An archetale in the Assembling Terrania Cycle
I am a son of the Ainur Magus, a primal Power of the living, singing Tetraverse. All such sons bear a proper name, but to plain folk, we are wizards.
My names are many: Olorion, Fundinn, Hangi, Hrani, Grimnir, Volsi, Angan Friggjar… Some might add: Manawydan, Gwydion, Sweeney, Lailoken, Myrddyn, Dworkin, White Rider, Elf Wand…
But most of those names apply to me—to us, to we sons of Magus–only in the most general and archetypal sense. Think of me as Whitebeard, whose steed outran the fastest winds. That was when I still lived in a body, of course.
I miss my old four-legged friend. He carried me from forest to mountain to meadow and citadel and back again. Firiel would have liked him.
Firiel is a scion of heroic if diminutive folk. Her shining golden hair is like that of her mother, a friend of the Queen and King and daughter of stout Sam, long since passed on over the sea from whence none return. Her father is a warden of a western region between downs and hills, a region that gave its name to an important Red Book. Their family received this region from the King. I wonder what he would have thought of what has happened there.
Although I too have passed over those fateful waters, I know all this because I visit Firiel’s dreams. We converse there, her sleeping round face and slightly pointed ears framed by a pillow. When her brown eyes open, I vanish.
Firiel is important not only in her own right, but in the balance of worlds. She has yet to learn this about herself. Soon…
For the most part, Firiel’s people tend toward joviality and contentment. They live close to the ground and, unless mightily prodded, shun adventures of any sort. They plant and tend and gather their crops. They trade with one another, polish their spoons, and trim their hedges. They favor bright colors and love a good party, a dark ale, and a quiet pipe. Seldom will you find them up before dawn or out many hours after the sun retires.
Although Firiel shares some of these characteristics—witness her fondness of crimson and bright silver garments despite a quiet nature—she harbors one fine quality seldom seen in her people. She is reflective.
How did we get here? What is it all about? Why are there clouds and rains? Winds and fires? What is the force that makes us grow? What do the plants and animals say? What is beyond the western sea? These are the kinds of things Firiel wonders about.
She does not wonder as a mind game for self-amusement. She needs to deeply know.
Which makes her a perfect pupil for a disembodied wizard who yet wants to see the coming time go well. That is the trouble with sailing off just as Ages change: so much left unfinished.
Some of it unexpected. That is why They sent my spirit back.
Not far from where Firiel and her people live, the boxy houses and factories have continued to rise, turn gray, and spread across the land, eating it as they go. Clean air has turned foul. Streams once pure and filled with bright fish slog darkly when they move at all. On every side, the swish of the breeze and the neigh of happy ponies have retreated before the continual clanking of machinery.
It dominated much of the land now, less and less of it free and open, more and more of it owned and walled up.
We have been talking about the nature of reality, Firiel and I. How to convey great mysteries in fewest words? Only what she can absorb for now…
“Why,” she asked, “do you call all this the Tetraverse?” Her upturned palms circled outward toward the trees around us, the shadowy mountains behind them, the stars above. She meant: everything, all of it together. What elsewhere they refer to as the universe.
Our imaginal classroom clearing within a circle of thick trunks reaching rootward and skyward included a tall block of stone. I gestured with an imaginal staff. The word SOURCE glowed in blue script upon the rocky face.
“The cosmos as we know it contains four layers. The first is the all-creative Source, mystery of mysteries. Every rock and shrug, every tree and tower, every wind and wave and everything you can sense, including yourself, contains a living spark of the Source.” Firiel’s eyes moved around the clearing as her hand felt the bark of a tree trunk. She wanted to keep the feel of this knowing when she left the dream.
More words appeared upon the stone as I went on:
“The second layer, born from the first, is the Infrarealm, the world of potentiality, of primal forms and diverse Powers. These Powers appear in ancient tales as gods, angels, even the occasional monster. My kind are their servants.” Another gesture and four staff-wielding hooded figures appeared, then faded.
“To the eye the great Powers appear as forces of animate nature. For everything is alive, not just that which breathes.” She nodded. She had sensed this, probably from babyhood.
Now it would get trickier, because more complex and closer to home. An unseen owl hooted.
“The third emanation from the Source is the Dreamvale, where your people live. Other beings too, of many colors, kinds, and temperaments.”
“What about the elves, then? Have they passed beyond the Dreamvale?”
“No, only out of Middle Earth, which is one Vale among many here. They dwell in the immortal lands where I, your grandfather, and others have come to dwell. Those lands too are a Vale, as are all the lands and realms you’ve heard told of in the old stories and in the tales of wanderers.” I paused to let her receive these exotic (for her) tidings.
“Why is it called Dreamvale?”
“Because it is a realm of imagination and wonder, a realm of Possibility next door to that of pure Potentiality, where the gods and great powers normally live. Here, magic works, enchantments are cast, and even trees can talk.”
“Not elsewhere, then?”
“No indeed. In the fourth layer, the Coaguum, most of the magic is confined to storytelling. The Coaguum is the world of matter both soft and hard. Only the most visionary of people there, and children, and animals, can ever see a dragon or an elf at all.”
“It sounds quite flat and barren.”
“It can be. But through revelations, dreams, fantasies, and fables, its people can touch the Dreamvale. Actually, they can even work some magic here.”
“I dreamed once of a very solid, slender, gray-eyed, white-haired human writing while elves whispered in his ears.” To her surprise, his face appeared upon the teaching stone. He wore a gray coat and a green vest and he sat back against a sturdy tree.
“That dream, Firiel, is why I reached out to you. Just as coagulants (for that is what we call them) can sense us, we dreamvalers can occasionally sense them. From our standpoint they seem solid, heavy, enfleshed. To them, we flit about like dreams.”
“Then our dreams, like this dream instruction, are really dreams within the Dreamvale.” For a blink of time, the clearing, the teaching stone, the forest, and the sky faded into pearly, wavering transparency, like images vibrating in a pond disturbed by a thrown pebble.
“Exactly. The coagulants dream too. About us, themselves, other things. Everything dreams after its own fashion.”
“What were the elves telling the scribe?”
“They were telling him about us. About your kind, about Middle Earth, and eventually about the Great War and how it ended.”
“He listened. He cared. Also, he had been through a great war of his own. Large events in both realms tend to run in parallel.”
An old friend undergoing a transformation had told me once that he felt like too little butter spread over too much bread. I began to feel that way when Firiel was close to waking up for the day.
“Is that enough lore for now?”
“One more question: Is the Tetraverse all, or is there more?”
“The wise know of a Manyverse that contains the Tetraverse, but they know little more than that. –Tomorrow we can continue, and touch on your place in all of this.” She smiled, though with a tinge of apprehension.
Between our sessions, the flow of memories continues, bearing images of friends long gone, shimmering nightscapes, verdant forests, the snuffle of my old companion as he bore me on his back to yet another crisis… Most vivid, perhaps because of my current mission, are images of desolation: broken castles, swords glowing with wrath, blasted fields no longer fertile. That earlier victory also brought bitter harvests: a friend with an unhealed wound, departing fair folk, beasts and laborers replaced by smoking gray machinery.
How temporary, the victory. The Shadow would return.
Because discord had arisen in the singing of the foundations of the cosmos, the Shadow would always return…until the inharmonious notes were woven into the entire song, and the realms brought thereby into alignment.
Little wonder that Firiel, who sensed so much without knowing it yet, felt afraid to step forward into her great task. I knew that uncertainty intimately. My task would be in helping her live with it. Like the discord in the heart of the cosmos, it could never be permanently eradicated.
Tonight we were visited by fireflies, each blinking in a different color. From far above the treetops, the stars winked their light upon the silent forest.
“I am very grateful,” Firiel said, eyes moving about the clearing, “for all you have taught me, Whitebeard. I am in your debt.”
“With deep knowledge comes heavy responsibility. You are in debt to your destiny.”
“Will I hear more about that tonight?”
“Yes, for after this session I must depart.”
“Depart! But I have scarcely even begun to grasp what it all means!”
“None grasp that, not even the wise. After this session you will have what you need to walk your sacred path.”
I leaned upon my staff, missing the feel of the corporeal one left behind so long ago.
“Shall we begin with your questions?”
“The human scribe whose face we saw. Why is he so important?”
“He described the doings in this Vale in a series of books that many of his people read and were influenced by. They read of our struggles, our dreams, our defeats, our loves, our triumphs.”
“So he gave them some of our history? A noble undertaking.”
“For them, it was epic rather than history. His readers believed he created it all, and us along with it.”
Her brows tightened. “How can this be?”
“When coagulants sense us, even intuitively, they tend to believe they made us up. For them, our world is so ephemeral that this belief comes easily to them.”
Her head shook in wonder. “Did he believe that?”
“At first. Later, he wondered. When asked where the stories came from, he replied wryly that the elves told them to him.”
“Well, they did.”
“Ah, but did they now? What if the coagulants actually are our creators?” They were not, but I couldn’t resist.
Firiel paused to think while the fireflies danced. A shooting star fell behind a distant mountain.
“Last night you described the Tetraverse as a series of emanations. If that is so, then our world emanates theirs, not the reverse.”
“Excellent. Except that matters are not so straightforward.”
I gestured with the staff. Dragon-like flying machines with unflapping metal wings swarmed across the face of the teaching stone. In the shadows of the fliers, immense cylinders of metal placed on wheeled carriages blasted forth canisters that flew through the air to explode on the ground, each killing many armored and helmeted humans hiding in hastily dug trenches. Those who survived charged forth, most flung down to death as they tried to advance upon their frightened opponents.
“That is a single brief scene from the great war the scribe—they call them ‘writers’—lived through. More wars can be expected there, and here as well. They tend to break out together. Which must come first?”
Although horrified, Firiel thought. “By the logic of emanation, ours must.”
“Some do. However, sometimes theirs come first.”
I waved the dream staff and the terrible scene vanished, replaced by an expanding golden sphere with a core and three shells outside it, one inside the other.
“From the Source emanate the three realms,” I continued. The core pulsed outward, forming the shells: Infrarealm, Dreamvale, Coaguum. “If that were the sole movement, why would the Source bother to create?
“In actuality, however, a responding movement can also develop in the Coaguum and move back through the realms to their Source.” A pulse from the outermost shell radiated inward until it reached the center of the sphere.
“What would be an example of such a response?”
“Not long before the war in the Coaguum, several Powers involved with strife, competition, trickery, craft, and expansiveness were arguing in the Infrarealm. These arguments rippled down through the realms.” The black stone’s face shifted to show the Powers Bellum, Cempa, Kluni, Smee, and Unda as flamelike faces in avid conversation. Renastra came late to the discussion. Doja came early and stayed throughout, gloating coldly. Their other names were Strife, Champion, Trickster, Craft, Expansion, Rebirth, and Death.
“When the effects of this strife reached the Coaguum, the inhabitants, succumbing to imagination-killing fear, failed to peacefully and creatively reconcile the resulting Power play manifestations.” At my gesture, men in strange dark suits shouted at one another below flapping banners under which angry crowds had gathered. Vast factories forged metals coating immense war vessels without sails, their bows tearing at the sea. Columns of men in uniform marched over barren fields.
“The effects,” I went on “ran rampant and overpowering. Several large groups of humans went to war against one another. The resulting violence and chaos then erupted here as the return of the Shadow and his armies.”
“Which in turn prompted the elves to whisper in the writer’s ear,” Firiel mused. “I feel that, but I’m not certain why.”
“Your feeling is correct. The elves understood that an imbalance between the realms is disastrous to all, particularly when ripples are racing back and forth. On our side, we fall short in reaching out to coagulants for our fullest expression through creative partnership. On their side, many dismiss imaginative listening and ‘creating’ as unimportant and even childish.”
“But by then it was too late to prevent the war.”
“The effort of the elves was toward preventing future wars. Their hope was that enough coagulants reading about ours might help deflect theirs.”
“But one scribe’s voice on their side would never be enough, any more than it would be here.”
“Quite so. What is needed is an inter-realm ‘embassy’ to maintain open communications between the Coaguum and the Dreamvale. Only then might these disastrous wars finally come to an end and never return.”
As she thought, I admired yet again Firiel’s capacity for reflection and insight. Even as her gaze turned inward, her eyes retained their focus upon the details at hand: the twirl of a breeze-inspired leaf; the yellow flicker of an animal’s unblinking eyes in the shadows near a tree trunk; the glowing pulsations crossing and recrossing the teaching stone….
“Is this not happening already,” she asked, “with every creative act?”
As she asked, I caused the scribe’s face to reappear upon the stone.
“Each creative act initiates a temporary alignment across realms, as the imaginal truth here receives physical expression over there. But the conversation is not sustained. In fact, it is possible to draw upon the Dreamvale even while diminishing its status to that of one’s own production, just as it is possible to forget to bring the magic into full manifestation.
“What is needed now is for occupants of both realms to sustain the alignment, at first by realizing that each realm requires the company of its counterpart.”
“In other words, we need ambassadors on both sides working together.”
“Yes. I understand. But who over there realizes how the realms might creatively align?”
“Very few compared to the total number of coagulants. But their voices matter, and they persist.
“Some of their herbalists and medicine people have said, for example, that what humans imagine bridges worlds. A sect known as the Sufi called our realm Alam Al-Mithal. Spiritual seekers referred to as Gnostics and Hermeticists described the Coaguum-transcending power of images. Scientist-philosophers called alchemists experimented with vera imaginatio: True Imagination.
“The Red Book in your care parallels another Red Book to be crafted one day as a visionary document by a healer of minds who will be dismissed as a madman. He will know about us. The poets, the dreamers, the dramatists, the novelists (bards who write stories) and other kinds of artists all know of us implicitly.”
As my staff moved, the image of a silver chain twinkled on the stone. Its links were seekers and seers who could sense and dream across realms.
“Bound up with their power of actualization over there comes another key capability, one that can awaken us to even greater possibilities within the Dreamvale—”
“Wait,” she said, standing. “It’s a lot to let in. I need to walk in the forest for a bit.”
“An excellent idea. I will wait here in the clearing.”
Back in the old days, I did not speak so much. On occasion I offered instruction, encouragement, or warning, as the situation dictated. I conducted research, led expeditions, occasionally fought. Now I was a tutor, if briefly.
In times gone by, people did not need to know so much about the nature of things. That was largely the purview of the Wise. But with the passing of their influence into Vales beyond, the burden of knowledge now fell heavily upon those whose influence could shape the affairs of the realms. Both now sickened by machinery gone mad.
When Firiel returned and took up a position of listening, I continued:
“Highly creative coagulants not only touch our realm. They can also connect Vales within it. The most obvious example is when an insightful human ‘creates’ a conversation or merging of ‘fictional’ beings or characters found in different story worlds.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“Would you like to speak with Sam? With Frodo? Beren and Lúthien? What about with a hero named Beowulf? That writer wrote an essay on him. He also wrote about a knight named Sir Gawain. What about a seeker named Smith, who ate a star and found himself in a world called Faerie? What about the fantastic beings in the elves’ and dwarves’ ancient tales as recorded by coagulant scribes? In the tales of your own people?”
“Oh my. Does this mean that every lasting work of what coagulants call ‘fiction’ exists as a Vale in our realm?”
“Where are they all? I know only my own.”
“We cannot normally see beyond the purlieus, or barriers, that separate Vales. But now and then, a coagulant breaches them. One wrote about a League of Remarkable Gentlemen who came from different Vales. Another supposed that ‘fiction’ writers who had passed on still lived on another plane of existence called a ‘planet.’ He was fond of witches and evil carnivals. Another writer brought together a mad scientist, a clever sorceress, a well-known detective, a vampire, and a werewolf and their animal familiars to compete for power on a sacred eve.”
“Why are there purlieus?”
“To preserve the integrity of the Dreamvale. Each Vale must retain its own identity instead of bleeding over into others, thereby diluting both. Crossovers must be occasional and exceptional.”
“Is it only scribes and bards who can link Vales?”
“No, others can too: imaginative mystics, performers and musicians, explorers who compile plant medicines…”
“Linking Vales is a formidable capability. What in our realm matches it?”
“Enchantment, especially as will be held and presented by a new kind of wizard.”
The forest grew silent. The ground trembled briefly. The teaching stone glowed like a chunk of moon. Hooting owls flitted by. I had thought a little imaginal drama was in order. Firiel stared, shook her head.
“Yes. It is to be you.”
“But my kind cannot be wizards. Yours descended directly from on high. Mine is half your height and goes about on hairy feet.”
“You are correct that we descend from and serve the Powers. But everyone serves them. Why should not a woman of your people finally wield the staff and wear the robe?”
“I…” She shook her head again.
“The Powers have sent me to your dreams to set your feet upon the path, Red Book Bearer. It is time the Wise Folk returned, albeit in a somewhat different form. We have need of them.
“The new wizard will not meddle at court or lead armies, for that is not what the time requires. Instead, she will tell new stories and preserve old ones, initiate cross-realm collaborations, and bring hope in an age of mechanization in need of dawning dreams.”
“I can’t even alter my own dreams, let alone anyone else’s.”
I spoke to the underlying doubt in her voice as an image of her dressed in a crimson and silver robe appeared upon the stony surface:
“When the course of events brings us an unexpected ennoblement, none who are truly worthy feel so. We feel still less worthy when confronted with the immensity of the task. Nevertheless, it is not given to us to argue our fate with the Powers, or for that matter with the worlds that stand in need of our talents.”
Firiel digested this silently as one night bird called softly to another.
“We have been given these talents,” I continued, “for reasons beyond our understanding. Our twin task at such a time is to bridle self-doubt and even enlist it as an ally as we break the new path we are to walk.” Her stone-framed image acquired a staff with a glowing jewel set in its crown.
After another, longer pause: “What is next?”
“The Power we call Magus oversees dreams. Ask Magus for his blessing for your path. Try it now. Open your mind and let the Power personify itself to you. Then convey your aim and ask for assistance.”
“Is Magus male? Female?”
“Both. Neither. Any form at need. Accept what presents itself.”
“Will you accompany me?”
Firiel closed her eyes (her dream self’s eyes, of course) and reached out…
We walk a path below an eerie purplish sky. It leads to an ancient temple of stone. Before us looms an ancient gate inscribed with griffons, crows, dragons, serpents, skulls, and key shapes.
The gate creaks open, and we enter the shadows beyond it.
Within a long courtyard stands a stone slab upon which an altar is being prepared. The sharp odors of combustion hang in the twilight air.
The tall cloaked and hooded figure behind the altar turns to regard us. We cannot see the face, only two glowing silvery eyes and winks of silver teeth: a smile.
“So this is Firiel,” speaks a voice of low pitch and rough timbre. Ancient, yet vital. One dark hand of snaky veins folds rests upon other. The figure is absolutely still.
“Hello,” replies Firiel shyly. After glancing at the eyes of Magus she looks down.
“The one who feels unworthy,” the voice rolls on like vibrating stone. She does not reply.
“Well, now I have seen you. Perhaps you are unworthy.”
Her gaze swings upward toward his face.
“None of your people has ever been a wizard. You are young. You do not speak up even when you should. You prefer to hide in piles of books. In spite of Whitebeard’s teaching, you know little of what you would need to know. What have you to say for yourself?”
“Only that I agree with everything you’ve said.”
“Of course you do. I am giving voice to your own doubts.”
Again she is silent.
“Please excuse me,” said Magus; “I must continue my work.” He turns away and walks off to continue preparing the altar. He flings red powder upon the slab and places a long curving branch atop it.
She looks at me, bewildered.
“Firiel,” I ask, “beyond what your doubts say, what does your heart tell you about being a wizard?”
Although intimidated, she closes her eyes in concentration and places a slightly trembling hand over her heart. She draws several deep breaths. Beyond her, Magus lights a torch and passed the flame over the altar.
She opens her eyes.
“I still feel unworthy, and my doubts are strong. Perhaps they are right. But my stubborn heart tells me I am a magical being and should serve as one.”
The branch on the altar blazes with white fire, crackling, as red smoke puffs upward from it. While this occurs, Magus reaches into a black bag and brings forth a red gem the size of a small fist. This he passes through the smoke and lashes to the top of the branch. When he blows his breath upon the gem, it glows, pulsing slowly.
He approaches, branch in hand. Then he hands it to the startled girl.
“Firiel,” intones Magus, “I hereby invest thee with the office and staff of true wizardry. Go forth, find your voice, learn what you need to know, and make new magic among the realms.”
“Thank you,” she murmurs to Magus. “I promise to do my best.”
“And Firiel,” he continues with a wink at me, turning away, “take your doubts with you. As guides, they are your helpers, but they make destructive masters. See to it that you manage them well.”
With a gesture from Magus, we found ourselves back in the clearing.
Still holding her new staff, Firiel stared for a moment at the teaching stone.
It shrank, glowing, until it lay flickering upon the dark ground like a tiny jewel lit from within. Firiel picked it up and attached it as a pendant to the silver necklace now apparent around her neck.
She looked up at me with shining eyes and nodded, awed.
“Shaper of dreams,” I remarked with satisfaction. “Exactly what the new time requires of Firiel the Silver.” The full moon slipped past a cloud and bathed the clearing in heavenly light. “Not more heroism; not battles or bloodshed. Inspiration coupled with patient work well done. Let the quiet make their way in the world now and change it for the better. One ray of hope is worth a dozen showy spells and perhaps a good deal more.
“I know you have more questions, but my time with you draws to a close. Now that you can access the Powers directly, you have everything you need. Go forth and find coagulants to contact them to begin your embassy. Give them good counsel. Help them build bridges across the purlieus and between the realms.”
“Very well.” She accepted her lot as fresh soil drinks water. It gave me hope.
“Firiel, above all you have been tasked to do, remember to encourage those you seek out to tell inspiring stories—theirs, yours, any the Powers inspire—to keep the mood of enchantment lit through all dark times to come.”
As the forest, the clearing, and waving Firiel faded from view, I wondered whether the Powers would finally allow me a long-overdue rest.
A distant flash of lightning flickered above a dimming mountain. A supercelestial chuckle?