The Storytellers: Atlantis — Prologue/Chapter 1
Posted by rblackbird on July 1, 2012
A thick, white mist floated above the calm water in the early hours of the day. The sun would not rise for a long while, if at all, to melt away the damp air. Everything was still, even more than a natural sea could be, with no sound but the occasional creak of the ship’s timbers.
The Minotaur was a fine ship, finer than any in the world, but the majority of the crew, a full 250, believed with frightened hearts that they were no longer in their own world. A strange, hollow feeling accompanied the fog. Intellect said something existed out there; instinct whispered that there was nothing – absolutely nothing. They were in the Void.
The massive, black-tarred, 100-gun ship moved inch by inch through the glassy water. At times it didn’t move at all, even at full sail, creating a type of claustrophobia, as those aboard had nothing to do but stare at the off-white oblivion.
As the crew slept, watchmen were the only beings on the deck — a small, curly-haired man who vaguely resembled a small, jittery dog and a dark- haired figure who shot up from the planks.
This tall, dark man’s name was Peter, and he hated it. By all accounts, he should have been feared by the crew, being the second in command, but was not. Such a common name as Peter only made the situation worse in his mind.
He sauntered in the direction of the bowsprit, sulking in his misfortune. He wore a small mustache and beard, his black hair pulled into a long braid that snaked down his back, tied at the end with a piece of blue fabric. Reaching the bow, he glanced over the side. Another person, similar to the watchman in stature but more resembling a toucan, dangled from a network of pulleys and ropes.
Peter leaned farther over to see just what would get Trinket to string himself up so, because he had a pair of fully functional, black-feathered wings on his back that he might have used instead. Trinket looked up with surprise, upsetting himself from his careful perch. He let out a yell that sounded more like a squawk and beat his smooth wings furiously, attempting to sit up straight. His knees still hooked around the wooden plank he was using for a seat, and he slowly righted himself.
As Trinket regained his balance, he hung onto the ropes and gasped, trying to catch his breath. He glared up at Peter with eyes that were yellow around the center, surrounded by circles of blue and orange at the outside.
“Nearly drown me, why don’t'ya! Dead from heart failure before I’d hit!” Trinket snapped.
“Who in the world did you think I was?” Peter asked with a slight laugh. “And what in the world are you doing?”
Trinket was his only friend — the only creature on board who took him seriously, even though Peter was first mate and should have commanded respect in the first place.
He could see that Trinket was repainting the ship’s figurehead, though it didn’t need it. Captain Urgo gave the crew orders whenever he felt bored, irritated or sadistic, which usually encompassed the man’s waking hours. No matter the motive, Trinket always used his wings for such a job, despite being such a clumsy flyer.
The figurehead — made from at least two Knoxwoods, a giant, petrified trunk that still grew, like a living, stone tree – was a fierce-looking thing. It was shaped like a two-headed Minotaur — half-man, half-ox — with two battle-axes crossed on its chest, each one bigger than Trinket.
As Trinket began to haul himself closer with the pulley’s ropes, Peter knew what Trinket had to say was for his ears only. “The Cap’n sent me to blacken the front again. I wanted to say about the spookiness, but …”
Peter knew. His brother, the captain, didn’t tolerate superstition. Not even rational fears. Trinket continued, knowing Peter understood. “Rather than takin’ a chance on takin’ a dive, I snuck out the ropes.”
The black paint dripped back onto his hand as he held the up the brush.
Peter knew Trinket was barely a decent flyer and occasionally took a plunge. It was bad news when he was scared of what could be just an inch under the surface. “And I don’t know ’bout you, but there’s somethin’ definitely wrong with that water.”
He reached for the hanging bucket but missed and overturned it, sending the paint into the cold water below. It hardly rippled.
“Why don’t you come back up?” Peter quietly called over the edge.
Trinket looked like he was thinking for a moment, then pulled on the lines enthusiastically. Peter put out a hand to help him over the edge.
Trinket came up to Peter’s middle, and he had to admit to himself that, at times, Trinket’s height made Peter feel a bit awkward, but glad at the same time — glad because it felt like a small child looking up to him, but awkward because Peter wished it didn’t feel like only a small child.
“Gotta admit, though,” Trinket lowered his voice, “I’m not completely sure I didn’t do that on purpose.” He chuckled quietly, then shrieked like a frightened bird. “Look out!”
Before Peter had time to think, two creatures looped their oak-like limbs around his neck and arms and swung him around to face the rest of the ship.
About half the crew was on deck, each in their unique peculiarity, made even more bizarre in the fog-dimmed air. They were a strange patchwork of parts from human to humanoids, but all of them were half or mostly animal.
The odd creatures didn’t take Peter’s breath from him and send his heart into his throat. He was used to the crew, but the red-coated man in the center of the group gave Peter pause. He matched Peter in height and, though Peter was lanky and looked more like a comical crane, and this man more resembled a tiger, they were twins. Not like most twins, where you can somehow tell them apart in some subtle way. These two were both sides of the mirror, and not just physically.
Captain James Urgo stepped forward. The look on his face was one of pure, dark pleasure. Besides the obvious differences in their demeanor, one other difference between Peter and James was the polished steel hook in place of the captain’s left hand.
“I’m afraid it’s time for you to go,” he said, pointing at him with the shining hook. He paused, nodding his approval to the two creatures holding Peter.
“You, Peter Urgo, have been declared unfit to sail on this ship, the Minotaur, and are hereby sentenced to immediate exile.”
One of the men holding Peter had the face of a bear, and the other had the smashed snout of a pug dog. As they lifted him to a sitting position on the ship’s railing, he yelled in protest, struggling to loosen himself from their grip. The crew on deck drummed the planks with their feet — padded, taloned, scaled, bare and booted. They mumbled excitedly, knowing what was coming next. Their long, bored hours had finally become exciting.
“Declared by whom?” Peter yelled, wrenching his limbs away from the two creatures and dropping off the railing, back onto the deck. The drumming stopped.
“By your former crew, of course,” Captain Urgo snarled. The creatures grabbed for Peter’s arms again, but he dodged them.
“You’re not but a bunch o’ dirty pirates,” Peter stated calmly.
He grabbed the railing and catapulted himself over the side, into the icy water below. The crew erupted in a roar of cheers at the loud splash, showing their brutal satisfaction. The pug and bear men glanced over the edge as the captain waved his hand to quiet the crew.
“You want we should keep watch for him, should he climb back aboard?” the shaggy-furred man asked through an eruption of snorts.
Captain Urgo turned to him, considering the question. “No. This is a strange map. He’ll not last an hour.” With that, the rest of the crew dispersed, and the quiet nothing settled over the ship once more.
Having taken the earliest opportunity to conceal himself, Trinket sat in the small space behind the Minotaur figurehead. He chewed on his nails and bit back a sob just as a voice rang out from the crow’s nest, atop the sky- scraping mainmast.
The train station was quiet, as normal. Though, it wasn’t the common sort of quiet; the stillness seeped into your bones and made them hum with happiness. The cold, stone building was just as it always had been, without the slightest coating of dust.
The space was small, only one hundred feet long. Two sets of tracks sunk into gravel-filled trenches ran the length of the station, and the three platforms were made of the same cold, polished stone as the building. Four large columns stood on each side, supporting two simple overhangs of stone, dividing the outer platforms. The only view to outside the building was from the outside edge and, even then, no landscape was visible. There was nothing but the station.
Beyond the ivy-covered incline and wildflowers, existence ended abruptly, dropping into a great, gray void as hollow as the starry, multichrome sky. Stars and celestial bodies of every shape and color speckled the sky and below where the horizon would have been. Yet, somehow, that sky still felt empty.
The station, itself, was not empty. A shining, white locomotive train sat idle on one of the tracks, dreamlike in its perfection. Seven cars trailed the engine, and the windows glowed with a soft, white light that hid everything inside. All the cars but one were the same size inside and outside. The last car on the train included a large, elegant library, but it appeared the same as the other cars outwardly.
A girl stood in that library, at one of the balcony rails. The shelves all around her whispered otherworldly stories and knowledge from millions of pages. Lanterns hung on the edges of the shelves, but it was still dim — almost too dim for reading. Because of this, she made a habit of taking the books to the area below, with the tables among larger, brighter lamps.
Her name was Hannah Merchant, and her hair was smooth and orange — a shade of orange between the yellow and red in the flames of a campfire. She had eyes the color green of a wet forest, creating an air of quiet strangeness about her.
The weird world of the train station warped perception of time. Hannah didn’t remember how long it had been since she had begun this tale, but the beginning of it and her life before were little more than the last inklings of a dream. She still sensed a definite beginning, but it was like a few, choppy sentences of memory rather than the whole book racing through her mind.
Sometime in the past, in a painfully plain world, she had been at a party to celebrate the coming of the New Year. That reality abruptly jumped aside as she was chased down a dark alley by a creature that embodied all darkness and fear — the Shadow.
Happily, she was not left to face the creature alone. She had Aaron as her companion — Dr. Aaron McKay, as he had elaborated soon after they met. His introduction seemed so long ago. It was a while before she found out he wasn’t joking about the title. He didn’t seem very forthcoming about himself, but, during their first adventure, she learned he was a doctor of animals.
He had never seen the train station, either, and he never removed his black leather gloves, for some odd reason she had yet to learn.
A lot of useful information. Undoubtedly. Maybe.
She had a good feeling about him and didn’t ask a lot of questions. He was nice enough. She had learned to trust him with everything, even her life.
“Aaron!” Hannah yelled, hands on her hips.
During their months-long adventure in Anterria, most of the awkwardness of being new acquaintances had faded — for her part, at least. They were now simply friends. That’s what a war and repeated near-death experiences will do to a relationship.
Aaron appeared near Hannah — Aaron and his great, shaggy mop of brown hair, a pair of circular, wire-rimmed glasses and frost blue eyes.
“What?” he asked in a panic, the storm-gray trench coat falling limp as the air rushed out of it. He also had a strong attachment to that spooky- looking jacket of his.
Hannah turned to him and smiled brightly. “I can’t find it.”
He sighed heavily and ran his gloved hand through his hair. She often tried his patience.
Before their time in Anterria, they had stumbled upon a crime nine thousand or so years in the making. It began with another world — the Kingdom of Zion — that encompassed all worlds and times, ruled by the council. There came a point when one of the members turned on the others. He stole the keys the other council members used as tokens of their power. That was the Shadow — evil, simply put.
Another council member, who Hannah and Aaron learned was called the Keeper of Illumination, stole the keys back and hid them in the infinite network of dimensions. He then disappeared. Shadow locked all the other council members in the unbreakable prison called the Door of Exile, as
explained by a little golden book Hannah and Aaron found during their first visit to the library. The book was called Pan-Dimensional Law Enbgment.
They were in the middle of an odd, exciting and terrifying adventure that reached far beyond any single sky.
Hannah and Aaron were searching for the keys to unlock the door so the council, the only outranking authority, could get rid of the Shadow. But while they were searching, Shadow hung around and caused trouble, himself searching for the keys of power to each element that the council once guarded. With them, he could do and have whatever he wanted, and he wanted everything. He definitely wasn’t acting his age — all nine thousand years or so.
Hannah and Aaron located one of the keys in Anterria and brought it back to the station, where the Door of Exile was. The door was in the main loft of the library, where the lack of wall lanterns kept it in darkness. Strange, yes, but they had learned to accept a lot of strange things since that first night as they ran down the alley from the Shadow.
A plain, yet creepy thing it was, the Exile. It was a wooden door with an old metal handle that had an odd, unnatural shine. Nothing else defined the door physically, other than a handprint placed squarely on the surface, evidenced by the illustration in the book, though the real thing was hidden in the dark. Neither Hannah nor Aaron ever walked too close to it because of the unpleasant aura it radiated.
Hannah thought about opening the door once or twice, but a safety feature was designed to throw anyone without all the keys through the wooden surface and trap the person inside. Who knows what else was trapped inside with the council members? Who else, or what else, had tried to open the door before it was moved to the library? She didn’t want to think about the actual criminals who deserved to be there in the first place.
“What do you mean, you can’t find it?” Aaron threw up his hands.
Hannah had special eyes besides those on her face — eyes that let her see things inside her head. She had no magical powers; she saw through intuition. As far as she could tell, she and Aaron gain abilities through their imaginations.
It took an artist — a Storyteller — one with a creative view, to do what they could. This theory became painfully obvious to Hannah back in Anterria, when one of her campfire stories came to life and destroyed half the village to get to her.
Hannah and Aaron could do some things more easily than others. Aaron’s ability was linked to what he touched. He first found it when he mistakenly
grabbed an Anterrian zip line and his mind’s eye nauseatingly zoomed down the rope to what lay beyond his physical sight.
Hannah could see certain things without having them in front of her. Her talent took the form of discovering invisible objects, seeing a place far away or, in the case of the keys they were looking for, occasionally having strange dreams that connected with the current situation. Since as far back as she could remember, she was never able to pay full attention to what was in front of her, other pictures constantly whizzing through her head at light speed. It turned out to be the first stage of the adventure.
Hannah’s last dream was fading rapidly, but she remembered the important things, she hoped. Another characteristic of the library was that it wasn’t just books on shelves, but it had a special code written into it in something called the subtext – the very fabric of existence. There was no card catalog and no computers; it simply tapped into her thoughts. When she thought about what she wanted to find, it found her, instead, provided the library was feeling friendly at the time.
“I don’t know. All I can remember now is that it was blue and underwater. There are a lot of blue water books, but nothing’s coming to me.” She shook her head at the stuffed bookshelves.
Aaron narrowed his eyes. He had left the searching to Hannah. The library didn’t seem to like him much, judging by the fact that all his books shot out of nowhere to hit him on the back of the head, whereas hers floated gracefully into her hands.
“Well, maybe we’re better off looking the old-fashioned way,” Aaron suggested. Hannah turned and rolled her eyes at him.
Having neither day nor night, the train station didn’t have much of a sense of time, and the library wasn’t going by what most would consider natural laws. The hallways shifted and balconies popped in and out. The library was much larger than the outside of the train car, but Hannah and Aaron had glimpses into the deeper, more abstract reaches, and they didn’t want to look any further than absolutely necessary. Even then, if they had started searching for the book using the “old-fashioned” way, as Aaron put it, there would be other problems, like the ability to be sidetracked by just about every book. The titles alone would make anyone’s head spin.
Singularity, Psychology and Behavior
Properties of Transfer Mirrors and Other Trans-Spatial Surfaces
How Wonderland Was Won
Pan-dimensional Law Enforcement
Hannah had read part of the last one. That’s where they had discovered the Shadow. It was a small, unassuming little volume that held much more than it appeared, like the library. Maybe that was the reason she hadn’t seen Aaron pick up any books lately. Could he read them just by touch? The thought slipped away as quickly as it had come. It didn’t matter at that moment.
“Somehow, I don’t think that’s the best idea.” Hannah sighed heavily.
“Well, maybe it was just a normal dream.” Aaron shrugged. She glared at him over her shoulder.
“I don’t have normal dreams anymore.” She paused, thinking. “Maybe Carson could help.”
They both nodded and headed back to the rest of the train — out of the hallway, into the loft, down the spiral staircase and to the other end of the room.
As they passed the central tables with the armchairs and lamps, Hannah’s eye focused on one of the books laying haphazardly at the edge. It was a beat- up composition notebook patched with bits of electrical tape and splattered with random stickers. The presence of such a book didn’t have much to do with their current situation, but was puzzling. It was one of the very notebooks Hannah once had on the shelf over her bed in her own world, but it held the events of their time in Anterria. She hadn’t written a single word inside it; neither had she brought the notebook with her, but all six such notebooks that she had owned in a time she only vaguely remembered were mysteriously present in the library.
It wasn’t a difficult concept to grasp. Since the beginning, they had learned that imagination, especially Storytelling, had a much greater impact on real things than originally thought. So naturally, what they did would be recorded somewhere. What neither of them understood was why their story was in one of Hannah’s notebooks when it could have shown up in a volume like the rest of the stories in the library.
The engine was only six cars away, but they went a bit slower through the first car behind the engine. It used to be just like the others but, when they brought back the Earth element key, they found the car had changed to mirror the world they had just left. It was now filled with a dense garden, complete with wooden benches in the place of the upholstered seats. The key was a delicate, silver crown that hung on the wall. It gave nothing away of what it truly was. Again, it was all in the subtext, like a computer code. The key was simply programmed to look like the silver crown. It’s what made everything they had seen possible. So said Eltanin, a woman back in Anterria, who knew
a lot more than any native of the world. Everything imaginable was a gigantic, cosmic book — a gigantic, cosmic library.
Carson was in the engine, looking busy yet not really doing anything. He sat on a backless seat, typing away at a keyboard with no letters, staring at a white, holographic screen. He was definitely short — a little shorter than Hannah — and nearly as pale as paper, with flat black hair and ghostly gray eyes. A large, old-fashioned lantern with eight windows was chained to his left wrist, a black conductor’s hat was askew atop his head, and he wore black suspenders over his white shirt.
He hadn’t come to the train station with Hannah and Aaron, but appeared once they got there. She had debated with herself whether or not to call the station inhabited, seeing as Carson wasn’t technically alive in the flesh-and- blood sense. He was a program designed to run the train, left over from busier times. Everything physical had a subtext, including entire worlds, and could be manipulated. Along with conventional coding of computers she knew, other codes could be inserted and programs run.
“It’s not there,” Hannah informed Carson as she and Aaron entered the open cabin of the engine. “I saw a book in the dream, but it’s not in the library.”
Carson spun around on his seat. “Impossible. Every book on every world is in there,” he said. The chain on his wrist rattled as he moved, invincibly connected to the lantern that sat on the floor.
“Well, we didn’t find anything,” Aaron said, sliding into the seat on the opposite side of the Carson. Aaron paused as he processed Carson’s words. “Wait … all worlds? How is that even possible? I mean, I know the halls shift and all that, but you can’t seriously–”
“Storage principle,” Carson answered. “The library is never the same as you left it. The hallway thing is just an amusing code left by the architects. Everything rotates,” he finished, spinning one finger in the air.
“Then could the book we’re looking for be in permanent storage? One that hasn’t rotated out?” Aaron asked.
“No. When you’re looking for a specific one, you can always find it.”
“Can you run some kind of computer search then?” Hannah asked. “Of the worlds not in the library, then reference for blue, water, and so on?”
In addition to being the programmed driver for the station, Carson had a direct mental link to the subtext of the world. Whenever they found the correct syntax to ask him a question, his eyes would go vacant for a second or two and he’d then come out of the trance with the answer. Usually.
Carson looked like he was going to say no, but, as he turned back to the floating screen, he said, “You bet’cha.”
His fingers flew over the blank keys and light blurred in motion on the screen. He wasn’t exactly normal — even the way he held himself gave that away — but he was intelligent and could tell when their expressions changed. That was probably the reason he chose to use the holographic monitor instead of going vacant, just for their comfort level.
Hannah’s heart pounded in anticipation. The results of the search would put them closer to stepping onto another world, and another hunt for a key. She found that if she squinted her eyes, she could barely make out parts of world names as they whizzed past, those that had letters she knew. Though familiar with the Storytelling concept, she was shocked by some of the world names that she saw: Neverland, Narnia, Mossflower.
Finally, two words appeared, isolated on the opposite side of the screen. The words both seemed to be the same file, a place inside one bigger. Hannah’s breath caught in her throat and she looked to Aaron with a smile, her eyes wide and bright.
Upon reading the words, the last few seconds of the dream replayed in her mind. She was sinking deeper into dark water teeming with words and letters like grains of sand. A flash of blue light blinded her, searing symbols onto her eyelids. She read the only two words that rose out of the chaos.
“That’s it,” she said quietly, surfacing to reality.