Sunday, March 3, 2024

The Shaper of the Isle + Feedback

"I write for myself for other people." I've set up an anonymous feedback form; please feel free to use it for anything I've ever written, as I would like to hear your thoughts and recommendations.


The boat hung still in a bower of golden apples. Its passage was presaged by moonlit ripples arcing like feathered electricity across the coffee-colored water. It was beyond the horizon of the imperial locks burnished with steel and purple with curtains. It was upon the glade riverlands where green grass peered from shallow water.

Cypress rowed alone. He was a Shaper, born to the goddess of the sea and the god of serpents, an imperial foundling from a nest of snakes. A transmuter and a transmutee. In his natural form he was a bloody, maimed thing who could not remain beneath the sky for long, but it was his to wear the image of any man or woman whom he had somewhat comprehended. He now wore the simulacrum flesh of a wanderer, a comer and goer and hedonist, who had left the imperial canal amidst swollen bellies and warrants of remand. Nothing was lost by adopting this man's flesh; where Cypress went, his face was irrelevant. 

He sought an oracle beyond the reeds of the trickling waters. A seer of demigods, a baptizer of spirits. A footnote upon an eelskin scroll in a wooden crawlspace fissure of a honeycomb scriptorium. Little to go on, yet he was compelled. He felt himself falling towards the character of those whose flesh he’d copied.  He’d been given men of honor and wisdom, but also terrible bores and liars. A molding by imperial decree. As he’d aged, his own selections began to play upon him, as he explored the imperial underbelly and lifestealing wilds. 

But to wear no flesh dried him, called his attention to the sea, salt winds whipping him like he was tearing paper, fangs aching for another man’s flesh. The anguish of his eschewed parentage, the power of the sea and the primordial serpent wending through his blood and bones to drown his nascent conscience, his individuation. Destruction beckoned him, then death. Even caged in such a form he would die, desiccated, scales falling from his bones. 

He sought balance with this oracle, balance on the edge of a knife. A way to be as he was born in his moments between the skybridges, subcanals, and cataphracted catacombs of the sun-temple’s sea-gate. 

Sable-furred amphibians wove like a living tapestry beneath the boat. Cypress slipped into the water and felt them fly beneath his fingertips, and then he reached down and grasped the glossy sea-grass like the fur of a sea-monster, pulling himself to the waterline. 

He touched down on the sodden bank and gazed into the trees that rose a few feet overhead. They gathered thick and fast in bundles with varicocele vines woven sashlike across the accumulated trunks. He espied a gap like the mouth of a tiny cavern and unshod his cape, using it to tie his boat to a bough before his ascension. 

He slipped through the crevice and slid down a dusty slope into a hollow of black trees demarcated in blades of moonlight, lit from within by a tiny glowing gourd which was fed by their roots, reaching inward in unison. The hollow’s boundaries were broken by twin pits of shadow, passages of pooled darkness on either side of the abode, and Cypress froze as a vibration of umbral subtlety rose dust motes into the honeycolored light around the golden gourd. Something was coming from the rightmost passage and Cypress froze, hands ready to reach for one of two treasures. 

In a scabbard pooled and formed from the welterspring of an unmade astral portal, Cypress wore a four-hundred-year-old saber, black ripples darting along its body like a blade emerging from the shadows. In a black lockbox made from the beaks of four piston crows, he carried a garland of peachmoon irises, an alchemical petal prized by the half-corporeal. This was a gift for the Oracle. 

There came a breath so deep it sucked wind through the chamber. Cypress pushed one foot out as a great spined shadow caught glimmers as if along the shouldered spears of marching warriors. It was a vast boar with an iron skeleton, its spines shimmering, gleaming tusks razored and catching light as if polished for an execution. 

The thing turned to him, yellow cat’s eyes narrowing. It would charge him, and he would be carved as surely as if he faced the glaives of warrior monks. He had the space of one breath to draw. He grasped the lily case, squeezed it, and cast it to the side.

It sprang apart in midair, flecks of the casing catching light like a shattered mollusk. A harmonious, teasing aroma like a tea of honeydew crept across the hollow, falling upon Cypress and the boar like a gentle, peacemaking spirit. The boar turned towards the garland and narrowed its eyes. Cypress had his hands on the lacquerlatticed handle of his blade. The boar strode gracefully to the garland and began to eat it, and Cypress darted batlike down the corridor it had come from.

He emerged adjacent to a moonlit plain of grass in the center of a ring of woods, limbs rising like sapphire specters around something gleaming in a height at the center. Cypress approached it, hand fallen from his blade, grass growing darker around the hem of the gentle hill. 

A figure as tall and slender as the trees stepped forward from between them, and Cypress almost fell on his back, but stood fast, knees soft, vision darkening around the figure. It was a woman of blue treeflesh as if freshly stripped of bark, hoofs glossy black, hands like a harpy’s claws. Her eyes were black and glossy as obsidian crystals, her hair like absinthe lichen. 

Barely moving her legs, she ascended to the height of the hill and gazed down at him with her head cocked to one side. 

“Lost one, where swam you like a wanton minnow? Furred beasts circle water and oak.”

“I minced from the city, my lady,” said Cypress with a wavering breath, “From the imperium on yonder.”

“You are not a landling, are you? No thing of cog and twine. I can smell the sssserpent’s breath on you, and the rime of distant waves. A changeling.”

“A Shaper, as we are called.”

“By who, your mother and father? You are a polymorphic fetus, a thing waiting to be. Your lordling can offer no true name. You are an acid that will bend the empire. Does he know he rubs solvent betwixt his fingers? Your heart is afire with bile and thorns.”

“I am at no peace in the sheath of another man, nor when in my bloody bones. I came with death at my doorstep, murder growing within me like a cancer on the conscience. I have no place but degradation in this cosmos or in the constellations of man’s polities. My mother is a silent roar, my father a beast of the hunt. But I have the mind of a man, and perhaps by dint a soul. Yet this is being reclaimed by older aethers. Where is a place on earth I can be?”

“Let us see if you deserve one. What do you feel when you shed your flesh?”

“The city-crushing breadth of the sea, a leviathan in my bones coursing me towards hurling down the realms of man.”


“The poison of the grandfather wyrm, corrosion that cannot create. Boiling blood, melting bones, bursting veins and arteries. Drinking what has been destroyed.”

“And what would your empire have you do?”

“Burn the innards of men abroad. A killer and counterspy. An eavesdropper and seducer.”

“And why are you so crestfallen at this delightful prospect?”

“For now you know just what I am. Now you will never help me.”

The Oracle smiled and her teeth were the beaks of birds. 

“Come here,” she said.

He advanced up the hill towards her, head falling, ready to be torn apart and devoured.

He reached the top. There was a small dais of sapphire-colored stone set into the apex of the hill. A wind brushed the leaves and they quivered like beetle shells in flight, the sapphire platform gleaming across them and the jet-black hooves of the oracle. 

“Motherless, skinless murderer, that is what you are?” said the Oracle.

He looked up at her.

“Torturer, betrayer, lapdog of tyranny, that is what you are?” she said. 

Tears began to run down his foreign face. Another’s cheeks were burning.

“Is that what you are?”

“Not if I chose my birth.”

“No one can choose their birth. But one can still choose.”

He noticed that his calfskin calcei shoes were growing soaked. He looked down and saw that the sapphire dais was spreading outwards, deepening, becoming a crystal pool of warm water. It was darkening with galactic tendrils of misty blood.

“What is this?”

“Repose,” she said, “When you bathe here you will shed all pretense, as you have with me, and the voices in your blood will be still and silent. You will be unmade, that you may make yourself.”

The doppelgänger flesh was falling away as the water deepened. He fell back and the pseudoskin sloughed around him, and he shook it free, pushed his clothes away. The skin dissolved into sediment, became crystalline as ground glass, and then disappeared as the water cleansed itself. The blood remained, washing off him as his heart beat it along his scales and bones. 

He felt calm and still, a consciousness in space, not harrowed or hemmed in by calls to atavism. 

“This is your pool, now. I am off to find another. Do not forget who you are when you are here. Do not do what you would not do here. Let this be the center of your world.”

“Thank you,” said Cypress.

“You are a seed who was planted by the Fates. I have merely replanted you. We shall see whose handiwork is brought to fruition.” 

And with that, she was gone. 

Cypress lay in the pool for a long time. When he rose, instead of burning his flesh, the wind seemed to balm him. He closed his eyes, and chose an ancient sage whose words suddenly came to him in sharp relief. He cloaked himself in the old man’s body and gazed down the aquiline nose into the wood break. He would not be returning to the imperial locks and sea-gate. He would pass the second horizon and find his way among people of a different provenance, a differing charter. And then, perhaps, he would return to the seat of the world with the forms he’d gained.

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