I have a couple of other Static-Lands stories that I've written before this one. I just finished this one today, but I'm quite excited about it and the stories are in no particular order, anyway. There is a character here based upon my cat. Yes, she really does do that "regal" thing with her paws.
This is a story dealing with ideas of the Afterlife in the Static-Lands.
The Static-Lands Saga
The Last Dream
Among the Ilkhan in the Land-of-Always-Night, where the moon paints the grasses silver, there are as many religious beliefs as there are people. This includes thoughts upon what happens to the thoughts and emotions of people after they die. The most common conception of the Afterlife they have is of a vast country – a sort of layered dimension that roughly mirrors the Static-Lands. However, this idea was common quite a while before the Static-Lands themselves became static.
As the most common stories tell, this spiritual plane is layered. On one end of the plane are the Barrens. The Barrens are a gray desert of cracked earth under gray skies that go on forever. They are baking or frigid, depending upon the soul that finds itself there – whichever the soul finds the least comfortable, even though it goes beyond a physical sensation. It is always a lonely place. Anyone wandering the Barrens feels utterly alone. They are never physically tormented (how could they be, lacking a physical body)? The soul may or may not be tormented by the voices and images of people they have harmed in life. They may simply be left to the lonely desolation. The experience is said to depend upon the individual. The Barrens are a dry place for dry hearts.
Some believe that there is an even lonelier place beyond the Barrens. It is usually described as darkness – the place of annihilation, utter oblivion.
On the opposite end of the immortal plane there is said to be a place of incomparable beauty and perfect peace. This place is called the
. It is not an easy place to get to as it lies atop a great cliff. According to the old Ilkhan myth, a soul that is ready to go to the Celestial Forest only goes to the edge of the cliff and from that place on the rocks; they are pulled up onto it. No one can climb up there on one’s own. Celestial Forest
Between the Barrens and the
Forest lies every state in between. The Shade is said to intersect with the mortal world and souls wandering there are seen and felt by the living as ghosts. The Shade is also the place where distressed spirits that linger may give rise to zombies if their anger and sorrow is strong enough to “bleed” back into their dead bodies. Many Ilkhan believe that reincarnation is also a possible state of a person’s spirit and that it happens to people in the Shade. People wandering the Barrens have to find their way to edge and into the Shade for it to happen to them.
Some that believe in this parallel-world hold that those consigned to the Barrens wander there forever in shame, sometimes heading toward the oblivion Beyond and that there is no hope for them whatsoever. Others believe that with enough reflection, that Barrens souls can find their want into the Shade and even to the base of the cliff that leads to the
. Celestial Forest
There are guides for the dead. This is a very common belief for the Ilkhan. Which guide a given person gets depends upon the state of their spirit. The guide for people who are ready to go to the
is said to be a beautiful golden stag with enormous white wings edged in crystal. Rainbows glance off his wings like light scattered by a multitude of prisms. He is silent and will fly a soul to the edge of the cliff on his back and will go no farther. Celestial Forest
The being that takes the souls of the petty, the paltry and the vicious is said to be a pale woman in a dark cloak astride a skeletal horse. Her arrival is said to be marked by the sound of rattling chains and for this reason she is called the Lady of Chains as well as her more common title – the Scavenger. She carries chains that bind the soul so that she may carry it to the Barrens without it harming any spirits between the starting point and the destination. A few claim that they have encountered her and lived. They say that she calls her frightful steed Andreas.
The companion of people who are caught in the Shade is a small cat that is black with white markings. She is, as the legends say, quite chatty and full of cutting remarks. A shaggy black dog with glowing eyes is thought to guide those destined to reincarnation. He is believed to appear most often to those who have committed suicide. They who take a voluntary exit from life are said to have missed some of its most important lessons and thus must repeat life – but they are at least given a fresh start.
Most of those that lived in the Land-of-Always-Night did not think these things only applied to their souls, but to the spirits of all.
A young man of Vale who was familiar with these legends never thought that he’d experience them. Dayen was a soldier on a special task; He’d been ordered to undertake a small scouting mission into the
at the far end of the Land-of-Always-Day. He’d proved himself a valuable spy before and his commanding officers wished to be aware of the latest movements of the Southern Tribe of the Vule. Dayen did not know why this information was coveted – an invasion was not being planned just yet, but maybe his mission was to be the beginning of a new conquest. Great Eastern Desert
He never completed his mission.
Dayen was wandering a dry streambed lined with brush and thorny trees when he heard a sharp screech. Before he could unsheathe his sword, he saw a gray scaled bird’s talon come for his face. There was the noise of steel scraping on steel and what felt like a punch to his entire body. He drew in a sharp breath, but it didn’t come and his chest felt weighted. His mouth tasted of metal and there was an indescribable smell. In an instant, the pain was gone.
“What just happened?” he wondered aloud. He found himself standing upon the half-clay, half-sand dirt of the desert but the desert looked different. Everything seemed to be under a haze or mist. Every object glowed slightly.
“Don’t look,” said a voice behind him.
“What?” Dayen asked turning around. He saw, a small distance off, a Vule warrior hunched over something. To his horror he realized that it was a body. To his further horror, he realized that the body had the same face that he saw in the mirror this morning. Resting beside it in the dry streambed was a spear with a bloody tip. The Vule warrior was prying off his armor and pulling down his clothing. The vulture-like creature put the broad blade of a fierce knife to his bare middle.
“What is he doing?” Dayen demanded of no one in particular.
“I told you not to look,” the voice he’d heard before told him. “He is preparing to cut out your liver. It is one of the very few parts of a kill that the Vule eat fresh. After that, he’ll leave the corpse and let it rot in the sun a little before coming back to it.”
Dayen looked around frantically. He saw a small creature padding over a group of boulders. A small black and white cat sat looking at him, cocking her head to one side.
“What’s going on?” Dayen asked. “Did I slip and hit my head or something?”
“Nope,” the cat replied. “You’re dead.”
The young man’s jaw dropped. He shook a little and looked down at the misty outlines that now comprised himself. He was not solid. He could see the floor of the desert through parts of his body – or what would be his body if he were still within it. For a split second, he considered calling upon his goddess, Materia-Machina, before remembering that she guaranteed no one an existence after death. She only cared for the living.
“No, no, no, no, no!” Dayen replied, pacing. “You aren’t real. I know you… I’ve read the Ilkhan myths. You’re one of their Agents of Death – the little cat. Aren’t you only supposed to come to them, anyway? Look at me – human! If I’m dead, I’m supposed to be gone… no more. This is a hallucination brought on by this wretched heat!”
“We come to anyone,” said the cat. “I am Nyah.”
“Like this – Nyah, a half-meow, a bored meow.” The cat hunkered down and put her forepaws out in front of her, crossed, as if she were trying to look regal or superior.
Dayen blinked, still trying to figure things out. He could see through his feet and a cat was talking to him. He figured he must have hit his head hard or, worse, the cat was right.
“I am Dayen of Vale and if I am dead, I shouldn’t be seeing you. I shouldn’t be seeing anything.”
“How come?” asked the cat.
“Because when you’re dead, you’re dead!”
“Have you ever been dead before?”
“Of course not!”
“Then how would you know?”
“This is not real.”
“What is real?” the cat flicked her tail and licked her chops casually.
“What do you mean, ‘what is real’ you little dream-beast? I’d better wake up soon. Being passed out baking in the sun can’t be good for me. Real is what you can feel, touch, taste… everything you can measure and say ‘here it is.’ Agents of Death are fiction.”
The cat got up and paced about on the rocks. “What is real is what you perceive to be real, is it not? You would not touch if you could not touch. You would not taste if you had no tongue. Did you know that sometimes, the human brain can construct false memories whole-cloth if given the right suggestions? What about when you are asleep and dreaming – of course no dream is real to your waking mind, it is all merely the subconscious, the brain arranging memories and impulses, perhaps with the construct of a narrative, albeit usually a strange one… but to you while you are in the dream, it is absolutely real… except of course, in the rare case of the lucid dream…”
Dayen yelped as he watched the Vule warrior again. The creature was feeding on one soft organ or another. Dayen’s ghostly form took on a decidedly green tinge. It felt most strange to him, feeling the need to vomit but lacking the stomach necessary for it.
“Perhaps this is a nightmare for you?” said the little cat. “That is your body there. I suppose if you believe you are dreaming that it accounts for how easily you accepted a cat speaking to you in your own language.”
“Exactly. This is a stupid dream. I want to wake up.”
“I am afraid that it is your lot to wander here. You’re an honorable young man without much malice of heart, which accounts for why the Lady of Chains did not come to take you to the Barrens - yet, you aren’t quite ready yet for the Hart of Gold and the
. You have much pride to put away before you can enjoy that. Maybe it’s just that you died too swiftly, hmm? No time to even ponder it.” Celestial Forest
“I’m not dead!”
“Yes, some poor spirits wander for a long time before accepting that fact. I’m afraid that you will not likely get a proper burial, either. I’m sure your people will find you when you are clean, white scattered bones. It’s not so bad. It is the fate of many animals.”
“Pheh!” Dayen groused throwing up his hands, which to him looked spectral.
“You must be careful, now. You can go either way – toward the
Forest or toward the Barrens. Your state of soul is up to you.”
“I don’t believe in souls! At least not immortal ones!”
“Yet, here you are.”
“Listen, you little fuzzy demon, I have believed all my life that dead is dead. I was certain that once I was gone, if I saw anything at all it would be darkness, an eternal sleep. What you’re trying to tell me is that I’ve shifted into some fluffy afterlife believed by the fools my country is bringing into well-deserved subjection. Once someone is dead, they know no more!”
“You may be right,” said Nyah.
“Huh?” Dayen asked. “All this time you’ve been telling me I’ve been wrong and now you say that I am right?”
“Not that you are right, only that you may be.”
The young man scratched his head, or did the best approximation of that a disembodied spirit could do.
“You might be right about not existing,” Nyah explained. She lay back down, crossing her paws over one another again. “Objectively, you may no longer exist; however, existence and non-existence are mutually-exclusive states, are they not?”
“Wouldn’t it make sense that they are so mutually-exclusive that the brain that exists cannot properly process lack-of-existence and that the perceptions thereof just would not register – therefore, the last thoughts said brain has - perhaps the last strange visions drawn from the deepest myths it remembers as the blood and air are fleeing it are truly the last thing it ever knows. Now, seeing as the state of being and the state of non-being are so exclusive of each other, perhaps the last thing one’s perception registers are one’s eternity.”
“Come again, cat? I think my brain just exploded.”
“Nope! Your killer is leaving it to the maggots.”
Dayen sat down on the rocks next to Nyah. “I was put to sleep for a surgery once. When I was in training, my swordplay partner and I had an unfortunate accident and I was left with a rather serious wound. The doctors needed me nice and still so they could stitch it up. I was drugged. As I was going under, I felt darkness encroach upon me. I always thought death would be like that.”
“You woke up.”
“Of course I woke up.”
“Where did you go when you were asleep?”
“I was told that I was asleep for many hours, but it felt like nothing to me. One moment, my eyes were closing and darkness was swarming all around me. The next, I was groggy and felt the warmth of bandages. There was nothing there – just nothing.”
“You only remember it as being one-moment-to-the-next because you woke up. What if you didn’t wake up?”
“Wouldn’t I have only been in darkness?”
“Maybe you only remember darkness because you were closing your eyes, or because your vision was failing. That little bit of darkness felt like it was all that was there and would have felt like eternity if in the next moment you had died.”
“Well, I expected that.”
“What if the last thing you saw was something strange and visionary, your distressed brain looking to puzzle out what was happening to you and reaching deep inside for the last or deepest bit of mythology engrained within it? What if you had died in your sleep while having a dream?”
“Hmm. I’d still expect darkness, nothing.”
“Darkness is just a euphemism. Even darkness is a kind of existence.”
“So, you are saying that right now, I am in the last throes of my stupid, dying brain?”
“Maybe and maybe not. This could be what the brain truly believes it is happening – it really is a tricky organ. Seeing that not-existing would be beyond its processing power, it may be, to you, an eternity – your eternity. On the other hand, this could be decidedly real and you are a ghost, meant to wander the desert near where you have fallen until you can find a way to go elsewhere.”
“Will you be straight with me?”
“How can I be straight with you? I am a cat. I also am at a loss to explain to you anything that you cannot accept.”
“So, if I am an actual spirit, where do I go from here? From the myths I know I do not want to go to the Barrens, so I suppose I should head to the
, but how do I get there?” Celestial Forest
“It is a state of soul. Swallow your pride. You’ll know, eventually, which way to walk.”
“It’s your dream, you tell me.”