by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Commander Annie and Other Adventures, November 2023
For three days, Nawry had swum through empty water over barren sand in deep dark. He was used to his eyes playing tricks on him. So, when blackness lifted to blueness, he paid no heed. Surely, he’d imagined it.
Yet, the water ahead of him continued to grow lighter, paler. The light was diffuse. Even once Nawry was sure it must be a sign of the kingdom he was approaching, he couldn’t make anything out of the azure and cerulean blurs ahead. It didn’t look like a kingdom. He saw no buildings, no castle. It looked like a fragmentation in his vision. His eyes had grown too tired, he thought, and had invented an hallucination. Then, suddenly, the darkness, the blueness, and the light pulled together, and Nawry understood what he saw.
Nawry was swimming toward a giant nest of bubbles. Tiny bubbles, large and medium bubbles, all these spherical clutches of air emanated the soft light that illuminated them.
Mere strokes of his strong arms after understanding struck him, Nawry burst through the wall of bubbles. The wall was thick, and his momentum — gained from hours and days of silent swimming — carried him through stroke after stroke of their soft, ticklish touch. He could feel them — tiny bubbles — popping against him.
Nawry flailed his arms, spreading his flippers wide to lessen his momentum. A moment of panic and the nauseating feeling of falling hit his stomach, but, Nawry didn’t plummet to the ocean floor. The bubbles thinned around him — or thickened he supposed — he could feel he was in a new substance now. Not water… but neither was it air.
He drifted downward, heavier than he’d been in the water but still swimming. The final bubbles — or rather, vertices between bubbles, as everywhere was bubbles now — cleared from his vision. The light no longer blurred before his eyes, yet the buildings and castles in front of him (for, yes, there were buildings and castles) shimmered in a diffuse glow. They were lit by a periwinkle light that seemed to emanate from the very substance surrounding them. The same glow stirred around Nawry as he moved, swimming slowly forward and downward.
Nawry’s wide flippered feet hit the sandy floor beneath him, and he decided to take a tentative breath, sampling the substance around him. It breathed like air. He’d known it would. Clearly, this was Benter’s Kingdom, and Aumna had assured him that everyone could breathe there.
Carefully, Nawry drew the giant conch shell from his jerkin. He gave it three raps with his knuckle and began slowly turning it. Before Kassy could work her way out from the twisty depths of the shell, Nawry saw two figures approaching. They were dressed in uniforms, and they drifted along the curve of the bubble wall as if they were light as feathers. Nawry’s feet were now firmly planted in the sand, but the draping fins of the approaching figures barely skirted the sandy floor. They must have been lighter than Nawry’s solid Noodlebeast mass.
Their bodies were slender and tapered directly into their neckless heads, and their faces were open-mouthed and gaping. Like fish. But, also, unlike fish. There was an intelligence, albeit somber and sedated, in the large roundness of their eyes. They were so much more than fish. They were what fish would be, if they could think themselves into their fully realized, sentient form.
“Are you a pilgrim?” the first fish asked. Bubbles leaked from the gill-like slits above the collar of his uniform. “Come to pay homage?”
“A pilgrim?” Nawry asked.
The fish-beings looked at each other, acknowledging Nawry’s confusion. When they swiveled their bodies back, gentle fins fluttering from holes all over their uniform garments, the second fish spoke: “What brings you here?” he asked.
The first added, “Serendipity or purpose?”
“Purpose,” Nawry answered. He hesitated a moment before adding, “Aumna sent me to speak to Benter.” He didn’t know what weight her name might carry here. If this was Benter’s kingdom, and there was bad blood between her and Benter… But, the decision was made.
“A messenger,” the fish-being said, swiveling back to look at his partner.
Nawry was at a loss, but Kassy spoke up for him. From the lip of the conch shell, she said in her tiny voice, “Not quite a messenger. He comes on his own behalf… But, Aumna did send him.”
“To speak with the master,” the other fish-being asserted, now eyeing Nawry’s miniscule companion quite closely.
“Yes,” Kassy said. “Will you take us to him?”
The fish-beings offered no answer. Instead they turned to each other again. Their mouths moved, and bubbles streamed melodically from their gills. When their nearly silent communion finished, the second one said, “Follow.” The other had already turned away and begun drifting in a curve toward the spires and palaces ahead. The atmosphere around them glowed lightly in their wake, and Nawry thought he’d better follow them. As instructed. Although, he didn’t know where they would lead.
Plodding steps were light here, and the sand Nawry kicked up swirled aloft knee-deep, showing no sign of drifting back down. Like a conscience, Kassy crouched on Nawry’s shoulder, whispering in his ear as he walked. Her chatter was inane but comforting. Nawry wondered where he was being led. If it wasn’t to Benter, then he had no idea what their plans might be for him. He tried not to dwell on that, instead marveling at the cityscape they approached. Nawry had never seen a city before. Only vast ocean, rocky shores, and small villages.
Benter sat on a throne in a giant hall. The back of his throne rose high above him, and the sumptuous aquamarine robes he wore draped well beyond his feet, puddling around him like a lake at the bottom of a waterfall. His face was like Aumna’s — pale and smooth — but, it was thinner, more haggard, and trimmed with a beard.
“Well, well, well,” Benter said. “You’re a long way from home.” A wave of his hand dismissed the guards. Footsteps would have echoed in that hall, but the guards’ fins fluttered silently.
“There’s something missing from your world,” Nawry blurted.
“Until recently,” Benter said, “my world was missing Noodlebeasts. Apparently. So, probably, it’s missing lots of things. Most worlds are.” His voice was cold.
“This is different,” Nawry said.
“Yes, of course it is,” Benter cut him off. “Because you care about it. Everything’s different to someone.” Benter’s voice thundered through the hall.
Abashed, Nawry stood silently on the stone floor, wondering if it was wise to have angered an unknown god. Even Kassy darted down his broad arm to hide in the conch shell clutched between Nawry’s flippery hands.
Benter softened. The creases in his face wrinkled around a knowing smile. “I’ve never met a Noodlebeast before. Let me show you around my kingdom.” Benter rose from his throne and approached Nawry, who stood as frozen as a statue. Utterly bewildered by Benter’s whimsical nature, yet too frightened to object, Nawry followed Benter back down the hall.
Even upright, Benter was so thoroughly draped in robes that Nawry couldn’t tell if he walked or swam. Was Benter built like Aumna? Or did he sport a fishtail, like the guards’ fins, beneath those robes that draped so gracefully all the way to the floor?
“Both,” Benter answered, startling the young Noodlebeast. He swept the robes aside, revealing a glittering, scaly merman’s tail. Then, with a swirl, he swept the robe back in front of the tail, and when it lifted again, Benter stood easily on a pair of slender legs.
“I can hear your thoughts, too,” he said. “That’s why I live down here. Neural signals are conducted by the atmosphere in my kingdom,” he gestured his hand loftily. “With so many minds, intermixing with my own… It’s like living a thousand lives.” Benter smiled, but then he turned away and continued the tour.
Benter led his guests through great halls and pavilions, past gardens of coral and anemones, and into a yawning cavern beneath the very hall where they’d begun. Nawry was wonderstruck by the sights he’d seen — there had been more magnificence in the minutes he’d spent in Benter’s Kingdom than graced a fortnight of traveling along the Rocky Shores. But, Kassy’s tiny cat’s eyes were fierce. In the shortness of her life so far, everything had been new. So, these undersea wonders were no more impressive to her than Aumna’s domicile or the Noodlbeasts’ Rocky Shoreline.
Yet she knew that here she was looking at the raw material for a magnum opus she could write into the bark of her mother tree. She needed to remember everything. Every detail.
The cavern before them, like the rest of Benter’s kingdom, was lit by the diffuse periwinkle glow of the very atmosphere filling it. But, here, the light bent around glass tubes and giant flasks, tables full of beakers and cylinders. Much of the glassware was filled with brightly colored liquids or powders. Between the many worktables squatted boxy machines, wired with coils of semi-precious metals and sporting complex lever and pulley systems. It was a veritable mad scientist’s lair.
“Your mind is full of questions, Tiny One,” Benter said to the kit-seed perched on Nawry’s shoulder. “So is mine. Now,” he said, holding his hand, empty and cupped, out toward Nawry, “show me the token you’ve brought.”
“What token?” Nawry asked, but his flippery hand rose automatically to the fossilized farfalle resting against the thick fur of his chest, under his jerkin.
Benter’s slender-fingered hand held steady, and Nawry found himself lifting the cord of the pendant over his head. He settled the cord and pendant delicately in Benter’s hand. “There’s something wrong with it,” Nawry said.
“Something missing,” Benter added, examining the dried pasta flower with his long fingers. He turned it over, scratched it with the white crescent of one of his fingernails, and then looked back at Nawry.
Kassy was bristling. Her short fur fluffed out, and her tiny tail whipped angrily back and forth. “That’s not yours!” she piped.
“He’ll be careful with it,” Nawry said, trusting that the command in his tone was enough to make it true. The naivety of youth.
Benter laughed and snapped the fossilized flower between his fingers. The brittle pasta broke easily in half.
Kassy spat and hissed furiously, digging her tiny claws into the thick fur on Nawry’s shoulder. Nawry, himself, stood in shock. He watched silently as Benter took the precious pendant, ground it with a stone mortar and pestle, and poured the fine dust into one of the plethora of glass flasks around the lab.
With deft hands, Benter mixed a clear fluid and dashes of several other powders into the flask, divided the resulting suspension into several smaller glass tubes, and subjected each of them to a different treatment. One was set heating over an open blue flame; another was gripped by a vice that began violently shaking it. Several others were set beneath slow, steady drips from perforated hoses, running through the complex machinery housed in that strange cavern.
“Titration!” Benter exclaimed. “The line between science and magic is thinner than most think. Now, if these experiments produce the results I think they will, then, my young friends, the two of you will need to hear a story. So, rather than waiting, let us begin now.”
Benter led his guests to a plush but threadbare sofa against the far wall of the cavern. From there, Benter could oversee the proceedings of his experiments while telling Nawry and Kassy the story they needed to hear in comfort. Benter draped himself and his robes over one end of the couch, and Nawry settled into the other. Kassy crept from Nawry’s shoulder onto the cushion behind him, curling herself up on top of her tiny feet, with her tail wrapped with dignity around her.
“You are new to this world,” Benter said to the two of them. “For different reasons, but, still, I think you both will not have heard the story of this world’s creation?”
Nawry shook his bewhiskered head and Kassy demurred with a delicate mew.
“Very well,” Benter began. He spread his hands in the thick atmosphere between them, and the tips of his long fingers inscribed the shape of a small sphere. Gold began to glow in the middle of that imaginary ball, and that golden light grew outward from the size of a pinhead to the size of a noodleflower. As the golden light grew, its shape became more visible. It was not a sphere but a tiny fairy — a creature with the face, hands, and flowing head-hair of Aumna, but graced with the delicate wings of a butterfly on her back. “This world began when an idea of brightness and light created herself, hatching fully formed from her own thoughts: Glyssani’aa was the thought and the thinker, and her glowing light fell outward in a sphere that defined the universe.
“But the universe was empty, merely a space to hold the brightness that was Glyssani’aa, until Borel’s back was warmed by her light, and he loved her.” The golden fairy, conjured between Benter’s fingers now looked down on a ruddy, earthen creature with a broad back and strong limbs. His face looked like a bear’s. Benter moved his fingers, and the magical puppets between them faced each other, approached each other, and embraced.
“Borel is the land your people live on. He is the rocks and mountains. He is the soil and dirt. He loved Glyssani’aa with all of his primitive heart, and she loved him back. From their love was born a daughter — Aumna, who you’ve met.”
The puppet magic showed a baby held in the golden fairy’s arms, and the bear figure looked proud, smug, and happy.
“A happy end?” Kassy mewed.
“The universe doesn’t end,” Benter said. “At least, not until the story is complete, and there is no story without conflict.”
“Some might disagree,” Kassy said, pulling out a paw to wash her face prettily.
“Yes, some do,” Benter said. “Some do. But you’re not talking to him. Not yet.”
Rain began to fall on the figures in Benter’s little puppet show. The bear growled. The fairy laughed. And the baby was handed from mother to father. The bear-father coddled his daughter, and the tiny Aumna figure grew from a baby into a young girl. The rain, however, took form and became a miniature of the man in front of them. Benter himself.
“I’m as much a fundamental of the universe as Glyssani’aa and Borel,” Benter said, a taste of bitterness seemed to turn his voice. “I could no more keep from existing than Glyssani’aa could keep from…” his voice faltered. “Well,” he said, “It was not my intention to be the villain in this story, but I came late to the stage. Promises had been made, between Glyssani’aa and Borel. Promises that Glyssani’aa found she could not keep.”
Nawry and Kassy looked at each other, each of them wondering what they were doing, deep in a dungeon lab with a self-professed villain and seeming-master of sorcery.
The tiny figures of Glyssani’aa, Borel, Aumna, and Benter disappeared from the space between Benter’s figures. In their place a reddish-ball, an entire miniature world of dusty plains and mountains appeared. As they all stared at it, blue oceans rained down from the skies and fell to cover half of the world. Tiny forests grew — first groves of autumnal trees like those Kassy and Nawry had known. Then forests of evergreens filled in the space around them.
“Glyssani’aa broke her promise to Borel and bore a child to me. Our daughter is Kelda.” A face appeared in place of the tiny world. Her skin was paler than Aumna’s; her eyebrows more arched, and the tips of her ears delicately elven. “She lives in the evergreen groves. You’ll meet her,” Benter said, “I’m sure, if you continue in this voyage.”
“Anyway,” he said, shaking his head and lowering his hands. The magical images faded away, leaving the atmosphere empty between them. “As Kelda grew, it was more and more apparent that she wasn’t Borel’s. He held onto his illusions as long as he could. Longer than anyone else. To his credit, he arranged to be the last to know. But when Kelda asked for her true father — me — to carry the torch at her coming of age ceremony, Borel could hide his eyes from the truth no more.
“He raged and raged. The mountains shook. Lava flowed down from Argos Peak, spoiling the entire ceremony and changing the shape of the countryside.”
An awkward silence fell, and Benter steepled his fingers. Nawry wondered if he was going to summon more magical images, but then Benter lay his hands down, flat on his robe again.
“In honesty, I didn’t behave well either. With tornados and tsunamis, I battled against his earthquakes and volcanoes. The world was rent in horrid chaos.” Benter’s words came slowly. It was clearly not a story he liked to tell. “Eventually, Kelda and Aumna soothed us — their terrible fathers — but the lady we fought for, Glyssani’aa had fled already. She took wing and created herself a castle in the sky to retire in and protect herself from the jealous passions of her former lovers.
“It’s the sun,” Benter said, sadness in his voice. “If you look closely at it, you can see the turrets and towers, the waving standards. All in glowing golden light. It’s beautiful. And it’s a fortress that none of us can reach.”
The silence that followed was long and solemn. Nawry felt like he’d stolen into one of his elder’s cabins, found an old dusty tome, and licentiously read it — only to find that he wasn’t sure if the tome was a work of ancient history or merely the elder’s personal diary. In this case, the story seemed to be both. And that troubled him. Nawry felt vaguely embarrassed, and he wasn’t sure why.
Kassy, however, was too young to feel embarrassed. Her tiny ears flickered from side to side, while she tried to process Benter’s story. Then she mewled impertinently, “I don’t understand what this has to do with Nawry and his necklace.”
Benter lifted his gaze and stared levelly at the young kit-seed. “Nawry’s necklace represents something missing from this world. My story tells the origins of a schism in this world. My theory, young adventurers, is that the answer to these problems is one and the same: heal the schism, and you will find what is missing.”
With those heavy words, Benter rose from his repose on the threadbare sofa and returned to his row of experiments in the lab. Nawry and Kassy watched as he raised the different flasks and glass tubes, tilting them so that the colors of the liquids they contained reflected in the room’s strange, blue light. Sediments stirred as he lightly shook the receptacles and then settled back to the bottom of each container.
Finally, Benter placed the palms of his hands, flatly on the surface of his worktable. He bowed his head, and, for a moment, he looked merely like a tired old man, rather than a mysterious god of the deep sea.
“The results of my experiments are clear,” he said, not turning to look at Nawry and Kassy. A deep sigh escaped from him. “Well, then, I have something to give to you two.” He moved to another worktable, fetched a new, empty flask, and began filling it with a mixture that seemed to excrete from the very atmosphere or possibly be summoned directly from his will. The cerulean liquid dripped from nothing into the flask, filling its widened base with a rippling pool that looked like nothing more than an entire ocean in miniature.
“Here,” Benter said, holding out the finished concoction, after stopping its mouth with a cork lid. He tied the cord from the fossilized farfalle — now gone forever — around the flask’s mouth, making a new pendant.
Nawry rose form the sofa and took the flask with his flippered hands. He hung the cord around his neck again, and let the flask settle against his breast. “What is it?” Nawry asked.
“It’s a gift for Borel,” Benter said. “Keep it safe. If you intend to take it to him, then you two have a long journey ahead of you.”
“Will it fix the schism in the world?” Kassy mewed from Nawry’s shoulder.
Benter smiled sadly. “I don’t know. That’s up to Borel. If he lets you find him.”
Nawry tilted the small flask in his hands. For a moment it looked like water, nothing more. Then the glowing light of this strange realm hit it in such a way that the tiny ripples came to life. Nawry could picture whole civilizations in there. Cities of mermaids, swimming in the water clasped in his furry hands, all of them too small to see. A world on another scale — like Kassy’s kit-seed civilization in the tree — only even smaller.
“We’ll find Borel,” Nawry said. His voice was low, but it carried. Kassy dug her claws, once, into his neck to let him know she agreed.
Benter nodded, ending with his face turned down. He didn’t look at the young heroes, questing to right his wrongs. He said, “You’ll need supplies. My people can prepare food and maps to refill your packs.”
Benter lifted his face, but only as he turned away. He glided — striding or swimming beneath his long robes — back toward the entrance to his laboratory. “You’re welcome to stay here until you’re rested, but I have my own matters that require attention.” His voice, which had become nuanced and wrought with emotion — the voice of a man confessing — became once again hard. The commanding voice of a king. The lofty voice of a god.
Nawry and Kassy followed Benter back through the pavilions and grand halls, past the gardens of coral and anemones, to his throne room. He spoke to them no more, but he directed a pair of his icthyoidal guards to see to all their needs. Then the guards guided Nawry and Kassy firmly away from the throne room.
Continue on to Chapter 4…