Authors: Jeffrey Ford
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Book Three of the Well-Built City Trilogy
the world's imagination
I have read that some believe the world is a sentient being, a massive head spinning in space. The oceans are its blood, the wind, its breath, the earth, its flesh, the forests, its hair, and all the creatures that crawl upon it, swim through it, soar above it, are its eyes and the agents of its will. If this is so, then the Beyond, that immense wilderness, stretching from the northern edge of the realm thousands of miles to the frozen pole and east and west as far as belief will follow, is certainly, in its danger, its wonder, its secrets, and absence of reason, nothing less than the world's imagination.
I know this to be true, because, I, Misrix, now one-quarter proud monster and three-quarters sniveling man, was born there. If I had not been kidnapped into the world of men, trapped by their language, and logic, I might still be the demon I once was, swooping down from a tree perch with perfect, unquestioning grace to disembowel a white deer. A man of great genius, Drachton Below, changed all that, and now, though I still have wings, claws, fur, horns, and the eyes of a serpent, I sip tea from a china cup, eat nothing but plant meat, and am moved to tears by sheets of paper covered with wiggles of ink that tell a story about the death of love or a hero fallen in his quest.
Below awakened me to this deception long ago in an attempt to create an heir for himself. I was a dutiful child and even wore a pair of spectacles to try to appear the intellectual progeny he so desperately wanted (now I wear them simply to see, for my eyes have grown weak from too much reading). His love did not abide because it was born of selfishness, and my transformation was incomplete, cursed by his failure to go beyond himself. I am here now, stuck like too large a grain of sand in the neck of an hourglass, between Heaven and Hell, the only resident of a fallen city that had once been my father's kingdom.
Some years ago, after Below's death, I resolved to return to the Beyond and shed my humanity. I dreamt every night of the freedoms of a boundless country without conscience, where the necessary pleasure of the hunt and kill did not require an apology or carry with it the millstone of guilt. In these nightly visions, I acted with no prerequisite of thought. I wore no spectacles, and yet my vision was crystal clear, always in the moment, unhampered by shadows of the past or future. And so, I set out one morning for the Beyond with two companionsâone, a black dog, the other, a man named Cley, who hoped to find salvation for himself.
It took the better part of a month to reach the boundary of the forbidding forests that marked the end of man's influence. There at the edge were the charred remains of a town. Cley told me it had been called Anamasobia, and he confessed that he had been largely responsible for its destruction. We rummaged through its ruins and managed to find supplies we would need. Cley gathered weapons that he could use to protect himself against the unknown and, more important, to hunt his food.
The day finally came when we plunged into the Beyond. Beneath immense, barren trees, more ancient than the earliest history of the realm, we shuffled through the yellow and orange leaves of autumn. Like brothers, Cley and I bolstered each other's courage against the overwhelming spirit of fear that pervaded the place. We both had to learn how to hunt. My tools were my strength, my claws, and the power of flight. He practiced with the rifle he had found in the ashes of Anamasobia. Our apprenticeship in the Beyond was brief and brutal.
On the third day, we stopped to rest by a stream and were attacked by four of my brother demons. Believe me, these fellows weren't wearing spectacles; they had not come to discuss philosophy. The battle was fierce and if not for the tenacity of the black dog, Wood, we probably could not have got the better of them. When it was over, I was pleased to be alive, but it struck me as I surveyed the corpses of the fallen creatures that they had never recognized me as one of their own. To them, I was a man. Something in their odor disturbed me. Even when we had left the scene and were traveling deeper into the forest, that aroma stayed with me, drawing an occasional, involuntary animal squeal from deep within my chest. I thought I felt myself begin to change then.
As the days passed, I became swifter, more powerful, more acrobatic in my movement from tree branch to tree branch. There were moments when I caught myself thinking absolutely nothing. Cley was also changing. He lost his original nervous verbosity and as he did his shot became truer. His often droll sense of humor receded and was slowly replaced with a kind of grim determination to survive. We moved through the forest in near-perfect silence, and he and I and the dog learned to communicate by no more than a look or a nod.
One night I woke from a dream of the kill with the overwhelming urge to take my companion's blood. I could smell its sweetness pulsing through him just below his flesh. The trees and the wind and the moon shining down through the bare branches coaxed me to it. He was asleep on the ground, and I approached with all of the stealth I had recently learned. As I leaned down over him, the black dog stirred and barked. In one fluid motion, Cley drew the stone knife he kept in his boot, grabbed me by my pigtail beard, and stuck the point of his weapon against my throat. His action brought me back to my senses, and realizing what I had nearly done, I began to weep.
“I suppose it is time we split up,” he said with a hollow laugh, releasing me.
I nodded. “I must, again, become one with the Beyond,” I whispered.
He tugged on my left horn. “Tomorrow,” he said. “In the meantime, don't eat me.”
The following day, we parted. We stood in a clearing amidst a stand of immense oaks, and I put my arms around him and hugged him to me.
“Good luck,” was all he said to me.
I told him, “If we should meet again, you will have to kill me.”
He nodded once, as if I were reporting on the weather.
The dog would not come to me when I called to him, but stood at a distance and growled. I took this to be a good sign that I was very close to being a full-fledged demon again. Then, flapping my wings, I leaped into the air and left them.
In the weeks that followed, there were moments when my knowledge of language completely disappeared. I saw, for the first time since my stay among men, things as they were without the label of a word pasted over them. Entire hours went by when I did not perceive the tiresome chatter that usually raged at the edges of my consciousness. When I hunted, I was swift and brutal, reveling in the taste of warm blood and sensing the energy my prey's flesh gave to me. It was only when I met a band of demons that I came to realize my folly.
There were six of them gathered round the base of a spreading shemel tree, bothering the thoroughly depleted carcass of a wild boar. I felt full of demon strength and courage, and I longed to join them. As I approached, I barked out a greeting that sounded completely authentic. Some of them barked back, undisturbed by my presence, and returned their gazes to the exposed rib cage of the boar. This encouraged me, and I drew closer. When I was no more than a few feet away from them, my heart bursting with excitement, I saw their noses begin to twitch. They made faces as if they were smelling something unpleasant. I stopped advancing, and they broke from their group and began slowly to surround me.
You'll have to forgive me, but what happened after that, I cannot and do not wish to recall. Suffice it to say that I barely escaped with my life. My brethren looked upon me as if I were an odious pile of dung, and that hurt more than the wounds from their claws. I carried and will always carry the stink of humanity. Here is one thing I learned: demons love the flesh and blood of humans, but at the same time are repulsed by their scent of culture and reason. Human is a bittersweet repast. For me, more bitter than sweet. I fled from the Beyond, fled as if there were some shame in what had happened. There was a measure of guilt attended to my failure that, once experienced, I could not let go of, and it served to push me further into humanity.
Where else was I to go but back to the ruins of the Well-Built City? Here I have been ever since. My days are quiet and slow, my only companions the volumes from the extensive library that survived the city's destruction. At one time there were werewolf creatures prowling the ruins, products of my father's twisted Science, but I managed to exterminate them all one at a time by laying traps and utilizing some of his old explosives.
Occasionally, men will come and crawl around in the ruins for a day or two, making believe they aren't afraid of me, but the minute I get up the energy to leave my study and fly above them, they flee back to their villages at Latrobia or Wenau. They know I am here, for I fly over their homes from time to time to see how they are getting on. I've gotten quite lazy in recent years, perhaps half-hoping that one of them will get off a lucky shot and end my miserable existence.