A gnome wanders among strange worlds of immeasurable beauty and terror on a quest for magic to restore the health of a goddess. If he fails, all creation will dissolve. And so he must dare anything to succeed, even trespass a realm of terrible darkness, pain and dread sorcery—Earth.
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Fantasies, visions, hallucinations or whatever we call those irrational powers that illuminate our inner life fascinate me. I’m particularly intrigued by the creative intelligence that scripts our dreams. And I love how this dramatic energy finds its way to the page, into the one form that most precisely defines who we are: story.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I find my characters while lucid dreaming. That’s a form of dreaming where the dreamer becomes aware of being in a dream while dreaming. I use that state to meet and get to know my characters.
Somewhere at World’s End, a young woman with long tresses of red hair bathed her swollen belly in a garden’s marble pool. Her bright ringlets spread like flames in the ice-green water of an ornate pool that reflected temple columns and a sky of mauve dusk.
The cobbled garden spun with golden leaves. Among its bluestone pillars and architraves, horned lizards slept and doves fluttered between columns and alighted upon flower-laden trellises to roost for the night. Black-and-green butterflies danced to stillness among the leaves, sudden petals, lulled to sleep by a breeze that carried scents of leaf drift and distant wood-smoke. An owl called.
The pregnant woman sat up taller in the pool. Grave concern troubled her pale features. Her hands trembled as she massaged her taut abdomen, and a tear glinted at the corner of her eye. With dismay, she looked about the garden, searching for the one she had summoned to help her and her unborn child.
Atop a stone jar slued with red ivy sat an eldern gnome. He wore breeks of brown cord, a green blouse serrate with silk ruffles, and a slantwise cap of crushed blue velvet. His gaunt and sunken cheeks glinted with two day’s pink beard. He gazed hard at the naked bather with large eyes of cold gray mist.
“Why is the child within me not moving?” the woman demanded. She turned upon the gnome her long eyes cored black within irises of attic blue. “Is my baby dead?”
“My lady—” With bulb-jointed fingers, the gnome gripped the lip of the jar where he perched, bowed forward, and addressed the pouring leaves. “Darkness encroaches upon the worlds of light.”
“How can that be?” the lady frowned, tapered fingers describing small circles upon her gravid belly. “I have poured forth all my soul to drive the dark hard away from us that my child may be born in the light.”
“Yours is a soul of magic, lady, and what you have poured forth has broken the dark and authored the wonders of the void that are the Bright Worlds. And yet—” The gnome sat up and showed worry upon his acorn brown face. “One of darkness has climbed into the light.”
“Whence?” she asked, with casual disdain masking her worry. “Out of darkness? Are there worlds then in the outer darkness?”
The gnome nodded vigorously. “Oh yes, lady. But not worlds as we know them. Not the worlds that are the condensation of your magic, a radiant magic that prefigures for all time in the void the orders and histories of the Bright Worlds. No. The one who has climbed out of darkness and into your light has arisen from shadow worlds in the cold deeps of the void.”
She draped a languorous arm over the edge of the pool, weary with concern for her child. “What are these shadow worlds, gnome?”
“Just that, lady.” The gnome wagged his rooty fingers emptily in the air. “Shadows cast into the void by the Bright Worlds that you have created and that move within your dazzling light. Shadows cast into the void. No more than that.”
“And you are telling me that a shadow has climbed into my light?” She did not look at him but lifted her attention to parcels of purple cloud overhead. “A thing without substance thrives within my radiance?”
“There is a magic of shadows by which this is so.”
“My child is still,” she said to the gathering night, and tears brightened in her eyes. “My child within me does not move!”
“Lady, your child yet lives and will move again when the shadow is cast out of the light.” The gnome leaned far forward to add emphasis to his words. “The light into which your child is to be born must be pure.”
She angrily turned toward him. “Then why have you not already cast out this shadow thing from my light?”
The gnome jolted backward and nearly fell into the jar. “Lady, I am no more than a gnome among the worlds you dream into being with your magic. My knowledge is gleaned from a lifetime of gnomish magic, a mere wisp of your power that created me and all the worlds of my experience. I am aware of the shadow thing, but I have no power to dispel it.”
She fixed him with an irate stare before returning her worried gaze to the dusk hung above her like a gold mask. “I will awaken the child’s father, then. He will protect what he has created within me.”
“No!” The gnome leaped to his feet and stood precariously upon the jar’s brim. “Lady—please! Do not awaken him! Your magic will melt into the void for the dream it is. The Bright Worlds will vanish, and your child will not be born into the warmth and brilliance of your light.”
“And you as well will vanish, gnome,” she said distractedly, contemplating an end to her magic to save her child.
“Yes, I too will vanish,” the gnome admitted morosely. “And the child will be born under the father’s dark gaze.”
“Perhaps that is best,” she said, and circled her hands about her belly. “This is his child. Let it be born in the dark as he wishes. The child will grow stronger for that.”
“Stronger, most certainly,” the gnome pronounced somberly. “Yet the babe will be born less kind, lady. Less gentle. Less wise of love.”
“Better the child be born strong and know less of love than die in my belly.” She lifted herself from the green water and sat upon the side of the pool. “I will waken the child’s father.”
“No!” The gnome trembled from head to foot. The child’s father was of the Nameless Ones, indifferent to the worlds that this pregnant lady had created with her magic. Even she felt cool to her creation except to the degree that it benefited her unborn child.
The worlds she had summoned into being with her dream-magic served to educate her child. The aeons that carried all the dynasties of evolution in the universe had amounted only to a few months here in the garden.
High above the cosmic mirage that was the gnome’s reality, the Lady’s child grew in her womb, nourished not only by her physical strength but also by her magic, by the illusory worlds whose lifetimes offered their energies to the developing soul.
The child’s father would have found these energies superfluous. He would think that educating a child before birth foolish. But the mother believed that her magic could distill the ages and teach her baby compassion for the yearnings of all life-forms.
The gnome scurried down the spun ivy and ran through golden leaves to stand in the woman’s shadow among the ferns. “Let the child’s father sleep. Let him sleep a little longer. Give your baby the radiance of a mother’s love. Soon enough the father will come. Soon enough.”
“Then you must dawdle no longer, gnome.” She stepped from the pool and walked to a potted tree whose strata of branches upheld a blue damask veil patterned with figures of stars, comet hair, and quarter moons. “You must cast out the shadow thing from my light.”
“This I cannot do, lady.” The wizened creature climbed the coils of a graven serpent to stand upon the stone perimeter of the pool. “After all, I am but a gnome. You created me to witness and report.”
“What am I to do then? I don’t want observations. I want my baby to live.” She draped herself in the damask veil. “Do not vex me, gnome.”
“Never, lady! Never!” He hurried across the mossy grouts to stand at the end of the pool nearest her. The gnome knew that this lady was not cold by nature. Her concern for her child evoked anger and frustration in her: The worlds that she had fabricated in her dreaming and that persisted independently now, even when she woke and paid them no heed, had defied her, their creator. This troubled her.
Something from deep within her unconscious had arisen and laid claim to her dream worlds. Was that something the child’s father, who himself slumbered and dreamed now, perhaps intruding upon the very dream of the lady who carried his child?
The gnome, a creature of the lady’s dream himself, could not possibly know, yet he feared this was so. He said, “What has happened is a rare thing. A hazard that can be corrected. A turn of chance that will never repeat itself.”
From beyond the garden’s ranks of yews came dulcimer music that turned the woman’s head. “Gnome, how can this hazard be set right?”
“Send one of the Radiant Ones.”
She turned a perplexed look upon her gnomish counselor. “Send a Radiant One into—my dream?”
“They themselves are dreams,” the gnome declared, “dreamt by what has been watching over you.”
“Yes,” she replied absently, turning once more to face the chimeful strains sifting through the evening air. “They are set upon the garden and this palace to watch over me. I dare not dispatch them into the dark.”
“You have several to watch over you, lady.” He parted the belled lilies that blocked his full view of her. “Send one, one only. By such radiance the shadow thing will be extirpated.” Unless, of course, it was the father himself who intruded. And the gnome prayed this was not so.
The pregnant woman stood under the arbor, beneath an aspiring helix of clematis and hanging roses white and yellow and afreight with golden bees intoxicated by attar. “I send you, Old Ric,” she said, forcing her attention away from the alluring music. “I charge you to go ahead of the Radiant One and find this shadow thing.”
“It shall be done.” The gnome bowed, and the lilies he had parted closed and slapped him as he rose. He impatiently shoved them aside and spoke urgently. “Let the Radiant One you send be Asofel, the sentinel upon the Gate of Outer Darkness, for he already knows of the magic you work for your child. And command this Radiant One to go forth immediately so that when I call, the power I need shall be at hand.”
“As you say,” she said quietly, then fixed him with a stern gaze. “But be quick about this task, Old Ric. If my child does not stir by tomorrow night, I shall awaken the father. I will have nothing more to do with this foolishness of magic and its hope for warmth, light, and love. I shall trust in the father and his dark strength that my child may live.”
At that she departed the garden, and the blooms and fronds dimmed under the slantwise shadows of enclosing night. Evening’s purple bleared into violet overhead, fading toward the ultratones of the invisible, and within the utter black of the void no stars glimmered, no moon glided, only shoreless depths of emptiness ranged.
Upon those alien reaches, another life dreamed, fugitive of all light, the child’s father who even in sleep informed the ill-shapen, deranged, and malevolent forms of darkness that circled closer out of the night.
The eldern gnome leaped from the stone pool and sprinted through the fallen leaves. He was grateful for the rinds of distant music scattered upon the floor of the wind that masked his frantic footfalls. Hurriedly, he exited the garden, passing dead beetles hung like onyx baubles in the jointed webs of sleeping spiders.
The clustered light of fireflies flurried as he thrashed through the deranged shadows of bracken and flowers fallen among cinders. He arrived breathless at the garden’s selvage and the well by which he had climbed to World’s End.
The well was ancient, its massive skewed stones held in place by iron straps twisted into the shapes of magical sigils whose power connected the depths of this fount with the worlds in the abyss below.
Through this conduit, the Lady had worked her magic to pour light into the void and generate a cosmos of radiance within the dark.
He climbed up the twisted iron to the mouth of the well and peered in. The apertures of his lungs opened wider with relief to see that the ladder of plaited vines lowered for him by the Lady of the Garden remained where he had left it. The soft luster of its magic wavered far within the nether depths.
Old Ric stood upon the edge of the uncovered well and gazed hard about him in the dark. The throb of frog songs and the brittle trill of crickets offered meager restitution for the absolute silence that reigned in the upper heavens, where not even bats whirred.
By the nightglow of luminous plants and insects, he found sufficient illumination to view the terraced lawns, with their fish ponds and tarns. Black swans drifted upon those mirrored surfaces. Beyond them loomed the immense wall of the bridge-gate with the brimstone light of its one lantern. And upon the far side of that gate stood Asofel, sentinel of the Beginning.
Not even the father of the child could withstand the might of such a Radiant One. The Nameless itself had set the Radiant Ones upon the verges of World’s End to guard the young woman and her growing child. Nearest to the well, Asofel had watched from his high, broad terraces as the woman worked her magic to summon the eldern gnome.
Old Ric stared up at the zigzag road that led from the terraces to the colossal bridge-gate. He remembered the sentinel, the molten body of breathing light, the furious brilliance of the faceless entity with his blue-hot eyes and star-plasma hair. Asofel had looked down silently as the woman had worked her magic, and when she was done he had departed, closing the bridge-gate behind him.
Old Ric had not seen the sentinel since, yet on each subsequent visit to World’s End, it was his skywide voice that had called the gnome. The Radiant One’s thunder called solely for Ric: I, Asofel, summon you to World’s End. Come at once.
None other in the worlds below heard that voice. And by this intimacy, the gnome sensed a strange affinity with this creature of fierce light—strange because the Radiant One was a guardian and a warrior of light and the gnome but an aged and scholarly worker of gnomish magic.
Their affinity, however, embodied light itself, for the gnome’s magic was fire, and he could sometimes see through the shapes of fire the powers of the worlds. That was how he had observed the shadow thing that had intruded upon the Lady of the Garden’s dream.
“Asofel!” he dared call into the night, fearless of the shifting and murky shadows around him now that he stood beside the luminous ladder of the well. “Asofel! Our lady bids me summon you.”
Silence claimed the nightland. Only the tread of the gnome’s heart stalked the mute darkness, and fear tightened like a cinch about his chest.
Out of the advent of night, a throb of thunder shook the gnome and widened to words that reverberated like the very weather: “Come to the bridge-gate!”
Old Ric’s body obeyed before his brain could think. He leaped off the well and onto the tufty sward and began running through the amorphous dark. Only then did he regard the peril ahead. Quickly, he slowed his pace and stood a moment on the night-smothered lawn, pondering the wisdom of returning to the well and the long climb down whence he had come.
But of course he could not disobey the summons of the Radiant One. The very fate of the universe depended upon him and this being of light. He ushered himself forward, jaw set, face turning darkness like a flame.
Several paces on, something sloshed in a tarn. The frogs fell silent again. Funny lights ran upon the shelved horizon, and he remembered that his face was no flame but mortal flesh aquiver with fright. He ran harder and soon attained the zigzag road. Its dry gravel snored under his scampering feet.
Ahead, the brimstone lantern flared brighter from upon the bridge-gate and cast warped shadows with its lonely light. By that small glow, he stared down to either side and glimpsed the wild lands. Above the terraced lawns, boulders hunched, forming a labyrinth of crevices. Leather-winged minions rose up from there on the vesperal wind and flashed past him with their agonized faces. He gasped and mounted the steep road faster.
At last, the path turned a final bend and placed him before the bridge-gate, with its ponderous lantern of iron fins and spikes. Thick dockweed and dense hollyhocks sprouted before the giant, weighted gate.
“Old Ric has come,” he announced in a wheeze. He bent over and held his knees as he reached for breath.
At his word, the gate clanged from within, and the immense wormholed planks groaned upon their clawed hinges. Blinding brilliance rayed forth from the narrow crack of the budged gate, and the gnome slapped his hands over his eyes. Through his fingers, he watched the old door swing wide upon star-core radiance.
“Come forward!” the voice of thunder commanded.
Through a fog of white blindness, shapes gathered. Gradually, the gnome discerned the narrow bridge beyond the gate. Its substance seemed a phantom of the glare, and he advanced upon it by inches.
Through wincing eyes, he could make out only the skimpiest visual details, and he moved forward with both hands pressed to his face. Averting his gaze, he glanced downward into rocky chasms where fog floated in rings around craggy peaks.
He gingerly returned his gaze to the fiery path ahead and crept ever forward. Eventually, he found himself stepping onto a stone ledge and, by swinging his gaze side to side, observed that he stood before a great wall of stone. Its height vanished in the abyssal darkness above.
“Asofel?” the gnome called tentatively. The brilliance required him to press the heels of his palms into his eye sockets, yet he felt no heat. “I am come as you bid.”
The massive voice spoke. “I am sent into the darkness! I am sent to destroy the shadow thing that trespasses our lady’s Bright Worlds!”
“For the sake of our lady’s child,” Old Ric said with head bowed.
“For the sake of the child!”
The glare dimmed, and when the gnome dared remove his palms and squint through his fingers, he confronted a large human figure shaped of white fire striding away.
The Radiant One approached the towering pylons of the vast wall. White flames splashed over the stone blocks and swirled up the pillars beside the titanic portal.
Slowly, the giant gateway opened outward on darkness and the smoke of stars. A vista of stellar fumes and planetary orbs in gibbous and crescent phases loomed into view.
“Behold the Bright Shore!” the cataclysmic voice announced.
Old Ric backed away from the widening panorama of nebular vapors and orbs of far-flung worlds.
“To the brink, gnome!” the stupendous voice commanded.
“Not I!” Old Ric protested. “I am as you say—a gnome. I dare not place my frail self before the abyss.”
“Our lady requires you to go before me! Find this shadow thing!” Asofel boomed. “Come to the brink!”
“Nay!” Old Ric backed several paces. “Let me return to the Bright Shore by the ladder of magic that I have always before used to come and go from World’s End.”
“Obey! I have opened a more direct route to the worlds below!”
The big voice shook the very meat on Old Ric’s bones, and he scuttled forward with his hands against his ears.
Asofel stood aside, and as the gnome passed within the Radiant One’s shaking blue aura, a now gentler voice, neither large nor vibrant but mortal and close to soothing, spoke, “Fear not, Old Ric. The way is long, and our destination is darkness. But I will never be far from you. Go now and obey our lady.”
The gnome peeked around the barrier of his arm and met a luminous face slant of bone as a lynx’s. Its long and devilish eyes, both humorous and wicked at once, peered at him. Its lips, small as petals, smiled, and the complexion of its visage looked like bluish powder tinged pink, a face of ash still cooling from a fallen star. Blond, almost white, hair, long and massy with curls, seemed to float like sunlight swarming on water.
Asofel pointed into the gulf of star vapors and moons. “Go forth now.”
Old Ric dared not hesitate before such a compelling vision of good conjoined to evil. Resignedly, he dropped his arms, gazed full upon the incandescent depths before him, and stepped forward.
Instantly, he fell into the void and knew he fell only because, as he turned about in his plunge, he saw above him a great wall lifting rapidly away. Among the huge open pylons, a star burned. That was Asofel. His skin of pale oxides burned within the hearth of stars.
Darkness hung in webs of light. Planets, in various conjugations of reflection and shadow, breathed smoke in the cold of space. Yet the gnome felt no chill. Looking at himself, he noticed that his body shimmered faintly blue. The Radiant One had sheathed him in magical fire!
His plunge slowed and arced, and he realized then that he had not been plummeting but launched into space. And now he plummeted back to World’s End, to a day-struck region of that realm far from the great wall already steeped in night.
He had been launched from the heights of World’s End, where the lady’s magic had created the garden wherein she could meet him, her dream-creature. He was too frail a being to trespass her place of origin higher yet within the Abiding Star itself. Asofel had simply flung him onto the lowest level of World’s End so that he might begin his quest of the Bright Worlds from the top down.
A limb of land appeared. Weathers scrawled feathery whorls above blue waters and ocher and green swatches of soil. He discerned the pocks of volcanic craters and the jagged slash of a rift valley. Below ranged dangerous places: the feral lands of Faerie and Elf, the haunts of the Undead, the stalking grounds of the slitherous squid monkeys, and the dread Forest of Wraiths.
Fearful to behold where among these terrors he would descend, the gnome lifted his gaze to the heavens.
The horizon of World’s End swelled against outer space, and Old Ric peered at fluorescent streamers of cometary exhaust. He cast a final glance at the far-flung worlds he knew: icy Nemora in her white shrouds—Hellsgate, sulfurous and veined red with living torrents of lava—and Irth, half ocean, half land, spinning at the very edge of the Bright Shore.
A. A. Attanasio lives in Honolulu and writes most of his fiction inside a volcano: Koko Crater, a botanical garden near his home. Published by HarperCollins, William Morrow, Bantam and Houghton-Mifflin, his novels include historical romance (Wyvern and Servant of Birds), Arthurian epics (The Dragon and the Unicorn, The Serpent and the Grail), romance, (The Moon’s Wife), fantasy (The Dark Shore, The Dominions of Irth), a Paleolithic saga (Hunting the Ghost Dancer), crime drama (Silent), science fiction (Radix, The Last Legends of Earth, Centuries), Wiccan adventure (Killing with the Edge of the Moon) and Young Adult novels (The Conjure Book, Brave Tails).
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