Across the fields of time and space, between the light and the dark, rode the knight Starkiller.
In all the annals of his reality, there were no heroes as great as the knight Starkiller. He had dispatched the ogres and demons of the shadow realms between the worlds, and done battle with forces from beyond the Outer Dark until they had retreated, defeated, to the shadows from which they had come. He strode his reality like a colossus, and there was no challenge left for him, no evil that he still had to fight.
All who inhabited that reality lived in awe of the knight Starkiller. Once they had merely loved or hated him, fought him or made legends about him, but now he had transcended hate and fear, love or worship. He was above myths. He was merely what he was.
Great indeed was the knight Starkiller. Clad in armour black as the gulfs between the stars, wielding his immense sword of obsidian, which could slice a troll’s head from his shoulders like butter, he had no equal in courage or prowess. He had conquered all, hungered for further horizons, and yet as the years passed his thoughts turned more and more to the structure of reality itself.
Reality folded truth and lies, turned them into their mirror opposites, and created paradoxes which could not be resolved. Reality turned light to dark and today into tomorrow, and great as the knight Starkiller was, he had no influence over light and dark and today and tomorrow; he had no influence over reality.
Finally he decided that he had to master reality, for that was the only thing that was greater than he was. And since he knew nothing of the structure of the realities, he set out to visit the Wizard Who Has No Name, that is to say, the Wizard Nameless, who was the wisest man that ever was.
The Wizard Nameless lived in a small stone hut atop a desolate cliff overlooking a silent sea. He was so old that he had long since outgrown the need for a name, or for such shallow frippery as mere decoration, which was why his hut had bare stone walls and a roof of driftwood, and why the clouds overhead never broke, and merged in the distance with the dull grey of the sea.
He met the knight Starkiller at his door, for of course he had been aware of his coming. He would have been a poor wizard indeed if he had been taken by surprise; for great as the knight Starkiller was, he was but a swordsman, and the wizards have access to stores of knowledge which have always passed the swordsmen by.
For the purpose of this meeting, the Wizard Nameless chose to appear as himself, as a short, squat old man, with a shock of hair the colour of ancient paper tumbling over a weathered, wrinkled face. He was dressed only in a pair of leather breeches and boots, his work-roughened hands and liver-spotted torso bare. They stood looking at each other for a long moment, neither speaking: the gigantic knight in his armour of the deepest black, and the ancient wizard with his mottled skin and his lank white hair.
“You know why I have come,” the knight Starkiller said at last.
“Of course.” The Wizard Nameless nodded. “But do you think you are ready for that information? It is not knowledge that comes without a price, and the price may be too much to pay.”
“I want to know,” the knight said simply. “I must know, no matter what the cost.” He fingered the hilt of his great sword of obsidian. “The price to anyone,” he said ominously.
The Wizard Nameless stood looking up at him for a moment longer, without a trace of fear in his eyes. Then he turned to go back into his hut. “If you really want to know,” he called over his shoulder, “come in, and listen carefully.”
Frowning in annoyance, for he was unused to such treatment, the knight Starkiller bent his head to pass under the low lintel of the hut, and followed.
“Sit down.” The Wizard Nameless pointed to a low stool. “You will forgive me if I do not offer you any refreshments – but you are here to talk, not to eat or drink.”
“I wouldn’t have touched anything you gave me, anyway,” the knight Starkiller growled. “After all, you’ll appreciate that a knight can hardly trust a wizard, especially one as accomplished as you.”
“That’s as may be.” The Wizard Nameless unfolded a sheet of vellum, which was covered in arcane diagrams. It seemed a curious sheet of vellum, for under his finger the lines and symbols moved and writhed as though alive. “You wish to understand the structure of the realities, and you want to know that because you want to discover how to control them.”
“Yes.” The stool was low and hard, and the knight Starkiller shifted uncomfortably in his armour. “You will tell me.”
“That, I can’t, because I don’t know.” His finger still on the vellum, the Wizard Nameless looked up at the knight. “But I can tell you how to find out.”
“Tell me,” the knight Starkiller said. “I will not be ungrateful. Even a wizard as great as you will have need of the protection of a champion like myself.”
The Wizard Nameless smiled drily. “You can think of the realities,” he said, “as a series of concentric shells, nested one inside the other – and each reality has its own truths, its own circumstances, its own fallacies. Only at the very centre of the realities, the core where they all meet, lies the truth of their existence – and, it may be, the means of their control. But you will not get to that centre.”
“Why not?” The knight Starkiller hunched forward on the stool, angrily. “Why do you say that I can’t get to that centre?”
“Reality is not unprotected.” The Wizard Nameless moved his finger on the vellum, and the lines and symbols swirled and danced. “The centre is hidden from all the realities – and guarded.
“Coiled around the centre,” continued the Wizard Nameless, “lies the dragon Chedupuram. He is the mightiest entity in all the realities, second only to the centre itself. It is his task to protect it from all comers, and he never rests in fulfilling that duty.”
“The dragon Chedupuram,” the knight repeated. “I have slain dragons.”
“Chedupuram is no ordinary dragon,” the wizard told him. “He is nothing like any dragons you have encountered, no matter how mighty a knight you may be.” He shook his head so that his mane of white hair fell like a waterfall around his shoulders. “I would strongly urge you to be satisfied with what you have, the fealty and awe of this reality. Few, in all the realities, have anything approaching what you possess, and virtually none has as much. Do not throw it away in seeking what is not for you to know.”
“That’s for me to decide.” The knight Starkiller rose from the stool. “How do I get to the centre of the realities, around which the dragon lies?”
“If you want to go there,” the Wizard Nameless said, “you will have to travel between the realities, in the Unworld, until you come to the realm of the dragon Chedupuram himself. I can tell you the way, but once you are there, you’re on your own.”
“And how shall I know when I’m there? What is the dragon Chedupuram like?”
“You will, of course, see him in terms that your own senses can interpret; he would appear quite different to someone from another reality. Remember that he spans all the realities, and exists in some measure in all of them. As to how you will know when you have reached his realms, don’t worry, he will let you know just as soon as you get there.” Tracing lines on the vellum, the Wizard Nameless then told the knight how to reach the realms of the dragon. “But,” he finished, “I advise you not to do it.”
“I thank you, Wizard,” the knight replied formally. “I will fulfil my obligation to myself, defeat the foul dragon, and conquer reality. Then, victorious, I shall be back to see you, and throw your warning in your face.”
“I’ll wait.” The wizard called Nameless smiled grimly. “I think,” he said to himself, “that I will be waiting a long, long time.”
Through the endless dark between the realities rode the knight Starkiller. Around his path lay the barren, stony wastes of the Unworld, where nothing grew and only the fugitives and the outcasts of all the realities ventured, creatures so depraved that there was not one of all the uncountable infinity of realities where they might find a home. If any of these saw the knight Starkiller, they gave him a wide berth.
Through the shadows of the Unworld rode the knight Starkiller. Under the dim green glow of the distant horizon, he merged into the dark, a shape of endless menace, and any who might have offered him harm knew him for what he was, and stayed away.
On and on through the wastes of the Unworld rode the knight Starkiller. In one hand he bore the gigantic shield of ur-metal that had served him so well through a thousand campaigns and helped protect him against a thousand times as many enemies. In the other he carried his titanic sword of obsidian, sharp enough to be able to part a hair, which he never placed in its scabbard, and carried as lightly as if it weighed nothing at all. The green light from the horizon reflected faintly from its edge, and any who saw the green line of it knew not to approach closer, for it was carried by the greatest hero the realities had ever known.
The knight Starkiller was astride his favourite war-mount, the gigantic super-horse named Lightning. It had been his mount for many years and through many campaigns, and was sheathed in bands and scales of metal, its snout and legs protected by armoured mask and spats. Yet even though Lightning had carried its master fearlessly through battles without number, it skittered nervously now, its great spatulate hooves skittish on the stones.
Tirelessly through the space between the realities rode the knight Starkiller. If he thought of what he had left behind, or what lay before him, he kept those thoughts away from his conscious mind. And that conscious mind was endlessly vigilant for danger, for he was aware of the vermin which dwelt between the worlds, and expected attack. But his fame preceded him, as a wave of fear spreading over the Unworld, and he passed in safety through the dark.
As he came closer and closer to the centre of all the realities, the point where the shells intersected, the green glow in the horizon spread slowly over the sky, and took on a steely bluish hue. And the rocks rose to form mountains, crags and pinnacles of stone, between which lay blue sheets of ice and from the summits of which rose smoke and fire; and so, through fire and ice, the knight Starkiller came finally to the centre of all the realities, where dwelt the dragon Chedupuram.
The dragon Chedupuram dwelt in a tremendous pit in the centre of a ring of fire spewing, ice-shrouded mountains, a pit so huge that from one side of it one could scarce glimpse the other, and so deep that unless one stepped right to the edge one had no idea how far down the bottom lay. And when the knight Starkiller came near the pit, Lightning dug its hooves into the ground and would go no further, nor could the knight persuade it.
Finally, finding no other way, the knight dismounted from the back of the super-horse, threw the reins over the beast’s armoured nose, and walked to the pit. And as he went, the air around him grew hot and filled with a smell as of burning.
“Who comes?” a deep voice echoed, as if from the depths of the earth. “Who dares disturb my rest?”
“Dragon,” the knight Starkiller said in an even voice, “I have come to reach the centre of all the realities, to know and control it. You will move aside and let me pass.”
“And why should I let you pass, Starkiller?”
The knight paused in surprise, still a little short of the edge of the pit. “You know my name?”
“Oh yes,” the deep voice responded, with what might have been a chuckle. “I know who you are, knight. I know why you have come. And I know the way your quest will end – and why.”
“So,” Starkiller said equably, “you know that you’ll move away and let me to the centre of all the realities. Or else, as you also know, I shall have to kill you.”
There was a rumbling roar, and from the depths of the pit, where he had lain for countless aeons curled around the centre of all the realities, rose the dragon Chedupuram.
He rose like the wrath of a primeval deity, in a column of armoured flesh, his body wrapped in plates of copper-coloured bone which could turn aside the mightiest weapon ever forged. He rose, like an avenging god, poised on hundreds of pairs of grappling legs, legs that could pluck an enemy off his horse, twist him and pull him apart. High atop the armoured body, his great head swivelled, a head that was a mountain aloft, a head to inspire terror even in the most fearless. His eyes were portals of unfathomable darkness, bottomless wells of night which seemed to suck the light out of the souls of any who beheld him. His four pairs of terrible antennae, armed with serrated teeth, lashed to and fro; antennae the touch of which would flay steel and cloth and flesh from bone. And all along the great length of his body, the copper-coloured plates of bone rubbed and clattered together, with a noise as of a thousand war-drums on a distant plain.
Such was the dragon Chedupuram as he appeared to the knight Starkiller; and even the knight’s fearless heart shrunk a little inside him when he contemplated the creature that towered above him now.
Then the dragon spoke, and his voice was gentle and yet a little amused. “And have you seen enough, knight? What will you do now, go home and leave me to my task – or must I fight you?”
“I have never shirked a challenge,” the knight said in reply, gazing up at the gigantic beast. “I shall not shirk one now.”
“Fair enough, Starkiller, greatest hero of your reality. But, before you force the issue, I want to ask you something.” The dragon cocked his immense head, studying the knight. “You are only one man, however great. Do you believe you possess the knowledge and ability to actually control the realities? Bear in mind that this is something not even I, who am the guardian of the centre, can think of attempting.”
“If I haven’t tried,” Starkiller asked, “how can I know if I can? Has anyone ever tried?”
The dragon shook his immense head. “No. Nobody has ever tried in all the aeons that I have been guardian.”
“Have you always been the guardian?”
There was a long pause. “No,” said the dragon at last. “There have been guardians before me. And there shall be guardians after me, as long as the realities exist. The centre of the realities must always have a guardian. And the guardians have never failed in their duty – and they never shall.”
“Perhaps,” Starkiller said, “that is because those who might have tried to reach the centre were merely afraid of you. But I am not afraid.”
“I can see that you are not,” the dragon Chedupuram acknowledged. “But not being afraid of me, and being able to master the structure of reality, are two very different things, Starkiller. The centre of the realities means just that – the centre of all the realities, all the infinities of them. Do you understand what that means?”
“There are aspects of reality which would be so strange to your senses that you could not begin to comprehend them, Starkiller. Your mind, structured to fit the reality you were born into, would flee, gibbering, into madness. And that is if you are lucky.”
“What does that mean – if I am lucky?”
“I hope you will not have to discover the alternative,” the dragon said. “Well, knight – what is it to be? Will you return to your reality, with honour intact? Or must it come to battle between us?”
“I have never retreated,” Starkiller replied. “Nor do I believe that my mind is so weak as to be affected by the stranger aspects of reality. So, I must order you to let me by to the centre of the realities, or to taste the edge of my sword.”
“Then,” the dragon replied in a tone of voice that held a smile within it, “shall we begin?”
There could be sagas written on the colossal struggle which followed, the thrust and parry of the knight’s sword, the frantic lunges of the dragon’s gigantic head, the clash of blade on bone plate, the roar of the dragon and the gasps of the man. Perhaps there could be such sagas written, but the end would be the same – when the obsidian blade slipped between two titanic plates of copper-hued bone, and slid into the dragon’s heart.
Then the dragon Chedupuram leapt, with his death in him, leapt until the ice-blue sky was dark as midnight, until the air grew the colour of blood with his passing; and then, suddenly, he was gone, and there was not a trace that he had ever been.
The knight Starkiller leaned a moment on his sword, wondering why it had seemed to him as if the dragon had almost opened himself to the final thrust, and what those last words were, which the great beast had murmured before beginning his death leap. But that was of little importance, because now nothing stood between him and the thing at the bottom of the pit: the centre of all the realities.
Slowly, conscious of the significance of the moment, he walked to the edge of the pit, and looked down.
The centre of realities looked back at him.
There are no words to describe it: it was day and night, summer and winter, life and death, love and hate. It was the heat of giant blue suns, and it was the cold of the vacuum between the galaxies. It was all colours imaginable and it was blindness. It pulled at him and it thrust him away. He felt it around him even as he saw it at an infinite distance; and in it he saw himself, as he might have been if things had been different...and different...and different still.
And, then at that moment, he knew how the dragon had become a guardian, and he knew that in his last moments, the beast had thanked him for setting him free. But by then it was already too late.
He felt himself caught, felt himself stretching, changing, growing fangs and fins and wings, changing to a thousand, a million, an infinity of forms to fill as many realities. He knew fear and agony and ecstasy all at once. And he knew, then, what the function of the guardian was.
It was not to guard the centre of reality from those who would control it, for the centre was far beyond imagining, let alone control. It was to protect the infinite realities from the centre.
And there would always be a guardian; the dragon had mentioned that too.
The super-horse waited until it could no more, and then it began its lonely way homeward, through the stony wastes between the worlds. Perhaps some kind of protection still clung to it from its former owner, for the creatures of the dark did not care to disturb it, and they watched it go.
Behind it, the pit was occupied again, the new guardian already at his work.
And in time, perhaps, in the future to come. there would be a new guardian, and what had once been the knight Starkiller would be free.
In the future to come.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012