The Living Fiction
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I was so close, I could feel it in my guts. As the wind furiously whipped through my clothes and chilled my blood and lymph, I took the knife I had gripped between my teeth and wedged it firmly in between a crack in the rock an arm's length above me too spare for even my fingers to navigate. I pushed off from my scant foothold and pulled up with the hand holding onto the hilt of the knife and felt the breeze rush past me as I held nothing, my body carving a self-shaped hole through the air. My heart stopped and I could not be sure I was still alive in that moment where I was connected to the world at no points whatever, an explorer of space for a fraction of a fraction of an instant.

My fingers caught the cliff edge with the barest amount of purchase, and I was entirely fortunate that the sea far below was too distant to leave even a hint of spray on the rocks above. As it was, the stone was dry, and I gripped for my life. I flexed my arms, grateful that the strength training I had undergone had borne fruit, and I laboriously hauled myself to the top of the cliff like a beached whale struggling and finally pulling itself out with the tide. I am not too proud to admit that I needed time to catch my breath at that precipice, that threshold where the land gave way with shocking suddenness to the sea. I lay there for what felt like seconds, but was in fact likely hours, my muscles aching and my chest heaving. Eventually, I rolled over and peered over the cliff's edge at my little skiff so far below. The boat looked like a toy even up close; from this height it was barely a speck.

After a time I was able to gather both my senses and my corpus and I hoisted myself out of sheer willpower to my burning feet. From my small pack I withdrew my jerked horncalf meat, regarded it for a moment as I performed the mental calculus to determine whether I had the strength of jaw and sense of purpose necessary to make the caloric intake worthwhile, and finally decided in favor of its consumption as I surveyed my surroundings. It seemed that the map I had traced in the wayward Library was accurate; this island, which gave the illusion of a monolithic, stony, volcanic peak from a distance, in fact had a network of terraces smoothly sculpted from it. I was not sure by what means the map's scribe gained their knowledge of the island's structure, but as I unfolded the map out of my pack, I was impressed by the precision of each detail upon it.

I began the long journey up the switchbacked terraces, occasionally taking swigs from my waterskin or bites of my dried and preserved foodstuffs. From this height, one might have believed the world was made entirely of ocean, so vast and indifferent was the blue horizon, fading as it does to a smudge against the sky in the distance. I had never in my life been so alone. As I continued my hike, I began to notice signs of the ancient Ómyrtulli settlement that the map described on the island. Their strange script appeared on small placards, perhaps marking distances or trailheads, but it was as indecipherable to me as it was to our greatest scholars. Eventually, their dwellings grown into and from the stone itself were visible in the canyons below the trail. Ómyrtulli architecture never ceased to fascinate me, with its twisting spires and round, concentric forms so suggestive of organic structure, each building a lung or kidney or some other vital organ in which the Ómyrtull lived. Though I had packed very lightly, I was grateful to myself of the past that I had brought a charcoal and sketchpad, so that I could document the pristine dwellings, as perfectly shaped and formed as they had been when they were first created thousands of years before.

By and by I came to the largest settlement on the island. Here, a communal dwelling not unlike our boarding-houses was grown directly into the cliffside, perhaps five hundred feet wide, with swooping balconies and stretching patios and a sprouted village square jutting from its base as a jaw outthrust. Being so close as I was to the venerable stonework, I could not resist its allure — I trekked to the other side of the canyon and made my way down into the dwelling. As I strolled from room to room, my mind boggled by the scope of the ancient creation of the Ómyrtull, I was certain that mine were among very few other feet in these halls in four thousand years. A chill ran down my spine at the twin senses of scope and isolation. Gently and reverently I touched the walls of the dwelling, which though grown and shaped from granite cliff, were as smooth as ice sculptures and no small fraction as cold. Where had the Ómyrtull gone? I asked myself.

Unfortunately, the solution to such a puzzle was not the reason for my journey, and I could ill afford to spend more time and mental energy on scholarly conjectures. I climbed down the stairways in the dwelling out to the village square and down yet another series of switchbacks to my destination. Traditional tales held that the Ómyrtull had a caste of storytellers, soothsayers, and practitioners of mysticism whom they worshipped nearly as royalty. My research in the Library had confirmed this, and also had uncovered another truth — that there was a repository of knowledge, unwritten by any hand, which yet existed on this island. I carefully exited the final switchback and into what can only be described as a foul graveyard, a repository of bones buried as barbarians might do under the earth. Our stories had long held that the Ómyrtull interred their corpses, but evidence of this practice had not been found until I discovered this graveyard. Carefully shaped stones served as markers for the stone prisons under which slept the long-dead bodies of the Ómyrtulli soothsayers, and I shuddered to think that under my feet there were the moldering bones of the dead.

Yet this was not the strangest thing to be found in this shaded boneyard, for the reason I had come was also apparent. A carpet of mold and fungus, shifting ever so slightly and then settling, perhaps forty feet wide, blanketed the corpse field and covered many of its headstones. Never had I seen such a foul collection of rot and decay, and yet here it was, and in the text I had read in the Library those years ago I knew this must be The Living Fiction. Its spores and tendrils reached down into the stone and drew knowledge and life from the very minds of the long-dead Ómyrtulli. Despite the irony of its name, feeding entirely as it did on the dead and on something as ephemeral as stories and songs, nothing else nearby could be said to do anything resembling living, and to every other detail the map and accompanying notes had been correct.

My suspicions were confirmed when the fungus spoke to me, in a strange fashion. It was somehow in my mind and around it, slipping into the folds of my consciousness as I might into silk robes. Who are you, and why have you come? it asked me.

I was not sure how to respond, so I simply spoke aloud. "I am but a humble traveler," I said, "and I mean you no harm. I come to trade stories."

The fungus shifted slightly at my words, and its reply was delayed such that I thought perhaps it could not understand me, but after a time it was again in my thoughts. Stories are what I am and all I know, it said. If you bring me one I have not yet heard, I will share one of mine in kind.

"But surely you need more than one story to make it worthwhile to you?" I said. "Do you not wish to grow?"

I grow with each story I hear, for a story is fortified by each telling and each new knower, and not diminished, was its reply.

I nodded. "Then a story for you I have," I said. "Perhaps the story of Syrro the Songsmith?"

No, said The Living Fiction, Syrro is known to me, in many forms. He is merely a pale shadow of the Ómyrtulli legend of Sybyrr and thus is of no interest. Try again.

I had figured that Syrro would be too easy, and so I came armed with another suggestion. "Perhaps the story of how Ilna Hesparay the Brave stole the Flame from the Forge-Lord?"

Here I am certain that if The Living Fiction had lungs, it would have sighed. An ancient story and one that has been told and retold for so long even I tire of it. Please. Surely you have better, if you have come all this way.

I thought for a moment. All the stories I had memorized were tales told in our verbal tradition, and of course they had all descended from the Ómyrtull, or the descendants of the Ómyrtull. After a few moments, however, I realized my solution. "Fine, then, the story of how I came to be here before you."

There was a pause. Of course, this is not a story I have heard, The Living Fiction replied at last. Proceed.

So I told the story of the storm that nearly destroyed my skiff, of tying it to the sharpened rocks at the foot of the cliff, of my perilous climb, and of my journey through the ancient land of the Ómyrtull.

The Living Fiction seemed satisfied. This was a story of excitement, peril, and discovery, it said. No other traveler has brought me a story quite so personal. As fair as fair can be, I am yours. Ask me for a tale and I shall grant it.

"I hope you do not take me to be too presumptuous," I said, "but my request is less of a story than what I gave to you. Please, let me hear the Prophecy of the House of Sulur."

Again, The Living Fiction was silent, this time for a very long while. I could hear gulls cawing in the far distance and the wind whistling through the windows of the dwelling above me. Finally, it spoke to me. The ancient Ómyrtulli prophecy? it asked. For what purpose?

"I am a scholar," I said, "and I must know to sate my curiosity."

Very well, The Living Fiction said.

Behold me. I am named Ítelluh. Hear my words and know they were spoken to me by the stone and through me they become the word of the Universe.

In a time far from now when our lands are dead and we are dust, and our children are dust, and their children are dust, and the only memory of us shall be in the stone and the soil, there shall be born a golden bear. The bear shall be starving upon its birth and it shall devour, all devour, until it is full. And yet the golden bear shall not be satisfied. It shall consume and consume until it is the only animal left on any flag or any banner in the land. It shall be the strongest and most powerful of its kind ever to walk the earth, and all shall fear its name and passing: Sulur, the Golden Bear of the North.

Sulur shall sire a son, and his son shall sire a son, and his son shall sire a son, and yet his son shall sire a son, and this son shall rule for seventy long years. This son shall build towers that shame the trees, he shall teach his kin to fly in the sky as birds, and he shall master the weave of magic that binds the flame to the wick and that seals the salt in the sea. And this son shall sire himself a son, but it is not this son who the king shall favor — it is ever his daughter with the sapphire eyes.

Sulur's son's son's son's son shall bestow the lands of the North to the girl of the sapphire eyes, and she shall become the Sapphire Queen, and his son shall become the Prince of the Setting Sun. And all shall rejoice at the reign of the Sapphire Queen, and all shall adore her, for all of her days. No war or strife shall befall the Land of the Golden Bear, and long shall they live, and long shall they rule.

This is all I, Ítelluh, have seen, and all I, Ítelluh, have been told, and thus, there is no more to tell.

So it was foretold, said The Living Fiction.

"But if it is prophecy, and the divine truth of the Universe," I asked, "why is it known to you, a creature of fiction?"

You know the answer to that already, the fungus replied. By your hand, it shall not come to pass. All prophecy which fails is thereby fiction, and all prophecy can be thwarted by the hands of men.

"How do you know my aims?" I asked.

I am Fiction, and Fiction is me, The Living Fiction said. You have spoken two fictions to me since your arrival. Firstly, you are no humble traveler. You are the prince of the Kingdom of Sulur, for who else would ask to hear such a prophecy?

"And the other?" I asked, as I felt the heat rising in my hands.

You told me you meant me no harm, The Living Fiction said with resignation, and thus were spoken its last words.

The old man looks you in the eye after he finishes his story, his voice turned to gravel with age and congestion in the lungs. "We haven't much time, my child," he says. "Fetch two sheets of parchment and a quill."

You take a sheaf of parchment, a quill, and an inkwell from the shelf next to the Banner of the Golden Bear hanging above your father's fireplace. "What do I write, father?" you ask, but you think you already know.

Your father coughs and then speaks. "You must draw a map from my description, and you must write all the notes I tell you which accompany it. I know you can do this. In a way, you already have."

You listen carefully and follow his command, drawing from your lifetime of cartography and calligraphy lessons, and when you are done, your father says, "It is just as I remember it in the Library, all those years ago." Soon, the light leaves his eyes, and the King of the Setting Sun is gone.

The House of Sulur is yours to command.

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