For a moment, there was relative calm in which Prentyze could truly appreciate his many, agonies of broken bones, torn ligaments and shredded muscles. It didn’t last long. A slipstream quickly rose to a merciless, buffeting force, slamming into him face-first.
He peered through cracked and sooty lenses, but there was nothing to see – just sky. Only occasionally did he glimpse the hazy horizon of the World’s Plane through the lower rim of his eyepieces. Whatever he was falling towards, it wasn’t the ground; he was falling into the sky. The blast had seemingly propelled him too high and too fast to land on the world below.
He was going to miss.
Despite his pain, this thought was both exhilarating and terrifying. His flight might circle – no, what was the term? – it might ‘orbit’ the Plane. Prentyze Talyb Brassard would be the first human to observe the Underplane. What marvels he might –
Something was changing.
The Plane appeared to swing up unhurriedly, hinged along the Rim Mountains like it was a hanging trapdoor, lifting slowly back to the horizontal. Distant, hazy lands reared up in his eyepieces to intersect his flight.
His perspective shifted. He was no longer flying; he never had been.
He was plummeting at an ever-steepening angle.
An orbit was impossible now. He was going to smash into the ground like that overripe tomato he once dropped from City Hall’s tower. His point of impact raced across the ocean towards him from the unseen lands. It crossed the great ocean’s unfathomable depths, decelerating as it neared the Rim Mountains. At a leisurely pace, it traversed the shallows of a great reef, slowing further through Rimtown’s bay and shore. It almost sauntered past the encampment and positively ambled into the lower foothills below the Rimtops.
And there it stopped. His point of impact. This is where he would die – messily – on stony foothills which, from this altitude, were no longer as steep as seen from the dragon’s cave.
And what of the towering mountain range from which he had launched? As the Plane ascended, the rim’s unassailable peaks came into view, softening into a long expanse of rolling hills with a thin layer of snow dusting their upper slopes. Oddly, the highest hilltops were bare rock. These bare stones were the true edge of the Plane. There was nothing beyond them. Nothing but more sky.
The edge of the World’s Plane, so full of surprises, could provide a fascinating career to anyone studying its secrets.
But not for Prentyze Brassard.
He had no future left beyond the next few minutes. Or minute. Or seconds?
The foothills were so far below, and the lenses so grimy, he couldn’t estimate the diminishing gap between him and the ground. But it had to be closing fast. Somewhere, among those slopes, there was a particular patch he was doomed to decorate in gore.
What was that noise, barely audible above the shrieking slipstream?
It had always been there, but now it was intrusive.
Someone was screaming in agony and terror, in short bursts. Where did it come from? Nearby?
Pain forgotten, and with suddenly perfect vision, he scanned the sky around him and spotted an armoured figure, ten metres away at most, falling face first. Their once-shiny armour was now soot-blackened.
The warrior flapped their arms and pumped their legs as if simultaneously trying to fly and run away from the on-rushing landscape. The screams came from them, whoever they were.
And no wonder they were terrified. Never mind the impending crash. Their armour was radiating a savage, searing heat. The metal was easily hot enough to scorch paper.
Wait. Was it Flammia?!
With a shock, he was once more staring at the ground through dirty and cracked lenses. Pain seared every part of his body and he was screaming fit to burst.
Something important had just happened. Or … Was he going mad with fear?
Prentyze, raised since birth to be an atheist, offered an awkward prayer to whichever of the Discordant Deities would deign to notice.
‘Please, gods, let me go mad!’
Insanity? He would embrace it, like his great aunt Amina. Whatever ‘happy place’ her mind occupied, she smiled all the time, even when expensive doctors did unspeakable things to her in their futile attempts to – as they said – “jolt her out of it”. Madness like hers would be the perfect escape from bodily torment and the rocky slopes below.
Was lunacy a state he could achieve? What did it take? Wishing? Praying?
Could he lose his sanity quickly enough?
How long did he have? Through a fog of agony and a layer of soot, he assessed the distance to the approaching ground.
Seconds? No, seconds had already passed and the ground still hadn’t risen significantly. Minutes? Probably, but not many. Say two. Maybe less.
How would he spend the rest of his life – all ninety, meagre seconds of it? The issue of his life’s purpose now gained an urgency it never had before.
He had tried the contentious way of the noble, and look where his first conflict got him! No. The noble’s life had never been his destiny. He would meet his end as a scholar – someone who sought to understand everything around him.
Or go mad trying.
Though quickly made, this decision sat well in his mind. He was still in intense pain from torn tissues and the battering in the tunnel, and he still heard his muffled, repeating screams. But. For once in his life, he felt comfortable, maybe even happy, about his future.
Well, the part of it before he died.
Moments were precious now. How should he spend them? What should he study?
Ah yes, his continuing screaming offered a useful reminder. Having seen, or perhaps imagined seeing, a screaming comrade nearby, their body was definitely a puzzle worthy of study.
In particular ... Why did their armour seem so hot?
Ah, an easy one. It was because of the explosion. Elemental atomic particulate oxidised in a highly energetic reaction, meaning the heat transfer would –
Damn, but it was becoming hot in his OWN armour! It felt a lot like being in a bath while scalding water poured into it straight from the copper boiler. The temperature was increasing as he pondered it.
Had the fire-proof insulation failed?
No, it was very much intact. It was still tight, restricting him from drawing breath to scream except in short, panting bursts. But it was soaking wet with sweat and … other bodily fluids. So … the exterior heat must be boiling the padding’s moisture, flashing it into steam and transferring that energy to his weakened body.
The original compost-like aroma of the wet padding, which he had ignored, was changing. And not for the better. It was like the pungent aroma from soup kitchens as they simmered cheap offal in vast cauldrons. His would be a hideous death, if accompanied by the bouquet from the boiling broth of bodily fluids!
Next puzzle: How had he noted the heat of the figure’s armour from a distance? His books were adamant that heat was supposed to be invis –
Oh gods! It was getting hotter still. It was excruciating.
Being steamed alive felt exactly like candle burns, but continuous, and all over. Was this what deep-sea Armoured Scale Fish experienced when cooked alive in Cook’s steamer? He would never eat steamed fish again!
The heat ate his flesh through a thousand deep blisters, from his scalp to his toes. The inside of his throat was blistering from inhaling live steam as he screamed. Even his eyes were burning hot; they must have closed because he could no longer see the ground or the eyepieces.
Wait. It was said that criminals who burned to death soon stopped screaming, right? They … What was it? They passed out from the extreme heat? He could believe it, and –
Oh Gods! If that was true, he didn’t have minutes. He had mere seconds before he fell unconscious and cooked to death.
There was no way out of this. He was out of time!
He was going to die.
His rapid-fire screams, which had never stopped, now took on a new, higher pitched note of terror.
It was an extremely familiar sound. For all the world, it was like a throat being cleared.
There it was again. It sounded exactly like Father preparing to make a speech. Could it really be his father? After he …
After what had happened?
How? Why? Where?
These questions faded away, as did his terrors, agonies and the stink.
“Ahem.” Father harrumphed one more time. “Now that we have agreed the terms and cost of your scholarship commission, we must next direct our attention to your impending marriage, what?”
Of course! The wedding. How could he have lost track of that for a moment? Flammia’s hand sought and gripped Prentyze’s own under the tablecloth, matching his excitement.
Father, seated at the head of the generations-old Brassard banqueting table, a twinkle in his eye, broadcast his delight along its ostentatious length. Though he kept his eyes on Father, Prentyze knew that Mother, at the other end of the long table, nodded back, beaming with complimentary joy.
With his parents distracted by their silent communion, Prentyze turned and kissed Flammia on the cheek, breathing in her rose petal perfume. She turned to favour him with soul-consuming, bronze-gold eyes, and he marvelled at their moisture, reflecting his happiness. He had never seen her as beautiful as in this moment and, just for a second, he forgot how to breathe.
‘Uncle’ Zubin, his soon-to-be academic mentor, sat on the opposite side facing the young lovers, chuckling at their antics. He was clad, for some religious reason, in full ceremonial temple raiment of earth-brown velvet and a gleaming, ornate breastplate. Warm light shone from the table’s gold candle trees. It twinkled in his breastplate’s religious inlays which identified him as ‘Defender of the Faith’ for his god, Barys.
“... and as our son has effectively adopted you into our family, it would give us great pleasure to invite you, –ah– Zubin, to officiate at his wedding ceremony, what?”
It was so funny to watch ‘Uncle’ Z’s grin reach all the way to his eyes, as he nodded his pleased and gracious approval to Father.
Free from scrutiny for a moment, he let go of Flammia’s hand to caress the soft skin of her lower back. She wore the backless, self-levitating burgundy gown that excited him so much. He reached further around, inside its front panel, to tickle his fiancée’s deliciously complex curvature between her ribs and hip. His beloved giggled silently in recognition of his desire, and her body’s rhythmic movements increased his excitement.
He began to tremble with anticipation.
Everything in the dining room trembled too, including the table.
The candle trees over-balanced and toppled in unison. The table cloth caught alight, exploding into a fierce conflagration. Flames engulfed him, isolating him from his lover and family, charring his suddenly naked body as his former trembling became an uncontrollable shake.
He was alone inside an inferno with nothing to protect him from its heat.
He was going to die.
It was a dream. Of course it was.
But … why should he leave it so soon? The real world was infinitely more hostile, and pain was real there.
Instead, as is possible with conscious dreaming, he willed himself out of the fire.
He transitioned to the same mid-air position as before, alongside the armoured figure. It all seemed very real, yet also dreamlike as everything was unnaturally silent, still and serene. He felt no pain. The up-draught no longer buffeted him, nor the armoured figure. The latter no longer screamed, and their limbs were perfectly still. Their body was a static figure, a statue, albeit clad in dirty and damaged armour. Their awkward limbs held a ridiculous posture as they faced the distant ground
It was as if time had stopped, similar to how it had slowed in the tunnel.
This had to be a new kind of dream, right?
Or was this an illusion, like that vision of his study? Had he tipped over into madness? At last?
Whether this was a dream or madness, anything was better than being steamed alive – not to mention splattering onto rocks at terminal velocity.
The statue’s sooty armour had cooled only slightly since Prentyze last checked, so little time had passed. However, it still radiated a shocking amount of heat: almost hot enough to glow cherry red. This occurred at 427 degrees Centigrade … which was an oddly specific memory for a dream …
But, never mind academic nit-picking. What of the poor person suffering inside? With no sound or movement, it was impossible to answer definitively, yet all too easy to guess.
He studied the figure more closely and saw them in a new way; one he had never experienced before. It was like a sixth sense, an understanding of hidden depth. It was akin to sight, but through another dimension of reality, whereby he could ‘see’, or was somehow aware of, several simultaneous layers of matter. With his ordinary sight, he could see the burnt outer armour. At the same time he could also ‘see’, with his new sense, the intense heat of the metal and, within that, the substantial layer of soaked padding. Within the padding’s material, he ‘saw’ the copious amounts of sweat, grease, blood, and plasma, which flashed into superheated vapour where it touched the hot metal. Further in was the layer of utterly ruined silk clothing, and finally, within that, the distressed, injured and naked juvenile at the centre of it all. A boy.
And, oh, for the mercy of the gods! Looking even deeper, he ‘saw’ just how damaged the boy’s tissues and organs were. The poor boy had already been dying from dehydration, heat stroke and internal bleeding. But now boiling fluids and steam were blistering and cooking his flesh.
Oh, that wretched soul! No one should suffer as much as this!
Prentyze pulled back to his former distance and exercised his dream-enabled will once more. He separated the boy from his source of torment, and his naked, wet and bloody body appeared, in mid air, midway between Prentyze and the now-empty suit of armour. Both boy and armour suit echoed each other’s ridiculous, face-down posture. This might have seemed amusing in ordinary circumstances, but for the victim’s condition. His emaciated and suppurating body was carnation red. His joint creases – especially his crotch – were chafed bloody. Blisters covered all – some new, some full, and some burst and bleeding.
Even the boy’s eyes had blistered, rendering him blind.
Clearly, he could not stay there, naked, bleeding and suspended in the sky, frozen in time. Though Prentyze had removed him from a hellish oven, he still wasn’t safe and the static air was chilly.
And what if time started going again? There was no reason to doubt it would resume, so Prentyze should move the boy somewhere secure and comfortable before time restarted and their descents continued.
Where around here … ?
Come on scholar, think! Where had Prentyze always felt safe and comforted?
Of course. His own ‘happy place’. His study.
Yes. That would do nicely. It was safely far away, across the ocean, but distance did not matter to a dreamer.
Whenever time resumed, Prentyze would meet his end on the rocks below, and the study would then lack an occupant. The least he could do was bequeath it to the boy, and thereby – hopefully – save the youth’s life.
Moving close again to the boyish statue, Prentyze formed the familiar vision of his beloved study around them both. The window was still open and, on his desk, the fly had returned to tasting the paper of the open book. In the corner, facing away from them, a female servant froze in the act of dusting one of the many shelving stacks crammed with books and scrolls. He ignored – whatever her name was – as he always did when he was studying. Only the boy, hovering face-down in the study, mattered. At some point, time would continue and he would fall to the floor. While the carpets were luxuriously thick, they could not completely protect the boy from further injury. He might break some more bones.
The boy’s leaking body would also stain the expensive fabrics beyond repair or cleaning. Kaushik, the senescal, would –
Never mind. The additional pain and mess couldn’t be helped, and an abrupt fall onto soft carpets would be a blessing compared to Prentyze’s own liquifying impact when time resumed.
His vision of the study, the boy, face-down in mid-air, and the motionless servant dimmed. This seizure of insanity, or dream’s epilogue, was ending. It had been a most satisfying tying-up of loose ends, like in the best novels and plays. And if, in reality, whether mad or unconscious, Prentyze’s boiled body exploded on hard rocks, then so be it. It didn’t matter. It was enough that he had done what he could for the boy.
Perhaps, in his last moments, Prentyze had found his life’s purpose? Saving someone’s life was a good way to end one’s own.
The room and its contents faded away, and a comforting void of nothingness approached him.
The moment had come. He could let go of time now.
Let go? Of time?
Yes. He knew it now. He had been holding it in check somehow during this dream-epilogue, and even in the tunnel he had partially slowed it.
How … ?
But there was no time to ponder what he had done nor question how he knew this. He must let events take their course.
Time accelerated to full speed, though mercifully absent of the buffeting wind, the torture of his many agonies, the resumption of his screaming and his obscured vision. All these things were outside the dark void into which he was submerging.
There were sounds, but they came from the now distant and unseen study. It was like an empty stage, in total darkness, while the actors performed in the wings.
There was a brief, boyish scream, quickly cut off by a thump. A fly buzzed in alarm, and the maid – whatsername – gave a shrill scream. She continued splitting the air until shouts of consternation drowned her out as others entered the room and formed a noisy mob. He caught some words – naked, burned, blood, eyes, emaciation.
Prentyze couldn’t bear to listen any longer. He allowed, even encouraged, the enveloping void to swallow him fully, surrendering to its embrace.
He became one with the void.