by Jervis Pax.
Afghanistan. The earth speeds by, several hundred feet below me, and I absently watch the shadow of the helicopter race across the parched desert, jumping over the occasional mud-roofed dwelling, skimming across the tops of sparse trees, and diving now and then onto the floor of a dry streambed. Every few seconds I turn my neck one way or the other, craning to spot the slightest reflection off of a weapon that I know is aimed at us as we fly past. There would be little I could do if I actually saw a Talib before he fired, I am neither pilot nor door gunner.
As a passenger, I could shout a warning in hopes of directing the gunner’s attention, but I know in reality, with so many reflections shining up from windows and rocks and broken objects forgotten in the sand, I would probably not risk looking the fool by crying wolf at a phantom reflection. I keep my mouth shut, but I continue searching anyway. The thought that we might go down in a ball of flame is unsettling, and try as I might to concentrate on something other than the possibility of death; my thoughts continue to return to the invisible assailant that I know is waiting just seconds ahead.
It is not so much a fear of death that troubles me, for I am not as anxious when I am riding or walking over the same dangerous ground. Nor is it a fear of flying, for I truly love to travel and have hundreds of thousands of miles as a passenger in both civilian and military planes. What troubles me is the helplessness and lack of control that comes with being mere human cargo in a low-flying helicopter in a combat zone. If something goes wrong, there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. That is the problem with the real world… I can never be completely in control. But what if… what if this wasn’t the real world? What if this was my world?
Rule Number One: the Game Master is always right. Rule Number Two: When in doubt, see rule number one. If this was my world, judging from the style and arrangement of dwellings, the desertification of once proud forests, and the nomadic peoples moving about with dromedaries and horses, this would be the kingdom of Karak. More precisely Northern Karak since it would have to be within reach of the lair of Khelek Ernil, the great Dragon Prince. Only his presence could explain the large shadow moving swiftly over the villages below. Only his broad wingspan could temporarily blot the sun and cause villagers to turn their heads aloft in awed response. The feeble weapons of invisible assailants that might lie in wait ahead hold no danger for Khelek’s scales even if there were any man alive foolish enough to tempt the wrath of the great prince of the north.
I do not so much ride Khelek as I direct his flight. I see Karak from this angle because I choose to do so. I created this kingdom and all the others of the world. But why, I wonder, have I decided to wake Khelek from his long slumber? Where does he head and what future lies before him? I close my eyes and the last vestiges of reality fade away, replaced by images of my own creation. The sound of the helicopter engine becomes the powerful wing beats of the Dragon Prince. My anxiety subsides.
In this place I am invincible. I am order and chaos, good and evil, all that ever was and all that will be. As I look into the reservoir of untapped creativity that is my inner sanctum, a vast storehouse of new ideas opens before me. I take hold of the fabric of the universe and begin to weave the future for all those who live below me and for all those who will test their fates in my world.
Welcome to the World of Thraveon, noble traveler. You must have followed me into this sphere by choice as I have no powers to force you here, but now that you have arrived, I warrant you will not leave voluntarily. I can see the curiosity and intellect that is alight in your eyes and can sense the love of adventure that hangs like an aura about you. Can it be that you were meant to find you your way here?
Since my real-world self is trapped temporarily in that wretched helicopter, and since you seem to be well-behaved for an outsider, I will allow you to accompany me, for a short time, into the realms of the thrice-born and beyond the hidden reaches of the Urchask. We may observe dangers as we pass over the land, but as long as you do not stray too far from me, you will enjoy the mantle of my invincibility. Watch for a time, as I craft new wonders for the inhabitants of my world and weave the tangled webs that will define their lives.
If your heart is true enough, and your courage deep enough, perhaps I will one day allow you to set foot upon the soaring peaks of Ered Bethel or to wander the verdant forests of the Dearthwood. Since you have come to me unbidden, you might be one of the chosen, but I think it is too soon to tell. For now, I will continue to weave and gauge your reactions to my work. There is no sense in trying to keep your thoughts from me; this is, after all, my world.
In time, I will know if you continue to be intrigued just as I now know the path upon which Khelek Ernil speeds. His future is now entwined with yours in ways that are at once invigorating and mystifying, even to me. He strains against the weight of a great burden that he has born for centuries and pushes ever further to the south beyond the normal reaches of his principality. Nothing but this task could have lured him from his peaceful slumber. How, I wonder, did he come to know so quickly that you were here? I am surprised that I did not realize his purpose before now, but I cannot share it with you just yet, as that would be unfair to those who compete against you. Let us forget Khelek for the moment and turn the fabric over to a different fold altogether.
Do you see it? There on the very edge of the weaving? That small village nest led in the crook of the River Sotu? A blacksmith waits there for us. I know because I just put him there. If you grab hold and follow me for a moment down this single thread, perhaps you will begin to understand…
The village needs a name, as does my blacksmith. I open my eyes and the Afghan heat blasts through the open doors of the helicopter, momentarily taking my breath away. Perhaps in my excitement I had stopped breathing. Who can tell what happens in the moments between worlds? I glance down at the map in my hands to find the first three district names that pop off the paper; Dehra Wod, Ghorak, and Terin Kowt, three places that have recently seen much violence and bloodshed. One of my fellow travelers gives me the thumbs up and raises his eyebrows in question, shifting his weapon to a more comfortable position. I return the thumbs up sign to let him know I’m fine and glance quickly down at the village below. A lone horse is tied to a post outside a hut, one Afghan boy races to catch a ball that is about to go over his neighbor’s mud wall and a woman, shrouded in a blue burkha, trudges slowly away from village well with a large plastic jug filled with water. From these few words and images I will create a future. If it is your destiny, that future may intersect with your own.
I close my eyes again and see the village on the River Sotu. It has grown of its own volition since I first imagined it moments ago, but I see now how important it is to our purposes. Nestled between the river and a small expanse of cultivated forest, it is called Derrawood, a small market town known principally for its ghoren, a spicy dried fish pulled daily from the river in vast nets woven of local fiber. Most of the townsmen work the nets along the river, catching the spotted ghoren as they swim upstream to spawn, but several craftsmen have set up shop on the forest side of town, providing various necessaries and luxuries for the people of Derrawood.
In the small smithy, the blacksmith tends to a new customer. The smith is a middle-aged man with a large frame and sturdy muscles developed over many years at the anvil. His name is Torin. He has been working this trade since he was apprenticed to the village smith at the age of ten, and only recently inherited the shop, the tools, and the custom when his late master died at the ripe old age of sixty-one.
The customer speaks, “I have traveled long to find you Master Torin, for I have heard tell of your work, even in the far reaches of the Azure City. Yours is, shall we say, a rare talent.”
The customer is dressed in the dark green livery of the Marshallate of Wertan, and Torin can see by the fine cut of his clothing and the jeweled pommel of the dagger on his belt that he is, if not noble himself, in the employ of a great noble of the capital city.
“I did not know that hinges and hooks were such a rarity in Wertan my lord,” Torin replies, “but if I can lend my skills to the betterment of the kingdom, I am happy to assist in what small ways I can.”
“Come now Master Torin,” the man answers, “I know your skills are not limited to the crafting of farm tools and household widgets.” The man raises a single eyebrow as if to question the veracity of his statement.
“That would depend entirely on your purpose,” good master, “for I will not put my hidden skills to work without good cause, and will not involve myself in the politics of the kingdom.”
Just as the customer is about to respond, a leather ball, no bigger than a man’s fist, flies into the smithy and lands with a splash into the cooling trough that sits beside Torin’s anvil. It hits the center of the trough with such force that water is splashed upon both Torin and his customer. A young boy, racing behind the ball, rushes quickly towards the shop to fetch it up and stops abruptly, all wide-eyed wonder at the roan stallion that stands peacefully outside the smithy. No scrawny ill-fed village nag this, the boy stares in amazement at the sturdy warhorse. The horse, as if amused at its master’s soaking, turns its massive head towards the boy and seems almost to smile. The boy is clearly unsure what awes him most, the horse’s demeanor, the bright polish of the heavy leather saddle or the menacing two-handed sword that hangs upon the horse’s flank.
“Here is your ball, keyak,” Torin calls, using the affectionate Karakian term for a boy that is unrelated to one’s family. “I think you owe this man an apology.”
The customer turns around, a look of surprise and anger on his face, and he moves as if to reach for the boy.
“I’m sorry sir,” says the boy, “I meant no harm. I’ll gladly do you a service to make up for the trouble I’ve caused you. Is that your horse in the foreyard? Perhaps I could tend to him while you speak with Master Torin?”
The anger on the customer’s face seems to drain away instantly at the mention of his horse. “Apology accepted,” says the man “and if my horse will let you tend to him, I will give you two coppers, though I doubt he will let you within reach, he is a nasty brute most days.”
“Oh no sir,” replies the boy, “he is nothing of the sort. In fact he…” The boy stops mid sentence and cranes his neck to look skyward. For an instant he stands in shadow as most the ancient creature the boy has ever seen passes swiftly overhead. He stands in awe at the passing of the dragon, unaware that his mother races towards him in panic up Crafter’s Way.
Torin stands stationary at his anvil, the water droplets from the leather ball hanging in mid-air over the anvil. The customer glances knowingly out towards his horse, whose eyes twinkle with extra-equine intelligence. The boy gazes transfixed at the motionless Dragon Prince while his mother seems frozen in mid-stride, hoping to scoop her son up before some unknown evil befalls him. They all await the coming of the chosen and will stand in this tableau until I bring them out of stasis. I created them just for you, and you may yet get to speak with them if I find you worthy. In the meantime, there seems to be a rumbling under my throne.
I open my eyes and the crew chief is giving the sign to dismount the helicopter. I blink several times to adjust my eyes to the bright sun then squint to keep the dust that is billowing up from the wash of the rotor blades out of my eyes. Though the blades spin many feet above my head, and I have been through this routine a hundred times before, still I cannot help but ducking to prevent my own decapitation. I am no longer in control.
I turn back to wave my thanks to the crew chief and see the door gun angled down along the flank of the helicopter. For an instant, it looks more like a great sword than a machine gun, and I shake my head to clear my thoughts. Danger lurks at the nexus of my two worlds. I must keep them separate. Will you join me next time I venture to create, or will you choose to remain in your dismal reality? Do you think that you might actually be one of the chosen? Return to me if you think you are, and perhaps I will set you down in the vast lands of Thraveon with a task of your own. For now, however, Afghanistan’s troubles await me.