Posted onApril 1, 2020|Comments Off on Enclosure: “Conjunction of the Million Spheres” (2020)
In which an artist, in an attempt to create backstory for a recent artwork, dives headfirst into obscure fanfic.
On that particular morning, Lietyran awoke with a sense of responsibility. She awoke every morning with a sense of responsibility, considering her position and her heritage, but this was different. From the moment the tower servants awoke her, her responsibility to those she and her family ruled was the same: she was the ruler and they were the ruled, deferring only to traditions of the royal court and the specific orders of her parents. That day, though, had an extra veneer of obligation. Her father, Taurik XXIII, the emperor and total ruler of the Bright Empire of Melnibone, was attaining his 55th birthday the next day, and Taurik always expected his subjects to at least try to surprise him on what was, after all, a national day of obligation. The fact that Taurik’s birthday coincided with the five thousandth anniversary of the founding of the island nation of Melnibone just made Lietyran’s concerns more focused. A day before such a pair of momentous holidays, and she had yet to find her father a suitable present.
Climbing out of her bed and staring out the tower window, she beheld the main and sole city on the whole of Melnibone: Imrryr, the Dreaming City. tens of thousands of citizens rushed below her, attended to by hundreds of thousands of slaves and servants, between the city center and the fantastic sea-maze built in the harbor. In the surrounding towers, all of which appeared more grown than built, the greatest sorcerers the world had ever seen conducted countless rituals and sacrifices, traveling to alternate planes of existence or trading with demons and elementals alike. Squinting a bit with her witch sight, she could see the seemingly endless progressions of elementals of the air repairing towers, transporting messages, or simply gathering the smoke from hundreds of fires both mundane and magic and shuttling it outside the city. To her window rose the sounds of Imrryr life: horses and mastodons, fervent conversations, droning incantations, and the occasional scream of terror. So did the smells: sweet wine, sour sweat, bitter regret, acrid fear, and occasionally the clean crisp scent of exultation. From time to time, dragons would swoop near the tower, their riders returning from the furthest edge of the empire with news or tribute. The Melniboneans were a cruel and capricious race, solely interested in maintaining their power and fending off their boredom, and the best the humans hauled in every day by the hundreds could hope for was relative indifference. To Lietyran, the sounds and sights she beheld had been a part of Imrryr life since the days of the first emperors, and would be a part centuries after she and everyone else she knew was dead. Not knowing anything else, she accepted it and moved on.
That moving on involved subterfuge that day. Her father was a late sleeper, attending to affairs of state by midday after others had made sure that anything that passed under his gaze was worthy of his attention. Even she dared not wake him early unless he had specifically requested it, as his nights were devoted both to his own esoteric research and to his wife, Empress Salaee. The emperor indulged his only daughter and doted on her as best as Melnibonean traditions allowed, but he had his limits. Because of that, she quickly donned travel clothes and hat and her most quiet slippers and cleared the floor reserved for the royal chambers, only switching to riding boots after she was on the ground level. She quickly picked ten of the most loyal of the royal guard, ordered a meal basket with wine from the kitchen slaves, and walked to the tower stables, where her favorite horse awaited her intentions. She was a princess, they were her subjects, and nobody questioned why or where she was going that early in the morning.
There were others who would, which was why the real reason Lietyran was up early. The Melnibonean royal court was affectionately referred to by her father as “a pit of vipers,” to which she strenuously objected. She had been raising vipers and other venomous snakes for most of her 17 years, both for their venoms and for pure curiosity, and she never saw even the most aggressive viper bite itself. Some of the noble families of Imrryr were boorish enough to hint as to their intentions of taking the fabled Ruby Throne for themselves, although none were ambitious or stupid enough to state their intentions openly and risk the Emperor hearing of them. Taurik also had his traditions and obligations as ruler, but this never prevented his enjoying the Royal Inquisitor’s very precise and very slow interrogation as to the extent of any treason that usually doubled as a public demonstration of the subtleties of agony. Most settled for watching for any opportunity for favor with the Emperor, particularly involving any intrigues surrounding his daughter, and she learned practically in the womb to feint and double-feint as to her true intentions, even among those she legitimately considered friends. Sometimes the feints were physical: her mother discouraged her from learning warcraft, recommending and preferring undetectable poisons and minuscule alterations of grimoires so that summoned demons were able to escape and wreak revenge before they could be returned to the Lower Hells. Lietyran learned much from her mother, and also sword and dagger play from the Lords of the Dragon Caves alongside lessons in riding horse and dragon. The royal guard was expected and required, but she knew she would not be completely helpless.
Upon leaving the stables and trotting up the main street, Lietyran looked from under her wide-brimmed riding hat, adorned with the royal dragon sigil, to about halfway up a nearby tower. One of her surrogate vipers, Inarris, stared down blearily, still recovering from her nightly celebrations. Inarris was a novelty in Imrryr, proudly flaunting blonde curls in a court where brown or black hair was the standard, and her huge blue eyes caught Lietyran’s equally blue gaze and slitted: in no way would she have the time to dress and ride out to see what Lietyran was doing that day. The princess subtly saluted, knocking some of her black hair back over an ear so narrowed as to appear to come to a point, and slowed so Inarris could see exactly where she was headed. The eastern gate, leading out into the forests and wilds of Melnibone. By the time she could get there, though, Lietyran would be long gone.
Lietyran’s destination would have been a surprise to anyone who had asked, and nobody had. Another one of the grand traditions of Melnibone involved subtlety when presenting gifts to the Emperor. Taurik appreciated novelty leavened with subtlety and wit, and appreciated the adage that the best joke was a slight distortion of the truth. On previous birthdays, many came to him with intricate puzzles and viewers, both created specifically for his amusement and gathered from nearby planes, but he also enjoyed storytellers and explorers. With the whole of the world under his boot, most had little in the way of unique perspectives, and the same went for sorcerous effects and fireworks. This was why Lietyran was heading toward a secret location she had recently discovered in a chronicle in the royal library: six months of feverish translation of the magician’s cipher gave her the location of the presumed-lost laboratories of Terhali the First, the most famous of Melnibone’s guiding empresses.
Most of of the island of Melnibone outside of the city walls was wild, interspersed with small orchards and farms dedicated to growing the rare plants used for spells and incantations throughout Imrryr. Other herbs and trees were impossible to cultivate and grew where they chose, so the island was covered with flora from across the Bright Empire, brought back on battle-barge and dragon alike. Over the centuries, emperors claimed magical laboratories built by their predecessors or built their own, both to keep secret new avenues of learning and to prevent accidents from damaging life and property. Of the ones never found and exploited, the most sought-after was the laboratory of Terhali the Demon Empress, rumored to have been mothered by a demon as an explanation for her deep green skin. As with the others, it was almost definitely built on a nearby plane of existence for security and discretion, but could be reached via demon-constructed doorways and gates in hidden locations, but only with the correct password. If Lietyran’s translations of the cipher were correct, she had both a password and a map.
Lietyran and her royal guard rode for about two hours, occasionally backtracking based on referral to the cipher and her notes. Eventually, they reached the cliffs at Melnibone’s northern shore, and she ordered her guard to spread out and watch for any interlopers. With the guard preoccupied, she carefully walked along the edge of the cliff, stepped down onto a nearly invisible pathway running just below the edge, and even more carefully inched to one of dozens of cave entrances on the cliff face. Most of these were dark and shallow, only going in about ten feet or so. The one she selected had light coming from the back, about 200 feet back, and she tiptoed over branches and bones that had collected at the mouth. The light turned out to be filtered sunlight coming through the collapsed roof, and the tunnel eventually opened out into a natural caldera. The caldera was surrounded with thick forest, thus explaining why it had evaded discovery for the 500 years since Terhali last lived, and the only thing in it was a tremendous rock slab, weathered and pitted. This had been carved with a large circular window in the center, and runes both around the window and on the rest of the slab seemed to make the slab appear even older than what Lietyran expected.
Looking back to make sure that nobody had followed her into the caldera, Lietyran pulled her handwritten notes from a riding bag at her side, followed by a small metal pick and a clear blue crystal. One set of runes suggested the incantation necessary to awaken the monolith, but she knew far too well about the traps set by Melnibone’s sorcerers to prevent unauthorized pillaging of their secrets. She took off her riding hat, brushed hair out of her eyes, and put the crystal to her right eye. There, she thought: through the crystal, another series of runes were made visible, and those suggested a different cantrip. Lietyran put the crystal back in her bag and walked up to the monolith, spitting on her palm while doing so. She used to pick to pull away dirt and detritus from a space directly underneath the window, revealing a small triangle carved into the stone. She pressed her spat-upon hand onto the triangle and whispered “Gol mek ta ke,” and jumped in spite of herself as two gigantic crystals, each much taller than she was, erupted on either side of the window.
Now she knew she was on the right track, as no crystal of this type existed anywhere on Earth. Their extraplanar origin was obvious, and although she wasn’t foolish enough to touch them, she knew that they were rapidly chilling in the morning sun. Right at noon, with the sun directly overhead, the cipher hinted, and the gate could be opened.
Lietyran had time to kill, and she regretted not taking the food basket with her when she came down this way. No matter: she would have plenty of time to eat if everything worked. Instead of going back for food or wine, she settled for studying the remaining runes as the sun rose and the crystals froze. Finally, with a course of action, the sun at its height, and a thick fog forming around the base of the crystals, she stood between the two, gathered her notes, and began to read aloud.
When starting, Lietyran had no expectations of a spectacle. Indeed, she was too busy concentrating, focusing on magical concepts whose perception was as essential as the spell itself. However, she knew it should have been straightforward: a slight glow to the monolith, and the gate inside the window would open into whatever fantastic plane to which the stone had been anchored. She was so focused on the spell that at first she didn’t notice the sparks flying off the stone face, the twin vortexes of fog and dead leaves forming over the crystals, or the sudden wind blasting through the caldera. She noticed when one of the sparks broke free and passed over her head, though, and stared in surprise when the whole of the circle opened and a blue-topaz light shone through. She definitely noticed as a silvery metal barrel about the size of her horse launched through the circle and bounced to the wall of the caldera. The sparks and dust-devils stopped, the light stopped, and the wind stopped. The only sound coming from the area came from the barrel, which was slowly pinging like cooling iron.
As a princess of the greatest empire the world had ever known, Lietyran had no time to cower, or stare, or run off. This thing could have been a threat to the Bright Empire, or a serendipitous opportunity, and as such must be investigated. She also looked at the barrel as the perfect birthday gift for her father: even empty, she knew that the circumstances of its arrival would make an interesting tale, with the appropriate omissions as to the exact location and the circumstances leading up to its discovery. She may have been a princess, but she was also a Melnibonean, and traditions on what and where to share ran through her veins along with her blood. She walked forward as the barrel stopped pinging, noting what appeared to be a door on the side of the barrel. That door swung open, discharging a large cloud of sour greenish smoke, and two figures crawled out, coughing and waving the air to dissipate the smoke.
“Are you all right, Garanik?”, the first figure asked, as he, unmistakably he, removed a strange round black hat off his head and waved that in the air at the smoke. The figure’s clothing was odd by any standard: a white shirt of unknown material under a dark blue vest covered with pockets and straps and loops. Breeks of a coarse faded blue cloth, and blue shoes with odd lacing with magenta stripes on the sides. The most surprising was the hair. As mentioned before, Melnibonean hair ranged brown to black, with the occasional blonde for variety. The stranger’s hair was a deep auburn, like that of the winged men of Myrrhn, and his sideburns suggested that his beard would be the same color. As if taking that into account, the stranger ruffled that hair for a second as if trying to dislodge sand, put the round hat back on, and took a quick look around, completely missing Lietyran.
“Well, THAT was different! Terrestrial world, average gravity…I’m just glad it has a breathable atmosphere. We may be here for a while if we need to make repairs.”
Another voice came from the other side of the barrel, deep and sonorous, with a different accent than that of the stranger. In all of her studies and all of her experiences, Lietyran had never heard accents like these in her life. “Do you know what happened?”
“Not a clue. Bell’s Theorem spits in my face again.” The stranger turned, noted Lietyran for the first time, and took off his hat slightly, “Hello.”
Lietyran was in unfamiliar territory, but she was neither stupid or cowardly. Regretting that she had neither sword nor dagger, that her guard had no precise idea where she was, and that her little pick made a terrible weapon, she made a show of relaxing in order to free her arms for a possible fight, looked up at the stranger through her eyebrows, and asked “I presume you know who you are and where you are?”
The stranger smiled, turned to the side and yelled over the barrel “And the Machine’s translator carrier is working this time!” He then turned to her, took off the hat entirely and put it over his heart, and bowed slightly. “Apologies. My name is Benetalistantrumaine, but everyone calls me ‘Bennett.’ As to where I am, I was hoping you could help. We’re a little off course.”
“We?” Just as she asked, she turned toward the near end of the barrel. Standing over her was a giant. The first stranger at least appeared human, if not Melnibonean. The giant could never pass for human. It stood a full eight feet high, with greyish skin and longish dark hair, the latter held in place with an elaborate circlet of golden metal with a white jewel in the center. From what she could see, the giant wore similar unfamiliar attire, with a brown billowing blouse and dark brown breeks tucked into black boots. The giant’s had two deep brown eyes that stared down with obvious amusement, and its short muzzle split open for a gesture that might have been a smile. Big stout teeth like a horse’s were visible, suggesting that if it planned to eat her, it would have to work at it. In spite of herself, Lietyran stepped back slightly, tripping on a rock, and fell backwards. The giant reached out a hand that gave her a larger shock: instead of the five fingers she and the first stranger had, the giant had six: four fingers and what appeared to be a thumb on either side. She warily offered her hand in return, and the giant lifted her easily. She started to brush herself off, and then stopped, speechless.
“And you’ve met Garanik. He’s an engineering student from Iscaris III, which is…er, that’s a long story. Say hello to the lady, Garanik.
“‘Hello, Garanik.’ Are you all right?” She suddenly realized that they both spoke Low Melnibonean, the tongue used for everyday activities.
“I’m all right,” Lietyran said in High Melnibonean, the tongue used exclusively for magic and communication with elementals and beings of the Higher Planes. They both understood her, which meant either they were from the Higher Planes themselves or someone had made a potentially fatal error in teaching the language to his servants. They didn’t look like anybody’s servants, which confused her further.
“Pardon my bad manners,” Bennett said, indicating the barrel, “but I have to take a look inside. Just a minute.” He opened the door further and climbed inside, and Lietyran and Garanik listened to shouts, whistles, curses, and grumbles from within. Lietyran looked at Garanik curiously: the barrel was large, but there was no way he and Bennett would fit comfortably inside. The door swung out and Bennett stepped out, sneezing for a second at the last of the smoke.
“The good news? The good news is that we’re not stuck. Any repairs we need to make can be made after we leave. The bad news is that this place ranges closer to Chaos, so we’re going to need more time to recharge before we can leave. Want to see the sights?”
“Of course,” Garanik rumbled, “That’s why I came along in the first place.” Garanik looked at Lietyran expectantly. “Could you tell us where we are?”
Lietyran was back in familiar territory. “You are on the island of Melnibone,” with the two silently practicing the pronunciation: “Mulnehbooney.” “We’re just outside of the city of Imrryr.” The both of them looked unfamiliar and just a little unimpressed.
“And you are…?”
Lietyran’s voice gathered up in its full royal majesty, as befitting her station. “I am the Princess Lietyran, daughter of Emperor Taurik and Empress Salaee, heir to the Bright Empire of Melnibone. The real question is where are you from and what are you doing here?”
Bennett removed his hat again and scratched his scalp for a moment. “As to what we’re doing here, that’s a good question. We can’t say we were ‘pulled off course,” but that’s pretty much what happened. When the Machine dematerializes, it simultaneously exists in all alternate realities at once, and then maps onto a specific one before we can disembark. The difference is that this is drastically different from the reality we were expecting. Does that help?”
“I know the words you used, but not in that order. So who ARE you?”
Bennet chuckled. “Well, I’ve already introduced myself, but I’m from…well, that’s a confusing situation. Let’s just say that my people solved the secrets of travel through the time-space continuum, but thanks to an accident, I’m able to travel sideways as well as back and forth”
Lietyran suddenly grinned, rushing up expectantly. “This can travel in TIME?”
“Could you let me see?”, Lietyran said, trying to push Bennett aside so she could reach the door.
“I’m afraid it’s not that easy. The Machine’s power source is back in my reality. That’s all I’m trying to do: get home. Little bits of that power seep between dimensions, so it can gather that up for another jump, but that takes time.”
“Our faithful steed, the Silver Machine.” Bennett patted the side affectionately. “Back, forth, and sideways through time and space, with little complaint and no clue as to where we’re going half the time.” He sing-songed; “Don’t you know what I mean?”
“So how long do you need?”
“Normally, a day is more than enough time. However, in realities with more of an inherent level of chaos, it can take longer. Give us about two days, and we’ll be on our way.”
“Let me understand you. You two are from a different…reality? And you can travel to other realities, and not just to other planes?”
“That pretty much sums it up. Garanik here is from a different reality and a different world, and he asked to come along to see the multiverse.”
“‘Multiverse’. Now that’s a word I understand. But I thought travel through the multiverse was only possible during the Conjunction of the Million Spheres, when the barriers between planes was at its most fluid.”
They looked at each other. “News to us,” Bennett said.
Lietyran thought for a moment. Her thoughts roiled. If she got them back to Imrryr, not only would their tales make a perfect gift for her father, but Inarris would chew glass in envy. And then there was the thought of traveling beyond anywhere any Melnibonean had ever been. All of this happening on the anniversary of the Empire’s founding…if the gods intended this as a joke, they were evidently in the mood for slapstick.
“In my power as Princess, I welcome you as honored guests of the Ruby Throne, and invite you to a special audience before the Emperor. We can bring back your…Machine as well. I just have one last question.”