Heaven and earth were illuminated as a ball of light burst from the ground and shot through the dark clouds. With a thunderous crack it split open the sky as it hurtled towards the horizon — an endless stretch of twilight that burned at the edge of the outlying fairytale lands.
Stars lingered in its wake, and their obsequious echoes twinkled upon the cold desert floor. They brought light to the thorny, dead brambles there; to the rolling dunes of black sand; to a life quite removed from those distant, happy places.
The Maker Of All This, the Great Creator, was hard at work.
A small figure, a boy in size, but something more than a boy – a fable – stood upon a hill, watching the light as it escaped the dead land. He was bony and frail, clothed in a simple red-and-white striped shirt, black pants fastened with black suspenders, and a curious, black top hat — the indicative garb of circus mime. He stood motionless, as sturdy and straight as a fine porcelain statue.
Despite his frailness and the thinness of his wears, the fable did not shiver from the bitter cold; nor did he blink through the unforgiving gusts of sand that had turned the air as gray as ashes.
Imbued with great powers at his birth, and even greater at his rebirth in this world of decay, the fable stood impervious to it, protected from it.
The Maker should be thanked for these abilities…
No, not him, the fable told himself. Never again…him.
It was the Great Gifelderelm, the Maker’s tree of purpose that deserved the credit. Salvation had come from its seed, the incredible germ from which all fairytale life begins, and that seed alone. And it was the fable’s quick thinking that had made it possible: Had he not thought to steal it before coming to this place, he would still be sleeping in the ground, doomed to slumber in the wilderness forever. Growing with the passage of time, the seed too became a great tree and exhumed him from his dark grave. It had brought him back to life.
He stared harder at the ball of light, his shining, gold eyes swimming with fresh tears.
Not this time, he told himself, quelling the impulse to move. He would not go chasing after the light this time. Thirty-three years of chasing was enough.
After all, it hadn’t done him any good. The lights flew far too fast for him to match, their origins were always unpredictable and quickly disappeared after their departure, and then the Wall…the impenetrable Great Divide was always too high. Crafted by The Maker of All This to increase itself should one wish to venture into that other world, the stone barrier remained impossible to breach.
And besides, even if he were to reach the place where the two worlds meet, the Maker’s warden, Sentury, The Allegiant, would never let him pass.
I am trapped here, the fable confessed with wide, diluvial eyes. And for the first time in all these years that irrevocable fact settled in. In this place, his story was one that would never be heard again. I will never go home.
He caught his first tear on the tip of his finger. It stained his white glove a dark, penetrating blue – a color he hadn’t seen since before his banishment, in a time where the darkness had no meaning. There is so much darkness here.
Then, suddenly consumed with nostalgia, he wept. He wept until he grew numb and the sadness was gone, until the crude layers of dried, white paint that caked his unfledged face cracked and flaked. Now left with only deep, unassuageable rage another color spilled out of him: From the red of his lips, the blush of his cheeks, and the red stripes of his shirt vengeful and calescent red rings leapt from his body and began to spin in dervish circles all around him.
They spread out in every direction, growing wilder as his fury grew. His anger magnificently personified, they throbbed with the beating of his broken heart and rippled the air with the rancorous fire burning inside of him. They became razors that carved deep, unhealable wounds in the hillside and bows that whipped flaming arrows after the absconding ball of light, now a dying ember at the horizon.
Don’t leave me here alone, the fable’s heart cried, but it went unheeded. The light vanished into the quiet blue.
It was in that moment however, when all hope seemed completely lost, that an extremely peculiar something stole his attention. Though the hill the fable had been roosted upon crumbled away, his powers refused to break his focus, and he remained, hovering in midair. For in this place stilled by death what had found him was instilled with life: a butterfly.
It was black and white, the size of an oak leaf. Face to face with the creature, the fable’s rage subsided: The rings diminished, and his mood lifted. Then, with intense curiosity, he watched the butterfly dance – a beautiful waltz on the wind. Most baffling about the display, beyond the butterfly’s sudden and implausible appearance, was how little the desert gales affected its movements. Apparently, it too had powers.
Did The Maker of All This make you? The fable wondered, searching its face for a pair of sparkling, golden eyes. Did he force you here too? Are you an exile, like me?
The butterfly fluttered passed him, then halted. Hovering, waiting, as if perched on an invisible flower on a windless night.
No, you’re not. He resolved. For his visitor had no golden eyes and therefore no fable roots to tie it to the other world. You’re different.
The butterfly flipped over in reply, as if it had sensed his query and agreed with him. The move beckoned the fable closer. Could it be this strange creature wanted him to follow?
But where to in this vast wilderness The Maker of All This called The End? For The End had no ending; it only began and went on, never-ending — a deep expanse of nothingness he had struggled to discover the limits of too many times before. With every venture he always found himself no further from where he started.
Again, the butterfly somersaulted, requesting his company. Perhaps, with such a guide as this one — a guide who, like him, could stand the rigors of The End — he might just find the escape he’d been seeking all these years, or at the very least, gain a new companion on the journey toward it. He wouldn’t be alone anymore.
Convinced, at least for the moment, the boy floated nearer to the butterfly, set to follow the winged chaperone.
The two flew together for a long time — days it seemed. They drifted very near the ground for a good part of their flight; not for the sake of following breadcrumbs only the butterfly could see, but for the sake of the second disciple in their midst: a twisted tree, the dispiriting color of soot, which traipsed zealously after them upon a bed of wooden tentacles. It was the fable’s treasured liberator – The Black Gifelderelm.
Digging its claws into the coal-colored earth, it struggled to keep up. Its leafless branches caught the brunt of the wind and slowed its dutiful march. There had been no sun or rain here to nurture its growth, to make it strong. So the fable took to riding upon it, his powers able to overcome the wind’s angry pull.
They marched on, together: shuffling through fields of discarded quills and inkwells; swimming through dark valleys littered with yellowing paper; scaling massive hills of sand and smoke. Not a word was shared between the three of them, only a hushed sense of determination, a rising hope for some prize up ahead.
The End had become a flat plain of fractured rock and ice when their journey came to a pause. The fable’s lone endeavors had never taken him beyond the ashen mountains that, to his befuddlement, had completely disappeared from the skyline. They had come to a place he had never been before.
At the center of the plain laid around them sat a naked, perverted shrub. It appeared to have turned silver from its fight through the onerous layers of frozen earth. The butterfly settled on something unusual nestled within it. It was a stone, but not just any stone. It was one that surely had no business being there. Unlike the bricks of ice or clods of dirt they passed over along their way, the oblong sphere was remarkably smooth — eroded by the waters of some nonexistent stream.
The fable dismounted, hovering a moment before landing, then picked it up while the butterfly found its place a short distance away. He gently turned the discovery over in his gloved hands. Disappointingly, there was nothing of further note about it: no signs, no inscriptions, no changes in color with his mood. No surprises. Nothing, until he tossed it in the air: There came a laugh — a high-pitched, seemingly uncontrollable snigger — escaping the curious little stone as it fell back to his palm.
The fable’s eyes widened, fascinated. He examined it more closely, caressing it, squeezing it, testing its firmness, looking for the answers to what could be so funny. He got none of those, however. The laughter only grew more intense and more wild, practically mocking his efforts. Mocking him…making fun of him.
He grimaced, incensed. Flecks of white, like floating specks of paper, began to fall over his hands and the stone as the fable’s face paint split, this time forming two devilish claws that tore into his simple features. His eyes burned with ire and the crimson rings again poured out of him. That was until the butterfly interceded, once more stealing his focus with a single flap of its wings.
Again, the fable settled, his anger simmering. It was all he could do not to destroy the infuriating rock. He could throw it away at the very least – surrender it back to the dead, desert floor. And that he did: its ceaseless laughter dying as the cold wind stole it away. That would teach that giggling goad to make fun.
Suddenly, the Black Gifelderelm, startled by the action, bolted from a standstill and scrambled after the stone. The fable did not stop the tree; he only watched, puzzled. What was so funny? Perhaps the tree got the joke.
The tree had shrunk to a vibrating speck in the distance, when the fable once again turned his eyes to the butterfly. He was brimming with the notion that they still had farther to go, and his guide agreed. Indeed, there was still more to see.
So the fable took the air, all the while knowing the tree would find its way back to him as it always did. The two of them are connected in that way: The Gifelderelm’s darkness always seeking his fable light.
Another day’s flight brought them to a mound of undisturbed gray sand. The butterfly, hovering once again, flipped over twice. Dig. It seemed to say. Their unknown prize was just within reach now, in the ground beneath them.
The fable glared at the butterfly. In the ground. He had searched the ground thousands upon thousands of times before, burrowing holes so deep they took days to escape. Entire canyons were carved in the barren landscape as he hunted for the vanishing lights. What would make this time any different?
Perhaps he just hadn’t known where to look. Maybe it would take a different pair of eyes to see it.
Spreading his fingers wide, the fable raised a hand to the dusty hillock. His face tightened, his tiny muscles tensed, and his golden eyes burned, as his powers sent plume after plume of silt rising from the plot and swirling away in the wind. Once the desert floor was lifted, a deep hole remained.
He knelt over the edge of it, peering down into the darkness there, anxiously waiting for the hidden treasure to reveal itself. He hardly flinched at the stench of death and decay emanating from inside. He only stared harder. Waiting. Time seemed to pass slowly, like a snail pushing against a hurricane, which doubled, then tripled his anxieties. So he looked deeper, leaning in; so far in fact, his feet came to rest flat against the hole wall. Gravity shifted, and he now stood at the doorway, body fully upright, face to face with the unknown.
And suddenly there came a voice, low and hollow, almost crying out from the dark:
The fable reeled backward. Gravity shifted again, bringing his feet back to solid ground. He looked in wonder at the butterfly, who flipped gleefully over and over again at the sight of him.
You have found your prize! It seemed to laugh. And now…my job is done.
Abandoning its once direct line of flight, the sage butterfly escaped into the sky, spinning and twirling with sprite-like fanfare, then disappeared.
“It hurt,” came the voice a second time.
The fable stretched out his ink-stained hand once more, this time taking hold of something invisible ahead of him. He pulled back. Whatever was below was quite heavy, much heavier than he expected it to be.
He struggled hard to raise it, and his frustrations grew. Now that he has finally found something of worth in this forlorn abyss, it seemed the Maker had put yet another rampart in his way.
I am leaving this place, he told himself.
The crimson rings fell out of him again and began their violent spin.
Held firmly in his power, a dark figure, strong in build but lifeless, with the floppy, slender ears of some abnormal woodland creature, emerged — levitating before him, dust whipping wildly from its naked skin.
From behind him, the fable heard a soft snigger.
He glanced over his shoulder to find the Black Gifelderelm coming towards him from the distant plain, the stone cradled in two thin branches at its base. The tree seemed to stand taller, full of excitement now, a loyal servant awaiting the orders that would set some sudden plan into action. Then, for the first time in what had been a very, very long while, a smile, dark and malevolent, etched across the fable’s pale face.
At last, an idea.