That’s it. That’s all I needed to know. That I would live my life writing in his shadow. That I would have to wait until I was not writing fantasy for a while before I could read more, because I would copy. Copy copy copy. Some without realizing, some with avarice and the bandit’s dagger bit between my teeth.
I’m sure you’re surprised. The closest comparison people have had for my stuff is ‘Are you trying and failing to do some sort of weak-sauce Pratchett thing?’. And the answer is yes. Of course it’s yes. Even without reading more, he’s everywhere – his essays, his presence, the quiet vibration in the air when I write. I’m not the first explorer, far from. He marked these paths for me, he’s already traveled further than I ever will. He already said the things, he already made that joke, he already saw, he already wrote it better than I ever could. I’m a candle and he is a bonfire.
It made me jealous, it made me depressed, it made me feel safe. I struggled to articulate the core concept of my fiction for months, he laid it out in 1000 words thirty years ago. I seethe on the border of the city he built, a useless rebel. I stare at his mountain of work with pickle-green envy.
And now he is gone. He left as he wished, in the manner he chose.
And now the road is less. The way is less. The worlds beyond are darker, and the paths out of ours harder to find. His light remains but it is distant, like the time-phase of starlight. And I feel alone. I have his whole canon to enjoy one day and that is a blessing, but out here in the woods between the wind is colder and I am bereft of the traveler who I envied and barely knew. He left his light in a tower of words, but his campfire out here in the dark has gone out and all I can smell is smoke.
With temerity and gall I claim kinship, with grief I join my voice to all that mourn.
Your brain clatters on, and your heart keeps pumping. It’s just green, after all. You’ve seen green plenty of times, it’s common and commonplace. A shade that your eyes find unremarkable as a whale finds the sea.
And what’s more, your brain can process the loss. You know what things are
green, it’s as simple as math, as simple as subtraction. When you see the blank your mindticks and says “Oh, that’s a thing that Once Was Green. Just move forward as if it were Green.”
The trees are blank, but I know they Once Were Green. The grass is blank, but I know it Once Was Green. Traffic lights present no problem – I see the yellow, the red and then the blank light. I press the gas as if it were Green. My favorite mug is blank but it still holds water.
I begin to avoid avocado and it’s blank flesh. Kermit is blank and his song just sounds like static. Blank lettuce, blank pickles, blank tractors on the roadway. Blank markers in my bag writing in blank ink.
Blank push-pins and my toothbrush is blank. Blank shirts in my closet, all of my money is blank. Pidge pilots the Blank Lion but still helps form Voltron. Obi-wan’s light saber is blank. My eyes are hazel, a mixture of green and brown. In the right light my eyes are blank in the mirror.
Each blank is a scar. I move forward through the world, startled again and again by how much has been erased.
The blanks burn. They burn like a net of empty.
One day, will I forget about What Once Was Green? Will my mind triumph through silent substitution, the blanks covered by quick illusion?
One day I will see green trees again. I will see green grass again.
Elijah leaned against the crude statue in the village green. Time and weather had done its work on the stone, its features pitted and scarred. The unknown founder’s face was unrecognizable, but it still stood its ground, keeping watch.
The old soldier ran a whetstone down the edge of his greataxe. Both edges had been grief-sharp for an hour, but he pushed the stone again and again. He stopped, and looked up into the battered face of the statue.
He could relate.
Across the dark green, the sounds of music and merrymaking spilled from the general store. The people of Jackson’s Grove had been saved by the skill and steel of the Ghosts of Gilead, his comrades. They had shaken off the terror of the unholy attack, buried their dead neighbors and immediately insisted on a party in the adventurer’s honor. Elijah was always surprised at how quickly people could forget the shadows of death, and thrust their heads into the first cake or ale tankard they could find. But he had seen it many times — his brother had lead them to many victories large and small, and here in this tiny town of Jackson’s Grove in the middle of nowhere the same old song. Drunken celebration, life over death.
His brother. Simon. Not a birth-sibling, but a brother in arms. He was always first at the bottle, a fistful of cake and his other hand down a wench’s bodice. Laughing and singing, his weapons and cares propped against the bar and forgotten. His other comrades were just as bad.
No blood-family since the Fall. These slap-dash fighters are the only kin I have left.Swords of Faith preserve me!
So it fell to Elijah to keep watch. No one asked, and no one noticed — except for the times that he gave the warning shout. The dozen-dozen times. His back to the light, sharpening his axe in the darkness.
Tomorrow morning he’d be the first to rise, as they snored the drink away. Running his hands over the faded map, planning their route — preparing for the dangers to come. Someone had to, he wouldn’t fail this little legion, now that everything else had fallen to dust.
The stone hissed down his axe-blade. Elijah wiped a bead of sweat off his brow with the back of his hand.
His ears pricked at a whisper of sound, and he bent low pulling the greataxe into both hands. He scanned the darkened houses ,one by one. The sound had come from the roof of the general store, Elijah shielded his eyes from the light and saw a slim figure slipping down the side of the roof.
It was his brother, Simon.
Not like him to miss a party. Where is he going?
Something in Simon’s face kept Elijah from calling out. The way he pressed himself into the shadows and headed north — clearly not wanting to be followed.
It was probably to meet some farmer’s daughter — or to console a young widow. But Elijah was his brother’s keeper.
And barely six hours ago they had crossed swords with devils, imps, and horrors from the Blight. The old soldier grimaced, and followed his brother into the night.
Elijah followed at a distance. He was a large man, and no footpad — but the night was moonless, and his brother seemed totally focused on his destination.
A plain wood building. The Church of Linneus. Elijah felt his blood go cold. Linneus was the god of farmers, of shepherds, of the plow. But the church was empty — it’s priest had been the one that brought the devils down on his home. A filthy pact for pleasure of the flesh , Elijah had been sickened to hear. He had prayed to his own Nameless God for the grace to forgive the priest — but it had been futile. His god had been silent, and his own heart had been black and wrathful.
The priest of Linneus had forsaken his holy duty – no punishment was stern enough for that. The pain of Hell was the least that he deserved.
Why was his brother slipping into the church? Light came from within, his brother had lit a torch. Elijah hastened to the doorway and looked within. His eyes widened in shock.
Simon’s back was to the door, and the torch was jammed into the book holder at the end of the pew. Leaning casually against the altar was a devil made of paper. Thousands of pages, wrapped and folded into a feminine shape with corkscrew horns — the writing of every land covered the paper. A contract devil!
“Say what you want, Simon of Gilead — my ink is ready and time is short.” the devil purred. “Your friends nearly destroyed me today — I delight in the delicious irony of this moment.”
“This only involves you and me.” Simon said. “You leave my friends out of this, or this conversation is over.”
Simon, you idiot. Elijah looked for another entrance into the church, where he could surprise the devil. The windows were too small and high, and he stood at the only door.
“I need a way into Gilead.” Simon was saying.
“Homesick, are we?” the paper devil laughed.
His brother turned his back to the devil, covering his eyes with his hand. Something that he did when greatly angered. “Can you do it?” Simon said fiercely.
“Of course I can – anything you want, son of Gilead. It’s as easy as signing your name — some loops, some lines, and the path opens.” the paper devil cooed.
Simon’s hand slid slowly down his face, his eyes to the ceiling as he thought.
Only Elijah saw the truth of the devil’s words. The paper coiling itself in her hands, forming a whip – barbed and jagged. Her arm raising to strike, the paper-whip silent in the air.
The old soldier shouted a battle cry, and flung the church doors open. “Gilead!”
He shouldered his brother roughly out of the way, and caught the whip in his hand. It coiled around his thick forearm like a serpent, the barbs digging into his flesh. They were paper maggots biting tearing. Elijah felt poison course through his veins and his heart staggered. The devil hissed in frustration and tugged on the whip, pulling it back.
Elijah forced his hand to grip the whip despite the pain. He pulled grimly on the whip, his eyes locked on the devil. The paper-whip was a part of the creature, and she could not let go.
“By the Swords of Faith, by the Temple of Iron Nails.” He prayed, and his god answered.
His greataxe felt weightless in his hand, and began to burn with a pure white light. Elijah smiled, a rare thing.
The devil hissed and fought, but the old soldier’s time was upon him. He was his brother’s keeper, and his strength would not fail. He stood, as he always did.
And he pulled. His vision narrowed as the devil drew closer, screaming in rage. He saw Simon leap onto the devil’s back, his arms locked around her paper throat — but it was on the edge of his sight.
The evil thing came close, and Elijah’s axe fell.
The paper burned in holy fire, leaving nothing but ash. The devil’s scream hung in the church, burning contracts falling around Elijah.
He sank to his knees, his heart beat slower.
Simon grabbed him by the front of his armor, and was saying something his eyes wide with concern. But no sound came out, his mouth moved and Elijah heard nothing.
The old soldier pulled himself to his feet, his brother helping him and continuing to talk silence. He couldn’t find his axe, but he knew what was required. He brought his savaged arm and hand to his head.
“The Watch stands.” he said.
His brother let go with a stricken look, and forced himself to return the salute.
“The Watch is relieved.” Simon said. “Dismissed.”
Elijah couldn’t hear it, but his brother’s voice broke.
Darkness came, and Elijah went. He sharpened his axe and stood guard. There was light and music ahead, but he had work to do.
No one would catch his brothers unaware. Not while he was on duty.
[Story on Demand for N.E. White — hope you enjoyed. But I must be honest, this story has been rolling around in my brain for a while now. Original character concept W. Steven Carroll, with much love and respect to my brother-in-arms.]