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The drama of the drear and unchanging

There are scenes in the Wizard's Harvest Table where the main character walks alone for an inordinate amount of time in places never before trodden. That is something that can be hard to picture in the mind's eye, unless you do so yourself. If you lack for drama and excitement, just head out on your own in some direction with only a plan not to turn back before it's too late. Take nothing with you. Don't delay to think about what you need or where it is you'll go. A day or two later, you may have left your world behind. You could be dead, hospitalized, traumatised; family and friends might call out search parties, cops and journalists might pick through trash to find your spoiling corpse; bills and mail might pile up in your letter box or in-box. Or you might just get sore feet and give up and go home.

The dreary, protracted journey is one that you have prepared for, that meets expectations, that goes well. Journeying takes a lot more energy than hanging around at home. The journey that is required of you by external pressures or events is very different than the one you undertake for its own sake, on your own resolve.

The first editor of the book was upset, or at least repeatedly called out, Modest is often pushed into things without being asked if it's alright. Balkan drags him through portal after portal; Balkan imposes Rastarian on Modest without permission. I mulled over the query, trying to weigh up how I felt about it. Life is full of cases where things transpire you wouldn't agree with or go in for, that tumble you along senza permesso, like a musical direction that takes you over the page before you're ready.

Modest represents the kind of person whose days rush by without a strong feeling of their own agency. He's not cowardly, but knows he isn't heroic by nature. In short, he's a lens of moderation (the reader's avatar) on a journey of increasing extremes.

It's in Modest's character that he is like a pinball between the flippers and bumpers on all sides. He's not the kind of character who provides all the answers, solves the problems, leads by a fine example; he provides a point of view certainly, but it's uncomplicated by ambition or vanity. At home, he works for a drunkard brewer in a hops store, and suffers a menial, hand-to-mouth existence with good grace. If Balkan hadn't dragged him along by his collar, he'd likely have lived his life in distilled routine, pickled in obscurity. Of course, demons raze his town to the ground, but by then Modest has changed with changing circumstances, all by just trying to keep on his feet.

Modest has cause to worry about sore feet too. While the Night Offensive bears its crew far and wide, there are several scenes in which Modest walks interminably: beaches, deserts, forests and rivers, tombs, the endless downs of the Morning World. But even in solitude Modest is in conflict internally. Rather than finding himself, he mulls over the aches and pains of the road, the sun and the cold, worries about food, worries about being attacked. He misses his friends, and the scenery becomes a background blur to his morbidity.

Upon growing tired of the coast line, he headed inland, and soon felt lost. The days blended together. He needed no spear or club to hunt food, since every tree produced some fruit or seed or nut he could subsist on. He repeated the pattern of rising early, walking until he needed to drink. With the steadiness of a litany, he searched for water to quench his thirst, ate fruit, then slept in the shade, then once it grew cool walked till dark, stopping only when he could not see the way. While resting his feet he would star gaze and try to plan ahead. He gave names to constellations, struggling to commit them to memory. Stars were in abundance, sharp and brilliant. Plans failed to resolve.

He recalled Rastarian had travelled the stars alone in a ship, needing no sleep because he had no body to tire. During the night, he looked for movement above, but the only motion was the moon scudding behind clouds. The moon moved with him, he noticed, and appeared to be circled by a ring of stars of its own. He supposed it was the sort of observation Balkan would have delighted in committing to the pages of a book for patient study during many a long night through the waft of his pipe smoke. Had Rastarian known this same heaven, he wondered, or was it unique to Lee Tam Nol’s private afterlife? There was no way of knowing, however much he stroked his ragged scrap of beard.

One night, while spinning slowly on the spot on a crag, while he appreciated the bright, scattered arc across the sky, each star began to fade as though a fog was gathering, until overhead extended a bleak, black pall. Far off, one shimmering star remained, and he stared at it until he realised it was not a light in the sky but a firelight on a distant hill. Enlivened, he made towards it, stumbling in the unusually dark heath. The light shone faintly up onto the blanket of cloud that had descended so he could see which way to go even while traversing gulleys thick with brush and scuttling nocturnal critters. The shield, whose eyes glowed, offered a feeble view barely sufficient for avoiding roots and ravines.

During his journey, he had seen creatures of all sizes, but none seemed inclined to aggression. A bald bear taller than a house, feeding in the burble of a hill stream, greeted him with curious, myopic surprise then returned to fishing. In the night, stumbling urgently and almost blindly towards the light, he probably frightened any nearby creatures away, and the forested hills rustled and hooted in a circle around him and seemed silent and empty everywhere else. Given he could not see very far, he could easily have believed that between himself and the light there was only a void that filled up with scattered instances of the same chattering forest critters distributed over and over into the path he was taking. He hoped the light was closer than it looked, and he was glad to notice as he clambered between two rocks that a cliff ahead was illuminated by the light, at its base. Breathing hard, he pressed on, deliberating briefly whether to slow down and attempt to approach unnoticed. Days of exposure and despair tipped him towards calling out and even waving his arms, but a deeper instinct urged caution.

Due to his haste, his water skin had leaked out, and now he shuffled, parched and dusty, feeling light-headed. His heart drummed in his chest from both his exertions and suspense.

As he approached, it became clear the light he’d seen was generated mechanically, a continual beam that wavered in brilliance but never stopped. He’d been fascinated by such lights aboard the Night Offensive, myriad guide lights, signals, indicators, and pilots. Having grown up in a town of torch light and fires cultivated in hearths and braziers stinking of oil, fat, and coal, he quickly sensed the agency of a machine. When he saw a body lying where the light was emitting he wasn’t at all surprised, except it was no body, only an armoured, padded suit in a prone posture, its occupant long ago decomposed to bone then to dust. Encased in a suit with a glass visor, the skull was a mere fragment, powdered bone and teeth. The suit was rotted and everything around it was desiccated and grey, covered in dust which no wind blew away. The suit’s glove still gripped a plunger depressed on the neck of a silver rod, a weapon Modest concluded, and the beam shot from its tip as though ruled between two points. It terminated high on the cliff face, where it had gradually bored a hole through to the sky above. It continued but petered out into the darkness beyond Modest’s ability to discern.

A pencil drawing from my notebook at the time I was writing the Morning World section, where Modest wanders alone.

At a time when his loneliness is at its peak, he finds a place where nothing has changed in a long time, a barren crash site, where a laser shoots its unrelenting beam weakly into the sky. Death has come and gone from the wreckage, leaving only dust, and an energy shield traps everything within so it remains untouched. Like a puzzle from the game Myst, the stillness of the inexplicable scene appears to be a crack in the continuity of reality, a dream of Simnem, a hallucination of Heira's afterworld, a lethal trap. Modest doesn't know, but manages to extract the laser drill and carries it with him, an ineffectual weapon that he uses to taunt demons during the invasion of Dunedin. It shines into the sky, a line visible across the land. Balkan refers to it, saying the Night Offensive navigated towards it, much as Modest did in the Morning World, across the barriers of portals and worlds. This turns an ineffectual act into a magical detail, a teasing anomaly at the end of a journey whose end is welcomed only by demons.

“I have seen demons face to face,” Modest said. “I have visited wild, wild worlds and drifted like an echo through minds as ancient and deep as the ocean, but it would take a language of echoes for me to forget that all I wanted was to share a smoke with a crabby old wizard during the Demon Parade. I have wandered alone till my thoughts were like the merest wind of noise in the trees.” This last remark made Kashprav look up, for the scene was apt. The whisper through the pines seemed to come from all directions.

“I think it’s a feature of your personality that you dwell on nothing, coming from nothing, being nothing, becoming nothing, like it’s your own particular curse,” Kashprav replied.

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