminds us that we exist at the sufferance of nature?"

"Well, yes, but that's not the answer I'm looking for." I sit down against a crumbling wall. "This place is ancient, and there's still some power here, but not enough that anyone's likely to care about it. There will be no wars over a place like this. So why did I lead you out here?"

"Because you delight in being cryptic and irritating?"

"Also true, but still not the point." I lie down and close my eyes. "I like these places because they're beautiful, and peaceful. I feel safe here."

"So . . . you think you should be following me because I'm pretty?"

"You're trying to bait me. I won't bite. But you're not far off. There's plenty of ancient things in this world with no merits to speak of, to say nothing of the ones that are actively harmful. If there is a reason for us to follow you, it has nothing to do with tradition. Be worthy of it, and you'll convince me."

She sits in silence for a long while, and eventually lies down next to me. "How do I convince myself I'm worthy?" she asks, quietly. Like she's afraid that if she speaks too loudly, the world might realize she's human, with human vulnerabilities. It breaks my heart, just a little.

I don't have an answer to that question, and maybe she just thought I was asleep. I keep my eyes closed and my breathing steady, until my feigned sleep becomes real and the night becomes morning.

20191023

ghost

I always thought I'd notice if I died--if there was any of me left to do the noticing, I suppose. Surely there is something that ties us to the bodies we're trapped in for our entire lives? But it was weeks, months, possibly even years before I noticed that I no longer had a physical form. It was such a seamless transition, almost as if I were meant to live on as a ghost.

Almost. Sometimes, much of the time, I forget that I was ever human at all. Humans are so small, so fragile, compared to the eternal majesty of this form--except majesty is such a human concept. I am the continent, I am civilization, I am the order that humanity has imposed on this world--and it's so easy to forget, when you are so vast, that you were once so small.

Perhaps it's better that way. I always had strong will, for a human, but did I have the will to shatter this world and reforge it anew? I very much doubt it. I still wanted to be loved, wanted people around me to be happy, and who can say they are happy now? Who could possibly love me now? Better, much better, to forget about being human. It is fortunate that my flesh perished long ago, unmarked and unmourned.

These days it seems that I am spending more time aware of my humanity, more time as a ghost, haunting the halls of a single building rather than a spirit that stretches for countless miles in all directions. My work is unfinished, and yet only rarely am I able to sense what needs to be done, much less effect the necessary change.

If I remember the stories (and it has been so long since anyone has told me a story), ghosts linger because they have something left to do. Is that why I'm here? What could I possibly have left undone? Everyone who betrayed me, everyone I betrayed in turn, are dead now. I have left a broken world behind and no matter how I try to fix it, fixing it eludes me. And now I can no longer even make the attempt?

I always thought of my body as a prison when I was alive, but at least it was not shackled here in this dead tower, waiting for . . . what? Some hero to come and put me to rest? The heroes all died.

There is a thought in my mind that keeps trying to form, one that I am unable to grasp. Sometimes I can see its shape, sense its magnitude--it is something vast, something to do with prisons, the reason I keep meditating on that word, but already as I talk about it it's gone, vanished exactly like a ghost.

20191022

treasure

When the dust finally settled, when there was no more ash and soot and endless winter, when it no longer seemed optimistic that we might survive to see another summer, a few enterprising individuals started scavenging the ruins in search of the things we left behind. Tools, weapons, cookware, trinkets--we'd lost so much. The hope, at the time, was that we could recover some of it.


Within a few years, most of the towns and villages--at least, the ones that were easiest to reach--had been more or less picked clean of valuable finds. Many of us stopped scavenging, then, content that what we had found was enough for whatever our purposes was. Some of us, however, continued exploring the deeper, more remote places. I can't speak for anyone else, but if you'd asked me at the time I'd have said it was curiosity that drove me. Maybe I still would.

There were ruined shrines and temples scattered throughout the wilds, cities and towns where the cataclysm had rendered access nearly impossible. Some of them were days, if not weeks, from the nearest settlement--too remote, most of us decided, for anything but a dedicated expedition, and who had time for that? I was probably not the only one mad enough to attempt it on my own, but there weren't many of us. These sites would be pristine, untouched.

So I learned to live off the land as well as I could, and I set out. Whatever treasures these lost places hid, I would find them. There was so much to discover, so much to experience, before someone looked at all of this beautiful decay and saw only profit, before there was nothing left out here to treasure.

20191021

tread

I tried to learn the sound of everyone's footsteps in my time at the monastery--the steady, dull tread of the abbot, the soft, easy stride of my protector, the hurried gait of my fellow shrine-keeper. It was far from foolproof, but it helped convince them I wasn't helpless simply because I couldn't see.


For the longest time, her footsteps were the only thing I knew about my protector. They weren't allowed to talk to anyone outside their order, and the usual methods of getting around that--writing it down or using their sign language--you can imagine had some problems. The others--the abbot and my fellow--seemed puzzled that I had any interest in communicating with her in the first place, so I received no help on that front. We developed some basics, but otherwise she was like a ghost, someone whose presence I could sense but could never really see or understand. The quiet tread of her boots on the earth was at once comforting and unnerving.

I started talking to her, from time to time. Our rudimentary system of knocks for responses didn't allow for much in the way of conversation, but it helped her feel less like a looming wraith and more like a person, and I imagined, at least, that she appreciated having someone at least make the effort.

Every now and again she would leave, usually for a week or two--some business with the protectors, probably. One day she returned and left something on my desk--a small necklace with a stone that pulsed with energy. "For me?" She knocked once to indicate yes. "Help me put it on?"

Her hands were rough but dexterous as she fastened the chain around my neck. After she had withdrawn, I tried to focus on the feeling of power, when I noticed a voice in my thoughts--something quiet, and clearly not my own thoughts.

The aristocracy were fond of giving these to their most trusted retainers, said the voice. There aren't many left, but I found a collector who was willing to trade. And a jeweler to set yours in a necklace.

A set of sending stones. A way to communicate at last. They were meant to send messages that could be retrieved in a moment of quiet meditation, but it was something. And that day, exhausted though she was from her travels, it seemed her footsteps were a little livelier than they had been in quite some time.

20191020

sling

The first time we met, she had her arm in a sling and a look about her like she hadn't gotten a decent night's sleep in weeks. I try my best not to make assumptions based on first impressions, but when she was in similarly rough condition on multiple subsequent meetings, I started to wonder if she didn't simply have an extraordinary disregard for her own well-being. She even chastised me for suggesting that we take a slightly longer rest than was strictly necessary, and I got the impression that if it were possible she would have prefer that we travel through the night without stopping.

This was early on in the war, well before it could properly be considered a war. Her particular breed of recklessness was instrumental in our first few victories, after which people started to believe that our rebellion wasn't a lost cause after all. I'd assumed that once we no longer needed her to regularly perform impossible feats at great personal risk, she would have stopped, but at every strategy meeting she volunteered another death-defying plan, and even if we usually managed to talk her down, "usually" wasn't "always," and I consider that a failure on my part.

She was one of the first to leave us. I had proposed a risky strategy to retake the city, which I had assumed she would support--was she not a thrillseeker?--but she was furious at me for risking so many lives. There were safer ways, she said. She accused me of a monomaniacal obsession with recapturing the city, that my recklessness would put us all in danger, that I cared nothing for the cost, so long as victory was achieved. And as soon as I tried to defend myself, she stormed out. I never saw her again.

Before she left, I'd never thought to ask what happened to her arm before our first meeting. So I asked her friend, the one who introduced us, and she just shrugged. "She gets in a lot of scraps, and she isn't much of a fighter."

"That doesn't seem wise," I said.

"It's like a compulsion for her. She sees someone who needs protecting, she does it, no hesitation."

That was almost enough to make me second guess myself--almost. I thought of myself as a champion of the people, and if someone left me because I wasn't doing enough to save them . . . but no, my choice had been made long ago. There was risk, yes, but I was prepared to take those risks. Even if it was a certainty--well, she was right about one thing. No cost was too great.

Still, I hoped I hadn't made an enemy of her. I imagined her out there, picking a fight she knew she'd lose in the hopes it might help someone, and wondered if one day she'd be picking that fight with me.

20191019

misfit

I have a tendency to overstay my welcome, so after a while I made it a point of leaving town before that could happen. If you travel long enough, you start to get a feeling for when it's about to happen--that moment when the idea first enters their minds that maybe they are a better host than you are a guest. At first they're too nice, too polite, to even consider the thought, but it's there. A weariness to their smile when they say hello, a tension to their voice when they invite you to dinner. When that happens, you pack your things and you leave, and you absolutely don't think about it. Everyone's happier this way.

Sometimes, they'd try to stop me. Sometimes I made friends with them, and sometimes when they'd catch me in the dark sneaking out, it took all the willpower I had to say no. But I made a promise to myself, and I care about my promises. (At first I tried promising not to make friends, but that one I couldn't keep. It's a lonely enough existence as it is.)

Except... I stayed for the winter and when the spring came and the ice and snow began to melt, I didn't want to leave. There was no sign that they were tired of having me around. They even let me cook for them, once they found out I could and decided I was actually good enough. It had been ages since I'd done that. So once spring was in full bloom, with the flowers and the trees so impossibly bright, I was gripped with a panic so intense I very nearly fled without even gathering my things.

I tried to leave that night. I didn't make much of an effort to hide it, lost as I was between panic and the conviction that she would catch me leaving anyway. Instead I spent the night steeling myself for whatever she might say as I packed. I wasn't prepared for her to arrive, a bag on her shoulders, and say, "Will you take me with you?"

If you listened carefully, you could have heard my will shatter into a thousand pieces at that exact moment. I slumped back onto the bed, and tried my very hardest not to meet her eyes. "It's dangerous out there," I said. And how could I live with myself if I dragged her away from her home?

"Oh." She tried not to show her disappointment, tried not to argue. "Be safe, then. You know you'll always be welcome here."

She caught my eye, then. There was a challenge there. It was a long, cold winter and she knew all my stories by now. I smiled, despite myself, and she grinned at me, somehow both innocent and smug. "I'm willing to test that, if you are."

20191018

ornament

Early on, before the rebellion was anything more than a band of misfits and idealists who dreamed of a better world, when we were still too small to do anything but hide and hope, we took shelter in a ruined temple. They weren't quite so commonplace back then--most towns still tried to keep theirs operational, even if the rituals had largely been forgotten, the ornaments once so integral to their upkeep left to gather dust in some reliquary.

That first night, most of us were too exhausted to stay up, so it was just me and the princess on watch. I'd gotten used to not getting by without too much rest, and the princess . . . I got the feeling she tried to avoid sleeping these days. She probably thought nobody noticed.

The ruins had her in a melancholy mood. When I noticed she'd left her post, I found her in the main chamber, turning a broken earthenware pitcher over in her hands. "We don't even know what we've lost," she said when she saw me. Then she looked at me with that oddly intense look she'd get sometimes. "Would you restore them, if you could? All these lost places?"

I'd learned long ago that when she asked a question like that, there was a correct answer. Usually I'd just evade the question, but tonight we had nothing to do until the morning, and I had an . . . intuition that nobody would bother us. "I wouldn't," I told her.

"Interesting. Not the answer I expected."

"Eventually they ended up creating more problems than they solved. It'd be the same if you tried it." I shrugged. "That pitcher, for instance. They were supposed to make it easier to build new temples and expand your empire. They ended up allowing the very collapse you're now sulking over."

"So, you don't believe we can surpass our predecessors?"

"Doing better is only good if what you're attempting is worth doing." We continued like that for what seemed like hours. The discussion never seemed to go anywhere, but she seemed to be enjoying herself, at least, and at the time that's what seemed important.

Whatever conclusions she had drawn from our conversation, she kept them to herself. She took the pitcher with her, when she left, and went to some trouble to transport it with her for most of the war. I never did ask why--perhaps she simply liked the way it looked. Or perhaps it reminded her of something, some secret she unearthed, some decision she made--I knew as much about it in her hands as she did when it was in the temple. A ritual ornament I would never understand the significance of, and I was beginning to suspect that whatever it signified mattered a great deal.

20191017

wild

Once upon a time, we tamed the world. It happened slowly, over the course of generations, as temples and monasteries spread across the continent with the inexorability of a plague. The channels and conduits of power became the shackles which bound the world, driving back the wild places and keeping the wolves away. In time this became the basis for an empire. As often happens with empires, cracks developed over time. It was a slow, almost imperceptible process, so of course, as empires do, they elected to ignore it.

Eventually the wild places crept back into the civilized world, the chains that kept the world bound having weakened over the years. Fear of the wild spread unrest into the leaders of the empire, who were ever eager to cast blame--far easier that than to accept responsibility yourself.

One day a princess came to believe that she could repair the chains and drive off the wilds once more, using nothing but the strength of her will. She believed it to be possible in the same way that you or I believe the sun is going to rise tomorrow, and she was willing to go to great lengths to make this possible. She believed she was going to save the world. But the world, which had been tricked into its chains, did not wish to return to the previous state of affairs, and as she traveled the world hoping to achieve her ends, the world began to wake.

And so when she returned to the spire where it had all began, there was a great battle between the wilds and the princess. At first, wielding a power fueled by the sacrifice of every living soul in her city, it seemed that she had achieved her goal, but her power and her will faltered and the world cast off its chains. The wild returned with a vengeance. A series of great catastrophes befell the empire, scattering its people to the winds, and in the time it took for a new generation to come of age all that remained of it was memories and ruins.

20191016

legend

She was always obsessed with legends and legacy, with the stories we tell about ourselves and the ones we find ourselves trapped in. I don't think she fully realized how many of her decisions were based around that--not on what was the best course of action, but on what would make the best story, would leave the most lasting legacy. All of us went along with it, to some extent. Sure, some of us managed to convince ourselves that we were merely humoring her, but she had a way of carrying people along with her. Sometimes she did it deliberately, but usually, I like to tell myself, it was simply her nature.

When she needed to escape the city, when she told me she needed someone to take her place while she raised an army, so the usurpers wouldn't suspect anything, when she told me that there was no one else she trusted with this task, the strength of the story she was trying to tell was almost enough to convince me. There's a romance in it--the noble sacrifice, the tearful departure, the heroic rescue--a whole army, a whole war, fought just for me. She had it all planned out, and it probably would have been beautiful. The problem is I had other plans, and she did not particularly care about them.

So as soon as she had fled, I did, too. Whatever legend she was going to craft, she would have to do without my help. I'd spent too much time being a character in someone else's story, and by the end she had lost the ability to see me--to see anyone, I think--as anything else. She knew that she had a great destiny, and she was terrified that that destiny might somehow be out of her hands.

Perhaps that's why she drowned her city and broke the world. And perhaps that's why, when I found a new life far from that cursed place, I never told anyone her story. I could grant her that much--I wasn't going to be the one to ruin the legend she crafted.

20191014

overgrown

I was expecting the city to be a desolate, rotting place when I found it. The way everyone talked about it, how vibrant it was before the fall, how it had become a place of dread and death in the blink of an eye--how could I imagine anything but a wasteland? How could I have imagined how beautiful it would be?

The half of the city that wasn't submerged in the ocean was overgrown with trees and vines and wildflowers. The previously pristine marble streets were tangled and broken, the buildings crumbling as years of growth slowly reclaimed the space that had once belonged to the city's residents. It had been, as my former mentor was so fond of reminding me, twenty years--I think I would have guessed it had been a hundred. What was everyone so afraid of?

The answer, of course, was still standing out there, surrounded and yet untouched by the waves: a perfect white spire, the still-beating heart of the city that it destroyed. I probably should have found it more menacing, but seeing how little time it had taken for nature to reclaim what was once a thriving city, it was hard to make myself believe that destroying another edifice erected by humankind would be all that difficult a task.

I slept in the ruins that night. The enormity of my task would hit me eventually, but for the night, at least, everything was beautiful.

ash

For a while we tried to pretend everything was . . . not normal, it could never be normal again, but at least that it was recoverable. We lost a city, and the world was spiraling into chaos, but surely, eventually, things would settle. The empire hadn't touched every corner of the continent, however hard they tried, and out here . . . maybe we could still find peace, out here. Then, that summer, ash began raining from the sky. We carried on, because what else could we do, but that's when everyone started to accept that whatever storm had been unleashed, there was no chance of it simply passing us by.

As the summer wore on, travelers trickled in with news of fire and flood, of the earth shaking itself apart and the mountains themselves exploding. People were fleeing, if they could, with neither plan nor preparation. And I, fool that I was, decided to head back to the source.

The fires had died down but the ash remained. On clear days the light seemed pale and wan, and when it rained the rain left streaks of soot everywhere it touched. To say nothing of the storms: fierce winds, torrential rain, clouds so thick I couldn't tell if it was night or day and lightning so bright and so frequent my eyes refused to adjust to the dark. It was comforting to imagine that all of this was just to keep me from reaching my goal, but I doubt the world cared that much about me. As I took shelter in the abandoned villages along the way, it was hard to think that it cared much about any of us.

I finally arrived at the dead city one clear bright sunny day, and for once the sunlight was clean and healthy--I'd almost forgotten what that looked like. There were no storms here, and the city--the bits that weren't under the ocean now, anyway--was almost untouched. My suspicions, it seemed, were correct.

I cleaned the ash from my face in the ocean and picked a building to take shelter in. I had nothing but time, now--time enough, I had to hope, to put the world to rights.