I once thought that I was invincible. I think you can see how I arrived at that conclusion. After all, nothing in the span of my years had ever presented a true threat to me: not my siblings, not animals I encountered in the woods, and not humans, who I had once thought were the most dangerous creatures on the planet. After me, that is.
There were things in my life which had challenged me: learning language, and learning to pretend to be a human. The humans I met in the woods, who had defeated my desires without defeating me. Yet none of those things were threats. I had no doubts about them. I knew, with certainty, that at some point I would perfect my ability both to speak and to pass among humans. There was no chance in my mind that I would fail, because in my experience, given time, I had always succeeded.
The Pale One ruined the way I had once seen myself. It had literally destroyed a small part of me, something I had never experienced before. I felt the loss keenly, despite the fact that it was such a small percentage of my mass, because I had never lost part of myself before. Not in that way.
I let the river carry me further than I had intended. I withdrew my eyes into my body, so that they wouldn’t be damage, and allowed myself to flow along with the current. I stewed with anger and resentment — at the Pale One, yes, but also at myself. I loathed the fact that I had been weak enough to be defeated. I hated that I had not stood my ground and fought with the creature. Surely, with my vast intellect, I could have devised some method for defeating it.
Like a coward, I had allowed panic and the drive for self-preservation to overtake me. I had let Rystala’s fear infect me and turn me into something I had believed I was not: a coward who fled from a threat rather than trying to understand how to confront it. I placed the blame briefly on her before I realized that it was wrong to do so. She had reacted only as any weak human might. It was my own failing to follow suit.
It was Rystala who interrupted my reverie and forced me to realize just how long I had been in the river. The pocket of air I’d formed for her had begun to run low, and I could sense her struggling to breath, wriggling weakly inside me. I moved toward the shore. In the current, I had allowed my body to lengthen until I was like a river myself, snake-like and spread long. I popped an eye out above the water’s surface, on a tendril, then lashed out with a second tendril to grab onto a tree as we passed it.
With that purchase afforded to me, I pulled my body free of the strong current and onto an unfamiliar shore. The trees here had pale bark, with reddish leaves rather than the green to which I was accustomed. The riverbank was rocky, littered with smooth pebbles that gave way to sand and grass. Here, the wall of the ravine ran vertically directly up to the river both upstream and downstream, giving way several yards to either side of where I had collected myself.
I was in a sort of bowl, with steep ravine walls on either side and relatively level ground moving away from the river, though it began its own steep incline further back. I had not witnessed geography like this before, which just served to drive me deeper into my thoughts about how much of the world there was left to discover. I knew so little, compared with how much there truly was to be known.
I pushed Rystala toward the top of my body, freeing her head so that she could reach fresh air. She gasped, filling her lungs dramatically, and continued to breath hard as she scanned her surroundings, taking them in. I placed on of my eyes on the surface of my body right next to her, so that I could observe her face.
“Where are we?” she demanded.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was hoping you could tell me.”
Rystala shook her head. “It’s been years since I left the village.” To my surprise, her eyes filled with tears. “The village. I’ll never go back there again, will I?”
“I don’t have a reason to take you there,” I replied, thinking of the Pale One.
“It was my home,” she said, closing her eyes. “You destroyed it.”
“I left your home unharmed,” I said. “It is undamaged.”
“The people were my home, far more than the place.” She looked down at the eye set next to her on the surface of my body. She spat on it. With a thin wave of myself, I cleaned it. “Anywhere can be a home, if you spend time there. Places and things don’t matter. People do.”
“People are just things that can walk and talk,” I said. “They are tools, like those you kept in your home to help you with certain tasks.”
“That’s not true,” she said. “Not to other humans. We matter.”
“If a tool could speak, do you think it would feel the same?” I asked. “Would you not say you are better than the tools that you bend to your will?”
“I am not your tool. I won’t be,” she said.
“You will,” I said. “With time, you will see that you have no choice.”
I said this with more passion than I might have in the past. Burning from my defeat, I felt the need to show my superiority over her.
“There is always a choice.”
Again with those words. She had said them to me once before. We’d had this same argument once before, hadn’t we? I wished to show her she was wrong. She had no say in the matter, because she couldn’t escape me. Eventually, she would bend to my will. I would give her no chance to do otherwise.
I moved away from the river, gliding over the stones and through the sparse trees that populated the bank. If there was fauna here, I could remain here for a time, with Rystala. It seemed isolated, with no indication of human habitation. Nobody would bother us. I just had to make sure there was some source of sustenance for both of us.
In this strange place, full of trees I hadn’t seen and shaped like nowhere else I had encountered, fresh from meeting with a being that brought me my first true fear of dying, I met with one more phenomenon that was entirely outside of my experience. My eyes perceived nothing, but my body came up against what felt like a wall, preventing me from moving deeper into the bowl formed by the steep walls of the ravine.
“Rystala,” I said. “What lies in front of me?”
“Can you not see?” she asked.
“I can, as well as you,” I said angrily. “I see trees, and brush and grass and stones upon the ground. Further up, I see steep rock walls. Something I can’t see is stopping me from moving forward.”
“What is it?” she asked.
“I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you.” Useless. She was far more useless than I had imagined when I chose to keep her.
I pressed myself against the — the whatever it was that was in my way. If I hadn’t had eyes, I may never have questioned its existence. Perfectly smooth, it extended to either side. I pressed myself against and along it, seeking some sort of flaw, but no. It might as well have been a full, flawless sheet of smooth metal.
“I see nothing,” I said, “but there is something hard, like a wall, before us.”
“I don’t see anything,” she said.
“Touch it,” I demanded. I moved her forward through my body, stopping when her face was only inches away from the invisible wall. I peeled myself back from her right arm, freeing it.
Rystala flexed her fingertips and rolled her shoulder. “Could you free more of me? I’m so stiff.”
“No,” I said. “Feel the wall. Tell me that it’s there.” Before my eyes, I’d never had a reason to doubt my sense of touch. Now my sense of touch was telling me something that the eyes I’d borrowed from the deceased said didn’t exist. It made me wonder if there were things in the world I’d noticed before I had eyes that I’d begun failing to notice afterward.
Sighing, Rystala reached out. Her hand met resistance, just like my body. It flattened out against the air. She frowned. “It’s magic.”
“Magic?” I said, feeling a pulse of excitement. I thought of the woman in the woods, who had touched me with words and gestures.
“I don’t know what else it could be,” she said. “It must be Terugan, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near Teruga. Then again, I have no idea where we are.”
“Teruga is a city,” I said. “Telan taught me that.”
“Who is Telan?” she asked.
“My first human.” Tendrils of myself pawed at the wall, finding no purchase. “What does this have to do with Teruga?”
“The Terugans have magical barriers around their cities,” Rystala explained. “I’ve never seen them. I’ve always imagined that they were visible. Ostensibly, they’re supposed to keep people out, like this, but most people say they’re really to keep the Terugans in.”
“Their government likes to control them,” she said. She shook her head. “It’s best to just stay away from all of the cities. Terugan just happens to be the worst.”
I had gotten a similar impression from the way Telan spoke of cities. I thought of Rystala’s village as large, but from what he’d said, cities were much larger. Impossibly large, he said, and filled with more people than I’d seen in my entire life. I thought of the feast I’d had in Rystala’s village, and of what it would be like to have one hundreds of times that size.
“I want to go through this barrier,” I proclaimed.
“What?” Rystala said. “Why?”
“Because it’s magic,” I said. “Magic is power, yes? Perhaps whoever is on the other side can teach me more of that power.”
“I mean, yes, magic is power,” she said. “You have plenty of that, though.”
“How do we get through?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Why are you asking me? I don’t know anything about magic.”
Useless. I pulled her back into my body without warning, sending two lines to her nostrils to provide her with the air to breath without giving her space to speak. I had grown tired of her.
I felt at the wall, but there were no flaws in it that I could discover, even as I spread myself out along the length of it, reaching toward both sides, where it met the rock of the ravine. I drove a tendril into the ground, feeling beneath the earth, but the barrier extended there as well. I was not good at burrowing, but I was not above trying, either, if it bought me passage.
I thought of the way the woman in the woods had tried to manipulate me with her magic. I had shrugged it off easily, ignoring it just as I would a physical attack. That magic had been no challenge to me. This shouldn’t be, either. I pushed one tendril into the wall, picturing it as weak and immaterial. I realized that it was not hard and solid like steel, as I had originally thought. It was more stiff and viscous, like an improved variation on the outer layers of myself, when I hardened them as much as I could.
The barrier did not give inward, but it did begin to spread out on either side of me. It was like pushing myself into a very, very thick liquid, one which was on the verge of becoming a solid. My tendril worked its way inward. It took all of the strength I had to put behind it to force it through, but after what felt like hours, the feeling of pressure ended, and one side of me found itself on the other side of the barrier.
I widened the tendril just enough to send one of my eyes through, and from that new vantage, I looked upon the small valley. It looked no different, at first, but my disappointment turned quickly to elation as I saw what had been hidden by the barrier’s power: a tower, built of stone, standing at the opposite end of the valley.
I began to flow through the whole I had formed in the barrier, widening it, with great effort, as I did so. I needed it to be large enough to fit the loose bones I carried with me, not to mention Rystala. The whole time, I kept my eye on the tower, expecting to see some sign that someone within it was watching me. He was, but he never gave me a sign.
When the hole was wide enough, I began bringing through my bones, one by one. I first planned to approach the tower as a human. I would leave Rystala behind with the rest of my mass. I had no reason to trust that she wouldn’t immediately reveal me for what I was.
Then again, I had no reason to believe that the maker of this barrier, through which I had forced myself, would accept me no matter what guise I gave myself. I revised my plan. It would be better to approach with my full body, with my full capacity to react to an attack intact. The encounter with the Pale One kept caution at the forefront of my mind.
When it came time to draw Rystala through, I encountered an issue. I dragged and pulled at her body, still full encompassed within my own, but it was like pulling against the wall itself. She screamed even within my own body, vibrating my fluids rather than the air, as I nearly crushed her in my efforts to pull her through.
“That won’t work,” a deep voice said.
I turned several eyes toward the source of the sound. Somehow, he had stood precisely in one of my blind spots. Somehow he’d approached me without my notice, too, though if he was the one who’d made the barrier and hidden the tower, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised.
He was a younger-looking human, with smooth skin and eerily bright green eyes that seemed able to meet all of my eyes at once, despite their distance from one another. His hair was pitch black in places, but with hints that it had begun to go to silver.
I abandoned Rystala on one side of the wall. Working quickly, I dumped a portion of myself into that which remained of me there, filling it only with the instructions and intelligence necessary to contain her and prevent her from fleeing. Then I turned all my attention to this newcomer.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I think the right to ask that question belongs to me,” he said. “This is, after all, my home. You are an intruder.”
He did not seem bothered or surprised by my nature. He didn’t seem to fear me, either. “I am myself,” I proclaimed.
“As are we all,” he said. “That tells me nothing.”
“Perhaps I will tell you more, if you tell me some in return,” I said. All of my previous methods of negotiation had amounted to nothing. I would try a new tactic with this man.
To my surprise, he laughed. “Perhaps. I’ve been alone here for some time. Maybe you can bring me some amusement before I cast you out.”