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I suppose everyone dreams in their sleep. And their dreams sometimes become strange ... alien, surreal.
I suppose. But I don't see others struggling to explore inexpressible absurdities as I am compelled to do.
To be fair, I haven't really been looking — too caught up in my own obsession.
And I know there's something wrong with me. Something missing in my head.
First recollections are vague; a distressing cacophony of noises, colours, movement. A town, probably, but at the time, sheer animal terror to me. I can feel it as I write these words. I fled through what seemed an endless nightmare maze of fear, and when the panic finally left my mind, I was surrounded by wilderness.
I knew I had to go even further, but some spark of humanity returned to me then; timidity. And timidity lead to invention. I was going to build an elevated walkway so creatures couldn't reach me, all the way into the very heart of where they spawned most. Common sense hadn't arrived yet.
But I did it. For a while at least; placing blocks ahead of me, removing them behind, creating obstacles to prevent the creatures crowding at my feet. I had no prior experience to help me build, but my folly began my education.
In truth, I must only have traversed about two furlongs in this manner. As I observed the threats around me, I gained the confidence to face them and build a straight path rather than weave between them. Eventually, I realised that I didn't need the path at all, and was only building it from habit or misplaced pride. Striding freely across ground, I was soon gazing upon the outer void and established my first home.
Invention without knowledge leads to strange conclusions. I created a circular shelter; with traps and diversions at the entrance that were never needed, designed stairs and rooms according to some logic that I can no longer recall. As I learned from practical experience, my home evolved into an experimental complex covering a dozen or so sections.
But creativity couldn't silence the emptiness prowling in the back of my mind. Discovering one day that I was not as remote as I had imagined, I resolved to make a fresh start elsewhere. I painstaking removed every trace of my former encampment, restoring the wilderness there to its former state, and followed the darkness to a new site.
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By this time, although I didn't notice it happening, a lot of common knowledge had come back to me. I could understand the world in civilised terms, and the habits of culture crept into my daily activities. I had even begun to interact with the people I sometimes encountered.
What had not come back to me was anything about myself; my past, my attitudes. I remained an assemblage of actions and ideas signifying nothing, and no-one. But the void is anathema to consciousness, and soon fills with any nonsense it can throw together, protesting its reality from within. And how can I not be affected? Reason is no match for belief.
And so, at last, I have to talk about the Tree — my ambition and embarrassment, nemesis and teacher. Quest, perhaps, or mere sickness. I just don't know, but it is the reason I am writing this.
My dreams are ... difficult. Not exciting, or inspiring, or even amusingly random. They just play out like an idle stroll through daily life, being utterly mundane and uneventful, yet intangibly and tantalisingly wrong. And if I could tell you something more substantial than that, I could tell myself, and maybe I wouldn't have to build my sanity with blocks.
I'm convinced that the world I visit in sleep is real, and that I should be able to grasp it, because it seems to know me. But the transition to wakefulness dissolves the mind of dream, replacing the uncanny with the familiar, so that nothing of value remains in memory. Except the Tree, which somehow retains its enigmatic qualities to haunt my waking consciousness. It doesn't fit, irritating my mind with an itch that thinking alone cannot scratch.
So with the outer darkness nearby to resonate with my own, I began building the Tree.
People seem to know about trees already, and have built their likeness, but that only makes it harder to explain. They are so ready to judge by the material result, but have no patience for the inner conflict that informs it. And I can't blame them for being sane. And perhaps they know something.
I could just build 'a tree' to appease them, but that would miss the point. Because what I'm building is not the shape of a tree, but an intangible communion with mystery; a connection between worlds.
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I should try to explain, although I know it to be a hopeless task, and one that leads nowhere. And I am well aware that ignorance multiplies words; endlessly verbose in the attempt to find something to say. I shall be brief.
The Tree moves; always changing as I pull it closer to our world of rational things, yet perfectly still in its own realm and nature. It does not come to me whole, but as a jumble of sensations — shape, action, emotion — flashing briefly across my awareness before it dissolves. It seems completely different every time, but I have no way to compare these moments except the work I have done in response. It mainly tells me what's wrong.
I had chosen a good site. Resources were abundant, and no-one interrupted me for a very long time. But resources were never the problem; I could have obtained 100 blocks in the time it took me to place one. And that one would inevitably be removed again.
It mattered whether I used half blocks or whole, which paths could be walked, how the hidden places joined, what it felt like to stand somewhere, how space revealed itself. It required the most exacting feel for my materials and the unseen forces that maintain our world and the power I exerted through them. But mainly, it required persistence in the face of failure.
I needed that time, and that freedom from calculating eyes.
It wouldn't last, of course, and one day I had a visitor. Not just a random encounter, a visitor, and, as if to over-compensate, the most calculating eyes I had ever seen. Calculating, but kind; the stranger addressed me without the merest glance or mention of the laughable construction behind me:
"I am Qeva Yul, of the newly instituted Guild of Shadowmancers. We are hoping to find a builder experienced in wilderness-craft for a public work introducing us to the wider community."
Or something like that; there was more eloquence and such, but you'll forgive my not remembering the exact words. Before I had fully adjusted my mind for speech, plans were produced and set before me ... and caught me.
I had never seen actual plans, it had been my lot to struggle one block at a time with no expectation, discovering as I went. But they leapt into my understanding instantly; I felt truth in them, and I knew I could do it. And something else I knew at that moment, I needed something I could finish and see completed.
It never occurred to me at the time to question my selection for the project. He just made it seem reasonable and obvious that I should do it, and my formerly unconscious desires did the rest. It is only with hindsight that I now recall Qeva Yul glancing back to the Void as we left for town, and smiling.
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Qeva Yul was not at home in the wilderness. Clearly unaccustomed to the attentions of its creatures, which he monitored with what seemed to me unnecessary vigilance, but retaining his composure nonetheless — perhaps secure in my relaxed mastery of whatever we encountered. Triggering memories of my own early anxiety, his behavior was positively heroic by comparison.
The way he traveled through the terrain however, was quite remarkable. While I ranged freely around, killing and collecting as I often did, he forged ahead steadily with an eye for the most efficient path. He wasn't particularly agile or fast, and didn't look capable of any great exertion, but he progressed with such an inspired mixture of discipline and awareness that he seemed unstoppable. That he had barely stepped outside the city before made it all the more striking.
In spite of our divergent travelling styles, we discussed many things of mutual interest. It was a conversation composed mainly of silent contemplation, befitting my asocial habits and Qeva's clarity of thought, but nevertheless richly detailed and conceptually engaging. As important as our ideas were, however, the most important thing was that I had finally connected with another human being.
Some will think it strange that we didn't start from Spawn, teleporting where we could. It might have been considered, but in fact we both wanted to walk. In my case, because I felt that making a connection through space was important, and in Qeva Yul's, for the experience itself and its challenges.
After passing through various ruins and towns, we entered another wilderness area where a woman wearing a dirt-mottled vest was staring at the ground between four markers. Noticing our approach, she greeted Qeva and looked me over carefully. I figured that she must have something to do with the project and that this, therefore, must be the site.
She was introduced as "Mwnfalvscjugn, or Mwn for short" (the actual spelling of which I only learned much later), another Shadowmancer. She concerned herself with ensuring that I understood exactly where to build, repeatedly — as if repetition could make her markers any more solid. Her uncompromising directness was in strong contrast to Qeva's enigmatic diplomacy, but her focus on the task deflected any social unease I might still have felt at that stage.
She clearly had something else on her mind, and when she finally felt comfortable leaving me to my own preparations, she rushed excitedly to where Qeva was waiting (and watching with some amusement, I suspect) to tell him all about it.
As I worked out my approach to the project ahead, I was briefly distracted by Mwn's voice,
"Oh, he acts cynical, but Draco watches for a reason."
I shrugged it off as politics or gossip, and got back to work.
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Construction proceeded swiftly. In fact it was almost dizzying as the truth I had sensed upon first seeing the plan was amplified on site. It was as if the blocks knew where to go, and pulled me into place. But before long I caught myself making mistakes; occasionally deviating from the plan as I lapsed into instinct. I resolved to be more careful, but something in me rebelled and I decided to discuss my difficulties with Qeva.
Qeva was the architect, and I did not in fact have any rational complaint against his design. Nevertheless, I had to resolve the matter before I could continue. After listening patiently to my explanation, Qeva responded, "Good."
He went on to explain that his plans were in some sense incomplete; that while most of it was exact, some parts had many solutions. I had been chosen in the hope that my "insights would lead to a more satisfying design."
I remember those words because it occurs to me how skilfully Qeva kept conversation away from certain topics until the time was right. I had not thought anything of my selection before this, and now I would not think twice about my "insights" until the job was done.
And so, with Qeva now hovering around below, noting my changes and checking that they were valid — whatever that meant — I completed the task in no time.
It was not as satisfying as I expected. It had seemed too easy, and I wandered around it wanting more to do. Soon Qeva had finished checking everything and began collecting his notes. As he rolled up the plans, confirming the end of my task, Mwn appeared, and after a brief exchange, strode beneath our work without even looking at it, to the patch of ground where I had first seen her.
I might eventually have asked what she was doing had Qeva not spoken first.
"Okay, phase one is complete. Looks like we have some time off."
I had felt lost with nothing to do. This casual remark simultaneously suggested purpose, disorientated me, engaged my curiousity, and made me feel more included. It's no surprise, therefore, that I remained with Qeva as he introduced me to the ideas and objectives behind our work.
"The only way we can affect the world is by building. It's so obvious that we never question it, but it might be the biggest question we face."
"Most people regard structures as having practical utility, and follow certain conventions in their design. But those very conventions seem unrelated to the practical demands of life."
Qeva continued to point out details suggestive of something outside of reality shaping what people built, and a moment's embarrassment swept over me upon realising that those "people" included me.
Having discovered an inexplicable relationship from symbolism and space to real effects, he was developing a system to combine them, in hopes of discovering more and making them stronger.
Mwn was a talented historical researcher who incidentally mastered many other disciplines in pursuit of understanding. She had found some interesting anomalies that led her to apply Shadowmancy as a research tool.
"She has theories about what underlies reality. I have theories about how to reveal it.
You have built part of a spell. It will be interesting to see what it does."
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(to be continued)