Where once stood great, towering trees blooming opal and amethyst flowers as far as the eye could see, there was now only black hills rolling endlessly through the dark.
The last thing the Archetypal Hero recalled, he was travelling home through the Bewildering Worrying Woods after defeating the Demon Disciple’s demigod and consequently conquering the Crystal Kingdom of Carn.
It seemed like a lot to remember.
But none of that revealed anything about the darkness which now engulfed him. There was only a dirt road ahead–a barely visible swath of gray carved into the black landscape.
“Hallo?” he called, and waited for the night to answer him.
It did not.
Despite appearances, the Archetypal Hero was not especially clever or tricksy or terribly charming. More often he relied upon his swollen muscles and bulging reputation.
His friends called him Archie, amongst other mean names.
After a long and grueling quest (with actual gruel), Archie desired nothing more than to return to his native Heroville, to raise his glass amongst hero-colleagues, to be loved only by everyone, toasted and carried on sinewy shoulders, his name peppered through bardic lays even though nothing at all rhymes with Archie the Archetypal Hero.
With nowhere else to turn, Archie followed the gray path before him, when from far off the road some creature called out, and he knew immediately it wasn’t human.
Nor elven, dwarfish, orcish, goblin, or gnoll. It wasn’t even language as far as he could tell. Just chirps, hisses and clicks intermingled. But Archie thought it sounded hungry, and it wasn’t the most unreasonable of his assumptions.
The sound disappeared, but others occasionally accompanied him, including the heady whoosh of a very large object flying overhead.
“Dragons?!” he startled, unsheathing his impressive sword. Archie had yet to battle a dragon. It was not an encounter he looked forward to.
Again, he’s a fairly reasonable guy.
No dragon appeared, however. No great gusts of heavy wings; no deep, rumbling growl resonating through a long, serpentine neck–there was only dead silence and it was almost worse.
He continued along his path, and very soon the darkness came alive with sounds daring him to step off the road. All around him was the possibility of attack, the promise of his greatest fears brought to life. Of giant beetles skittering through the black, of sirens seducing him into dark oblivion, of clowns.
Archie was by no means an inexperienced traveler, but this land of supernatural shadow was unlike anything he’d ever encountered. The road didn’t twist or turn or bend or break, but it threatened to do those things to him.
God only knows how long he wandered through that bleak land of disembodied snarls, growls, and moans, because Archie is a terrible judge of time. But after what seemed an indeterminate period, he noticed a dot of light ahead, and as he drew closer, he saw that the light shone off a red door–an oasis of color in a desert of gray.
Archie sheathed his really quite enormous sword and ran as fast as he could until the outline of a building became clear–rectangular and uniform, squatting against the landscape.
The interior of the building was poorly lit. Archie struggled to discern strange figures standing against walls, lounging on dirty mattresses, and shrinking into shadowy corners.
Technically, only four and a half were extra-terrestrial, but nearly all of them were alien to Archie–even those that appeared human.
A Noir Detective chatted with painted dames, fishing for information. A soldier in dark-colored camo sat on a nearby mattress. “The others can’t find out,” he muttered, peeling back the tattered remnant of his shirt sleeve, revealing bloody bite marks. Lying beside him was a tired looking pug. “I’m sure it’s nothing,” said the pug.
Archie thought it almost dream-like, lacking only the sweaty hordes of shirtless men to really convince him he was dreaming.
A huge mechanical monstrosity lumbered towards Archie. This horrible machination was formed of millions of moving metal pieces. Gears on gears on gears–grinding, grinding, grinding. The only color, aside from metallic black and shining steel, was the sickly orange of rust and the dark red spots of blood that crept into its sharp corners and crevices.
It sent a chill up Archie’s naturally hairless back. His hand instinctively gripped the hilt of his sword, but he wondered if engaging this goliath would accomplish anything more than dulling his larger than average blade. “What are you?” he asked.
The whir of motors and crunch of gears answered him, and in the cacophony there were the words: “I am the Answer. I am the Solution. I was made to Be, now I Am.”
It seemed like someone that might have answers.
“Where am I?” asked Archie.
“I am the Answer. I am the Solution. I was made to Be, now I Am.”
“How do I get out of here?”
It stepped forward, looming over Archie, and put a cold, metallic hand on his shoulder. Its chest opened in a horrible display of interlocking gears and pumping engines, revealing the bloody fragments of flesh and bone where a heart would be if it were human.
“I am the Answer. I am the Solution. I was made to Be, now I Am.” It gestured for Archie to come inside.
Archie drew his hulking sword and directed it at the creature’s face. “Where am I?!” he repeated.
“I am the Answer. I am the Solution. I was made to be-”
Suddenly, a column of light burst through the ceiling. There were shouts and screams as the light glanced quickly in every direction. Whenever it landed on an individual in the room, they vanished, to the consternation of those nearby. The light fell upon the robot greeting Archie. “And now I Am,” it said as it dissolved.
Just as abruptly as the light appeared, it vanished. Archie was left a mere figure posing heroically with his sword drawn. Well, it would have been heroic if he could keep his arm from trembling.
But with the robotic aberration out of the way, Archie’s view was now of the most beautiful creature he’d ever laid eyes on.
She was meditating alone in the center of the room, sitting cross-legged with the merest hint of a smile across her face. Her robed body radiated warmth and light, and yet the other creatures seemed not to notice her.
Archie put away his sword and grabbed the arm of the Noir Detective, “Who is that divine being there?”
The Noir Detective glanced down at Archie’s hand, suspiciously. He took a long drag from his cigarette and said, “Don’t ya know, kid? That there’s the Human Condition.”
Archie ignored the butterflies fluttering in his stomach–that’s what he gets for eating butterflies without chewing–and approached the woman.
“Pardon me, lady,” Archie bowed. “I’m terribly lost.”
“Wonderful!” she said, her face shining like the sun. “Only by accepting that one is lost can one find the way, which means you’re already halfway there!” She smiled and Archie blushed, though he covered his face with both hands to hide it.
“What are these horrid creatures” he asked, scanning the room incredulously.
“They are stories,” she said. “Just like you and I.”
“Stories? What does that mean? I’m a person don’t be silly.”
“We’re all just little fictions begging to be taken seriously,” said the Human Condition. “We are the dreams of dreamers. When our stories are complete, we come here to-”
“How do I leave?” Archie interrupted.
“You must wait for your time of judgment,” said the Human Condition.
“I don’t wait. You have heard tales of me. I am Archie. The Archetypal Hero.”
“Of course you are,” she smiled, and, possessing the wisdom to recognize a lost cause, she shut her eyes and began to meditate on creation, as many women do when they hope a guy will take a hint.
But Archie was no detective. Confused, he reached forward to wake her up but was interrupted.
“Excuse me,” whispered a dry, throaty voice behind him.
Archie turned and saw a haggard man leaning toward him. The man was naked, his legs shackled together, his left hand chained to his groin, his right to his hanging gut.
“I couldn’t help but overhear you seeking council. I think I can help,” said the man. “For a price.”
“Why would I want your help? What even are you, creature?”
“I’m the Human Condition,” it said through labored breaths.
“You can’t be the Human Condition,” said Archie. “She’s the Human Condition.”
“A part, but not the whole,” said the shrinking man. “You cannot trust her wisdom. Deep as puddles. No one ever went anywhere while sitting. It’s the slinkers, the slitherers, the creepers and crawlers that find their way into corners you never knew existed. It’s the dirty, filthy hands that find the way out because they find everything.”
“Gross. How do I get home?”
“That’s not the question you should start with.”
“Alright, what question should I start with?”
“You should start with: What is the price?” A sickly grin cracked its worn face.
Archie excused himself and the bent man cried out for him to return, to rejoice with him in despair, to wait, hold on, I’m still talking, don’t just walk away, who do you think you are?
This was nothing like the challenges Archie had faced before. Where was the ogre for him to break? The spell for him to stab? The damsel locked in a castle filled with treacherous traps?
Archie wandered through the building aimlessly, searching for some sign or clue, becoming lost in the chatter.
“Blood! I need blood!”
“The tree was growing birds!”
“Dom Mclean. But you can call me the Sorcerer Sublime.”
At last, the sign Archie had hoped for. A sorcerer! This dreamlike world could only come from some kind of dark magic. Perhaps an apprentice to the Demon Disciple seeking vengeance.
The voice belonged to a young man, unusually fit for a caster, well-manicured, too, with short, cropped hair and a clean shave around an attractive goatee. Archie grasped the hilt of his sword and steadily approached Dom Mclean, Sorcerer Sublime.
“Okay, well, maybe not sublime,” said Dom as Archie closed the gap. “I dabble in magic. Mostly just to mess with my customers at Joe’s Cup Cafe.”
Perhaps this was a trick. Then again, Dom didn’t look at all like what Archie had come to expect having dealt with many a caster in the past. They were typically slovenly, smelly, a little dirty, and kept unkempt beards. Dom Mclean was more polished. He was attractive in a way that made Archie deeply uncomfortable.
A quick glance through the room revealed several creatures far more menacing in appearance than this faux-sorcerer, and Archie felt more secure pursuing them than swinging his mighty sword at Dom Mclean all night long.
There was magic here, though. Dom Mclean, Sorcerer Well-Maybe-Not-Sublime, had keyed him into it. Archie stalked through the crowd with renewed purpose–eyes sharp, mind sharpish–searching for a worthy target.
Archie couldn’t believe his luck when he found him. Just what he’d hoped for, something obvious and clear and obvious too: his natural enemy, an orc. Green-skinned, broad-shouldered, and a forehead sloped enough you could roll marbles down it, not that you would.
The orc had no weapon strapped to his hip or back–a clear sign of a caster. While it was unusual for an orc to delve into the dark arts, it was hardly unheard of.
The orc chatted casually with another victim of his spell: a beautiful damsel, or perhaps another figment of his conjuring.
Archie approached, drawing his sword from its sheath. It glistened in the pale light–an offer of encouragement.
The orc didn’t seem to notice Archie. Maybe for all his wisdom in magic, he lacked the attention to spot the bright blade coming hungry for him.
With one mighty, albeit abrupt, swing, Archie buried his sword in the creature’s gut. The orc bent forward in pain. He looked at Archie in confusion and grief, groaning his fate before collapsing to the floor, bleeding out his belly.
Before Archie could raise his sword in his standard and long-established victory cry (“Yuuuuuuus!!”), a terrible scream filled the room. “He killed Oscar!” the damsel cried and fled to the nearest creature. “He just came up and killed Oscar!”
“Not Oscar the Obliging Orc?” said the Rock Monster. “Who would hurt such a gentle spirit?”
The damsel pointed unambiguously right at Archie. “Him! Him!” tears rolling down her rosy cheeks. The whole room was facing Archie now, gathering around him, though keeping their distance.
Archie glanced down at what he’d done and saw that the orc’s body had vanished. There was only a small pool of blood to prove anything was ever there at all.
Someone put a hand on his shoulder. “Son, it’s time for you to leave.” Archie turned to see a big man with a great white beard and all the love and disappointment of a tired parent emanating from his eyes.
“I–I just . . .” Archie struggled with his words. “He was an orc!” The crowd gasped at the implication.
“Indeed, he was,” said the bearded man. “The best orc there ever was. But there’s no tolerance for murder here.”
“Who are you to tell me to leave?” said Archie, but he knew it wasn’t very convincing. “I’m the Archetypal Hero!”
The old man laughed. “I’m God.”
Archie could feel the blood leaving his face, for as soon as God revealed himself, Archie knew it was true. “Don’t worry,” said God, “no one recognizes me at first.”
“I shall avenge the creature for you, Lord!” said a burly man wielding an axe.
“Nay! His vengeance shall be mine,” answered a woman scantily clad in chainmail.
“Pardon, my lady,” said a knight dressed head to toe in shining steel-plate armor, his chastity as untouched as his spotless armor. “That honor should be mine!”
Heroes! thought Archie. Heroes like me! But they approached him with their weapons drawn.
But I’m the hero, Archie thought.
“Stop, all of you,” said God. “None of that will be necessary.” God turned to Archie, “Since you have chosen the path of war, you must leave us now in peace.”
The crowd silently affirmed God’s decree with their stares.
“I’m sorry,” Archie offered on his way out. Nothing was given in return.
Outside, the road awaited him. To the right lay the way he came. Blackness. Oblivion. To his left the grey path pressed on, and in the distance Archie glimpsed the subtle outline of other buildings.
He headed towards them.
The buildings gradually became more common and packed together, their shapes as various and strange as their occupants. Some were rectangular like the first, while others were domed or peaked, and some had turrets and bridges that linked them.
Archie was in a whole city of them, surrounded by creatures he would have previously thought strange. He wasn’t used to being unnoticed, but here he was practically invisible, overshadowed by their uniqueness and grandeur.
They jostled against each other, scrambling towards whatever building called to them. Archie avoided going inside, however. The red doors reminded him too much of spilled blood.
“Hey, you there!” a voice called from an alleyway. “Yeah, you!” A great ape, easily seven feet tall, covered in coarse, tawny fur, waved to Archie with a massive hand. Behind it lurked a much shorter figure, but Archie couldn’t make out its features.
“Are you looking for a way out of here?” called the ape. “We’ve found it! We’ve found the way! Come quick if you’re coming!”
Archie ran down the alleyway without a second thought, or even a first. Upon meeting the giant, he shook its great hand and introduced himself. “Archie. The Archetypal . . . Just Archie.”
“Well, I have many names,” said the ape. “Big Foot, Yeti, Sasquatch, Momo, Wild-Man, Skunk Ape.”
“And your friend?”
Big Foot’s companion stepped from the shadows. Another ape–a chimp dressed in a fine suit with a top hat and a monocle over one eye. “Pleased to make your acquaintance,” said the chimp. “I am the Human Condition.”
“Of course you are,” said Archie, bitterly.
Momo pointed further down the alley. “It’s just down here.” He gestured for Archie to go ahead, so Archie led the way.
Together they ran through the backway intersections of buildings until they reached a dim-lit corner and Sasquatch called a halt. Before Archie could turn around, Big Foot grabbed him by the neck, slammed him against the wall, and hoisted him off the ground.
“Nothing personal,” said Yeti.
“What are you doing?” Archie gasped despite Wild-man’s firm grip.
“Removing you from the system,” said Momo. “The less stories in circulation, the better our chances of getting out of here alive.”
“I’m not a story,” Archie struggled. “Don’t be… silly!”
The Human Condition snagged Archie’s sword, lifting and appraising the massive object as if it were weightless while Archie hung there feeling he could relate.
“Hey, you’re not one of those characters that doesn’t breathe, are you?” asked Big Foot. “I only ask cuz you’re not turning blue, or nothing.”
Archie tried to answer but nothing came out. This couldn’t be it. This couldn’t be how his story ended…
“You’re not like a vampire or zombie or anything?” Skunk Ape asked, casually. “Nod or shake your head.”
Weakly, Archie shook his head.
“Geez. Give me the sword,” Wild-man ordered. “We really don’t want to be gone if the Dreamers come back. You understand.”
Archie heard a heavy thud. It might have just been him dropping to the ground. He inhaled too fast and choked on air. Vision blurred, but he sensed frantic movement and could make out a large figure engaging a much smaller one.
The panic and nausea subsided. Breathing became steadier, less strained. A hand grabbed him by the arm and pulled him to his feet.
Archie braced against the wall, preparing to defend himself against the next assault. But the Wild-Man was gone.
The one who helped him up wasn’t ape, orc, or human condition. He was simply human–an old man with a shaggy, white beard hanging down to his belly.
“Are you God?” asked Archie, eyes wide with worry, afraid he’d be asked to leave again without anywhere left to go.
The man laughed. “No, no. I’m the Old Man. One of them, anyways.”
“Surely, you have a name. Donald, maybe?”
“Maybe. I’ve been here quite a while. Don’t recall what my name used to be… Some stories slip through the cracks, ya see. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen.”
“Well, thank you, Old Man,” said Archie confused and tipsy on asphyxiation. Archie introduced himself. “The Archetypal Hero,” he added out of habit.
“Which one?” asked the Old Man.
“Uh, the onl–” Archie stopped as he recalled the various incarnations of the Human Condition.
The Old Man smiled. “It’s okay. There never was anyone or anything truly original. We should get going. The large ape took off, but he’ll be back.”
“Big Foot said he was removing me from the system,” said Archie, looking for his sword. “What system?”
“In my time it was called the Dreamscape. But people put a stop to that. There’s power in a name, and I guess they didn’t want dreams to have too much power. Now it’s called the Collective Unconscious…”
Archie looked confused, and not just because he couldn’t pronounce either of those words. Corrective Uncatchus…?
The Old Man smiled at Archie’s blank expression. “Yeah, they’re modernizing around here like you wouldn’t believe. Um, it’s a sort of filter. A slush pile, you see. A collection of stories hoping to be remembered. They all think they can live past their endings, become myths and legends and what-not.”
“Why do you call them stories? I’m not a story.”
“Of course you are. Everyone’s a story. Everyone you’ve ever met. It’s not even in question. Once you die, what’s left but the story you’ve told?”
“You’re being silly!” said Archie, pushing past the Old Man. “This is some sorcerer’s illusion!”
“Not an illusion, I’m afraid,” said the Old Man. “It’s something far less refined and a good deal more dangerous. This is the Imagination you’re dealing with. It’s survival of the fittest. Only the most suited to the Dreamers’ needs pass beyond the veil.”
Archie searched his surroundings. Sasquatch had escaped, but where was the Human Condition who’d taken Archie’s weapon?
“Where is my sword?” he demanded. “That tiny beast took it!”
“Was that your sword the small ape wielded? I’m afraid it’s gone.”
“Gone?! How can it be gone!”
“It was on him when I killed him. Would you have preferred I stayed out of it altogether?”
“Yes!” said Archie hysterically. “No! I don’t know! Where’s my sword? I need my sword! I’m not the hero without my sword!”
“Maybe you’re not the hero of this story.”
“I’m not just a story! I’m the Archetypal Hero!” said Archie, unraveling. “If we’re just stories then what’s the point of it all?” The veins in his neck were bulging. He didn’t understand. He wasn’t sure he wanted to.
“Why don’t you come with me,” said the Old Man. Archie was unsure after the recent Big Foot encounter. “I’m not going to hurt you,” the Old Man added, sensing Archie’s reticence. “I want to show you something. And it’s not safe here besides.”
Reluctantly, Archie agreed. Mainly because he always trusted old men that want to show him something in private. It never turned up awkward or bad.
The Old Man led Archie through the alley to a steep stairway carved out of one of the buildings. Up they went, over second and third story windows, under stone walkways that bridged buildings together, getting higher and higher until at last they plateaued on the roof which overlooked the city.
“Take a look,” said the Old Man, pointing Archie towards the edge. Earlier, Archie might have mistrusted such a gesture. Now, all his defenses were down. He stepped toward the precipice and gazed down.
Below was a city in shades of gray, with long roads leading nowhere. It was almost a grid, save for those streets which took sharp and sudden turns, bending like an elbow toward some unknown destination. There was everywhere the hint of purpose and order, like a poem with just enough near-rhymes to suggest intent.
Along the sides of the buildings were dots of white light which shone against the landscape like distant constellations. And on the ground, Archie could see creatures too far off to make out, but bright enough to enliven the city streets with their colorful bodies, their unique shapes, their varied locomotion.
“It might seem bleak at ground level,” said the Old Man. “Everyone has a voice, and every voice wants to be heard, but a voice has to be truly unique to stand out in that chaos. Once you get a little perspective though, you recognize you’re part of something larger. A riot of meaning and self-expression. A grand enterprise. It’s all a mess, but isn’t that the point?”
In the sky, drifting between towers, were large orbs and flying saucers. Floating heads with eye-stalks. Giant birds singing in forgotten tongues. In the distance, Archie thought he spotted dragons.
“How do I get back home?” asked Archie.
“You don’t, I’m afraid. If you’re here, it means only one thing: your story is over. Hope it was a good one.”
“So this is it,” said Archie. “I’m just a story.” Feeling dizzy, he took a step back from the edge and found the Old Man waiting with an arm outstretched to brace him.
“People base their whole world views on the narratives they tell themselves,” said the Old Man. “There’s no such thing as just a story.”
Swooping up from one of the other buildings, Archie saw a man flying with a bright red cape billowing majestically behind him. Archie had never seen a man fly before and it took his breath away.
“But there must be something beyond the Corrumptive Uncompass… er… the Slush Pile,” said Archie, grasping for anything. “Something the chosen are chosen for.”
“The chosen are just those remembered a little while longer than the rest. They too are eventually forgotten for other stories. Beyond the Slush Pile, it’s just another Slush Pile.”
“And beyond that?” asked Archie, watching the flying man disappear over the horizon.
“It’s Slush Piles all the way down,” said the Old Man.