Its easy to feel that the whole world depends on you, Jin decided, but even when you were its spiritual heart, that wasn’t necessarily true.
“This is where you tell me that I shouldn’t have been poking around in ‘corners of reality best left forgotten’ isn’t it?” Jin asked. Around her, the ice field she and Pen had been standing on melted away gently. The was no cataclysmic run off or glaciers calving away into a tumultuous ocean. Instead, the land below the ice appeared like a thin curtain had been lifted away from it.
“Believe it or not, no.” Pen said. His eyes were closed and his hands were pressed together as though he was in prayer.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to blame yourself then?” Jin asked. The green fields gave rise to farms and then a small city, changing in flowing stages as though waves of time were lapping over the pair.
“Not at all. I’m going to blame him.” Pen said, referring to his doppelganger.
“Can you handle him?” Jin asked. “If you’re right and he’s left this reality I’m not going to be much help to you with that.”
“I probably can’t. I’m looking at what this realm was. For him to have survived here, he’d have to be a much bigger shard than I am.” Pen said.
“Shard?” Jin asked. She knew a lot of possible meanings for that but it wasn’t clear which, if any, applied to Pen.
“Fragment of my original self.” Pen explained.
“He really was a part of you? I thought he just looked like that to fool with us.” Jin said.
“From what I can see of the marks he left on this world, I’d have to say the resemblance was more than skin deep.”
“How does that work?” Jin asked.
“Do you remember how you first met me?”
“Yeah. You popped up and started chatting with me when I was sitting in the back of a police car.” Jin said.
“No, I mean before that. You rescued me, remember?” Pen asked.
“Oh! The dream of the pendant. I caught you and flew you back home to keep you safe.”
“Right. That was my first memory for a long time after we met. Over the last few years though I’ve managed to piece together a few more fragments of myself and work out what led me to to be there, in the state I was in then.”
“Which was?” Jin asked.
“Have you ever wondered how much power a Dream Lord could hold?” Pen asked.
“I always thought it was however much as they could imagine.” Jin said.
“That’s essentially true, but what if you had a way to expand your imagination?”
“You’d be able to do things you couldn’t have imagined before. That’s called ‘Life’ though isn’t it?” Jin asked.
“Yes, that’s one way to expand yourself. But what if you wanted to experience everything. Say you’d lost your whole world and you wanted to understand everything, at every level of the cosmos, across all universes, real and imagined.”
“Sounds like a recipe for turning yourself into a monster like the Oblivion Knight.” Jin said.
“It is. You’re pretty much doomed to failure and the effort you expend will tear you apart as a result, leaving only Oblivion in its wake.” Pen said.
“So you’re one of the parts that escaped? A bit that didn’t turn into an Oblivion Remnant?” Jin asked.
“Oh. No. Actually, I succeeded.” Pen said. He opened his eyes and smiled at Jin.
“You did what?”
“I transcended. Everything. Understood everything. Was one with everything, everywhere, everywhen.”
“And then what happened?” Jin asked. She’d seen unbelievable and amazing things almost constantly over four years, she was standing on a world she’d created from pure imagination and even so Pen’s story still seemed implausible.
“I’m fuzzy on the details since I’m not exactly omniscient anymore. I think I had a chat with someone and then decided to let it go.” Pen said.
“Let what go?”
“Everything. Omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence. That wasn’t what I wanted to be, not down in my heart of hearts.” Pen said.
“And White? What did he want?” Jin asked.
“I don’t know, but given the name he’s using, I don’t think he was one of my old self’s nicer bits.”
“You picked ‘White’ for his name because you have a talent for discerning those. I’ve used that name before though.” Pen said.
“Let me guess, that wasn’t a heroic nom de guerre was it?” Jin asked.
“Not exactly.” Pen admitted.
“So he’s more powerful than you?”
“If he wound up here? Probably. When I cast myself apart I tried to make sure the more dangerous bits landed far away from anywhere they could cause trouble, and this place is pretty far from trouble.” Pen said.
“Or it was.” observed Jin. The city had grown into a metropolis around them as the waves of changes had slowed. Here and there the half visible shapes of people walked down the streets, their fashions flickering through time like a poor stop motion film.
“Yes. How much did you invest in the world when you called it forth?” Pen asked.
“Almost nothing.” Jin said.
“Good trap then. I can almost admire the craftsmanship that went into it.” Pen said.
“Nice to be caged by an expert I guess.” Jin agreed.
“It’s subtler than you might be thinking.” Pen warned her.
“This is the part where you put on your teaching hat right?”
“I don’t wear hats.” Pen said. “But yes, this is as good a lesson as any, which is why you’re going to teach it to me.”
“Twenty questions?” Jin asked.
“If it takes you that many, yes.” Pen nodded. “Let’s take a walk while you work it out though.”
“Ok, let me think.” Jin said as she fell into step beside him. “Subtle. Well, it caught me without having much of my power to draw on.”
“So it’s efficient?” Pen asked.
“Was it really that little of your power? I mean you did make the sun, the moon and the earth right?” Pen asked. He lead them across a crowded street and into a sunny green park.
“True, but it’s not like it’s hard to imagine those. I’m used to them being there. Oh, I get it, he set it up so that the first thing I would try to do would snare me.” Jin said.
“So you could have avoided him escaping if you’d left this world as just an echo?” Pen asked.
“Hmm, no. He forged a connection as soon as I caught sight of him within the echo. That is subtle.” Jin said.
“So what’s stopping you from going after him now?” Pen asked, swinging around one of the trees in the park.
“If I do, this world will die.” Jin said.
“But it wasn’t real before, so why does that matter.” Pen asked. He held up one of the leaves he’d plucked from the tree and measured the wind with it.
“It matters because it’s real now.”
“Would everyone see it like that?” Pen asked, casting the leaf into the wind.
“No. I suppose not.” Jin said. “In fact, most of the things out here near edge of Oblivion would be only too happy to destroy a place like this. He set the trap so that the only one who would spring it would be someone who would choose not to pursue him.”
“Oh, it’s even better than that.” Pen said, playing with the leaf as the wind pulled it down one of the park’s paths.
“He knows I can escape without killing everyone here.” Jin said, intuition showing her the real trap she’d stumbled into.
“And why would he have picked someone like you?” Pen asked.
“Because I have limits. I won’t let myself be certain things and he can use that against me.” Jin said.
“I think it’s even simpler than that. You’ll talk to him. You’ll play his game. You already did in fact. Monsters are boring to fight. It’s kill or be killed with them. An adversary you can converse with though? That’s the kind of battle that takes real cleverness to win.” Pen said.
“There’s the slight problem that I’m not going to be playing any games with him if I’m trapped here.” Jin said.
“You said yourself that he knows you can escape this. So what does he know that you don’t?”
“If I leave everyone dies because I’m the center point of life on this world. He’s familiar with splitting himself into pieces though, so all I’d have to do is carve a bit of myself off to stay here and be the actual Gaia for this world.” Jin said, smiling at having worked out the solution to the puzzle.
“Hmm, clever and I suspect it would work, but there is a simpler option.” Pen said.
“What’s that?” Jin asked.
“Can you imagine that someone here might actually want that job and be the right person for it?” Pen asked. He lead them off the park pathway and over to a blanket where a woman was reading a book. She was older than Jin and favored the same “all white” color scheme as Pen and his other self had.
“A friend of yours I take it?” Jin asked.
“You could call her my sister I suppose.” Pen said. “Allow me to introduce you. Jin, former heart of the world, please meet Hollow, the next heart of the world.”
“Giving me a whole world isn’t going to make up for what you did.” Hollow said, looking at Pen.
“I know, but I’ve got to start somewhere don’t I?” Pen replied.