This is a piece of writing from a fantasy project I probably won’t finish. It turned out to be more like a writing exercise, fun but exhausting. I just thought I’d share a little for fun. Warning: it’s trippy!
The horizon had long since vanished, or flipped itself over, or become something else entirely. Aeryn could not tell one way or the other. Nor could he remember when the change occurred, or whether it had always been that way. There was no more up, or down, or eastward, which had been the direction he traveled, sometime long ago. There was only a wall of sea foam in the distance, or at least something akin to one. Whatever it was, it undulated with a hundred colors, and it was always moving, but never going anywhere. If he looked at it for too long his head began to ache.
“We should turn back,” said Aeryn. “I don’t think we’ll find it there.”
“If not, it won’t matter,” said Perceval. “Maybe it’s the end.”
Their horses stirred restlessly beneath them. Aeryn turned to regard his companion. The two of them both sat upon horses of the most elegant stock. The velvety black fur of their steeds gleamed with the colors of the upturned sea. But Perceval’s chainmail sparkled pure silver, as it always did, and his long brown hair blew with a breeze Aeryn could not feel. The other knight’s blue eyes twinkled as they stared into the radiance beyond, but he did not seem to grow weary of it, as Aeryn did. Perhaps because Perceval wasn’t real. Perhaps because none of it was.
“What if it’s hell?” said Aeryn. He took off his helmet so he could meet his friend’s gaze, perhaps to borrow its brightness. In Aeryn’s own eyes there was only darkness and sadness. His black hair lay flat upon his armored shoulders, and he felt none of the spring wind that refreshed his companion.
“Is there a difference anymore?” Perceval never looked to Aeryn. His eyes remained on the foam in the distance. In the glassy irises, Aeryn could see its reflection.
“Of course. Why would you ask such a silly thing?”
“What if God is the Devil, and the Devil is God? What if they are one and the same?”
Aeryn gripped his sword and loosed it from its scabbard. His voice grated in his throat like the steel against its sheath. “The Perceval I knew would never say such a thing!”
“Then perhaps I am not he.” At last, the knight turned his head. As Aeryn watched, Perceval’s face seemed to morph, resembling less and less of the man he knew and loved, revealing instead a demon with grinning white fangs and red, slitted eyes. The demon laughed as the wind around him strengthened, lashing his hair against his lips. “Why do you care so much, Aeryn? Why, after all this time, can you not let it go?”
Aeryn bared his blade, thrusting the naked steel through the winds towards Perceval. “Tell me where it is.”
“How should I know? I am not Perceval. Perceval is not even real, Aeryn. He never was.”
“We shall see about how real you are when my sword breaks your skin.”
“I did not say I am not real!” The demon laughed. His hair wrapped around itself and swelled into a slimy texture. His chainmail stretched and twisted, sinking into his flesh until it became like scales along his arms. “Perceval was a dream, Aeryn. So was the Grail. So is anything you see here in this accursed place. Except for That …” He swept his hand towards the vertical storm. “That is the only real thing that ever was, the form from which all shadows are cast. The sea of being. The river of life. The stream—”
Aeryn jabbed with his sword, rending a hole through Perceval’s chest.
The demon screeched and his horse reared. But instead of Perceval bleeding to death, or the horse galloping away, something stranger happened. Through the hole in Perceval’s chest, something squirmed, then slithered out. It was a serpent, and as it came out, it wound around Perceval’s neck—not to strangle him, but rather to embrace its master. Aeryn watched in awe as Perceval’s hair twisted around itself and merged to form another snake, coiled about his head. The scales on his body which had once been chainmail rose out and formed yet another serpent, or maybe two, looping around his arms like bracelets. Beneath the writhing serpents the demon’s form revealed itself to be a human body, muscular and firm, but pale and gray, as if sculpted from clay and ash.
Meanwhile the horse beneath him changed, too. Horns pierced through its forehead and spread out towards the sky. Its body thickened, hooves spreading over the rocky earth, while its head widened then lowered. Slowly, the horse became a bull with eyes like globes of amber. The bull’s hide was as of sandy dunes, soft and grainy. Over the fur was a dark gray dust, the same as on the skin of his master, whose white flesh was powdered with the dark stuff.
“I see you cowering,” laughed the demon. “Do you cower when you know you are dreaming? Or are your dreams worth fearing the most?”
“It … it … can’t be,” gasped Aeryn. The air rushed against him, shaking his sword, rattling his lungs. He smelled spoiled meat, rotten fruit. “The Grail is real. It has to be. I will never stop searching. I must find it. For Queen Eleanor!”
“Hm,” said the demon. When he smiled, his tongue writhed behind his teeth like another serpent. “Queen Eleanor … ?”
Aeryn’s grip tightened on his sword. The wind about him strengthened. His steed tossed under his legs. “She is real. She has to be!”
“I suppose she was as real as you perceive such reality.” The bull mount snorted and stomped its great hooves. “But she was yet another form, cast by the light of the essence.”
“You speak nonsense,” cried Aeryn, “and I will hear no more!”
This time he stabbed the demon’s mouth, piercing the snake behind the teeth. The tip of the blade drove through. With a yell of rage, Aeryn leapt from the back of his own horse. He planted his feet on the bull’s shoulders and drove his blade into the demon’s mouth. The steel plunged through the demon’s skull and out the other side. Aeryn cried out for victory as he plunged the blade home.
But when he blinked, he saw the demon still smiling, even with the sword between its teeth. As Aeryn watched, a serpent crawled from the demon’s arm and bit Aeryn’s wrist.
Aeryn stumbled back, watching the snake’s teeth pull back out. Two holes in his forearm gaped open. The sky rolled. He sagged and slid down the bull’s neck.
The demon reached up and pulled the sword from its teeth. Its tongue seemed no worse for wear once freed. “The poison acts quickly.”
Aeryn fell into a tangle of soil and rocks that formed the earth below. He cried out as the pain spread up his back and his vision became lost in the world above. It should have been a sky, but it wasn’t. Through the clouds was another landscape. Winding across its surface was a river, blue and turbulent, and around the river were sharp mountains jutting out as if to impale him. Indeed his body seemed to be rising, or falling, towards the rocky spikes; he grew dizzy and lost track of what was up and down. His whole body tingled and he knew the poison must be taking effect. But while all the world turned around him, the face of the demon loomed steadily over him, grinning with its snake fangs.
“Poor Aeryn. Lucky Aeryn. How long have you been dreaming?”
“Not … a dream …” gasped Aeryn. He saw the river trickling closer, winding towards him like another snake. He saw his shape reflected in its surface, dark and fading fast. “Oh God … how long? How long have I been searching?”
“Hundreds of years. Maybe thousands. You have been caught in the stream for a long time, Aeryn. We all have. Can you see it?”
The demon held him now, his fingers digging into Aeryn’s shoulders, the serpents hissing in his ears. The two of them floated above the stream—or if up was across, then they floated next to it—while the Sea of Being writhed above, and no earth lay under their feet. Aeryn stared into the stream and saw his face, the face of a young knight with an X-shaped scar on his cheek. His body was one of youth and strength, but in his eyes was something much older, much wearier: the soul of someone who had lived too long.
“It’s only a reflection,” said the demon. “One perception of the essence within.”
Suddenly the demon thrust Aeryn into the water. He tried to cry out but his mouth filled with water, or whatever it was. The stream-stuff burned his tongue and tasted like fire. It filled up his veins and melted him, from within and without, and he released a silent scream.
When the demon pulled him back out, he felt smaller and frailer. The sound from his mouth was a high-pitched squawk. He thrashed and squirmed, but his arms had become large, flattened things—wings. Feathers flew from his body, as black as shards of the night sky. He twisted to peer upon his reflection, but instead he saw the face of a raven, clacking its beak and flapping uselessly in the grip of the snakes.
“Another form. The same you.”
Once again Aeryn was thrust into the stream. This time he tried not to breathe, knowing that here, breath was only an illusion: not a necessity for life. Yet after a time the water seeped into him anyway, through his feathers, through his eyes. He tried flapping but he could already feel his form changing again, shifting, twisting, withering like a leaf in a flame. When he thrashed free, his wings were arms again.
He gasped for breath, or the idea of it, as he watched his own lips in the water. They were different now, like everything else. The lips were small, pert, and pink. He blinked in awe as he stared at the new reflection of himself, or herself, for the face staring back at him was that of a young girl’s, perhaps seventeen years of age. She had big blue eyes and jagged black hair. Her body was small and wiry. She did not appear to possess much strength, but when he squirmed, he found the grip of the snakes slipping.
“Cute,” said the demon. “Take your last look, Aeryn. You will never get a new form again.”
Now Aeryn glimpsed many more faces in the water: men, women, young, old, black, white. All him. All her.
“Goodbye, Aeryn. Good luck.”
The demon let go, though Aeryn now wished that he wouldn’t. Aeryn fell into the stream and it wrapped completely around him. He reached and flailed but there was no swimming in a stream like this. Its surface looked like water but on the other side it loomed something else. Pitch blackness, disrupted occasionally by flashes of light. He could not close his eyes to the light because he no longer had eyes, or a body. He was only a consciousness hanging in an atmosphere without substance or shape.
One flash of light beamed more steadily and brightly than the others, drawing him in. As it flooded over him, he felt his head reform above the stream. He saw the waters roiling about him, splashing and undulating. Then he saw the land rushing past. The stream was moving—fast. And it was headed somewhere.
Towards the standing ocean. He cried out, but it was too late. The stream had him, and it would pull him into the undulating oblivion, the spraying acid foam.
He stared into his doom and it was as frightening as it was beautiful. He wished he could see more of it, but his eyes could not see far enough, for it expanded everywhere. The colors were too intense, too searing. When he tried to focus on the foam, seeing shapes in it, he failed to do so. Sometimes the details became broken up into pieces like cubes, larger than they ought to be.
Then Aeryn felt as if he was breaking into cubes, too, and splitting apart every which way.
Then there was nothing.