I still check my eyes in the mirror every morning, to see if my eyes have gone night-black and full of stars. I've been - out of there - for almost three months. I've been in Town, where the sun is solid and the air is bright, for a month.
But the Headmaster comes here to Town, doesn't he? And could he not sidle up to my window, and reach into my eyes and unscrew them, like lightbulbs?
So I check.
They're still hazel. Of course they're hazel. Why would they ever not be?
The light of the sun sparkles off the basin of water I've drawn. I extinguish these sparkles by dropping a towel on the water, and then begin to wash my face.
My father used to wake me up and pull me out into the woods, in the middle of the night. We - and then I, alone - camped, under the stars at midnight with only what I could grab in five minutes. I'd hated it. He made my life unpredictable, told me that this was what life was like - that the world simply wouldn't give a damn about you, and that you had to grab what you could and run if you wanted to survive.
And then the sky turned bright with meteors, one night, and I played a game, and the game destroyed the Earth and took me into another world.
I was good at that game. I had to be; I already knew what it was like to hunt. It was actually easier, in some ways. The enemies in the Game did not track scent and so I didn't have to worry about being downwind. I had a crossbow, and when that failed I had my fists, and when that failed - well, that was an opportunity to become more than I was, so of course I took it.
My coplayers were... all right, I suppose. They were as good as they could have been, given the circumstances. But they didn't understand. They wouldn't take it seriously - couldn't take it seriously. I managed to herd them through and keep them all alive (or as alive as possible, given the circumstances). I could've let one of them die, to show the others what it was really like. I certainly had many opportunities to. But I didn't, because that would be unfair and pointless.
Life was unfair and pointless, and I was better than that.
I knew, even then, that I needed to use my knowledge that life was that fragile to keep other people from realizing the same. Because they'd be happier, if they didn't know.
Professor - he never told me his name, and nobody ever called him anything other than the Professor - he told me that I'd already been broken from the beginning, just that I'd fixed it wrong. Like when you break a bone and don't set it and it the bone knits back together with a crook in it, an angle.
I knew, had always known, that something wasn't right about how life was, about how reality was. But instead of resolving then that reality was wrong I decided that I would cling harder to it instead. Maybe that was something I decided by myself. Maybe that was something the Game decided for me. Maybe it was something that I'd remembered, from my father telling stories under the stars while I tried to dry my socks next to a campfire, having forgotten to bring an extra pair. Either way I'd stowed my reasons for what I became so deeply into my memory that I didn't know what they were.
Did the Game make me a Guide of Mind, or was I already one from the beginning?
"And thus, we come to the point of this metaphor -" and he looked at me intently - "do you know what the treatment is for such cases?"
To fix a broken bone that sets wrong you need to break it again.
This story is in fragments because my memory is in fragments. I know, for instance, what it felt like to dry my socks under the stars, but I don't remember what my father was saying; and there are equally many instances of the reverse - of remembering the touch of a cool and dry hand, a candy bar frozen to eat in the summer, two pairs of shoes tied to the back of a truck bumping along in front of us on the highway, without understanding when they happened or why they were important.
I guess it's part of human variation. There are some people who have photographic memories; and so there must be some people on the other side of the bell curve that have no memories at all, or memories all jumbled and broken like mine. It's unfair, but it's unfair in the same way that everything else about life is unfair.
People have this thing they do, that they think that having a massive deficit on one part of the scale must thus give you character points to spend on a bonus on the other end. They look at me, and think that ah, I must have traded my memory for my intelligence and charisma and ability to walk through a forest without making a sound.
They don't say quite the same things about people for whom the dice turn out badly. Or rather they do, and try to paper over the obvious discrepancies by saying that the stillborn child must've had so much faith and goodness in it that it simply couldn't walk among mortal men, or that surely someone who will never have an IQ above that of a carrot brings joy to the life of those who take care of him.
Sometimes things are just unfair.
A lot of them are unfair in my direction, though. So I try not to complain.
I didn't want what the Game wanted to offer me as a reward, and I didn't want to spend eternity with the people in my session, so after everyone else went through the door I went among the meteors of the Veil and waited. The backdrop of the Medium is a velvet black, an infinite void. But then there were - there were things that looked like stars, coming out, in the sky.
I squinted. They weren't stars. They were Horrorterror eyes.
A tall ship came, then - gliding, impossibly, through the void. At first I saw a keel all cluttered with barnacles - some white, some gray, but a profusion of other colors too, purple and green and even a few specks of gold. And then I noticed that the rudder turned up and down, not just sideways, and the ship came swinging down.
I stuck out my thumb like a hitchhiker, and they came to me, and that is how I was brought to Town.
Of course then I was an idiot and left shortly afterwards.
Yesterday there was a storm.
The Outside comes washing in, here, over Fortitude, and tries to take sense away. It really can't take very much sense away - there's too many people here doing too much sense-making for it to do any real damage - but it batters against the shutters on the windows and it batters against me.
I know it batters against me more than for other people because Anya's family doesn't even have a storm-cellar, which means that there are enough people here for whom this is just daily life that there was no point building one. They sit in the living room and read newspapers by lamplight until the storm passes. None of them have to shut themselves inside their closets and put earplugs in.
The Outside wants me back, wants to finish unmaking me. I know it in my bones, know it as well as my name, know that where other people merely see the restrained wrongness of the nearer layers of the Outside I am already frightened and dissolving.
I don't want to know what will happen if I go any deeper. I suspect I would never come back.
The wind howls. It resonates through me, sets ringing my knowledge that the Outside isn't finished with me, and so I screw my eyes shut and press my earplugs in further. It doesn't do any good.
I wanted to be prepared, is what it was. I wanted to continue developing my magic outside the Game when I left it, and maybe part of that was just plain greediness but part of it was definitely reasonable. You don't know what life is going to give you. None of us do. And while some people are content to rely on their hope that things will turn out well -
I don't have that hope. My father taught me to keep an emergency kit within reach at all times. What I learned was that I needed to know what I had and keep an eye out for everything I could use. I'm like one of those game protagonists that fills their inventory with everything that could be even remotely useful, from an aluminum can to a Zippo. I'm always seeking out more and more to build a bulwark between me and the things that could kill me.
But... come to think of it, maybe that's why the Bleak Academy didn't manage to finish the job. I went there seeking something that would protect me from nonexistence, even though I phrased the question in terms of power. The power was a means to an end, not an end in itself. I didn't want to rule. I wanted to survive.
I mean, all they had to offer was nonexistence. But they wrapped that up in words that didn't say what they really meant, too, and so neither of us actually understood what we were getting into.
They told me that there were others, like me, there. That they'd been successful in developing the powers of people from the Game. And that they thought they'd be able to develop mine, too.
This was all true, strictly speaking. They did manage to help me develop my powers, but not in the way they intended to do it.
There's a shop a mile or so away from here, an old woman who carves pendants out of wood and strings them onto thick leather cords or thin silver chains. Phillip dragged me there once, or more properly told me he wanted something from it and he had the pocket money and I ended up carrying him on my shoulders half the way.
Phillip said, with all the seriousness that a seven-year-old boy could muster, that he didn't know when my birthday was but that I should have a birthday present because everyone should have birthday presents, and offered the woman a few coins. The old woman smiled, and closed Phillip's hand back on the coins, and told me I could pick anything I wanted --
"But it wouldn't be fair," I said, "it would be like stealing your time."
The old woman almost-smiled, and said that even if I didn't accept her generosity I should at least accept his, and that the approval of a little child was enough payment for her. And then she started pulling out these drawers from under the counter with even more necklaces and keychains and zipper tags, nestled on beds of dried moss. That's when I saw the spirograph.
The old woman must've noticed me staring at it, because she told me that she'd seen it on something one of her daughters brought back from a shop in Arcadia, and she'd spent days trying to make it come out right. What, exactly, did her daughters bring back, I asked, and she said it was an envelope with one of those music disk things inside it.
I asked in a rush whether anyone in her house had put it in a computer, and she laughed and said that they didn't even have a CD player in their house, her daughter actually tried to buy the envelope without the CD and the shopkeeper wouldn't let her. To them it was just a nice piece of art that they'd already put in a frame and hung on the wall.
I told the old woman that I'd accept her generosity and take the spirograph if she destroyed the CD. She looked at me a bit strangely for a moment, but then asked me if snapping it into four pieces and burying it in their garden would suffice. It would, I said; and that is how I got the spirograph necklace. I wasn't going to wear it, but then I saw it on my dresser a few days after and started wearing it anyway. I did promise to accept the old woman's generosity, after all.
At the Methodology building they gave me something that was the size and shape of a credit card, made of clear plastic. It was my ID card, they said, and that if I walked through the Outside with it on my person it would make sure I got to the gates of the Bleak Academy, rather than getting lost in the eddies and currents of the void.
I wasn't really sure how a piece of clear plastic could serve as an ID card. Magic, probably. Honestly, nobody actually checked it once I got there. It's clear that nobody would go through the Outside to the Bleak Academy for any reason other than wanting to study there, so they just leave the cafeterias and buildings open. No point in locking any of the doors, either; someone might respond to a locked door by destroying the lock, the door, and probably the entire room beyond in a fit of pique. It's that kind of place.
(To be fair, they had dormitories, and those doors had locks, but they used the kind of lock you could pick with a nail file, so I don't think that counts.)
They didn't really have classes so much as suggestions for lectures you could show up at, because - again - this wasn't the kind of place you went to unless you actually wanted to go there, so there was no point enforcing the dropping out of lower-quality students. If you were that low quality you'd probably end up being used as someone else's science experiment or art project anyway, so this was a problem that took care of itself, as it were.
The pamphlets said that you'd meet with one of their advisors first so that you could work out a program of study, insofar as programs of study exist there. The introductory courses, they said, were more like tutorials, and tailored to each student's strengths and weaknesses.
Well, they were.
I met the Professor, then, and that is when he told me that this would involve breaking me. That it was okay because they broke everyone. But he said that he warned me first because I'd recognize what the breaking felt like, from having been broken before. That I'd recognize my sense of self dissolving and think it was a bad thing. That I'd probably instinctively resist it, because most people resist - but people who have been broken before resist more, know the strategies for not breaking under such conditions. That all these reactions were expected, and natural. They understood such things and would accommodate them.
He said people from existence often harbored such things - strategies for survival in one environment that were completely useless in another. I understood perfectly. I'd read about that, after all.
There was a game my father used to play with me, back when I was young, too young for camping. We would take turns pointing at things, and giving their names. He knew all the real names of things, but I was young then and didn't know them, so I made some up. Bark carpet, tree plates, dry soup. I assume he thought it was cute, and I also assume he did correct me eventually because I know perfectly well they're called mulch, fungus, and pasta salad now.
But I remembered that game, when I was lost in the Outside. I pointed - or sent my attention, in a pointing manner, because I wasn't entirely sure that I had hands - in the direction that I thought was down. "Ground," I said - and it seemed more stable. "Sky," I said, and pointed up, and there was a faint blueness in that direction. Maybe I was imagining them. I wasn't sure.
I kept going anyway. "Tree," I said, because I'd walked into something that might've been brown and vertical.
I didn't know which direction to point to indicate where the sun was. I knew that was something that was supposed to be in the sky, and I knew that it was usually in the up direction, but there was just this missingness. I didn't know if there was such a thing anymore - I remembered vaguely that it'd died, maybe that was why it wasn't here - so I didn't try.
After an interminably long time, there was something green, and I named the grass, and there was something brownish-gray, and I named the road.
And then I was running out of things to name, except for one - "Danielle," I said, pointing to myself, but that didn't achieve anything except making reality wobble a little.
I still wake up sometimes with my index finger pressed to my chest.
I agree with the Bleak Academy on very little, but I do agree with them on this point: there is something wrong with the world as it is. Things are not supposed to be this way.
I don't know how they're supposed to be instead, is the problem. What is the use of trying to make the world fairer all by myself? Then again I could ask the same of them: what is the use of them trying to make the world fairer by themselves?
And even my answer is the same as theirs: it is hopeless and I have to try anyway.
If I didn't try, my life would be worthless.
Death who is called Headmaster of the Bleak Academy, he did not take special notice of me, when I was there. He knew how my studies were going, of course, in the same way that he knew of everyone else's, and had been told that my tutorial wasn't going well. And so he walked with me, and talked to me of -
He talked to me about instincts stronger than life, about those who would cling to their principles even if the world itself fell apart and went lifeless and gray, about things written into you on a deeper level than your desires and joys and sorrows. "If you ever wish help with such things, that can be - " he snapped his fingers - "arranged."
They shut one of the girls with the Jotun blood, the one that lived down the hall in my dormitory, into an iron cage for three days and three nights and when she came out she was burnt and sobbing and a heap but iron never troubled her again.
They took one of the older students, one I'd seen tinkering with a mechanical gryphon in the courtyard, and they strapped him down and twisted one of his favorite creations and had it cut out his heart, but thereafter he did not protect his creations with his life.
I was only going through the ordinary part of the tutorial, the one where they kept you awake for days and nights and asked you questions until they caught you in a contradiction. It was not going well because I was resistant to such things, and the Headmaster told me that it would be difficult to give me an extraordinary trial because my case was so strange but that they were sure they would come up with something eventually.
I looked into his eyes, and saw there the stars that I'd seen, back when my session was disintegrating; the ones that were really horrorterror eyes.
I told him that they could try such a thing, if they found it.
He nodded, then, and said no more, and left me there, and I stared up at the sky.
Yesterday there was a storm.
Today there is a world washed out by rain, smelling fresh and new and clean, and the day is hot, in a kind of buzzy, damp, heavy way. It is humid here; but the heat is at least a novel problem for me. It's better than the cold. At least this way I don't have to carry a backpack, and a sleeping bag. I can fold a tarp, for sleeping under, into the bottom of my purse and it is enough to make me feel safe. I know nobody will ever whisk me away on a camping trip again, but it still feels better to have everything on me.
At least the things I carry are useful, for purposes other than the ones that they were designed for. The tarp has a cord sewn through it so that I can wear it in the rain.
Today there is Phillip, in front of me, squirming as I explain to him that there really isn't any way for him to get around doing his math homework, and anyway when he's done I will show him something special.
It's only a pocketknife, a simple one with only a few tools on it, not nearly as durable as the one I keep belted to my hip, but it gives him joy, and it helps reassure me. The things he faces are totally different from the things I face, and the most he'll probably ever use it for is whittling wood or cleaning under his fingernails, but I want him to have something like that anyway. In case something happens.
They did find someone who they thought would be able to break me down, eventually.
They had other people from Sburb, there - not many, you understand, and the one possessed of the Heart magic had left a year ago to walk the Outside - but there were a few, even though I'd never seen so much as an Aspect symbol around.
He was - I still do not know this name, to this day, and he wore a mask, so I did not even know what he looked like - he was a Rage player, possessed of the Word. I'd had a Rage player in my session, and I knew he was nobody I'd ever known, least of all the Maid of Rage I'd brought up.
They had other people, from other sessions, here, then.
He was apologetic, when they brought him in. He said he understood how hard it was for me, it was hard for him, and then he took a deep breath and roared words into me. I cannot remember what he said, but I suspect that if you took off the top of my head, opened my skull like a softboiled egg, you'd see his words there in the folds of my brain matter.
They let me sleep, after that.
I saw a solar eclipse once. Not a full one, you understand - those are too rare - but part of one.
I'd read that you could not look at the sun, even during an eclipse, because it would burn your eyes out if you looked too long. I'd read that you could see the shape of the sun safely, by poking a pinhole in a piece of paper and holding it between a second piece of paper and the sun, and the image of the sun on the paper would be enough of a shadow of a real thing that it would be safe to look at.
So I found a needle, from inside my survival kit, and dug out my pack of playing cards, and pierced a hole in one and held it above the other. The sun was whole and round, then; it wasn't the right day and time. A little, whole, round dot of sunlight sat on the five of hearts. I moved the cards closer to each other, further, and then put them away.
But it was time for a solar eclipse, only a few weeks after that, and I found the playing card with the pinhole in it and I held a second one under it for a screen, like I'd practiced before. The shadow-that-was-made-of-sunlight waned, became a crescent, as I watched.
For a moment I wasn't sure which one was the real shadow - the shadow of the sun, made of light, or the shadow of the moon, made of darkness.
And then reality reasserted itself, as it always did.
He couldn't break me either.
He tried - they kept trying - but the words, though they thundered into and through me, though they made impressions on me, they faded within a few days.
I kept getting within reach of the enlightenment the Bleak Academy promised, and slipping back.
I don't know why I'm alive.
I don't know why I'm here.
I don't know why I'm whole.
Because by all rights that should've worked.
I think, now that I have some distance, that it was my heart, and my father's training. I couldn't give up. I didn't know how.
The Headmaster came to me, then, again, and walked with me again. He looked intently at me and told me that if I couldn't be broken by their ordinary means, that they would simply have to unmake part of me, turn me into a remote-controlled automaton, make my powers useful even if my mind could not be turned to their ways. That this was the best kindness they could offer, because otherwise they'd have to imprison me here, where I could do nothing to help them unmake the world.
And that is when it all burst open, like a dam, and when I knew it could not go on, and I told him -
Told him that there is a coldness in the heart of the aspect of Mind, and that is what brought me here. Logic, sterile logic in its symbolic and incomprehensible glory, knows nothing of the ends you use it to seek; it applies equally to good and evil; it cares only for purity and quickness of thought; it cannot be bent by mortal whim.
But there, equally, is a heart of warmth in that coldness. You cannot base logic on itself; you must first assume at least one principle exists, before you can derive any meaningful structure from it. Mathematics must be based on axioms; computers must have an input and an output channel. If you did not have principles then you may as well have been playing with your words, like a treadmill: perhaps useful for building your strength, and for showing off to others, but not all that useful for much else.
And I knew what their principles were, and they were not the same as mine, and there was nothing any amount of logic could do to that.
He turned on me, then, and looked at me with those eyes full of more eyes, and raised his fingers to snap -
but by then I'd dived back through the gates of the Bleak Academy, and was running for my life; and he'd acted a moment too late.
In the end the Outside couldn't break me either, though it tried its best, and though I wandered it alone and lost and thirsty for months I did eventually manage to make my way back to the parts that were more sane, where one could be merely lost and frightened in the ordinary way, and from there to Town, where I assume I collapsed.
When I came to I told Anya that I'd vaguely known someone she was related to, and so she took me in, and that is why I tutor her orphaned nephew now.
I told her that I'd been in the Outside so long that my memory was falling apart, that I didn't tell her about my past because I had no past to tell her about. People wandered into Town like that, sometimes, so this was entirely plausible. It was a lie, but she didn't push. She didn't know there was anything to push for.
I make dozens of dreamcatchers and hang them all around my room, because they are supposed to keep the Outside from blowing through and into my dreams, and I stack them all up and bring them to the nearby temple for cleaning, once a week. The Hayashis must think me a madwoman, with my bag full of dreamcatchers, barely even soiled because I hang them so thickly. I even keep one with me at all times, for if I need to sleep outside, though I've never had to use it.
It doesn't do any good.
Nobody wakes me from my nightmares because they sleep on the other end of the house.
I wonder what would've happened, if the Headmaster had managed to work his magics; possibly he'd have teleported my heart into his hands, or he'd have snapped tethers onto my arms and legs, and pulled them apart, or he'd have put blinders over my eyes, so that I would see only what he wanted me to see, or he'd have filled me with hatred until I popped like a balloon.
It is why I think, sometimes, that my eyes should've been filled with the stars, then, eyes made of stars that were eyes. That he was about to turn me into one of them. That this is not how the world should be. That Danielle Wattson, Guide of Mind, is not supposed to exist anymore.
Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to die, but I can never bring myself to actually try. I suspect it wouldn't work, anyway. Suicide is neither heroic nor just.
Life is unfair and pointless like that.
I cling to this mortal world not because I choose to, but because I can't bring myself to relax my grip even for a second. They would have broken my fingers to get me free of this world, in the metaphorical sense of course, and I cringed away from that. But I do not know how to let go.
There are small joys here, of course. Sunlight and warmth and small children who learn quickly. There are things worth not letting go of.
But I wish, I wish, that I could let go, and fall.
I wonder what it would be like, to fall through that endless void full of stars and eyes, forever.