I hope you had fun reading this short story. However, I’m interested in improving, so I’ve collected some criticism both from me and from others.
1. The protagonist is rather forgettable
I think I agree with this. I originally wanted to make them genderless (you know, “I” can be anyone! even you!), but by doing so also made them somewhat characterless. And with the plot going on to let the protagonist find a girlfriend, it’s very probable we’re dealing with a male protagonist anyways, so I completely undermined the first idea anyway
2. My world building is rather weak
I think this is partially because English still is a foreign language to me, so I don’t know the best words. Maybe I should ask Trump if I can buy some of his.
Further, I spend too little time on it. For example:
I had forged my fair share of custom tools in the factory, from the smallest springs to the biggest wrench, but I always had access to the never-ending power of steam. Ralph had his right arm. Well, he also had his left arm, a hammer and an anvil, but all in all, if he wanted a piece of metal to be flat, he couldn’t just plop it into a steam hammer and wait for a couple seconds or minutes, he had to work it flat, by hand, and re-heat it often. (Chapter 5)
This part is meant to convey to the reader that in Valand, industrialization is going on while in Greenland, it’s still all muscle power. (I do think the joke in it worked. I’ve written it so long ago, it completely caught me off guard this morning while I was reading through it again)
To make things worse, I did say in the beginning that industrialization is restricted in Valand , so we don’t even know if blacksmiths up there are using hand power usually. Overall, I think my approach this time (write first, think later) hindered me worldbuilding properly. On the other hand, it did allow me to write the story remarkably quickly. I could’ve fixed this in post, writing beautiful and consistent descriptions after the story was done, but I kinda just wanted to get it out.
3) The logo looks like smash bros, and way too clean.
Firstly, it looks like my brand identity, thank you very much, and secondly, I think both me and Smash bros ultimate try the same thing here, showing sunrise from the ISS. In my case, it symbolizes the edge of the world, in SSBU, it symbolizes the world as a whole.
That said, my Logo thingy was thrown together in 15 minutes. Had I wanted to execute my other idea, a view from Valand over the lower lands, I’d have to spend quite some time in Blender making it work. Time which I didn’t have this time around, because there was a deadline. So, have the logo thingy one last time:
4. I’m jumping around somewhat and not bringing ideas to their end.
In particular, in chapter 5 there’s a bit where the protagonist is fixing the machine, and the smith is pleased with the progress. Alice says it’s confusing the smith would say that when they just had started.
In that particular case, I’d agree, I did have a note there this morning saying [[MORE]], but left it as that, so that part was plain laziness. I don’t know if this a problem on a larger scale. Because, I do intentionally jump to skip boring bits, especially between chapters. I kinda write them like L-cuts, with a brief summary of what we as readers missed in the beginning
The question is whether this is as annoying as a jump cut, or not too noticeable like an L-cut.
I’m using too few transition words.
Yoast in particular likes to yell at me for this.
I think it flows pretty well and is easy to read, but again, I don’t necessarily have the right feeling for the language. It also yelled at me for not using subheadlines everywhere, and for using the same sentence beginnings when I used repetition as stylistic device.
I did not follow Vogler’s Hero’s Journey.
If we take the city episode as approach to the inmost cave and the ordeal as per Vogler, it’s a bit weird that the protagonist gets no reward immediately, and instead Lily is both reward and road back much later on. If (as I originally intended) take the path to the volcano as approach to the inmost cave, it’s lacking a fight between good and evil (ie the ordeal) altogether.
Either way, I break with this scheme further by having the resurrection before the road back.
I did not follow Swain’s Scene and Sequel method
… in which characters have a goal, followed by a conflict, followed by disaster, all of which is the scene, ie the part where the plot develops, followed by reaction, dilemma and decision, ie the part where the character and story develops. I think my character could’ve been deeper if I had used it more.
I dislike my dialogues.
I just default to one character asking all the time and the other answering the questions. I tried to get away from this as often as possible, but the dialogues still feel kinda meh.
I keep shifting into indirect speech and speech summaries.
This probably is because I dislike my dialogues, so rather than improving them, I try to avoid writing them. This of course abstracts the dialogue to the point where you’re not really in the story, and instead reading the summary of the story.
The end comes by too quickly.
This of course is due to limited time and my long training with the flash fiction, which I have to bring to an end super fast when I run out of time (usually <90 mins). I had an entire segment planned with the volcano, with the protagonist meeting people there which help him sail to great heights using the volcano updrafts, followed by an air battle followed by him meeting the captain and the crew again — but all that kinda got binned because I really had to finish this. As with some of my other recent texts, because it’s part of the Creative Writing course of the IDW.
All in all, I think this story went surprisingly well, given the limited time and it being the first time I attempt something in this length. I may do more things like this in the future.
But for now, I’ll probably go back to Blender and video effects for a bit. And I need to redesign my website, too. See you in a few weeks, or a few months!
Oh, before I forget: Comments are open on this post. I typically keep them closed because I’ve gotten nothing but bots so far here, but, you know, maybe some of you would like to share their praise and criticism here. Go ahead, but note that I will keep your data with me if you do comment.
Lily was excellent at flying. Better than me, at least. She said it was because I taught her well, but also because she had a bit of time to go through the theory before actually starting. We flew almost sideways over her home, her dad waving at us, before finally ascending towards Valand. As we ascended, I noticed my breath getting shorter.
— Is the air always so thin up here?, Lily asked.
— I had never noticed it before. Either it’s better up the mountain, or you’ll get used to it.
— If you say so…
I was beginning to become antsy. Not much longer, and I’d be home again. We now were at the height of Valand. I warned Lily that there are winds coming from below towards the edge, and just as I said that, we were lifted upwards, just like it was when I started. Lily quickly nosed down, and I caught a glimpse of the edge. The steam boat still was there, so the Captain still hadn’t given up his search. I decided to keep quiet, I wanted to go straight back home, instead of getting scolded by him.
— That’s my city, I cried and pointed towards it in the distance. It was remarkably clear today.
— It’s huge!
— It’s smaller than I thought! It feels bigger when you’re actually inside it!
— Where do I land?
— Wherever there’s a road and few enough people around.
I realized too late that Lily was headed straight to the pompous palace road. Sure, it was mostly empty, but the guards were probably not too happy about having to duck under our wings, and unhappy guards aren’t something you want against you. We finally came to a stop and Lily turned off the engine.
— Hey Dave, I greeted one of the guards storming towards us.
— What in the..? You’re back so quickly? What happened to the crew?
I told the story, first to the guards, then to the king, then to my parents and grandpa. The king was delighted to learn that not only did we find a way beyond the edge, but also found a convenient method to trade with it. My entire family henceforth would be part of nobility, though Lily and me weren’t allowed to live a lazy life just yet – we first had to build a bunch flying machines. Lily in particular would later fly the king to visits of the various lower kingdoms, always making sure to stay low when passing her home village.
As for me, I became an inventor. Always making new things to improve efficiency of processes, because even though we had a whole new world to exploit, resource exhaustion still was a problem, especially now that our fuel was made out of plants that otherwise would become food.
The way back down was more troublesome than the way here. If I had been a bit disappointed in my horse being slow, it still was faster than limping old me. I spotted the horse on the plain below. It had stopped running, but still was far away. I carried on downwards. This horse was the ticket back, and if I couldn’t reach it, I might as well throw myself into the fires.
It turned night, but this time, the moon wouldn’t help me. The mountain blocked all light coming from it. I laid down to sleep, finding a dark horse at night wasn’t really feasible anyway. I dreamt of horses, of home, of Lily, only to be woken up by the rumblings of the mountain before the dreams had a chance to turn nice. The morning after wasn’t much neither either: I had been sleeping on top of a sand dune overlooking the plain, but the horse had moved on during the night. The sun hadn’t started scorching yet, but it wouldn’t take much before it would.
I didn’t move on. It was pointless. The foot was blistering all around, I was just able to resist the pain yesterday, but not today, not without hope. I looked to my home. High up, beautiful waterfalls surrounding it, and far, far away. I wondered what happened to the crew. Had the Captain continued the search for stairs? Had he reported back that I found the way, and now was missing? Grandpa maybe was feeling guilty for sending me into this danger, into my death.
After everything had been thought through, after the tears had dried, I still was on top of the sand dune with no hope left and unable to move on. I stared into the sky. Not even vultures were waiting for me. Well, maybe one, but it still was far away and hadn’t spotted me. Or had it? It was coming roughly into my direction at least.
As the mountain shut up with it rumbling for a bit, I heard a familiar noise. The noise of an engine driving a propeller. I jumped up and waved, doing my best to get its attention, but it just passed me, going further to the mountain. I was disappointed, but curious: Who was flying it? And why was it flying again in the first place? The flying machine turned around, it was looking for someone. I raised my knife, trying to get a reflection towards it. The flying person saw me, rolled back and forth as to wave at me, and landed the machine down on the plain. I hopped down, trying to not let the burnt foot touch anything. The person from the flying machine came sprinting towards me.
— There you are!
— Are you alright?
— Apart from the foot and the thirst, yeah, I guess.
— I can help with the thirst, Lily said and gave me a bottle which I finished in record pace.
— Thank you! What would I have done without you?
— I’d rather not imagine. Come, let’s go into the machine.
Lily helped me get into the flying machine and sat down in front of me. The bench was designed for one person only, but she was just small enough to fit in between, and still have a good grasp of the controls. Before Lily took off, I asked her how she got it flying again.
— Oh, we were looking into the wrong direction all this time. You can just take moonshine and mix it with a bit of oil and it works just fine!
— Moonshine? And I go all this way just to see some hot rock…
— Sorry. I only got to talk to a merchant after you were gone.
— I don’t blame you.
— I know, it’s just… I was so worried about you! It feels like I sent you to your death!
— It’s alright, it’s alright… You rescued me. You’re the hero now. Will you bring me back home?
— Home? You mean, to the peak of the holy mountain?
— Exactly there. To Valand.
— Dad is waiting back in Aucrary. I wouldn’t want him to worry I got lost in here.
— We can do a flyover. He’ll understand if he sees us.
I rode until the night and then some more. The goal was clear: Scarland, before the guards at the border had gotten the news of who I was. Villages flew past, and the full moon dimly lit the way. I eventually reached the ruins, the sound of hooves on dirt changed to hooves on stone. I slowed down.
— Halt! Who’s there?, a guard yelled.
— A traveller, headed to the scarred lands.
— You mean Gon?
— If that’s the place of this godforsaken place ahead, so be it.
— Business or pleasure?
— Sort of business, I suppose. I’m looking for a liquid that can burn, and I had hoped for the fiery mountains in there to help with it.
— I see, but you don’t seem well equipped to go to a desert like it.
— It’s all I have. I’m no wealthy merchant, I’m just a regular guy, desperate enough to try to invent a thing before becoming part of the poor.
— Do you have a water storage?
— No. I had hoped I wouldn’t need one if I travelled at night.
— You’re a crazy son of a bitch, just enough to have my sympathy. Here, take my waterskin. It might just help you on your crazy endeavour.
And it did. I rode onwards, until sunrise, until the heat came. Ralph had warned me that it’d be unlike anything I ever felt, but he was wrong. It felt exactly as standing between two steel melting ovens.
Ovens, which stretched into every direction.
The horse’s movements slowed down as the heat started to rise. I couldn’t be upset at the poor thing, I wouldn’t want to carry anything around in this heat either. But we had a goal to reach, the fiery mountain that was straight ahead. The scarred landscape we had travelled through in the night had changed again, the sand had given way to black rocks. But the peak still was far away.
As it turned evening, the horse suddenly refused to move on. It seemed to feel that this was the end. I drank the last bit of water I had and unmounted. The heat of the sun gave way to the heat of the ground. I stepped forwards and jumped backwards, causing the horse to run away in horror. My foot was on fire. I quickly removed my boot, maybe the foot would survive though it, and looked around. What I thought to be yet more black rocks turned out to be the crust of a burning liquid. I had reached my goal, except that I was following the wrong goal all along. This liquid was viscous, it clung like cheese on the remnants of my boot, and as it cooled down, it stopped being a liquid and became as sturdy as the black rocks around me.
The city was quite a bit different to my home town. For one, it was much smaller. I think we had villages the size of this city in Valand. However, it tried its best to hide its size: A large wall was dividing up the outer and inner city, with the inner city being a dense mess of narrow, winding streets separated by tall, narrow houses which were built as closely to another as possible, sometimes joining above head height anyway. The inner city had certain quarters in which the poor lived and certain quarters where the rich lived, and they clearly were separated, but as far as I could tell, the actual living quality in both areas was roughly the same. Though of course, it is nicer to live this closely together with other people if you have enough to eat and so much to drink that you don’t need to care whether others can still hear you.
The outer city meanwhile was much less dense. The houses were much bigger, yet much simpler, and they each had their own little gardens and sometimes animals. I asked the librarian why the rich people were living so crammed up in the city centre, and they revealed that in this land, entire kingdoms form criminal bands to steal stuff from the neighbouring kingdoms, and that the walls were there for protection (and not, as I first had assumed, to build a magnificent roof over the inner city). This entire process, which they called war, would frequently get reversed with this kingdom moving out and pillaging the other. During these wars, much of the outer city got destroyed and many people died, and some parts of the other kingdom were being annexed and would belong to this kingdom in the future.
The librarian had a difficult time explaining to me why all this was necessary, because if I was to go around at home destroying the tools of one particular village, they’d lose a lot of efficiency and were mostly busy feeding themselves, rather than being able to send a lot back to us. The librarian meanwhile had a difficult time understanding why no village or group of villages had started stealing tools to get an advantage over their competitors. Overall, it was in this city where for the first time, I had talked to people where I just fundamentally couldn’t understand the reasoning of them, and they couldn’t understand mine.
As it turned evening, I had neither found someone who sold the fuel I was looking for, nor a place to sleep over the night. To make it worse, it started to rain. I asked at the taverns and really anything if I could sleep there, but none would make an exception for me, they all wanted money. Money I did not have. I finally ended up in an archway between two houses, but I had barely laid down when a guard came and threw me outside the city gates. Darkness joined the wetness and coldness for a magnificent mix of unpleasantness.
I searched around and finally found my way into a stable of some description. I laid down to sleep and hoped I’d be up before the owner came.
As it was beginning to dawn, I was being eaten by something. Rough tongues licked my face and claws were climbing up my back. I quickly got up, a move that was widely regarded as unnecessary among the local cat community. They started meowing at once. I immediately tried to leave the stable, but didn’t get far before a voice called me out.
— So you’re the lad who slept with my cats tonight?, it said. I turned around. The voice belonged to a boy who made his best attempt at sounding adult and condescending.
— I, uhm… Yes. I couldn’t find a place to sleep, and didn’t want to sleep out in the rain.
— The cats don’t like to sleep in the rain either. And you were stealing valuable space from them!
— I… have provided them with additional warmth and softness, I protested.
— Did ya now? Alright, I shall let you off with a warning this time. But you won’t get off this easily next time!
— Yes. Thank you.
The boy shooed me away, his self-confidence inflated having just won an argument with an adult. I let him be, I was just happy that I hadn’t gotten into trouble over anything in this city. Yet, anyway.
Lily was one of the first merchants to come to the city. She was eager to see me and even had a bit of extra food for me. I told her I hadn’t found any useful source of fuel, and planned to continue asking around for some.
I had barely was noon when guards came in. They were clad in long, red robes and demanded anyone from Aucrary to identify themselves. I turned away and felt I wasn’t technically wrong to do so, but a strong pair of hands turned me back around and a second pair of hands carrying a sword reminded me that it probably was best to talk to the guards to which these hands belonged.
— Tell me, where do you come from?
— I’m from Valand.
— Have you heard of Valand before?, the guard asked his fellow compatriot.
— I have not heard of this place. I think he’s making it up.
— I’m not making it up! It’s a long way in that direction!
— And what are you doing here?
— I’m looking for a special type of water that burns.
— Bold! You’re a spy from the enemy and bluntly say you’re here to commit heresy. You are hereby arrested!
Based on my previous experience with heresy, I figured this would result in death. I had to find a way out of this. The entire market looked at us, much to the pleasure of a thief who took his sweet time stealing food and potions. I called out the thief, and the onlookers turned around, as did the guard clearing the way in front of me. I hoped that the one behind me did the same and kicked him in the noodle, followed by a shove to the side. Thinking quickly, I ran towards the thief, who himself did his best to escape. Someone in the crowd tried to stop me, but wrangling with machines gives you a certain bit of strength, enough to bulldoze the poor guy out of my path. People ran after me. I shouted “he ran this way”, pointing in a side alley, hoping people would care more about catching a thief stealing from them directly than the more abstract threat of an enemy spy.
And maybe they did. As I ran out of the city, only two or three dedicated folks were behind me. I turned a corner and waited, I wouldn’t be able to outrun a good runner, but maybe I was able to outfight a bunch of people who maybe were more exhausted than me.
— Here you are, cornered like a rat in a trap, the first person to turn the corner said. He was a hulking beast of muscle, and the success probability of my plan decreased sharply. — I’m gonna tare you a second asshole before I’m done with you!
— I’m not an enemy! I just want to get back home!
— Back home to spill all the secrets you have collected here. Of course I should let you go!
— Leave him!, a woman said. It was Lily. — He’s no spy, he came down flying from the holy mountain! I saw it myself!
— Are you his lover or what?
— Rudy! What she says is true, Ralph said. — I have his flying machine in my shop.
If someone had been sitting in the stable, they would have heard some storytelling, plans being forged and goodbyes being said. If there had been someone watching through the slits in the stable, they would’ve seen a man and a woman falling into each others arms and crying. If someone had been in the stable, they would have seen these people entering, stealing a horse and putting twice its value in gold down. But nobody was in the stable, and this act by us four conspirators in broad daylight went by unnoticed by anyone.
In my new campsite, it was just like in the Valandian forests, with trees rustling in the wind and a campfire crackling away. However, unlike the forest at home, this one was dead. There were no fireflies lighting up for me. There was no squirrel or bird keeping my company. There was no grandpa looking after me. And there was no buffer forest of quickly growing spruces, instead, half a mile of stumps divided the last village field from the forest. Just like the forest, I was dead inside. I had nowhere to go, no hope to get back, and not enough energy to even cry about it. I laid down and tried to sleep, but the ground here wasn’t mossy, it was full of small, dead and dry branches. Branches that snapped whenever I moved around, and continued to snap rhythmically after I stopped moving.
— Hey, said Lily, — are you still awake?
— Yes, I replied as I got up again. — What are you doing here?
— I don’t know. I guess I wanted to talk.
— About what?
— You. The machine. The village. The world.
— I just don’t know where to go now, what to do.
— Where would you like to go now?
— Home, naturally.
— We could try climbing up
— It would be long and difficult and pointless. Valand is surrounded by water, and nobody has really reached the edge before us.
I told her about my crew, the captain, and the things we had lived through together in the brief time we had known each other. I told her about the view I had from up there, how the land she was living on seemed to survive only on this one stream, and that around it, there only was dead and cracked earth and fiery mountains.
— Fiery mountains? Are they made out of the same stuff you had in your machine?
— I wish I knew. If it was, I’d only need to go there, fetch some of it and come back. Well, “only”. There probably are plenty of opportunities to die on the way there, and I can’t really return to get the fuel into the machine.
— We could meet somewhere outside the village. Here, for example.
— I don’t think that’s a good idea. People would think you’re possessed by a demon eventually, coming to this one place for no reason. Is there somewhere outside the village you go regularly?
— Yes, the market in the city! Every wednesday, I sell dad’s things there.
— Great! And maybe someone is just selling the fuel on this market, so it should be the first place I go. When are you there next time?
— Well, today is monday, so in just two days.
— Fantastic, I’ll head towards the city tomorrow and then see you there on wednesday.
Lily suddenly wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic as she had been when she came.
— What is it?, I asked.
— My parents will get mad if I don’t return soon. See you on wednesday!
And off she went.
My stay in the village went surprisingly well. The smith was nice enough to take in my machine, he maybe couldn’t repair it himself, but if someone had the tools necessary, it’d be him. It was however also noticeable that a lot of the niceness from the villagers didn’t come from the bottom of their heart, but rather always with an unspoken wish for something to happen in return. I tried to explain how our lives went up there, that I had been working in a factory and that a lot of people went jobless thanks to the industrialization, but all they heard was that we made ourselves an easy life. I wanted to leave as soon as possible, and the flying machine was my only ticket back home.
Thankfully, the smith was a good man. His name was Ralph. He inspected the wrecked legs of the machine and started working on new legs. I realized only now what the villagers meant by lazy. I had forged my fair share of custom tools in the factory, from the smallest springs to the biggest wrench, but I always had access to the never-ending power of steam. Ralph had his right arm. Well, he also had his left arm, a hammer and an anvil, but all in all, if he wanted a piece of metal to be flat, he couldn’t just plop it into a steam hammer and wait for a couple seconds or minutes, he had to work it flat, by hand, and re-heat it often.
Because of this, I still was in the village, which was called Aucrary, a week later. Ralph had apprentices and journeymen himself, so my help wasn’t needed all too often, and in the evening, after doing some good deeds for other people, I mostly was trying to figure out how the flying machine actually worked. Ralph’s daughter, Lily, found this machine just as interesting as me, and luckily for me, who was able to get a crude drawing down every now and again, she was able to make some brilliant drawings of the things we inspected. Without her drawings, I would never have dared to disassemble the engine.
Ralph checked in every now and again, glad that we were making progress and possibly even more glad that his daughter was creating a copy of the machine.
One last problem remained though. Power. We quickly identified the location of the fuel tank, as there are only ever are two different stinking and nasty looking liquids that you’d take with you voluntarily. One is oil, to keep everything operating smoothly. One is fuel, and the liquid coal this machine was using made me glad that our coal would only stink after it was burned. We experimented a bit with it, and it turned out, it really liked to burn. Like, really liked it. To the point where you could pour it over a candle, and it would not only catch fire, but also burn so quickly that the fire was travelling up the stream, leaving you with a cup in your hand that a second ago was just stinking water, and now was a raging inferno. Naturally, you’d try to get rid of this cup as fast as you could, and so I did. I dropped the cup and jumped back, Lily did likewise, as did Ralph’s chickens. The burning stream made its way towards a nearby puddle, and instead of drowning out, it floated on top of the water.
If before the villagers had thought of me as some sort of semi-useless person helping them for semi-bothersome tasks, they now had seen me throwing around liquid fire.
— He’s the saviour, said one of them.
— No, I’m not! I just wanted to try some experiments with this liquid coal, I replied
— He can make coal to a liquid, said another.
— Can you turn lead to gold?, a third.
— Please, the tax collectors are bound to come any day now! Please give turn just one bit of gold so everyone of us will survive the winter.
— This spoon! Turn it into silver!
On and on the discussion went. The more I tried to explain that I wasn’t a god, the more angry the villagers became.
— He’s not a god! He’s a demon!, someone finally shouted. This was a sound explanation why I wouldn’t help them.
— I’m neither god nor demon! I’m just a regular human, I can’t help you more than you can help yourselves!
— To prove you’re not a demon, you’ll need to pass the trial of cleansing!
— The what now?
— You’ll have to dive across the lake without surfacing once, the man explained, — there hasn’t been anyone who ever passed it.
— It’s not a trial then, it’s just a death sentence!
— If you’re a demon, yes, but not if you’re a man!
— So why haven’t you completed it?
— I’m not a demon! I don’t need to do the trial!
— But I’m no demon either!
With demons, it’s always best to not take any risk. So the villagers ended up sending the one who was refusing to do the trial to the trial as well, though now careful to not argue about it anymore so they wouldn’t have to do it themselves. It now just was a fact that the two of us had to do the trial.
A few hours later, we arrived at the lake. It looked way bigger down here than it had looked from above, and it most definitely was impossible to swim across it in one go. Lily had hurried me to arrive way before the others and now was walking towards the shore.
— See these?, she asked
— It’s reed, isn’t it?
— We call them thatch. Look what you can do with them.
Lily cut one off, put one end into the water, the other into her mouth, aimed towards me, and squirted the contents at me.
Lily giggled. — I find it most fun to use this way, but they also work the other way. Letting you breathe under water.
— Man, that’s cheating this competition, is it not?
— It says get across without surfacing, and you’re not surfacing. Sounds fair game to me.
— If you say so.
Horses could be heard.
— I’ll make my way to the other side and wait for you there.
— Alright, bye then!
Shortly afterwards, I was waist-deep in the water, my opponent to my side. The smith, who also acted as head of the village, read out our charges and the rules of the trial. And indeed, not once did the word “straw” or “breathing device” fall.
And off we went. I lost my opponent quickly in the murky water and decided to turn right to basically walk underwater and keep near the shore as I wasn’t a good swimmer. The straw was working wonders, it certainly was easier to breathe through it than it sometimes was in the factory. I was roughly halfway over, judging by the sun’s position, when the water suddenly became cold and the shore made a turn. Of course, the river. I decided to swim on my back, careful to not actually surface, directly towards where I thought the goal to be.
Then, suddenly, something yanked away my straw. Was it a fish? Was it a bird? Was it my opponent? I didn’t know, but I did know that I now actually had to manage my breath. While I wasn’t a good swimmer, I had been good at sinking like a rock and harvesting mussels. As little kid, that is. Now, I could barely remember the techniques I used back then, so I just tried to stay calm and hope for the best.
The longer the dive went on, the faster my movements became. The goal couldn’t be this far away anymore! My lung was burning, my arms and legs were cramping up, until finally, I became relaxed again. So relaxed that I took a deep breath which filled my lungs with water. I looked at the sun, why wasn’t it over yet? The sun, instead of answering, disappeared and a shadow fell on me, grabbed me, and pulled me out.
When I woke up, I was laying on a rocky beach. The villagers surrounded me, but weren’t looking at me. Instead, they were discussing something.
— I say, let ’em drown in a puddle if they are too weak!
— No! He clearly made it over, it started waist-deep and ended waist-deep. Pulling him out was within the rules.
— The rules, the rules! Who came up with these rules anyway?
— I don’t know. It’s an ancient tradition that…
— It’s bollocks, that’s what it is. Demons! It’s impossible for a human to hold their breath for this long, it must be a demon who makes it!
— And a half demon who almost makes it!
— He’s no half-demon, he’s got no tail!
— Maybe he is an evil god?
— Do we have a trial for evil gods?
— How would we know he’s an evil god then?
— Let him dive across the lake and back!
— Yes! No god would be able to do that!
— No human would be able to do it either, it’s a shit trial, I finally interjected.
— Oh, you’re awake, Ralph said calmly and the discussion died. — We’re unsure what to do about you. You did master the trial at least halfway, so we won’t hang you. But you also didn’t master it fully, so you can’t stay either.
— So what do you think should happen to me?
— I think…, Ralph waited for an uncomfortably long time. — I think you should be banished.
A brief silence. Followed by unison agreeing mumbling. It wasn’t as fun as slaying a demon, but at least the problem was gone.
— Can I go back and take my machine with me?, I asked.
— No, you’re banished. You mustn’t enter Aucrary.
And just like that, all my hopes and dreams had died.
We had looked around for days now. There were no stairs, other than in people’s basements, one of which had such a lovely view outside and was just the right size that we had declared it as our base. We had been in every house at least a dozen times now, and it still didn’t look like the people that lived here ever had wanted to go down. The farm boys in particular had bugged the captain now so often that they didn’t think there was anything to find here that the captain got mad and threatened them with throwing them down the cliff if they asked one more time. Because of this, I kept my mouth shut and went out to check something out I had spotted earlier: A machine.
It, too had been covered in roof tiles, with the the house it had been in being so close to the edge, one of the walls had fallen down. And it was this pattern that I thought would let any search for stairs end unsuccessfully: This city used to be on ground level on both sides, that’s why the way was leading to nothingness, that’s why the basements had a view, that’s why this wall was missing. So really, me finding a machine that could maybe lower our world back to the rest of it was way more useful. The machine had a bunch of levers and buttons, every one of which had been helpfully but oh so unhelpfully labelled in foreign squiggles, and stretched on to the sides for no reason. It really was mostly a tube with the machine in it, and then large metal sheets on the side of it, a tiny part of was able to flap around. But like tail-wagging doesn’t propel a dog, these flaps had very little chance of propelling…
— What are you doing?, the captain asked.
— Uuh, I found this machine, and…
— Does it look like stairs to you?
— No, but…
— Then get out of it and look for stairs again.
— … Aye captain.
I cleared more of the rubble and threw it over the edge until most of the floor, and most importantly, the area around the machine was rubble-free. I now could see it’s full shape, and indeed, it had wheels, so it was supposed to move. At the front, judging by the seat’s position anyway, there was a socket something should be screwed in. After searching around some more, during which time the captain thankfully checked back in and approvingly nodded when he saw me searching for definitely the stairs, I found something that looked like it’d fit there. A tiny windmill, with 3 instead of 4 blades for some reason, made out of an material that wasn’t quite wood but not quite metal either. I screwed it in and turned it, and the machine sprang to life. And how quickly it did! It didn’t lose any time to warm up the water to make steam, it didn’t even seem to heat up. All it did was exhaust a tiny smoke trail, which did stink, but was decidedly less sooty than any machines I had ever worked with. I got into the seat, maybe some of these buttons would now do something. Alerted by the noise, the rest of the crew came by.
— What is happening?, the captain asked.
— As I said earlier, I found this machine. I think it may have something to do with how to get down there.
— If this was a mechanical bird, I’d believe it could! But it doesn’t look like it can flap its wings!
I pushed the big lever in the middle. The windmill started to rotate faster, blowing a lot of air into my face. Some of the buttons lit up, some remained dark. Strange. One button was blinking yellow, demanding my attention. I pressed it just as the captain said “that’s a wind machine you have there, come down again”, and suddenly the machine jumped forwards. Before I realized what had happened, the wind from below the edge caught the wings and lifted the machine and me up, and away I was.
The wind blew so hard and so cold in my face that I sank into my seat for cover. Now I had rescued the astronomer only to jump down myself, and no net would save me. I turned around and saw my crew for another moment before another cloud coming from below covered them up. Astonishingly, I wasn’t falling straight down like I had thought previously, instead I was gently curving back to the cliff where I started from. Just a bit lower. Which, as I now realized, was a problem, because I was quite fast on this thing and did not want to experience any crashing into walls. I turned the steering wheel that was broken on top and bottom. And hooray, it now turned the other way. But now I was definitely steeply flying downwards.
The bad news, it was a long drop downwards and I was steadily accelerating and couldn’t really see. The good news, it was a long drop downwards, so it gave me plenty of time to figure out how to fall down slower. I first tried pulling back the stick that put the windmill in motion. The machine now was quieter, but it didn’t really help my fall. Then I tried pushing the pedals in the bottom. It did help in that it steered me sideways, so now I was parallel to the cliff, but I also was sideways, which caused me to almost fall out. I pushed on the broken steering wheel to secure myself, and strangely enough, it caused the machine to pull away from the cliff, and also made it go more straight.
Over the following minutes, I learned to control the thing and even became somewhat confident, as the machine suddenly went quiet. I was still in the air, but the windmill stopped turning. I decided to head towards the fields of the big city in Greenland, if there was any hope of landing without hitting a wall or tree, it would be there, and in the meantime looked for the engine hatch to see if I could fix anything before landing. The only hatch I could find revealed a pair of goggles. Fantastic, I thought, I could’ve used those much, much earlier. My sore eyes agreed.
I flew over the fields trying to find a good spot to land as I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s harvest. People stared at me in amazement, or so I hoped anyway, as I soared just a few dozen feet over their heads, gradually reducing speed while keeping flight level. I pitched up higher and higher and just as I was about to pitch forwards again to land on a fence-free piece of road, the flying machine decided to remove the flying bit from its name and smashed onto the ground.
I was stunned, but intact. Then I climbed out of the seat to observe the damage. The wheels and legs of the machine were badly damaged, but the rest seemed somewhat fine. And the windmill bit – which really should be called propeller, as it quite apparently was the thing making the flying machine go forwards – still wasn’t working. I tried spinning it again, but alas. Couldn’t have luck with it every time.
A stampede was coming my way. Horse rider, ox rider and foot folk came running by to see me and my machine. They obviously hadn’t seen one before, but then, I hadn’t either. They looked at me, but nobody seemed to want to speak the first word.
— Moin moin, I said to the crowd.
— Moin, they said back, apparently relieved. I was thankful that we had at least some common ground to go by.
— So, uh.. Where’s the next tavern? I’d like to stay over the night.
— We have a spare bed, said a woman in the back. She was speaking strangely, stressing syllables the wrong way round, pronouncing silent letters and swallowing letters that ought to be spoken. — You can stay with us.
— Thank you. Can you help me bring my flying machine to this place?
— Yes, of course, said the crowd.
On our way to the tavern, I got bombarded by questions. I tried answering all of them to the best of my ability, but it seemed to take no end. Nobody had heard of the Kingdom of Valand before, and as I pointed out it was up the big mountain, whispers started.
A few months later I was again working on a machine. I made sure it went round and round, because the entire kingdom was depending on me. Well, not quite. The kingdom itself was now depending on Johso, but the kingdoms goals were depending on this ship, the first steam-powered ship that ever had been built, and I was managing its engine. The king had agreed to my plan remarkably quickly, as if he just had been waiting for someone with any sort of plan that went further than desperation.
The rest of the ships crew were a very mixed bag. Some were indeed former farm workers that had been unemployed because of my machines. An astronomer was tasked with steering the ship. Most astoundingly, the captain was a fisherman who had sailed together with my granddad all those years ago. And while one farm worker looked like a coal miner and the astronomer like a farm worker, the captain looked like a captain had to look like: White beard, pipe, dark blue sailors cap, wrinkled face — yet always relaxed.
We had been sailing for just over 3 days when the captain screamed “MACHINE HALT”, followed by “ALL HANDS ON DECK”. I was last to come up, and almost fell back down the stair when I saw another ship in the distance. The captain knew the ship.
— Those are the remnants of my ship you can see there. You can see the fog starting closely behind it. We’re almost there.
— But didn’t you say the edge was weeks of sailing away?
— Of sailing against the wind, yes. We have the luxury of not having to care about the wind this time, we plowed right through it. We need to be careful now. Everyone with good eyes, go to the bow. Look for stones and anything flat. I want the machine on the lowest possible power. If we crash, I want people in the lower parts of the ship immediately to fix leaks. If there is a current sucking us beyond the edge, I want full power backwards. Be prepared. Understood?
— Aye, aye, Captain!
The machine now was so slow that I could have added power simply by pushing the paddling wheels. It was now more of a cat, hissing with steam than the roaring monster it had been before. We slowly approached the edge, or at least I hope we did, as I couldn’t see. Another “MACHINE HALT”. We had reached the wreck. The captain went on board and returned with a book. He didn’t say what it was, only wanted to move on, even slower than before. This time, I actually had to help the crank turn.
Suddenly, a tumult occurred on deck. I wasn’t sure what it was, but the command was “half power backwards”, followed by another “slow forwards”. As it turned out later, the crew had spotted regular pillars and archways on the sea floor. Pillars, that surely had ripped through the old wooden ship like a lance into a heart. But we were prepared, our steam ship was extra flat and also made of steel.
After another “MACHINE HALT”, we finally were as close to the edge as we could comfortably be. We tied the ship to the pillars and waded through the chest-deep water on the other side of the pillars. With every step I took, it became clearer: This was a path. It hadn’t always been flooded here. Remnants of houses appeared. Some of them full with amphorae, some empty, one was overflowing with plants which had survived all odds and were finally able to flourish after the roof had collapsed. Some of its offspring tried to repeat its success on neighbouring buildings, but if they managed to not get washed into the water by rainfall, they’d quickly die on the nutrient-free concrete.
The path now was up high enough to be dry, and the fog was getting thicker. A statue of someone appeared in the middle of the road. There was a helpful plate on the statue’s base, but it was unhelpfully written in foreign squiggles. With enough time, it might have been possible to decipher it, maybe get a copy to the intelligent archivists back home, but it’d probably just be just some king, his name, and a praise that he’d built this city or something.
We carried on. The astronomer shrieked as he stepped on a skeleton of a rat. If even those bastards didn’t make it, nobody else would be here. The fog was getting uncomfortably cold, the dankness penetrating our clothes. Just as the wind was picking back up, somehow from below, wheezing through the cracks of the ground, the astronomer shrieked again, but was nowhere to be seen. Suddenly, the fog revealed its true form, rising to the sky and becoming a cloud. The path had found its end, and the astronomer had gone beyond it.
If I had been brave, I could have ran towards the edge and watch him fall down to his death. If I had been brave, I could have enjoyed the view that opened up for us. But I was not brave, and found myself assuming a backwards crab position, scurrying back to the statue. Nobody was brave. Nobody but the captain.
The captain ran towards the edge, shouted something, and then hurried back to a house we passed earlier where he had seen a net in. “Come with me”, he cried on the way back to the edge, “the astronomer is still there!” And indeed, he was. The net somehow had survived the ages. It was made out of a weird green fabric and looked way too weak to catch anything but the smallest of fish. But it was this net that had to hold the astronomer, with all his hopes and dreams. We lowered the net to him. The astronomer caught on to it and started to climb up it, step by step. The captain lost hold of his part of the net, and the jolt sent the astronomer flying down, down but not away, for his foot was still stuck in the net. He struggled to get into a more useful position, but it was hopeless. “Pull up the net!”, the captain shouted. He wasn’t the strongest anymore, but the two farmers and I were.
The three of us started to pull, but it was quickly interrupted by a “STOP”. The edges of the path would cut through the net if we did that. We should go closer to the edge. I tried, but couldn’t bring myself to get closer than one foot to it. The captain laid his hand on my shoulder. Calmly, he ordered me to go the other step, to reach just the edge. He would hold me.
And he held. The astronomer was pulled upwards, first limp like an exhausted fish which had tried and failed to escape from the net, then desperately struggling to free himself from the net once he was back on land, also quite like a fish.
Only now could I properly process where we were. Beyond the edge of the world, there was no void or fog or anything, there just was more world. Far, far down, but clearly: World. Complete with its own clouds we could look down on, mountains that wouldn’t even go halfway up to us, its own forest and meadows, and…
— It’s own cities!, cried the astronomer. One of the reasons he couldn’t climb back up earlier was the telescope he wouldn’t let go of.
— Where?, I asked.
— Where my finger is!
— Oh, yeah! I see it!
We stood like this for a while, in a respectable distance to the edge, passing around the telescope and seeing the new world for the first time. It was strangely similar to our world, but it seemed to not have nearly enough water. Apart from the stream that clearly originated from our high perch there were no rivers, and besides the lake the river formed at some point, there were no lakes either.
And indeed, as another cloud passed, it revealed a region down to the south that was scarred and scorched, where the mountains themselves were burning. Between this scarred land and the green land (which I named Scarland and Greenland, accordingly), another grey structure. Just like the ruins we were in, it, too, looked mostly broken, with one impressively big hall that even stood out to the naked eye. Well, the foundations and walls and pillars of it anyway, the roof was long gone.
Unlike our ruins however, there seemed to be life in that city. A colourful patch indicated the presence of a market, the forest-free farmlands around it indicated that it, too, had quite an impressive number living in it. But even further south, in Scarland, there clearly was a city. How it survived there, I didn’t know, but our telescope unfortunately had no mouth or ears to ask the people down there.
— Alright, kids, the captain said, — we’ve had enough of this view, and we still have a mission. We need to establish whether a trading route is possible between the lands down below and our kingdom.
— But, can’t they find out themselves?, one of the farm boys, my fireman, asked.
— No. The king already knew it’s possible to get here. We now have the technology to easily do so. The part until now was the routine, it’s the part ahead of us where you’ll need to be daring.
— So what should we do?
— Get looking. There ought to be stairs down somewhere.