I’ve written the following shorty story as my entry for the Sapiens Plurum 2019 science fiction contest. Apparently, there were hundreds of entries, and my story wasn’t among the three contest winners. So, I’ll release my story here.
Magic Plus Ultra
After her alchemy lesson Isa got a telepathic invitation from her older sister Lara. The vibrant eagerness that was transmitted by Lara was accompanied by subdued bittersweet nostalgic feelings. It was an invitation to an adventure to try stealing the scrolls of knowledge from the silver dragon Ashem, again. Isa was concerned about Lara’s unusual emotional excitement. Lara always tried to play the cool leader, but ever since she started to get private lessons by the settlement elder Marek more than 1000 days ago, she started to become more erratic.
Isa protested telepathically to Lara: “This is pointless! Ashem is too smart, powerful, and vigilant. We will never find a way to touch his scrolls.”
Lara replied with a stream of exaggerated confidence and joy: “No, this time will be different. I have a great plan! Join me! This time we will succeed and learn the secrets of powerful dragon magic!”
They rode on the horses Barram and Vesta along the shore of the Mannab river. It was a great detour around the Yenzi forest, because the forest spirits would tell Ashem about their presence. Instead, they travelled besides the river until they reached the Comb Mountains.
Isa’s familiar Yannek, an orange winged cat flew ahead to scout the terrain. He told everyone telepathically how futile he deemed this quest: “So, you assume that the spirits won’t tell Ashem about us. Also, you seem to assume that Ashem hasn’t placed a trigger mycelium on these mountains that would reveal our movements to him. Finally, you believe that your invisbility and illusion spells will work on him. There’s too much that can go wrong!”
Lara insisted that it’s worth a try anyway, so they went on. For the largest part of their journey the mountain spirit entered their minds and distracted the adventurers with stories about the relationships of birds nesting in the trees and ledges. They silently ignored that blabbering spirit.
Barram and Vesta complained about the rocky and steep terrain of the mountains. More than once they faced a precipice and had to turn around to try a different path. Barram suggested telepathically: “Why can’t I use my pegasus spell to glide above the canyons?”
Immediately Vesta pointed out: “Because your stupid spell never really works. You always flap around like crazy, but in the best case you fly like a drunken bumble bee.”
Barram burst out defiantly: “What you don’t know is that Yannek entered my dreams and there taught me how to fly properly. Just watch me!” While Isa was still sitting on him, Barram used his magic to sprout large black wings. Isa tried to stop him, but he begann galloping on the narrow path, jumped over the edge and tried to glide above the abyss towards the next ledge. Unfortunately, Barram’s flight was’t stable and he tumbled to the right and started spinning. Isa activated her levitation spell on both of them, but it wasn’t powerful enough to stop their fall.
Just when they were about to hit the ground, the air below them turned to a gel of ever increasing thickness. It felt like getting stuck in honey. Then the avatar of the goddess Elyria revealed herself and berated them: “Please be more careful. The spirits will ridicule you forever for me having to save you.”
And just like that Elyria released them to the ground and restored the natural lightness of the air, and disappeared immediately.
It took the adventurers the whole night under the guidance of Yannek to find a way to the lair of Ashem. When the dark night clouds dispersed, the sun finally revealed the mountain palace of Ashem. Barram and Vesta had to wait because the area in front of the lair was coated with trigger mycelium. While Yannek and Aria could fly to avoid triggering an alarm, Isa and Lara used levitation magic to fly above the ground. Lara applied her newly learned invisibility spell on all four of them. Together they flew carefully and hovered through the gateway into Ashem’s palace.
Each of the large rooms of the palace looked like a treasure chamber filled with gold and all kinds of magical artifacts. Lara carefully whispered telepathically: “The scrolls are in the central chamber, at least according to Gustav the knight who came very close to retrieving it.”
When they entered that chamber it looked deserted; until they looked up and saw Ashem hanging from the ceiling and staring Lara into her eyes even through she was still invisible: “And what made you sorry bunch think that dragons can’t sense your pathetic magic?”
Isa was terrified, while Yannek gifted everyone with his cynical remark: “Oh, how unexpected this turn of events really is. Who could have guessed?”
Of course, Isa knew what would happen now. Ashem charged his four horns until the magical fields between them sparkled in rainbow colors. Then those fields formed a magical sphere that enveloped the adventurers.
They reappeared back near the fountain of the settlement. Lara apologized to Isa: “I am sorry.”
Isa wasn’t hurt. Even though she had expected such an outcome, she thought this attempt was so fun that there wasn’t a reason for Lara to apologize. But something felt different about Lara’s apology. Lara continued: “I am sorry for this silly adventure. I wanted us to relive our greatest adventures again. As long as we are still together.”
This was news for Isa. Lara never told her about any plans of leaving. “What? Will you leave me? Where do you want to go?”
Now Lara couldn’t hold it in any longer. She started crying and only managed to get a few clear thoughts to Isa through her sobs: “I am sorry. I don’t even know what I am allowed to tell you. Ask Marek.”
While Isa felt angry at Lara for keeping such a secret from her, she couldn’t stay angry for long when she saw and sensed Lara’s emotional pain. How long did she conceal her plans from Isa? All of this must have been a plot made up by Marek.
Isa knocked on the door or Marek’s house. It opened on its own. Marek already expected her and motioned her to sit down besides him on his couch. He revealed to her that he could sense her anger at him. Then he asked her: “Have you ever wondered what lies outside of Elyria?”
This question confused Isa. Wasn’t Elyria the whole world? How could something be outside of her? Was this another of those trick questions like what’s the sound of one hand clapping?
Marek answered for Isa: “It’s the Beyond that lies outside of the shell of Elyria. The Beyond is vast beyond imagination. Your sister Lara was trained by me in secret for an excursion to the Beyond.”
He let that sink in. Isa had guessed that something weird was happening between Lara and Marek, but not even in her wildest dreams would she have guessed that Lara wanted to travel outside of that what Isa knew as the whole world, Elyria. There were so many burning questions in Isa’s shell shocked mind. However, there was one question that was most important: “Why does Lara want to leave Elyria? What’s wrong with Elyria? What’s with Lara? Doesn’t she love everyone here?”
Marek tried to calm Isa down: “Nothing is wrong with anyone here. All of this is merely due to the rules of the world. Elyria and everyone within has to follow those rules. But first let me tell you a story about the time before magic.”
To Isa the thought about a mythical time before magic made about as much an imaginary time before air. Magic was so intervowen with everything that Isa couldn’t imagine a world without it.
That’s why Marek had to explain such a world: “Eons ago there were only humans and many other animals. There was no magic, and there weren’t any dragons or spirits. Humans communicated with sounds and written words, rather than by telepathy, because there was no telepathy back then. The old world was a horrible place for humans and animals alike. They only lived for a short time. There was much pain and suffering, because there were so many problems that humans couldn’t solve.”
This sounded like a feverish nightmare to Isa. It all seemed so surreal and pointless. Why would the world be arranged so badly back then? Was it because there weren’t any spirits and no magic that could order the world sensibly?
Marek went on in a dramatic arc: “But the humans back then could still solve some problems. To solve those problems they built tools. And with their tools they built machines. And with their machines they built spirits. And then the spirits built higher spirits. And those spirits had near unlimited power and created that what we call magic today. Yet, back then nobody had the wisdom to know the best use of magic. Different humans and different spirits had wildly different ideas what to use their new powers for. Some sought happiness, others wanted freedom. Still others wanted wisdom or knowlege. Some sought a mixture of those. And all of them wanted more power in order to get what they wanted and to stop the others from ruining the whole world. The world was a chaotic mess, because they couldn’t agree what to do with the world.”
Isa tried to imagine quarreling humans and spirits who couldn’t really agree on what to do together. But couldn’t they talk with each other and exchange arguments until they would find a best solution?
Indeed Marek anticipated Isa’s thinking and revealed: “It took a really long time, but they talked with each other and devised means to become wiser in their considerations. Eventually they reached a common agreement. They would come together to cultivate a forest of cultures. A forest of worlds. They created lots of small worlds like Elyria. Each world had its own rules and purpose. Each world would contain its own culture, and its own system of magic, which was different from all others. That way, there would be enough cultures for every person to choose from. This forest of worlds is what we call the Beyond.”
For Isa this still sounded like a fantastic fairy tale. “If all of this is true, why hasn’t anyone told me about that? Is this just another fantasy story that’s supposed to be a metaphor for something else?”
Solemnly, Marek denied: “No, this is the true story about how Elyria came to be. It all started with the humans who built the spirits who invented the powers to reshape the world. The ideas behind the forest of cultures gave rise to the rules of the world. These rules mean that we cannot keep the truth a secret from anyone; at least not forever. For us Elyrians, the Beyond is a distraction from the beauty of Elyria, so we don’t talk about it; except if we must. And we must eventually tell everyone about the Beyond, because the rules of the world allow everyone to choose in what kind of culture she wants to live in. But how can you choose, if you don’t know the possibilities to choose from? That’s why you children need to travel to the Beyond, in order to see what is out there. And that’s what I prepared Lara for. Travelling to the Beyond is no child’s play. It’s a serious and dangerous business. The greatest danger is that a traveler won’t want to go back. And that’s her right, because each person may choose her culture to live in.”
Suddenly, Isa was terrified. What if Lara really didn’t want to go back, once she saw the wonders of the Beyond? A sliver of hope appeared in her mind and she asked Marek: “Can’t Lara just promise that she will come back?”
“That won’t help. Every person is expected to go on a long journey called the odyssey. It’s a long journey through the Beyond to find out what world she belongs in. While people can promise to come back eventually, they aren’t bound to such a promise. Making unbreakable promises like that is against the rules, because such promises would rob people the right to choose where to live. But there’s no need for panic now. Before an odyssey there are thousands of days of training and preliminary short excursions into the Beyond. You still have a long time together with your sister.”
Though she felt some slight relief from that revelation, Isa’s whole world was still shaken to the core. How could she calm down, if Lara could be gone forever? Then she got an idea: “But what if Lara promises never to go on an odyssey after all? The rules of the odyssey only apply, if she actually goes on an odyssey, right?”
Marek raised an eyebrow and asked: “Right. But why would she do that?”
“So that we can all be together forever.”
On which Marek commented: “People change. Do you really think that both of you will be the same persons in a million days? Do you think you will want to stay together for so long? According to our customs, promises have to be renewed every ten thousand days or they expire. Lara would have to make that promise for a hundred times in a row and more. How likely do you think that is with so much time in between?”
“You don’t know the future. She could keep loving us so much that she will renew her promise always. And if not, then there will surely be a strong reason to leave. But until then we can stay together.”
Marek beamed when he felt that reasoning being transmitted into his mind. He sent back proudly: “That’s very smart of you. It seems we have taught you well. Now, I will show to you what I’ve shown Lara what made her consider leaving Elyria in the first place. This may change your mind about many things.”
After this announcement Marek called for the avatar of Elyria to appear in his room. Despite Isa’s disbelief, the avatar of Elyria really manifested in front of the couch she was sitting on. Without much delay, Marek asked the avatar to show the Beyond to them, to which she consented: “As you wish.”
With that, Elyria’s avatar let a magical image appear. It showed the sun in the center of Elyria and the continents within. Then the image showed how one could exit Elyria through the end caps of the large cylinder that was the world of Elyria. Way outside of Elyria there were other cylinders that were other worlds in the Beyond. Besides cylinders there were also rings and spheres and planes and other shapes, some smaller, some much larger than Elyria. They all seemed to be placed around a huge bright sphere that looked like a giant version of the sun of Elyria. Furthermore, in incredibly large distances there were other giant suns and even more worlds surrounding those. The Beyond really contained billions of worlds.
As Isa continued to marvel the diversity of the shown worlds, she wondered what kind of people lived inside of those. Yet, Marek asked: “Do you want to me to share our conversation with Lara? I think she would be delighted by what you’ve said.”
Of course, people could remember every single thing that has happened and that was transmitted by telepathy, but that didn’t mean that such conversations weren’t treated privately, unless consent for sharing them was given. Isa wanted to know how much she wanted Lara to stay, so she agreed.
With an acknowledging nod, Marek announced: “Very well. Now I have a little surprise for you. Let’s go outside.”
At the central fountain of the settlement Marek looked into the sky and Isa followed his gaze. In the distance she could see silver dragon Ashem approach. She was startled but got reassured by Marek that this time Ashem didn’t mean any harm. As he landed, he greeted Marek openly: “Thanks for your invitation. It would be nice, if I was invited more often.”
In the same open fashion, Marek replied: “You told me that you are only interested in coming to very special occasions. I just revealed the Beyond to young Isa.”
Ashem gazed at Isa curiously and inquired: “So, what do you think about the Beyond?”
Isa had to think carefully about that question, because she was uncertain herself. Eventually she explained: “At first it sounded like a dark place to which I could lose my sister to. And it still feels like that in a sense. But at the same time I am curious about those different worlds. Have you been there, Ashem?”
“In fact, I am from the Beyond. I met Marek a long time ago when he was on his odyssey and visited our world. Young Marek inspired me to go on my own odyssey and as it happens, I actually decided to stay here in Elyria.”
“What does your world look like?”
“I shouldn’t tell you that here in Elyria. But I could tell you if we go on a journey into the Beyond together.”
In that moment Lara arrived at the settlement center, too. Then she thought to Isa secretly: “I hope you can forgive me. It’s all so much to take in at once. Don’t think it was easy for me. I really want to be with all of you, but I also want to see what is out there. If it means so much to you, I will promise to always come back to Elyria until you are ready to let me go on my odyssey. Also, I can wait until you are ready, so that we can go on our first excursion into the Beyond together.”