Is this doing that thing that authors are always accused of, where I fake readers out with a character’s ‘death’ only to have them return later? Not exactly. In my head, I always knew that Vere and Opal didn’t die at the end of Blood and Dragons, but that was sort of a technicality, because I also knew that they would never return to Merolate, and so would effectively be out of the story. Still, I’m hopeful that this story will placate a vocal segment of my audience that was very dismayed by what happened to Vere in that battle.
Like I said when I announced this project, this episode was nowhere in the plans I made for Blood Magic or for my writing schedule for this year. In fact, it was the last thing in my mind to write anything more Blood Magic than I needed to in order to complete the series (Blood Magic is absolutely not becoming my Shannara). I wonder if this entire story would not make more sense contained within the events of Blood and Dragons, but there’s no way it would have fit. It became a lot longer than the fifteen thousand words I originally budgeted for the project.
I don’t regret writing it, though, even if it did delay progress on my necromancer story and on Rogue Star. Vere and Opal’s adventures in the Spiritual Plane are a story that needed to be told, and they made for a valuable writing exercise. Between the two of them, they undergo aspects of the traditional Hero’s Journey, although neither quite fits the mold alone. The story itself is, much of it, not all that remarkable – a pretty standard quest storyline, really – what makes it interesting is the context and the implications. Plus, it has some of the best visuals of the entire Blood Magic series, and I vastly expanded my chromatic vocabulary.
While it might be fun just to read as a story, I think where A Spiritual Journey‘s strength lies is in everything that is happening in the background, implied or only vaguely mentioned. We see just a tiny sliver of a glimpse through Vere’s viewpoint of a thousand years of the Ipemav dominating the Spiritual Plane, subjugating the native species, and doing…whatever it is they were doing there. We get the shallowest insight into the deep pool of Hollow People culture, we realize that the Guardian does not represent an entire culture of the Spiritual Plane’s equivalent of the Gruordvwrold, and…we meet the Ipemav emperor.
Speculative fiction is littered with characters who live to be centuries, even millennia old, but most of them act and think no differently from the rest of the characters. This is a theme that I’ve noticed and commented on several times recently, including in The Last Raven, and I fear I may be just as guilty here with the many long-lived characters in this story. Unfortunately, since none of them have a viewpoint or extensive interaction, we don’t really get to explore those concepts in as much depth as I would like. Still, the Ipemav emperor, I hope, manages to convey a sense of weight – the contrast of him with the Gruordvwrold, who are young by comparison, helps make that impact for the reader.
In a longer form, Vere would have far more difficulties raising an army, and that army would have more setbacks. We could explore the campaign in detail, get to know other characters from the Spiritual Plane, and really have a whole novel out of what is here presented in just twenty-five thousand words. I wonder if this story would have been better told in a longer form, or maybe worry is the better word. For some reason, despite that I enjoyed writing the story and had fewer revisions for it than I expected, I have a vague, uneasy sense that the story is not as good as I want it to be.
Ultimately, that is for you, my readers, to decide, and I obviously think it’s good enough to post here on the site. Vere’s journey in the Spiritual Plane might be just a side show to the main Blood Magic story, but that doesn’t make it any less important to him. I hope you enjoy this special Blood Magic bonus episode, A Spiritual Journey.
A pale blue sun hung in a yellow sky, occulted now and then by grey and black clouds that cast pale, luminescent shadows, like the spotlight mirrors used by some stage performers, onto the twisted landscape. Despite the alien ambience, it was not difficult to see. From the cover of a boulder-shaped bush with blue-grey bark and crimson leaves, former Guardcaptain Vere watched his prey approach, and wished for a proper night, or a proper day, or anything proper at all. Even something improper would have been preferable to a place where everything he experienced was just a figment of his imagination.
“It is not merely a figment of your imagination, simply because your mind can less readily interpret the stimuli of the Spiritual Plane than it can those of the Physical Plane for which it was intended.” Opal’s words in his head were still worryingly weak, but her confidence was in no way diminished. “What you perceive here is only slightly less a true reality than the reality which you experience in your ordinary existence.”
Vere did not reply. He’d heard enough arguments amongst officers about whether or not perception really was reality; he had no interest in engaging in such a debate with a Gruordvwrold. Besides, his concentration was needed for the task at hand. Hunting demons was more difficult than hunting pheasants. Besides, the fact remained that what he saw and experienced in the Spiritual Plane was fundamentally different from what Opal asserted was the truth of existence in that place.
“I still do not think this is a good idea.” Opal changed the topic, doubtless sensing that Vere would not reply. “That demon appears dangerous.”
Perhaps Opal was not as confident as she seemed and was talking more to compensate. Vere had known people like that, but the idea was still disconcerting with respect to a Gruordvwrold. “Then maybe I can imagine it into a nice, gentle blummox,” Vere replied. Squinting out of his concealing bush, he acknowledged that Opal was correct in at least once respect: his prey did look vicious, with double sets of canines on both the top and bottom that protruded nearly a handspan from a gaping maw that dominated a spherical, inky-black head. That head hovered at knee-height, trailed by a diaphanous, smoky tail that it used to propel itself through the air.
When it passed by Vere’s bush, Vere leapt out and pinned the demon to the sandy ground with a wooden spear. His Gruordvwrold-forged sword stayed in its sheath; Vere had found that the crystalline blade all but disintegrated these lesser demons, and that would be rather counterproductive to his present goal. His armor was still helpful, though a breeze filtered through the broken cuirass. The demon writhed for a few moments before its pure white eyes faded away, and it became still. Wresting his spear free, Vere slung his prey over his shoulder by its ghostly tail and trekked back to camp.
Opal eyed him dubiously from their sheltered camp set back in a cluster of earthy brown rocks that looked more like tree bark would in the Physical Plane. Vere used his belt knife to slice up the demon. It could hardly be called butchery, as the creature had no internal structure, and in fact was completely uniform in its peculiar substance, which felt to Vere like an extra-firm gelatin. When he had his prey prepared, he stirred the sea-green fire to life in its nest of grey-blue branches and set to frying slices of demon on thin sheets of brown rock.
“You truly intend to eat that?” Opal asked. She sounded tired.
Vere prodded a slice of demon. It did not sizzle, and the texture was not changing. He had no idea if cooking it was doing something, but the idea of eating demon at all was disconcerting enough that he was not quite prepared to do so raw. “It’s been three days, if you can call them days here,” he remarked. “We found water that’s safe to drink, even if it looks more like some ostentatious emperor’s robe. We’re going to need to eat, too.”
Opal managed a frown on her draconic snout. “Neither water, nor food, actually exist here. It is merely how you are interpreting some manner of absorption of sustaining energies from the Spiritual Plane.”
“Well, you’re the one who was just telling me that what I’m imagining, or interpreting, or whatever, should be treated as real,” Vere retorted. “That means if I’m going to absorb some of these sustaining energies, it’s probably going to have to involve eating.”
Some sort of groan seemed to emanate from the sprawled Gruordvwrold. “I…apologize. I suppose that I am weaker than I realize. And this place is…discomfiting.”
“You’re telling me,” Vere muttered. He flipped the slices of demon off of the hot rock and onto his handkerchief, which he had cleaned for the purpose. “And it’s not just me that’s going to eat this. You, too. We need to start getting some of your strength back.”
He pushed a slice of cooked demon towards her, but Opal recoiled. “I will not eat that,” she asserted.
Vere sighed. “You think I want to eat the Imbalanced slimy black gelatin slabs?” He poked gingerly at his own slice, cut a little piece, held his nose, though there was no discernible odor, and put it in his mouth. It was a small enough piece that he could swallow it without chewing, which was a relief; the texture was weird enough without that added experience.
“It is not that,” Opal replied. “Gruordvwrold do not eat in the Physical Plane, either. We exist of the Physical Plane. Food and drink are not meaningful terms to us.” She must have sensed that Vere was not understanding, because she sighed aloud, though all of her words were telepathic. “It is difficult to explain.”
“Well, we’re not in the Physical Plane, and ever since we destroyed the Heliblode to seal the rift you’ve been getting weaker. Seems like this might be worth a try.” Vere tried to sound calm and reasonable, but it was difficult. He liked to consider himself self-reliant, but the idea of being stranded in this place alone…his thoughts veered away from even contemplating the idea.
Opal sniffed at the cooked demon. “You do not understand. This is of the Spiritual Plane. If I…imbibe it, it is as likely to annihilate some of my own substance as it is to sustain me. Perhaps more likely. Worse, it could begin to subvert my Physical substance into Spiritual substance.”
It could be true; Vere did not know nearly enough about the Gruordvwrold, or the Spiritual Plane, to say. What he did know was that for a day after they sealed the rift, he thought Opal was actually dead, and that even now that she had stirred from her catatonic state her scales seemed dingy, without their usual luster, and her very form seemed to be fading.
“I expended too much power.” Opal was still speaking. “All of my power should have gone into the Heliblode to seal the rift – indeed, I believe that it did. I can only assume that the addition of your Blood to the artifact in the process somehow preserved my existence when it should have been expended.”
Vere frowned. He barely understood what Opal said about expending her power, though he thought it was the same way that Garnet died. That thought seemed to resonate oddly in what remained of his armor, which was created from her remains. “Well, then if you mixed with me somehow, then maybe now you need some of the same things I do. Like food.” He pushed the slice of demon towards her again, and deliberately took another, larger bite of his own piece. He could barely choke it down. “See? I’m not dead yet.”
“We might as well be,” Opal retorted. “The rift has been sealed. We are trapped in the Spiritual Plane, in an utterly hostile, inhospitable environment inimical to our very existence. We cannot hope to return to our own plane of existence. Both of us knew that this was a one-way trip, and that we would die accomplishing our mission. There seems little point in continuing to fight just for petty survival.”
Someone else had spoken that way to Vere, once, although they had not sounded so educated about it. He remembered a jungle, a place that had seemed as alien as anything he had seen before passing through the rift, and a stone ziggurat rising above the canopy to the blazing sun. “Sometimes, survival is its own point,” he murmured.
He could tell that Opal disagreed, but she did not argue further. Both of them seemed lost in their own thoughts, as private as those could be from each other – ever since they jointly powered the Heliblode to seal the rift it seemed harder to close off their telepathic link. Vere was surprised when Opal tentatively nibbled at the demon steak, before scarfing it down in a gulp.
Her resulting grimace could have frozen anything in its tracks. “Disgusting,” she commented, but she seemed to have gained just a little more substance.
“Have another,” Vere offered, finishing off his own meal. Opal hesitated only a moment before downing the remainder of the demon, even the smoky tail that Vere had been unsure how to prepare. It seemed a small meal for such an enormous creature as Opal, but it made a remarkable difference. Her scales regained their luster, and even the way she was sprawled upon the sands seemed stronger. Vere ignored a faint tinge of shadow that had grown around the edges of a few of her scales; it was probably just a trick of the not-light, anyway.
“What an…odd experience,” Opal mused. Her strength was partially restored, but she seemed to be growing drowsy.
Vere frowned. “You have a mouth, and teeth, and claws, and all the other markers of a predator, but you say that your kind doesn’t eat at all?”
Opal nodded. “Our origins are not as yours. We are manifestations, I suppose you could say, rather than natural creatures such as you or the Ipemav.”
“Manifestations of what?” Vere asked, but Opal had already fallen asleep. He sighed. “I guess I’ll take the first watch, then.”
Not that there was much to watch. Closer to where the rift had been, there was the wreckage of the Ipemav ships, but this isolated spot in which Opal and Vere found themselves after sealing the rift was untouched wilderness. There was no sign of any Ipemav, or Guardians, or anything else sentient. Such creatures – demons – as Vere had seen were similar to the creatures of the Physical Plane, albeit jarring in their appearances. Demons they might be, but they acted just like ordinary animals, and avoided Vere’s camp, or, more likely, avoided Opal.
With his back to the sea-green flames of their campfire, Vere watched the night. A few large, bat-like demons flapped in the distance, visible through the trees. He called it night, because the pale blue orb that took the place of the sun faded, but there was little difference in the ambient illumination. After a few moments, Vere took out his journal and reached for a charred branch with which to scratch on the page.
The charcoal was white, not black, though, and when he rubbed it on a corner of the page experimentally the mark could barely be discerned. Sighing, he tossed the stick back into the campfire, tucked his journal back into its pocket, and settled back with another sigh. It was going to be a long not-night, and that wasn’t even thinking about what the morning might hold. Probably another argument with Opal about what they ought to be doing.
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