Anika Rosenthal LVIII came from a long line of journalists. The very first Anika Rosenthal was a Grandian reporter who covered the famed commune of the Good King Dundermoat. When Seamoore was founded in its place, Anika Rosenthal II became the founder of The Lighthouse, Seamoore’s first newspaper (which was later demolished in the transition from Seamoore to Skymoore, when city planners mistakenly tore down the newspaper instead of the actual lighthouse). And, save for a few rebellious Anika’s who have been ceremoniously excommunicated for becoming lawyers, soldiers, and musicians, every Anika Rosenthal thereafter has worked for some newspaper or another.
Because Anika Rosenthal LVII, Anika Rosenthal LVIII’s mother, believes in the myth of the self-made person, Anika worked as a lowly entertainment journalist for the Skylight, her mother’s moderately-successful magazine. While her sister, Zara Rosenthal II, got to attend free restaurant openings and dine on new meals devised by famous chefs for the food section, Anika was stuck on the red carpet for Rust and Stone, some Sun Stage play that thought it was smarter and more interesting than it was.
Even worse still, she got stuck interviewing the playwright, Tim Belcherk, who everyone in Skymoore inexplicably loved even though he was a hack. Or, maybe he was fine – Anika wasn’t really good at judging that kind of thing; she hated plays, she hated her job, and she just wanted to be anywhere other than interviewing Tim Belcherk, who was, by the way, a sentient gargoyle statue, wheeled about by an assistant.
“So, your play has a lot of um, interesting ideas,” Anika floundered. “Automatons and metal cities and flying vessels. It really fascinates people. So, uh, where do you get your ideas from?”
Really, Anika? Really?
Whatever. I just want to go home.
For a long moment, Anika’s stomach churned as Tim Belcherk just stared out into space in front of her, and it occurred to her that this could be because he was bored, because he was thoughtful, or because he was a statue. Whatever the case, it was the longest moment of her life.
(Being a sentient statue, Tim Belcherk was powerless but to stare as Sidney Ilthengard, his dragonborn assistant, used her tongue to fiddle with the empty space between two of her front teeth. He could not grimace, or look away, or otherwise subtly alert her to the unseemly display to which he was subjected, so he aimed for a middle ground.
“Sidney,” he said, “what happened to your tooth?”
She stopped at once. A dragonkin’s blush cannot be seen beneath their scales, but Tim was nevertheless certain it was there. “Oh.” Sidney ceased roasting the blackened marshmallow over the campfire she had breathed to life. “Got in a fight at university. Just some boy loudly getting all the facts wrong about our relationship. I’m sure you’ve heard the rumors. I just – eugh, no, no offense Tim, it’s just like, how would I even do that with a statue? I mean I – no, not going there.”
Tim chuckled. His voice was not projected directly from his unmoving mouth, but rather seemed to come from everywhere at once, rendering even his most innocuous laugh unsettling.
“Anyway, my temper took over. You know me.”
“Did you win, at least?”
Sidney grinned “You know me.”
The pair were camping deep in the O’grofkala Mountains. Or perhaps beneath them – Tim had sort of lost track; being unable to movie, he was something of a terrible navigator. They found themselves in a cave so large he could not see the ceiling through the canopy of trees that had developed within. If a man awoke there with no recollection of the path that brought him there, he could be forgiven for believing himself outdoors.
The pair grew silent, then, as they often were. Sidney’s classmate’s may have been wrong about their relationship but there certainly was an intimacy to it. A familiarity often reserved for lovers. Sidney brought comfort to Tim, and Tim brought purpose to Sidney, and they could happily stew in those abstracts without need for words.
Tim liked words, though. The fire interested him less than it did Sidney. That was a dragonborn thing, sure, but it was also a nervous system thing. Tim could see the fire, but he could not feel it. He could understand its beauty and its heat, but he could not properly experience it.
The external world ceased to matter to Tim except as a source of inspiration and admiration. It was easy enough to envy the rest of sentient life what with their changing bodies and capacity for love and freedom of movement, but it was just as easy to pity them. Their need for things like exercise and affection and nutrition busied them so that they could not afford to live Tim’s internal life even if they wanted to. His was a life of ideas, of concepts, of imagination, because he was unable to have anything else. He lived his life through words – his own, and others – and there were certainly worse ways to live.
But it did make for some dreadful silences. Especially when one was on or in or beneath a mountain range very far from Skymoore, seeking something that is all too likely a fairytale.
“When are you going to move on from all this, Sidney?” Tim asked suddenly, as his assistant stuck a smoldering marshmallow in her mouth. She tilted her head and chewed. “It’s been seven years since that young girl came to me saying Everclock changed her life and asked if I could give her a job. You’re a grown woman now. You could and should move on. Get an apprenticeship. Devote yourself to study. Find a partner.”
Sidney shrugged. “Don’t want a partner.”
“You know what I mean. After Dusk, I thought for sure you were done. I wrote that play in part for you, you know. Artists being told it’s time to move on?”
“Where is this coming from? You trying to get rid of me? Found a sexy stone golem to do your typing for you?”
“No. No! It’s just. When most people are asked by their boss to wheel them out to a mythological fountain halfway across the continent, they might have some questions.”
“I told you it was a bad idea. For weeks. I think you’re crazy.”
“But you still did it.”
“I just worry that your devotion to me might be…unhealthy.” Sidney shrugged. “I’m just saying, when you decide it’s time to move on…that’s fine. I’ll find someone else. Or I’ll sit in a warehouse beneath an abandoned restaurant for a thousand years collecting mold and dust and cockroaches. Either way, I’m happy.”
Sidney forced a laugh. “I owe you, Tim. If it weren’t for you, I’d still be living in these mountains. Wagging sticks at the moons and eating nonbelievers.”
“My books open a lot of peoples’ minds, most of them don’t – wait, did you actually eat nonbelievers? This is a new wrinkle.”
“Chief Grimly always denied it, but whenever we killed a trespasser, dinner tasted a bit different.”
Tim let it get quiet again. Without saying anything else, Sidney unfurled her sleeping bad and went to sleep. Tim’s brain shut off for a few hours. Perhaps you could call that sleep. He did not, for he did not dream. It may be the only time he didn’t.
In the morning, Sidney stretched, peed, rolled up her sleeping bag, fried a single egg over their fire which she reignited, ate, snuffed out the flame, lifted Tim onto the wheeled board on which she pushed him, secured him to the bottom, packed the rest of her bag, and ventured further into this strange cavernous forest.
Because this supposed Fountain of Thought was a huge secret – according to legend, only those artists deemed worth by the Muses could find it – there was of course no map of its location. For the tenth time, Tim repeated his certainty that if Sidney just pushed on, they would find it eventually, for surely Tim Belcherk was worthy. As the ground sloped upward, and Tim began to feel heavy, and Sidney’s arms began to tremble, she found this less and less assuring.
“See, Tim?” she panted at the top of the hill, struggling to put on even a halfhearted smile. “No one else would ever dare do this job. Because it sucks. Oh…by the blasted ancients! Look at this.”
From the peak of the hill, Sidney and Tim could see the ceiling of the cave. Behind them, the entrance was visible, and the path to it was clear – a dirt trail among relatively light foliage. That is, light relative to what lie ahead – an obscenely dense sea of foliage, entirely obscuring the path below, offering no clues at all as to where one might hide a fountain here.
“This is impossible, Tim.”
“No,” Tim said. “Come on. I feel it.”
And he did. There was a kind of…whisper. An aural beacon, a soft sound in the back of his mind, urging him onwards, begging him to hear its secrets.
Sidney stormed around to stand in front of Tim before she threw her hands up in the air, just to make sure he saw it. “But we’ll never come back if we go that way! Let’s just go back the way we came. I’ll read you more books. You’ll find ideas your own way.”
“Sidney, please,” Tim said. “Ideas…they don’t flow anymore. Dusk was a miracle. This play the Sun Stage wants me to write…I don’t have it in me, Sidney. I just don’t. You don’t have to do this, but…”
“Good, because I won’t! I can’t! Do you see that down there? It’s just – I just don’t want to.”
“What’s gotten into you Sidney? You’re not one to get afraid. It will be fine. I can feel the Fountain. It’s here. I can guide you.”
“I just don’t see the big deal. You’re loaded. You didn’t even need money in the first place and now you’re set for life. What’s the big deal if you can’t write stories? We’ll find some other way to pass the time.”
“Sidney, please. I’m not like you. I’m not like anyone. Stories are all that I am.”
Her face fell, then. Her reptilian eyes shut one eyelid at a time, and Tim could almost hear her stomach churning. Sidney nodded.
When Sidney took her first step down the hill, the whispers grew louder. As the pair neared the bottom, which took quite a lot longer than they imagined, the trees failed to come into focus. That is – even up close, the leaves looked like one solid mass of green, like a child’s drawing. The bark lacked detail, like a single unrefined stroke of paint.
Even the air was different down here. It was made of…something else. Like instead of hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and all the things that made the universe, this air was derived from something else entirely. Something…something…Tim didn’t know. It was like there was something floating in it, something tangible, just out of sight and scent.
The thought scared him, and urged him forward.
Foliage thinned much sooner than his elevated assessment would have led Tim to believe. The ceiling sloped downward to meet the back of the cave. The brown soil and green grass became red clay and black stone. The leaves of the trees became light spheres containing entire worlds within them, but neither Tim nor Sidney could look directly at it without cringing in sudden, ephemeral agony.
Tim could stare directly into Sol without experiencing pain.
The back wall of the cave was solid. Tim could see it. It was just that it stretched out into an endless emptiness. The stone was there, but the stone was infinite. If he could just meld with the stone, just peer over the edge, he could see the source of the whispers.
Sidney, push me forward, he thought but did not say. Sidney?
She had gone on ahead of him, toward the wall, where a woman he had not noticed was waiting. Or, he thought it was a woman. They were made up of a multicolored energy, loosely floating in a humanoid shape. These were, of course, the Muses.
“You’ve found us again,” the Muses said. “You are persistent, Tim Belcherk.”
I don’t understand Tim did not say. I’ve never been here before.
“And you, Sidney Ilthengard, are unwaveringly faithful. A rib. A tooth. A memory. You’ve given so much for him already.” The Muse was directly before Tim, now. Swirling wisps of energy flooded his vision. “He must be quite the artist. The cruelest fate of a Muse is that We cannot see the work We inspire. We cannot see what they do with our ideas.”
The Muse sighed. “I need not explain to you what happens next, Ms. Ilthengard.”
“No,” Sidney agreed.
Sidney, what are you doing, Tim did not ask. Instead, he drifted toward the stone wall. The endless. The whispers grew louder, and he knew what they were now. He remembered. How did he remember? Drifting below the cave, he saw it. The Fountain of Thought. This was the astral plane. The realm of ideas. He’d been here before. If his estimations were correct, it was the realm from which he was born.
He saw a great many things, then. Universes outside his own. A million, a billion, a trillion stories playing out at once before his eyes. Love beginning and ending. Wars won and lost. Peoples triumphing and going extinct. Countless human lives buzzing and glowing and wailing and suffering.
He whipped around, away from the Fountain, seemingly of his own accord. Sidney was on her knees before him, now, whimpering in pain, clutching at her shoulders. Blood trickled down one of her arms. She collapsed onto her stomach, from the blood loss, and Tim would have recoiled in horror if he could.
There, where her left wing belonged, a bloody stump remained.
“What have you done?” Tim finally managed.
“Nothing that hasn’t been done before,” the Muses replied. “Sidney Ilthengard knew there would be a price. Her dedication is admirable. Perhaps one day, someone will see her story in the Fountain.”
“I-I don’t understand.”
“You’re confused. You’ve seen so much. Here. Let me clear your head.”
The Muses reached a semblance of a hand to Tim’s semblance of a head, and everything went white.
“So, tell me again how you lost that wing?” Tim asked, placed against the wall in his study, where Sidney typed away at an invoice for the Sun Stage. “It’d been so long since I saw you around, I was starting to think you finally took my advice and left me for good.”
Sidney forced a laugh. “Oh, it’s…just an accident. I was messing around with one of my school friends, out by the ol’ shoe factory. You know me.”
“Well, be more careful next time. Or rather, I should hope there isn’t a next time.”
Sidney nodded, aloof, as she finished typing up the bill. “So should I.”)
After what felt like an interminable pause, which Anika really ought to have expected from a statue, Mr. Belcherk spoke.
“Oh, I just find my ideas in the world. They come to me when they’re ready,” he said. “I guess I’m just lucky.”