The Silk Mind

Ashlin Smith is bored with his apparently pointless job in the Royal Badger Survey, and is trying to quit so he can go and be a blacksmith like his family expected. However, the true purpose of the Badger Survey is a lot less boring than he knows or would prefer.

Ashlin, Jenna, Justin and Derk face monsters natural and unnatural as they are tangled up in political intrigue and the civilization-threatening side-effects of ancient sorcery.

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51. The Story of a Gruellus

Once upon a time, there was a sorcerer, who lived alone near a remote village in the mountains. He was bitter and lonely, having spent his best years trying to find the deep mysteries of life, and had made no friends, courted no wife, fathered no children. But the mysteries were denied to him, and as he grew older he feared he would be left with nothing for all his years of study.

One day, he came down to the village, and bought a horse, and some food, and declared that he would leave, and find the secret of life in a faraway land, or die seeking it.

He found it. Or thought he did.

As sorcery is all about the mind, and the mind is all about structure, it so happened that the sorcerer discovered a slime that was life without structure, and he learned how to imprint it on structure without life. His first gruellus was a clockwork toy that the slime grew upon. He fed it and kept it damp and when he wound it, it moved and sought water and shade and food for itself. He burned it and made another, using meat and bone and wood, and the brain of a sheepdog. It was something like a scarecrow, and something like a servant to him. It was not like a friend, because he had no need of a friend to share his triumph.

When it had served him for a while, he conceived the idea of making a better one, and he tried to burn it, but it turned on him in pain and fear, and tore him, then fled into the woods.

And thereafter it caused many deaths, it was run to ground, and it was burned, and the woods all around it were burned too.

But it was slime, and where it fell in the wet mud, it burned not. It grew deep under the peaty soil. And slept.

In the summers it grew up the trees. It didn’t remember being a clockwork toy, or a sheepdog, or a servant. But some part of its nature still sought structure, and it grew filaments along the webs of spiders, from branch to branch, and made connections among the parts of itself. And one year, it awoke.

However, in winter, the winds blew all the webs apart, and the spiders didn’t spin. Every winter it forgot and slept again. In crevices, in caves, under the floorboards of the old sorcerer’s house where it was born, though it remembered nothing about him, it remembered at least that it was. That it was here.

It knew itself, and learned to make more connections in its own mind. It touched the spiders and saw a little through their eyes, heard sounds in the shaking of their webs. It began to put its home in order, removing what it didn’t need, and encouraging the growth of what it did.

Some of the things it didn’t need went on two legs. They cut down trees and lit fires. They were tricky to get rid of, but the silk mind made itself cleverer every time it woke, and they didn’t seem to get any trickier. After many eights of summers, it began to find cunning ways to trap the two-meat and cause them to die.

“What in hell,” said Jenna, flatly. “You talked to it?

“I ... thought so,” said Ashlin, uncertainly. “It’s hard to tell what’s real when you are out of your tree on crazy-mushroom-dust. Perhaps my mind just put together the clues we already had, and I told myself a convincing story about it as I dreamed.”

“So, assuming you did talk to it, or anyway guessed accurately what it is, what do you think it wants? Why does it kill people?” asked Doctor Hopkin.

“Only because they are no use to it alive. But dead, well ... we wanted to find out what it eats, remember? Dead people and animals rot into the ground, and maggots eat them. Maggots turn into flies, flies feed the spiders that it needs to build more of its mind. Same with that jobelisk fungus. Those things attract food, so it plants them. It wants to cover the world, moving south to warmer places where it can stay awake forever and know everything.”

“So it’s almost our worst fear realised. A gruellus miles across, using an entire forest as its body. How do you fight such a thing?” The Doctor sighed.

“You don’t fight it, perhaps,” said Jenna. “You can perhaps not even negotiate with a mind like that. In fact we’re sailing off to meet one some time next week. I don’t know what we’re going to say to her.”

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