Everything is true. All of the findings, opinions, beliefs, and points of view held by my friends (and opponents) are all true– even those that contradict each other. Even the contradiction of the preceding statement is true. Appreciating the truth in things we believe to be false is the key to having a deeper self and a harmonious and diverse culture. It is a quantum point of view. The universe is like Schrodinger’s cat– a simultaneous experience of contradictions. Xyr– which is part of Cannibals– is a myth to demonstrate that truth– a collection of lost silent film fragments that can be read in a variety of different sequences. The meanings of the fragments change according to the order in which they are read. You can steer your way through different versions of Xyr using the hyperlinks provided– or you can read all the assembled documents in ordinary numerical sequence. The choice is yours.
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THESE POSTS CONSIST OF AN INTERACTIVE HYPER-LINKED EDITION OF CANNIBALS BOOK IV
EACH OF THE INDIVIDUAL BOOKS OF CANNIBALS CAN BE READ INDEPENDENTLY, AND IN ANY ORDER.
YOU CAN ACCESS THE INTRODUCTION TO BOOK IV HERE
LETTER TO H. PUEGOT ANSIBAL, ESQ. FROM ANNABELLE SCHILLER.
JANUARY 2, 1924
Please forgive my hysterical tone, and the melodramatic means I have been forced to employ in order to get this letter to you. The police watch me constantly. The military were called in, because of August’s extensive involvement in national security matters. I managed to withstand their grilling– but they knew I was holding something back.
Let them think what they will. I would rather be thought a murderess than tarnish August’s public image. Let the world continue to regard him as The Great Man. The Role Model. The voice of science and reason in an age of madness.
And so I am writing to you, not just to take advantage of our long friendship, but because I need the counsel of lawyer. Tell me what to do.
The night that August disappeared, he said to me, “Magic Exists.” He pulled a trunk down from the top shelf of his closet. A cascade of paper tumbled down, old bills, yellowed love letters, laboratory notes, dog-eared journals, and a wide variety of accolades and certificates, all randomly filed. He turned his back to the mess he created, leaving it on the floor, and set the open suitcase on the bed.
He wasn’t making any effort to convince me. His voice had an emotionless tone; more like he was talking to himself. I think he was trying to ward off his nagging sense of responsibility, and his guilt in neglecting it for the first time in his life.
I said, “August, you need…”
“What? Interrupt what?”
“The most important thing I have ever told you.” He couldn’t look me in the eyes. He looked out the window, out to the storm, where there was less fury. “I have learned of a place called Valkynne. It is paradise. Men become gods.”
I was standing by the window, looking at my own reflection, a silhouette against the lightning cracked sky. Pin-points of light flashed and disappeared on small reflective surfaces; my tears, my eyes, my lips, the diamond on the fourth finger of my right hand.
“I put up with your fits and moods for a long time, August. This is too much.”
“I have to find Valkynne,” he said, glancing up from the serious business of packing.
I stepped away from the window, and grabbed him by the shirt, which ripped as he pulled away from me. To hold him in place, I dug my nails into his shoulders, which explains why they found his skin stuck to my nail parings. I was desperate, trying every possible means to bring August to his senses.
“Listen to me, just once…”
“When I find Valkynne, I’ll have the power to summon you. Have faith.” He shut the lid of the trunk, then fastened the clasps with a loud, judicial pop, his signal to end the discussion.
I am being honest, Hugh. I am trying to be as complete and honest as I can. I said to August, “You think you are the master of every situation. That is how the world sees you– and you believe it.” Now I took his cheeks into my hands, forcing him to confront my gaze. “But there’s something about you only I know. While one part of your mind grew strong, another part stopped growing.” I embraced him, guiding his face to my breasts. “You are a child, in many ways. I have to work constantly to protect you. I make sure nothing upsets your illusions. I am the magic in your life.”
I paced over to the trunk, my stride measured and authoritative. I reopened it, smiling, gloating, even before the contents were revealed. Then I pointed victoriously. “Look how you’ve packed. Five shoes, not a pair among them. Tooth powder, no tooth brush. You can’t leave. You’d never make it alone.”
He scratched his head, searching for meaning in his random choices. At length he said, “Help me pack.”
“Damn you! Damn you! Damn you!” I beat my fists against him. Defensively, he lifted his arms, not fully understanding what he had done wrong.
He grabbed the trunk, headed for the door. But he had forgotten to refasten the clasps, so the contents spilled out.
Hysterical laughter erupted from me.
As he paused to survey the heap, I managed to compose myself. Calmly, very calmly, I said to him, “August. You are all I have.”
“Guilt won’t keep me here.”
Was I getting what I deserved? I had depleted my own talents in the course of keeping him happy. But I can’t blame him for that. I did it willingly. Annabelle, always the dutiful wife. For seven years, I subverted myself, and shined with reflected glory. Well, I had been the one so eager to wed a famous man.
I braced myself against the trunk.
He tried to pull me away. We struggled with one another. Full of rage, and half out of my mind with desperation, I picked up a lamp and hit him with it. He lacerated his scalp on the ceramic base as it shattered. You know how scalp cuts bleed. That was his only wound, and the reason there was so much blood. I am giving you the truth.
He raced out the door, abandoning the trunk and its contents. I followed, into the rain, into the storm.
I ran half a mile up the street, screaming his name. I doubled back. The lightning strokes revealed vacant, motionless vistas in all directions.
Perhaps I should have called the police right away. In retrospect, it certainly looks bad that I did not. But what was I supposed to say? Apart from fame, there is little to distinguish me from any other broken hearted wife with a philandering husband. I rationalized my silence, arguing that August’s mania might pass quickly, though I knew in my heart it would not. And of course, I was concerned about publicity. Perhaps that is what I was most concerned about. Publicity and its tarnishing effect on August’s saintly image.
So what am I to do? Sit back and wait for them to arrest me? Go on a mad quest in search of my husband, even though I have been forbidden to leave the State? Or trust to his judgment, as I have in the past, content that he will summon me to paradise?
What am I to do?
Go to Segment Two
LETTER TO ANNABELLE SCHILLER FROM H. PEUGEOT ANSIBAL
JANUARY 3, 1924
Sad to report, most of our friends believe you killed August. As your attorney, I would offer certain advice. As your friend, I would offer a contradictory counsel. Who can say what the truth is?
I chose to write in my capacity as friend. I believe your story. Others among our circle would claim that August is too responsible for such behavior. But I have known him since childhood. If August is responsible, in the social sense of the word, it is because responsibility was beaten into him by a father who feared all forms of excess, even his own son’s genius. Schiller hid his eccentricities, the radical beliefs he formed in the darkness, by himself. He was able to make a career out of things invisible. Instead of discussing demons, he discussed sub-atomic particles. Instead of the devil, he discussed entropy. He affected a scientific facade.
There were some, like I, who saw the symptoms of madness in his work.
Inquiries have been made to certain of my contacts who would surprise you. They verify legends of a paradise called Valkynne. My nameless contacts also share with me certain suspicions about a link between your husband and one Leicester Gunyen. In his own discipline, Gunyen enjoys as much renown as August. A strange and ancient creature, Gunyen often introduces himself as the Knight of Ten Thousand Years.
Some call Gunyen brilliant. Others would hesitate to use any description of him that connotes light.
Recently, Gunyen has been involved in a certain military project– very secret– which places him in many of August’s circles. Gunyen takes offence at the newly acquired scars on August’s cheeks. The tiger-like striping seems a parody of Gunyen’s wrinkles.
I believe you, Annabelle. I say this out of love and respect. But I also believe August. He may have his moments of quirkiness, but he is rarely wrong.
The mystic and scientific approaches are equally valid means of apprehending reality, though mutually exclusive. Mysticism involves a separation from the senses, to contact higher powers, or to access the power within each of us. Science involves the opposite; observation and evaluation; a system for regulating doubt. We each make a choice about whether we value an authority on the basis of its being old or new; whether we value faith over evidence. We decide how we want to learn about the world, how we want God to communicate with us. Haven’t you ever noticed the way that people who seek auguries and rely on intuition frequently find them effective? How many people do you know whose lives are a series of remarkable coincidences and fantastic encounters? August and I knew a great many. He used to dismiss the magic in their lives as if it had been brought about by expectation alone, like the results of a laboratory experiment manipulated to conform to theory. But now I think that August has changed paths. God is talking to him in a different way, and I pray that August has not lost his capacity to listen and understand.
As I said earlier, the advice I give as a friend is quite different from what I would have given as your attorney. I fear you must deepen the suspicions rallying against you by undertaking a long and treacherous journey. You must head through the Alaskan wilderness, following the map I have enclosed. If anyone can find August Schiller, it is Xyr. You need to seek out Xyr.
Xyr is a reclusive scholar of both science and sorcery, a resolution of contradictions, a study in the effects of introversion. Of indeterminate nationality, race, and gender. So self-centered as to be August’s opposite– but sometimes Xyr helps those in need, simply to bolster her– or his– claims of superiority.
I wish I could go with you, but I cannot. It is difficult enough to gain an audience with Xyr. Increased numbers only lessen your chances. I anticipate you will succeed on your own. This matter will be of interest to Xyr– if for no other reason than it involves August Schiller.
Should you run into difficulty with the authorities, I will be here, as always.
Your attorney and friend,
Go to Segment Three
LETTER TO H. PUEGOT ANSIBAL, ESQ. FROM ANNABELLE SCHILLER.
Post marked Umiat, Alaska January 30, 1924
I followed your directions out into nowhere, a fine white and blank world. I don’t know anything about magic, or what it takes to study it, but your map led me to a world without sensation.
My wandering through bitter cold numbed all extremities. My fingers were so thickly wrapped and gloved, I would not have been able to feel anything with them, even if they had not been turned into an approximation of corpse fingers by the temperature. The air had no smell; it left no sensation other than pain as it traveled into my body. My eyes were so assailed by the unbroken white sameness of my surroundings, I might as well have been blind. All along the way, snow flakes caught in my hair like wedding rice.
At the end of the emptiness, I found a hole. My destination according to your map. Having come this far, I crawled in, entering an ice cavern.
There were book shelves made of ice, frozen into the wall, strewn with rare texts, scrolls, and parchments. A gallery of optical illusions hung upon icicles: a mushroom that transformed into a cloud when the angle of vision changed; a caduceus that transformed into a double helix. Candles, burning impossibly inside empty wine bottles, illuminated the path through the frozen gallery.
At the heart of the cavern, I found a person sitting alone, contemplating deep red runes on a glowing skin.
The glare beat upon the person’s face. The aristocratic features would have been attractive on a man or a woman. The skin was amber brown, the eyes, violet and slightly slanted. A loosely fitting silk shirt concealed the contours of the upper torso. The forearms were strong, but slender. Elegant fingers tapped out a mantra as they played over a crystal ball.
I asked, “Who are you?”
The person hushed me, and did not look up.
“My name is…” I started to reveal my name.
An amber finger pointed to the ice ceiling above, with its forest of trembling ice spears, delicately laced with fine cracks. “If you raise your voice, twenty thousand tons of ice and snow will come roaring down upon us.”
“Please, are you Xyr?” my words echoed like the sound of trembling chandeliers. Xyr, Xyr, Xyr, off into the distance.
As Xyr worked, or meditated, or studied, what ever it was that Xyr was doing, the arctic wind strummed an Aeolian song on a Moebius strip strung like a harp.
My voice sank down to a whisper. “I was told you sometimes help those in need.”
“I am not as caring about my fellow humans as I used to be.”
“They told me you were arrogant. They also told me the only reason you ever helped anyone was to bolster your claims of superiority.”
Xyr looked up from his crystal ball gazing for a moment of mock pique, then with a sly smirk replied, “I am above that now.”
I raised my voice, “My husband…” A ripple of cracks swept over the roof in the wake of my echoes.
“Quiet!” said Xyr, in a sharp, but whispered tone.
“I can’t be quiet. You are so aggravating. My husband may be hurt somewhere, lost… helpless…”
The ceiling wept bits of ice.
“I don’t care if the world collapses on us.” A tremor shook the ceiling. More ice fell. The falling chunks had increased in size, tumbling downward amid a shimmering haze of prismatic crystal dust.
I fought the emotions, which rose with my voice. “My husband is August Schiller.” A great shower of ice bits rained down, like confetti in a ticker-tape parade.
“Impressive,” said Xyr.
“How I wish I didn’t have to invoke his name to make people pay attention to me.” Me me me me sang my echoes.
A steady outpouring of ice chunks now hammered the chamber. One of them rudely struck my shoulder. Another whacked my head, driving me down to one knee.
Xyr stood up from the worktable, then paced along the walls, gently applying pressure, selecting points on the glacier like an acupuncturist at work. Slowly, the shaking of the ice eased at Xyr’s touch. The walls still trembled, but the rhythm was steady now, calmer. There was still the potential for catastrophe, but I did not feel as threatened.
The falling of ice chunks began to slow, and then, it halted. The crystal mist began to thin.
“We should talk. Not here.” The ceiling shook again. Xyr patted the walls and the trembling stopped. The cave was like a wild beast who might experience momentary fits of calm when scratched in the right places. “I have no refreshments of any kind to offer you here. I don’t eat. But there is a tavern, not far, where we can discuss your situation.”
Xyr escorted me back through the ice tunnels. Xyr didn’t bother to put on furs, facing the bitter chill in the simple, loose fitting silks. Xyr didn’t shiver, even in the sub-zero cold, but the wind forced those purple eyes to narrow.
Tediously, we crossed the white plains, vacant except for some passing polar bears, who barely disturbed the visual field.
“What are you? One of Mr. Darwin’s mutations?” I asked.
“My personal evolution is the product of directed will. Who needs random mutation? It is too inefficient.”
Then Xyr experienced a sudden loss of balance. Xyr stumbled. The purple eyes unfocussed for a moment.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
It took Xyr a full minute to recover. Hesitantly, Xyr stood up, and did not speak again until we arrived at the tavern.
Inside, I was greeted by a bottle of vodka left on the bar for strangers. A sign beside the bottle read, “A Free Drink for Any Takers.” A severed human toe floated in the offering. At once I felt alien, in the middle of a world dominated by men– trappers, most of them, crowding the tables, drinking, laughing, gambling. The few women that were there had an unnatural look about them; the wind had taken its toll on their faces. They all wore too much make-up. I felt ungainly, suddenly the center of attention, even more so than Xyr. The smell of hot, stale lard mixed with a native smog of consumed cigars.
Xyr and I took a table near the bar, the only one unoccupied. “What do you know about Valkynne?” I asked.
“The most difficult of all mystic challenges. Some say it is a myth, and others say it only seems like a myth because so few are equal to its mysteries.”
“I thought it was supposed to be paradise.”
“Yes. A paradise dimension where the object of every desire instantly materializes.” An apple appeared in Xyr’s hand.
“August was right. Magic is real.”
Xyr laughed. “The apple– that was just clever sleight of hand. Science and Magic are the same thing at the highest and lowest levels.”
“My husband has disappeared. He said he was seeking Valkynne.”
“Hey Xyr! Xyr!” yelled the bartender.
Xyr looked up.
“Just me came from far away to study with Xyr. Xyr turn Just me down. Why is so special about woman?”
“I don’t owe you any explanations, Just.”
The bartender looked vaguely familiar to me. I stared at him and he stared back. A moment of recognition passed between us. And then I realized I had lapsed into an unconscious intimacy. Despite the Eskimo cast to his features, the bar-tender resembled August. It was the prominent nose, the pattern of scars striping his cheeks. A moment of recognition passed between us, and I gasped. Briefly, I thought it was August in disguise. When the man leered back with his jet and jaundiced eyes, I knew better.
“Who is that man?” I asked Xyr.
“Do you know him?”
“I thought I did, for a moment.”
“People call him Just. Perhaps you knew him in one of his many alternate forms. He’s not really an Eskimo, you know. That’s an illusion. He’s been a corporate executive, a South American dictator, a mistress to an African mass-murderer. I think he’s from another dimension originally. Someone taught him the magic of hate. He came out here, seeking an audience, hoping to learn the magic of indifference.”
At first I accepted this account on face value, only because of Xyr’s straightforward, confident presentation, and the strange circumstances of my journey. Then I began to suspect a jest at my expense. Here was a person capable of spontaneous, flamboyant confabulations.
Hugh– I wondered why you sent me out all this way, to place me at the mercy of Xyr? Advice contrary to what a lawyer would give. Have you indeed been counseling me as a friend?
“What is the truth about Just?” I asked.
“He tried to impress me with an elaborate theory about the nature of a subatomic particle he called Nobite, supposedly the building blocks of souls. Just’s theory was poorly reasoned, with insufficient evidence. I turned him down. He stayed in the vicinity anyway. I suppose he gets some kind of satisfaction from being near-by, and harassing me every time I come here.”
“He’s disgusting, what ever he is, where ever he came from.”
“Like so many who play at magic. But he doesn’t bother me. I find human weakness fascinating.” Xyr took a bite from the apple.
At that point, I told Xyr the entire circumstances of my last encounter with August. I repeated the story, just as I told it to you– except I added one embellishment, something about possible opium addiction. I don’t know why I said that– perhaps to assign blame to some outer force, to take it away from myself.
“Did you know I studied physics under your husband? He taught me the single most humbling lesson of my career. I turned in a brilliant paper proposing a new calculation of the speed of light. It turned on the idea that speed cannot be an absolute if time is relative. The reasoning was persuasive, the evidence sound. But he turned to me and asked me if I thought it were true. Up until that point, I had been so caught up in rhetoric as an exercise, so entranced by my own cleverness, I hadn’t considered truth to be an issue. Your husband was so serious back then– not the type to chase fantasies like Valkynne.”
“I know– August was always so responsible.”
“He was a genius, but he had a lousy aura. I remember auras better than faces.” Xyr carefully chewed the apple; leaning back, striking a relaxed pose. “You know his shortcomings better than I. There is a part of you that bitterly resents him. Perhaps even enough to kill him.” The tone of Xyr’s voice was the same as when describing Just; as if the murder of August Schiller was some absurd bit of humor only Xyr could understand.
“I am in a great deal of trouble. I hope you understand the seriousness of all this for me.”
“I am not accusing you. Perhaps in another universe, a different you killed him. Out of jealousy. Or to keep him from leaving.” A wry smile crossed those thin lips. For all the outward affectation of scholarship, Xyr seemed to delight in nonsense. “But I won’t condemn you for the crimes of your counterparts. I can not mistake the intensity of your devotion to him.”
“The man who left that night was a stranger.” I said it like a confession.
“Each person has many faces. People are creatures of contingency.”
“Seeing a stranger in the man I thought I knew so well made me love him even more. Does that sound wanton?” Unconsciously, my eyes shifted back to the bar, to check if Just was still watching us. He was.
“You have many fine qualities. Intelligence… courage… willfulness. Stop looking for your husband. Find yourself.” The tone was not flattering. Xyr spoke with a hint of contempt. I sensed that I was being dismissed. I had come so far, risked so much, for nothing.
“Your sophomoric pretensions don’t fool me,” I said. “You could not find him in any event.”
“Why would I want to go looking?”
“I can’t argue with you. You’re too irritating, like a spoiled child. I love August Schiller– even if that is nothing more than human weakness.” At that point I simply lost control and broke into tears. If I had been thinking, I would not have tried so stupid and manipulative a way to try to deal with this Xyr person.
But my tears touched something in Xyr. I drew a response I had not expected. Xyr softened, looked wounded, or humiliated.
“I have been insensitive, I fear. I get very self absorbed, a by-product of my studies– a weakness I am trying to overcome. Sometimes I expend more energy watching myself think than I expend thinking.
“I truly admire your husband, in a back-handed sort of way. Perhaps because he is selfless– that quality which so eludes me has made him a great scientist as well as a great humanitarian. I wish I had his generosity of spirit.”
I said, “That was August. He could never resist an appeal from a charity– never hesitated to lend his support to anyone who asked — even those with competing causes.”
Xyr began to laugh. It surprised me. I would have thought Xyr incapable of finding humor in anything but Xyr’s own jests.
“I need something new to occupy my energy. I have fallen into an intellectual rut– explaining away the flaws in my scientific treatises by resort to mysticism, and vice versa. My old publishers have lost interest in my work. I am sinking into a kind of cerebral narcissism, watching my own ideas link up in elaborate and comical ways no one else can understand.”
I felt as if Xyr were trying to apologize.
“Do you want to hear something funny? Your husband was responsible for starting my interest in sorcery. He provoked the matter unintentionally, of course. It was his question to me back in my school days– Is it true? In trying to apprehend the nature of Truth, I was forced to explore the hidden places where Truth lies.” By now, the apple had been chewed to its core. Xyr balanced it on a single fingertip. “Perhaps something interesting can be learned from August Schiller’s mistakes… and yours. All right. I’ll find your husband.”
LESLIE BLAKE TOOK THE POSITION THAT SCHILLER WOULD HAVE USED SCIENTIFIC MEANS TO SEARCH FOR VALKYNNE. SURPRISINGLY, VERA DENADA, A MYSTIC AND ARTHUR VERTINSKY (A PHILOSOPHER?) BOTH AGREE WITH HIM. THEIR VIEWS CAN FOLLOWED BY TURNING DIRECTLY TO SEGMENT TWENTY TWO.
FRANCESCO NOOGIN, OLIVER TROLT AND CROW BOTH THINK SCHILLER WOULD HAVE USED MYSTIC MEANS. FOR THEIR VIEWS, TURN TO SEGMENT FOUR.
FAITH AURELLO TOOK THE ROMANTIC, AND UNORTHODOX VIEW THAT SEGMENT NINE FOLLOWS.
I wore a broad brimmed hat and a loose fitting trench coat over my robe. Dark glasses hid my eyes, a kind of obscurity suggesting notoriety. I am not sure which I prefer.
Alexandria is a disappointment these days. Entropy has taken the thrill out of travel; you can go to every city in the world and still be in the same place. You encounter the same flesh and spirit; the same sorts of paradise are up for sale: by the bottle, by the kilo, or just for the night.
As I walked up and down the vertiginous streets, I missed the seclusion of my studies. I felt inferior. Not to other people, but inferior to my conception of myself. I had lost that sense of infallibility that is so easy to achieve when I am alone– but then, that was why I took up this quest.
I forced myself to find something laudable in each person I passed, something attractive, or some hint of a special talent. My attention turned toward a street mime. Instead of thinking how foolish he looked in the performance of his antiquated art, I focused on the striving for physical control, the submersion of self through manipulation of tradition and convention. Next, there was a puffy faced businessman, consuming his vital organs in contests meaningless to me– but then I found in his eyes an extraordinary predatory intelligence. I applied the same inquiries to an assassin, an opium addicted mother, two teenagers in love, a mahjong champion, a doctor with a heart condition, a leprous caliph on holiday attempting to impress a German prostitute, a suspicious Nubian, a Naval Ensign, waiting in line. The effort taxed me, but I continued as an intellectual exercise, a kind of meditation.
Then I was interrupted by children. Hordes of pleading children made circuits through the streets like migratory birds. Child hands took flight in my direction when I turned a corner.
I dislike children. They carry too many possibilities; chaotic systems on the verge of glory or catastrophe. Too ignorant, yet too full of ancient wisdom, not fully forgotten. I began throwing handfuls of blessings, flowers, toys– anything I could conjure to satisfy their appetites, to make them go away. More and more children came out. They followed me in droves through the narrow streets. Not all the magic in the world would have been enough to appease them.
In a back alley, I found a heavy doorway made of living yew. Fresh, tiny branches sprouted from ornately carved Aegean motifs: tense, muscular nudes; snake and fertility gods. The door itself was an illusion, but you could not simply walk through it, you had to engage in the illusion of opening the illusion.
Once inside, the scent of aged paper greeted my nostrils. Musk to a scholar.
This was the Library of Souls. I paused at the crest of a long spiral staircase to admire labyrinthine stacks below. Here was the world’s most extensive collection of mystic texts.
I descended the spiral staircase, reading the esoteric Braille of runes and gargoyles burned into the banister. The staircase twisted past endless tiers of books and scrolls, all quiet as a vacuum, quiet as death. A perfect library.
The balanced marble walls, worn and stained, gave the illusion of being thin and fragile as parchment. The entire structure seemed to be held precariously together by floating paper.
According to legend, the library itself had been assembled by the entities we sometime called “The Builders” for lack of a better title. They now sat frozen in mannequin stillness, the living remains of intelligent beings, many races, many species, most of them shriveled and withered. Some were clustered in circles, while others braced against the northern wall, solitary and staring, for untold ages. Some had Elvin ears, now deaf to the perfect silence around them.
What happened to these comatose lost souls? No one knew for certain. According to one legend, these unfortunates fell prey to unknown spells. Perhaps from handling so many cursed volumes.
Precautions had been taken so that no one else would meet the same fate. The library was now mechanized; the card catalog tended by enslaved fairies. Here and there, the blue glow of oil lamps haunted the sullen recesses. Powered by combinations of electricity and steam and a power source older than either, mechanical arms searched the shelves and retrieved books.
I sat down beside a smoldering plate of entrails that served as an index and began to research Valkynne by burning a combination of runes. Some of the texts had been mystically inscribed whole-cloth into the dish of guts– but not many. One could read them off the rising smoke whorls, but this produced brain patterns comparable to a light sleep– not at all conducive to levels of focus appropriate for divination. Besides, who could deny the consciousness altering power of touching the original papyrus, or of savoring the aroma of vintage rag.
Pure silver mechanized arms stretched to cobwebbed corners. Sometimes the books would crumble at the touch of mechanical pincers. Tiny demons, and insects thought to be extinct, would scuttle away when disturbed.
Many of the sources were unreadable, except under flame. During the long night of translating from dead tongues, set after set of candles burned down to the sconce. Books and scrolls accumulated along the table in symmetrical piles. My eyelids were fluttering with exhaustion.
The filing system was maddening, full of paradoxes and cryptic cross references. The Scroll of Nog referred the reader to The Onyx Codicils of Libra which referred the reader back to The Scroll of Nog. Clewiston’s so-called authoritative text turned out to be merely speculative. I dared to consult DeMabe, despite its reputed curses and unsavory reputation– but on the subject of Valkynne, there was nothing but bluff and bluster. Too many dead ends, too many mirror loops.
Out of frustration, I tossed an ancient scroll toward the wall. The scroll itself was ancient and valuable, and I regretted instantly my momentary loss of control. I slowed down the moment with a hasty spell, and raced forward to catch the scroll in mid-air. Could I do it? This was precisely the kind of moment that prompted me to study martial arts. Certainly, hand to hand combat held no interest for me. Too much ugly, brute, physicality. But the prospect of developing speed and mental discipline intrigued me.
The scroll careened toward the wall, spinning. I made contact just before the point of impact. But at that moment, just as my fingers closed around the scroll in a triumphant catch, a dense puff of dust erupted in my face. It hit like a chalkboard eraser being pounded. I sneezed and my eyes watered.
All that dust wrought havoc with my allergies.
TO FOLLOW THE VIEW HELD BY FRANCESCO NOOGIN AND CROW, WHO BOTH BELIEVED THAT XYR CONTINUED TO SEARCH FOR AUGUST SCHILLER, TURN TO SEGMENT FIVE.
TO FOLLOW THE OLIVER TROLT INTERPRETATION, FOR A VIEW THAT XYR WAS TOO SELF CENTERED, AND TOO EASILY DISTRACTED TO CONTINUE THE QUEST, TURN TO SEGMENT FIFTEEN.
Suddenly, I became aware of another presence in the Library of Souls; the gaze of an interloper afflicted me, a palpable focusing of energy and ill will in my direction. I could feel eyes upon me, a subtle sensation, like someone sweeping exposed nerve endings with the tip of a feather.
I caught sight of a form, crouched behind a bookshelf, watching me intently. At first I thought it was August Schiller; for he had the right height, weight, and bone structure. But the aura was all wrong. Then I realized it was Just. Just Just.
I motioned for him to come forward. Sheepishly, he stepped from his refuge in the shadows.
“Did you follow me all the way?” I asked.
“The one so magnificent in the mind of his/her own self is trying to know how Just me crossed the oceans and great spaces without being seen?”
“I was wondering, yes.”
“Simple. Simple is the whole idea. Used the Three Tone Invocation of Quand, The Celestial Jubilation of Arboaz, The Reaper. Maybe one or two other animal spells.
I shook my head. I was never very good at primitive magic. The violence put me off. All that blood and animal sacrifice business. I hate having to climb down the layers of residual brain, all the way from the esophagus to the sphincter, playing consciousness like a pennywhistle.
“That’s what Xyr gets for being so stuffed with self inside own skin. Spells beneath Xyr’s notice.”
“You can stay here, beneath my notice, if you wish. Just don’t ask me to explain anything to you. I am occupied.”
“Xyr let Just me hear everything said to the woman. Thought Just me was so interested in studying with Xyr, didn’t care about nothing else. Let Just me listen in. So Just me no longer interested in studying with Xyr. Just me yen for paradise.”
“You? Achieve Valkynne? I doubt it.”
Just licked his lips until they shined, and he smiled at me, as if I had invited him to a cannibal feast.
“Don’t know why Xyr wouldn’t accept Just me’s thoughts– can’t prove Just me wrong, neither. Thinks Just me don’t know what talking about when it comes to Nobite.”
“Not that again.”
“HAH! So what if isn’t even real to begin with? It’s magic, dummy! Whatever you want it to be, whatever you can turn it into. Is Xyr’s science so very different?”
I went back to my books while Just rambled on. My indifference seemed to provoke him to new levels of aggression.
I was far too preoccupied with my own problem to care.
The direct approach to Valkynne had failed.
I wondered if Valkynne might be subatomic rather than dimensional– reasoning that occult laws might break down with size in the same manner as Newtonian laws. It was a weird, fluky theory– one which I did not particularly believe. But I have learned not to disregard flash intuitions, no matter how odd. These coincidental offerings sometimes lead to profound insights, and I suspect they well from dormant faculties.
When I found a suitable shrinking spell, I realized that size reduction was not going to be the road to Valkynne in itself– but it could be used as a research tool.
FRANCESCO NOOGIN AND CROW BOTH CONCUR THAT SEGMENT SIX FOLLOWS.
THE REPORT OF JUST
Just me is allowed to believe what ever Just me wants. People’s souls are made of Nobite hooked up together in different ways, like however they were born, what they see, what they read, how they’re held, all shapes their Nobite. Just me’s Nobite is different from Xyr’s is all, so different things real to Just me. Some people have roses growing in their hearts. Thorns with the sweetness. Some people have the tongues of lions and the iron of old learning to keep them powerful. Xyr wrong to make the garbage from Just me’s point of view. Xyr can learn from Just me, too. What makes Xyr judge of what’s right? Put a black robe on. Put a gavel in the hand. Who gave that job to Xyr? Cause uses bigger words? Acts more important? Shouts louder? Is prettier?
What’s Xyr got now? Looks like a toy. Xyr is now busy looking at a tiny scroll. Very very tiny, written in tiny letters. Xyr pulls up a magnifying glass out of nowhere, just to read the thing. It looks like a toy.
Xyr’s fingers twist into a rune shape. Fingers all bent, look broken at the knuckles. It looks like it hurt. Xyr begins to weave a spell. Strings of light in the air.
Now Just me know what the tiny scroll is for. Xyr is shrinking. What is Xyr up to? Just me go closer.
Xyr still doesn’t notice Just me. Xyr never noticed Just me, never paid no attention to Just me. Xyr still thinks Just me am beneath Xyr, even though Xyr is small now. Xyr know but Just me am here, but still act like Just me am not here, even though to Xyr, now, Just me has the bigness of a mountain.
PER OLIVER TROLT AND CROW, SEGMENT SEVEN FOLLOWS.
I reduced myself to two millimeters then climbed up the face of the mechanized card catalog. Screws and runes served as hand holds. Peeling back the panel cover, I could see wires and bubbling beakers and flames burning inside.
I intended to raid the mainspring directly. It is a difficult, but challenging task to interpret the emanations of the machine as it performed its miracles. I don’t wish to denigrate the process by comparing it to reading. Actually, it is more akin to the way shamans detect geographical auras. Scaling a bank of bolts, I found myself precariously perched above golden wires: a mosaic pattern of cobwebs meshed into polyhedrons of various sizes, all linked with a network of spirals.
The first impulses I could interpret concerned myself; an electronic message alerting the defense system. The machine intuited that I was an invader. A buzz shimmied through the circuits, activating the defenses. It pin-pointed my location in the alphabetically ordered files, somewhere between UNDINE and VIA LASCIVIA.
A bulky metal arm plucked a rainbow disc from a stack of mystic defense spells, then deposited the disc into a slot. A bolt of red lighting flashed. A song filled the air, something ancient, and yet mechanical. From what appeared to be a small gramophone speaker, there flowed a swirl of twisting patterns, a composite of various energies. It was like a multicolored rolling thunderhead propelled by wind. Even though it was an automated spell, it had a distinctly organic quality to it. The directed flow brought to mind the actions of anti-bodies. It ripped apart reality as it coursed in my direction.
I braced for the coming attack against the frontispiece of the main interior panel, as the surreal current of flowing multicolored clouds swept over the network of cobwebs and spirals.
When the flowing mass hit me, I could the feel the forces of the spell eating at my soul, trying to digest my ectoplasm. I murmured protective enchantments. The energy mass switched its valence, trying to penetrate my defenses. I raised alternate shields. The energy mutated again. I countered. Then the flow swept me up, carrying me through the air. A vibratory wave buzzed through my teeth.
Automated spells present curious and unpredictable dangers. They tend to be riddled with impurities, which weaken their impact, but which also increase the risk of backflash and concussion when you try to counterattack or build defenses. I rolled through the currents, swimming downward like a sky diver.
Instead of continuing this duel of incantations and aether manipulation, I grabbed a thick bundle of wires, stripped off the insulation, and then plunged the live wires into the living cloud.
The swirl of colors and energy retreated, and in its wake, an electronic smell lingered: burning insulation, ozone.
FRANCESCO NOOGIN AND CROW CONCUR THAT SEGMENT EIGHT FOLLOWS.
A new wave of defenses took flight, this time in the form of tarnished mechanical men.
Blindly obeying their attack programs, they lifted their arms. Scythes affixed to the mechanical men sliced the air. Buzz saws whirled wildly at the end of their bubbled wrists, but the spinning blades halted every now and then, to show off crusted blood stains.
I could feel the emanations of the mainspring of the card catalog pulsing through my fingers. Certain that vital information about Valkynne was close, I did not want to give up ground to the onrushing force.
I had not anticipated a purely physical attack. I could deal with it, though it took me by surprise.
I fought the rusty mechanical men with my rusty skills, puncturing brass control panels, ripping off limbs, twisting heads. The enemy consisted of clockwork warriors, with no more cunning than a mainspring. I could feel the wind from the spinning saws, and I could hear the hiss of scythes slicing the air. My breathing became labored. Pressure built in my chest. My heart was racing.
They drew blood. A blade opened a shallow slice on my left shoulder, just below the clavicle.
The battle raged above the needle thin bones of gremlins and fallen mystics. Perhaps the remains belonged to others who had been seeking paradise. Most of the skeletons clustered around the letter V and its equivalents in many languages, all marked in electrical code.
With a desperate hand sweep, I severed a buzz saw weapon in midair as it was poised to strike. The device flew, spinning, until it crashed into the chest armor of another mechanical man. My assailants began to fall, one by one, into the mass graves of their former victims.
At this point, my heart was racing, and I fell prey to the terrible palpitations that plagued me since childhood. A feeling of thickness gathered at the base of my throat. Now each breath sounded with a reedy wheeze, signaling an asthma attack. I could not maintain the effort much longer.
Then, abruptly, the attack halted. It seemed there were no more mechanical men left to continue against me. Surely whatever intelligence powered the card catalog must have realized I was out of breath and on the verge of collapse. Then I deduced that whoever it was, or whatever it was, needed a moment to manufacture replacement troops.
The brief respite gave me an opportunity. Pressing my forehead to the spot marked by the letter V, I merged my nervous system with the enchantments and issued my own commands directly. At once the catalog obeyed, surrendering the information it had fought so hard to keep.
Then I left that spot, seeking an escape route. Signal pulsations led all the way to a parchment scroll wound into a device something like a typewriter.
I rode the top of the scroll, then dodged through the descending forest of print keys as it typed a response to my query.
Some newly created mechanical men took pursuit.
As I ran, I grew, returning to my normal height.
Within moments, I was able to swat away the pursuing mechanical men, now no more a threat than annoying insects.
Plucking up the unwinding parchment as it finished its climb out of the typewriter keys, I learned that a chain incantation could open the portal to Valkynne through a series of increasingly complicated spells.
FRANCESCO NOOGIN AND CROW AGREE THAT SEGMENT NINE FOLLOWS
THE REPORT OF JUST.
Xyr on floor. Gets into a half lotus. Curls up like a rotten flower. Xyr say, “Valkynne can be reached from anywhere. The first spells can only be pronounced in dreams.”
Xyr’s purple eyes glaze up like a dying fish. Eyes blanked up. Gone into a trance.
There a shimmer all around, make it hard to tell what is real and what is not, in places. Begin to lose track. Table dissolve close by. Or maybe didn’t. Maybe one of Xyr’s fake tricks.
Swirls of light from Xyr’s hands. Neat trick, fake or not. Opening forms in the air, all around Xyr. All this light. All around.
Just me watch careful as Xyr conjure. Just me decide this the way to doorway paradise. Just me jump for the light.
Just me am burned. Just me hit a barrier of some kind, invisible. Flames squirting out around my fists where Just me hit. Just me can’t see nothing, just light. Maybe there is music, or something nice that makes think Just me am on to the way of paradise. Just me don’t know what am hearing, because can’t hear over own scream and Just me can’t stop screaming. Don’t know what it is Just me want, but don’t have to know what it is to make it real.
Just me beat at the barrier, anyway, even with the fire. It hurt. Just me old teacher say that Hell is when you next to Heaven, you see it, but then you can’t get in. Just me can’t see nothing but light, but still want in. Is real. Is true. What it is, Just me want it.
FRANCESCO NOOGIN AND CROW AND FAITH AURELLO AGREE SEGMENT TEN FOLLOWS