This story first appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of Mirror Dance. We are pleased to bring this revised version to our Peace Chronicle readership.
Once upon a time there lived a man who could change Reality.
Dolos was not a warlock, a sorcerer, or even an illusionist. He had no exceptional hallucinatory skills or nature-bending abilities, possessed neither sword nor scepter nor staff. By all appearances, there was nothing remotely impressive about him. He was short, squat, and his skin hung on his face in fat flaps that suggested he might be a reptile in a human skinsuit. In fact, the most terrifying thing about him was that he wasn’t a reptile at all — but as human as you or me.
One day, Dolos went to a pub and boasted of his ability. “I have the power to change Reality!” he announced, hoisting his mug of ale high in the air.
This outburst was met with a few raised eyebrows, a handful of snorts, and some uncomfortable shuffling.
“Are you a warlock?” one villager asked.
Dolos shook his head.
“A sorcerer?” demanded another.
He shook his head again.
“Illusionist, perhaps?” ventured a woman in the corner.
His fat flaps quivered with denial.
“Then you’re a lunatic!” the woman shrieked, and the pub erupted with laughter.
“I admit I do not possess any magical tools or abilities,” Dolos said, though everyone had returned to their drinks and their conversations. “I do, however, possess a mouth, and I will prove to you all its power.”
And after one final swig, Dolos hurled his mug at the wall, where it shattered, and left the pub without a backward glance. The barkeeper spat a few choice profanities while the pub goers glanced at each other.
“Lunatics aren’t a threat,” said one of them, and washed down his worry with a mouthful of ale.
The others nodded in agreement and swept all thoughts of Dolos from their heads just as the barkeeper, mumbling darkly under his breath, swept the shards of glass from the floor.
In the fabric of Reality around them, however, Dolos’s words remained like a dark stain.
On the road leading away from the pub, Dolos encountered a man named Hydrin. Hydrin had a cheery disposition and a malleable mind, much like steel before it has been forged into a dagger.
“Hello, friend,” Dolos greeted him, although Hydrin was not his friend. This was the first deception.
“Greetings!” Hydrin exclaimed, startled but charmed. As they shook hands, Dolos caught a strong whiff of alcohol on Hydrin’s breath. He smiled, and Hydrin, mistaking this for another display of camaraderie, smiled back.
“Now listen close,” Dolos said, resting his hand on Hydrin’s shoulder and dropping his voice to a whisper. “I have secret, sacred knowledge to share with you and you alone. You cannot analyze, argue, or ask questions — only listen. Can I trust you to do so?”
Hydrin nodded, his curiosity prevailing over a twinge of caution.
“The secret is this: I see the world exactly as you see it. This perspective — your perspective — is the True One. All that you imagine is Reality. You are the eyes and ears and mind of the gods themselves.”
This was the second deception. Hydrin, who had his whole life been overshadowed by the glories of nine older brothers, stood in awe of his newfound importance.
For the next hour — without sword, scepter, or staff — Dolos simply talked to Hydrin, and Hydrin became more and more convinced that his beliefs were truths. This was rather alarming, as Hydrin believed such things as “all magic folk are criminals and should be imprisoned without trial” and “it is morally permissible to assault women.”
Finally, after Hydrin was absolutely, unwaveringly sure of his Reality, his companion delivered the third and final deception. It was an absurd experiment — the first to pop into Dolos’s head — and it was born from sheer, sadistic delight in stretching Reality as far as it could possibly go. The only person who might believe such a falsity would be divorced from all five senses under the influence of advanced spellcraft or a dangerous, magical elixir.
“Did you know,” Dolos leaned in close, glancing up at the darkening sky above them, “that at night, if you look closely enough, the stars are black and the sky is white?”
Dolos had stretched too far, and Reality tore. It was a noise undetectable to Hydrin’s ears, but to a dog, perhaps, who can hear such high-pitched things, it might have sounded like a strangled scream. It was a scream of death and a scream of life, for it was the birth of a new Reality. False, impure, and powerful, it metastasized in a single star above Hydrin’s head that faltered and flickered and went dark.
Hydrin did not keep his secret, sacred knowledge to himself. When he returned home, he spread the news far and wide that his perspective was the True One, that Reality had revealed itself to him, and that — if you squinted long and hard enough, until all the world went fuzzy — it was clear that the stars were black and the sky white. He had seen it with his own eyes, the eyes of the gods.
He told his wife and he told his friends and he told his nine older brothers, and though most only laughed at him, a few curious souls followed him to the hut of Dolos.
And Dolos told them what he had told Hydrin. And they believed. And more stars went dark.
The word spread into the village and the neighboring village and then to the mountains and the mines and the fisheries and on and on until, from a rocking chair on a porch on the other side of Domun, Fydia could see that half the night sky was wrong.
She blinked a few times. Hers were old eyes, after all, but they saw things for what they were. “This looks like trouble,” she told the fireflies, who blinked fretfully.
Fydia was the oldest of the hill people, and she liked a quiet life — two qualities that contradicted each other, as she was oft sought after for her wisdom. She had crow’s feet and owl eyes, and the skin on her face was soft and warm like dough you could pinch between your fingers. She knew a time when dragons had ruled the skies, when lava had flowed and carved the hills, when human beings had bought and sold other human beings. In her youth, she had toppled tyrannies with brute force and united fractured kingdoms with nothing but a white flag and gentle words. She knew about cruelty and compassion, war and resistance, truth and deceit.
And she was tired.
She helped those who came for healing and advice, but turned away any who asked her to interfere in larger matters.
“I don’t want trouble,” she told them. “I’ve had enough for a lifetime.”
But trouble was on Fydia’s doorstep, and she knew in her bones that it was not the kind to turn away from. She ran a hand through her hair, which was not grey, but wild and strong because the head beneath it still contained wild and strong thoughts.
Meanwhile, Dolos was weaving a web of Reality with threads of fear, hatred, and trickery, and in its center he sat like a fat spider. Every person who came to him, listened, and believed made the web stronger — and in return, Dolos catered to their whims and fancies. Many aspects of the new Reality were ridiculous, as some requested broccoli taste like licorice and insisted cats would be better pets if they acted more like dogs, but others were more sinister. Those who had harbored hidden prejudices and evil desires saw it was now safe to emerge from the shadows and join the legions of the man who could mold Reality to their most wicked dreams.
“I think it is fair to rob and pillage,” said some.
“This is the truth,” Dolos told them. “Go forth and pillage.” And they did.
“I think it is morally permissible to assault women,” said Hydrin and his minions.
“This is the truth,” Dolos assured them. “Go forth and assault women.” And they did.
“I think it is right to kill those who are inferior to me,” said others.
“Your thought is Reality,” Dolos declared. “Go forth and kill.” And they rained down terror on all those who were unlike them.
All the while, the night sky grew whiter and the stars blacker, because even a foolish idea can become Real if enough fools believe it.
Not everyone liked this new Reality, though. There were those who watched in horror as Dolos’s scheme unfolded, but remained silent. The children, fresh and wise on fairy stories, knew Dolos for the villain he was, but few listened to their concerns.
And then there were those who saw the white sky, the black stars and, like a wart over once-healthy skin, the new world that lay atop the old one — and they knew something had to be done.
For their leader, they chose a woman of the hills who had been alive longer than anyone else, who had wielded swords and commanded armies, and who knew how to mend the torn threads of Reality like a seamstress mends a hole-riddled blanket.
So they came to the house of Fydia.
She had been expecting them. “Where are the sorcerers?” she asked, squinting out at the crowd on her doorstep and finding no magic folk among them. “The warlocks? Illusionists, even? Spellcraft would be of use right now.”
“They’ve been imprisoned,” replied a young maiden, a tear glistening on her cheek. Her father was a warlock. “All of them, in magic-proof cells. Dolos himself decreed it.”
“Ah,” said Fydia. “We will have to do it the old way, then.”
The most fierce among them proposed killing Dolos. “He sits in the heart of it all, like a spider,” they said. “If he dies, his false world will collapse with him.”
Fydia knew this was not a battle against one man, but the war of one Reality against another. She shook her head. “The web of a dead spider can still catch flies.”
“Then what options are left?” demanded a blacksmith, struggling to retain hold of his cat. “This is getting out of hand.” The cat wriggled out of its owner’s arms and bounded down the road after a rodent, barking all the way.
Fydia looked taken aback, as if the solution were as obvious as salve for a wasp sting. “We will use his methods against him, of course,” she said. “We will speak.”
And with the help of her walking stick, she descended the steps of her porch and set out down the dirt road, her dark hair bouncing in the wind.
As the sun set, Fydia made her way to the town square where the hill people gathered every evening to sell produce, wash laundry, and — when the mood struck them — discuss politics. Fydia rarely ever came to the square, but when she did, she was met with warm smiles and eager questions. Everyone had a problem and everyone needed Fydia’s help.
Except today. Today she was met only with silence and distrustful stares. One man spit at her feet as she passed. Ignoring the hostility of her neighbors and the protest of her knees, Fydia hoisted herself up onto the fountain and stood, towering above the crowd.
“Listen to me,” she said over the chatter and the rush of water behind her. Her voice was soft as wind chimes, but the square fell silent as if she had screamed.
“Don’t you remember,” she went on with a smile, “a time when the stars were bone-white and the sky black as lava stone? When cats meowed and broccoli had a crunch?” She gestured at the stars that had just begun to emerge in the sky above them, black as patches of frostbitten skin. “I am old, and have seen the rise and fall of many Realities. This one, the one you see around you, is as far from the truth as your toes from your teeth.”
The villagers looked up at the sky and then back at the old woman.
“Did Dolos say so?” they asked.
There was a long, heavy silence.
Fydia’s jaw was set. “Dolos does not speak for me.”
There was a longer, heavier silence.
“Then you’re a lunatic!” shrieked a woman pushing a cart of candy asparagus, and the town square erupted with laughter.
Even so, there were a handful of curious eyes in the crowd. Some glanced up at the sky, uncertain. One young man, seeing Fydia wobble slightly, even rushed over to the fountain and extended his hand to her. Some of the hill people hissed at this, but not all.
Fydia looked down at the young man and saw his eyes were kind, so she took his hand and stepped down from the fountain.
She was still smiling.
She had accomplished what she came to do.
Because there is no one more intriguing than a lunatic, Fydia found people everywhere who were eager — or at least willing — to listen to what she had to say. And when she found those people, whether in taverns, shops, or simply walking on the road in the same direction, she talked to them. She told them of a world beneath the one they currently inhabited, the true world that Dolos had disgraced and defiled with his deceptions. She reminded them that just because something is Real doesn’t mean it is true, and that questioning Reality — like encouraging your children to eat broccoli, no matter the taste — makes it grow healthy and strong.
Thus, without fear, hatred, or trickery, Fydia helped others to see the world through her eyes. And it was a world more beautiful, warm, and kind, perhaps, than the old one ever was or any future one could be.
After her audience had analyzed, argued, and asked questions in all the right amounts, they began, slowly, hesitantly, to believe her. They considered Fydia’s Reality an advanced form of truth — something that is not true yet, but certainly should be.
Fydia even talked to the children, and they turned out to be the best listeners of all. When they caught a glimpse of her Reality, it was as if a window had opened in a room of stale air, and above each of their heads, not one, but two stars shivered and shook and began to shine white.
By this point, Dolos had convinced many people of many ridiculous things. The worst of these included that he was tall, handsome, and the rightful heir to the throne — and so he grew several inches and watched with dreamy, dark eyes as his followers staged a coup and chased the old monarchs from the kingdom.
Thus, the man who could change Reality became king of all Domun.
But Fydia was the oldest and wisest of the hill people, and she could change Reality, too. Besides, she had the children on her side — and that is the deciding factor in any battle.
So with walking stick in hand and a small group of protesters behind her, Fydia marched through the gates of the castle and demanded an audience with the king. It was sunset, and their shadows stretched out in the grass before them, tall as giants.
Dolos was waiting in the courtyard, for word had reached his ear about a hag of the hills who was turning stars white again, and he was eager to destroy the one person who stood between him and dominion over all Reality. There were archers hidden behind the hedges, waiting only for his signal.
But Dolos was curious about the flies that had not stuck to his well-spun web, and he wanted to entertain them first. So as Fydia approached, he dropped into a low, dramatic bow and reached for her hand, his lips puckered slightly.
Fydia recoiled. “I know the havoc you have wrought with that mouth of yours, and I would be a fool to ever let it graze my skin.”
Dolos’s temper rose so rapidly that he nearly gave the signal for his archers to attack, but Fydia continued to speak, and curiosity stayed his hand.
“Your Reality has destroyed Reality,” she said, waving up at the night sky — which, to my eyes and yours, might have resembled a static television screen. “Now there is only Nothing.”
Dolos grinned and grinned until his grin was more of a leer. “I have fulfilled the wildest dreams of my people, have catered to their deepest desires and molded the world to their every liking. You would call that Nothing?”
“Perhaps not,” Fydia replied coolly. “A Reality crafted for wicked men is far worse than Nothing.”
All semblance of civility vanished from Dolos’s face, and his handsome features became so warped with rage and indignation that they no longer seemed handsome. He glowered down at Fydia’s wrinkled face, her toothless smile, and the arthritic hands that hung limply at her side. What threat was this woman, whose fingers were more adept with sewing needles than swords?
“Stupid hag,” he hissed, and signaled the archers.
Dolos signalled twice more before resorting to waving both arms above his head. “Archers!” he screamed.
One of the archers poked his head out from behind the hedge, his bow slung over his shoulder. “She makes a compelling argument,” he said.
The archer broke into a cold sweat. “What I mean to say — with all due respect, my liege — is that the men have been talking, and we’re not so sure we like this new Reality anymore. It was good fun in the beginning, messing with vegetables and animals and such, but now it’s people that are changing, and…” He was lost in thought for a moment, but found his voice again as his eyes fell on Fydia. “And we’ve heard rumors about the woman from the hills. They’re saying she can change Reality just as well as you can.”
The rest of the archers emerged from the hedges, nodding in agreement and gazing at Fydia as if she were a relic from the golden age of a lost civilization.
“That’s nonsense,” Dolos spat, his eyes bulging. “She’s nothing but a warty toad, and I’ll squish her under my boot like one!” And he raised his foot threateningly.
Everyone looked at Fydia, but she did not turn into a warty toad.
“It seems to me,” said Fydia with a biting smile, “that there is nothing remarkably amphibian about me, but rather something reptilian about you.”
Everyone looked at Dolos, and to their bewilderment, his distinguished jawline, regal nose, and plush lips began to bubble and morph. The archers gasped, because they had forgotten the true face of their leader, and another thread of his web snapped.
“You won’t be rid of me easily,” Dolos hissed as his dark, luscious hair faded to a dull, brittle blonde. “My Reality is thick and strong and sticky.”
“Your Reality is frail and false, and time will unstick it,” countered Fydia. Everyone heard her, and knew it to be true.
Dolos covered his face with his hands and fled. He ran from the courtyard, down the road, and through the town square where the hill people were wringing out their laundry. He ran past the mountains and the mines and the fisheries and on and on until he crossed over from Domun into the realm where things are Not, and there he stayed.
He is there still. There are those who miss him, and so he has power enough to darken a distant star from time to time. We call these black holes, and there is nothing Fydia can do to stitch them up. After all, Reality is an imperfect, holey thing, which is sometimes worth lamenting and sometimes worth celebrating.
Her work done, Fydia turned towards home. The struggle with Dolos had aged her in a million ways, making it harder to walk and speak, and so hers was a slow pilgrimage. Still, not a hair on her head had gone grey, and though most of her teeth had fallen out, her words were carried far and wide on other lips. The remaining threads of Dolos’s Reality became cobwebs, with time.
Those who loved Fydia held her arms as she moved across Domun. Occasionally, when she lost her footing, she leaned on them, and they held her.
When the group reached her house, Fydia stepped away. A young man, the same one who had helped her down from the fountain, rushed forward but she shook her head and smiled sadly. He and the crowd watched as Fydia ascended the stairs of her porch alone and, with a soft groan, lowered herself down onto her rocking chair.
She sat there blinking up at the stars. After a long, heavy silence, her crowd of protesters dispersed and disappeared back over the hills. The children walked in pairs, weaving the day’s adventure into a story they could share with their friends, but the adults walked alone, and more slowly.
Like grass bends back after the traveler, like a pond settles after the skipping stone, the thoughts of Fydia were quiet and still. She rocked back and forth, her gaze fixed on the sky, admiring her handiwork.
Reality was stitched well, and all the right colors.