Echo.  Ahh, Echo. Echo Caoimhe McKenzie was an unofficial NPC who explored the D’ni caverns during the Gametap era of  Myst Online: Uru Live. Echo was mysterious, sassy, thoughtful- and one of those characters who will yank conscious control from you and go off in their own direction. I love Echo. Echo still comes out to play, sometimes.  Myst Online still exists as a free to play MMO, over at mystonline.com  , and you can explore Echo’s own blog at echomck.wordpress.com

This story appears in modified form in the RPG I co-authored- Unwritten: Adventures in the Ages of Myst & Beyond

Echo was, in general, one of the mellowest, ‘zen’ people you could ever meet. Even people who didn’t believe in her visions of D’ni, and thought she was deluded or crazy or both agreed that she was pretty relaxed.  Sure, she had her moments, like any human being does- but even when she was upset, it was this sort of quiet intensity.

Today was different.  She’d been over by the Great Library, painting something only she could see.  A few of us were watching her, like an underground Bob Ross. Not just because it was fun to watch her paint (I’d once mentioned Bob Ross to her, and she’d promptly painted a “Happy Little Great Tree” into what she was working on.), but because you never knew when she’d start talking about what she was “seeing”- and her stories (true or not) were fascinating.

She seemed on the verge of saying something, when there was a series of incoming links behind us. Normally the vwooom noise was ignorable, but this was a dozen or so in close succession.  It was a cluster of new explorers, the largest group of newbies I’d seen in a while, all chattering animatedly about discovering D’ni and being in various stages of Yeesha’s Journey.

One of them, obviously further along in the Journey than the others, started lecturing about the Pride of D’ni, and how the poor Bahro suffered- the usual Yeeshaist party line. They were still going on about it as the group walked off, and we all went back to watching Echo- but she’d stopped painting, and was stating after the group with something like loathing crossing her features.

Echo tried to go back to painting, but you could tell she was agitated. She was tapping her brush on her hand and fidgeting with the paints. Her whole body was restless, and she kept looking back the direction the group of newbs had gone.

Finally she set her things down, squared her shoulders, and strode off towards the cluster of people now gathered in the circular landing between the library and the bridge. There were still on the same subject matter when Echo walked up to them and announced loudly “Yeesha was wrong.”

The conversation screeched to a halt, as they all turned to face this random redhead who has interrupted them.  The one who’d been talking, irritated at having his monologue cut off, glared at her and asked “Who the hell are you?”

The more experienced explorer went to kick the guy’s shin, but Echo held up her hand, forestalling him. “I’m Echo McKenzie.  And Yeesha was wrong.”

A hush fell. Even the newest of them had heard about Echo.  The leader cleared her throat, and started to speak- “Well, I’m sure you would agree that…”

Echo whipped her head around to glare at her. “I wouldn’t agree to anything.”

“Yeesha!” She snarled scornfully. “Yeesha lectures us on the Pride of D’ni.  “D’ni grew proud…” she says, “… and then it died.” But what does Yeesha really tell us? The stories of few Kings who were horrible.  A single Age that was supposedly a hub for a slave trade.”

“She tells us that the Bahro were enslaved to the D’ni. That D’ni was “Built on the backs of the Least.” But when did that slave trade start? How did the Bahro -obviously an intelligent species- with powers that eclipsed, in some ways, the D’ni’s own, how did they become slaves? What about the Tablet gave the D’ni control?”

“And was it all of the Bahro, the entire species, or just some of them? How did they become trapped here when there was no D’ni in control? Are we freeing them because they were slaves then, or because they were somehow stuck now?” Why do we do this strange ritual for beings we know nothing about on the say so of a hundred year old hologram? Especially given that the result seems to be a violent war that could come crashing down on our heads at any time?!”

Her voice had risen to near yelling, and the sound had attracted a crowd-people being urged “Down in front!” so the people in the back could see, others sending KI messages out to their friends, “Check this out,  Echo is on a tear!”

As if the press of people was a physical weight against her, she turned to the railing and leaned against it heavily, taking deep, long breaths in an attempt to calm herself. No one said a word, we just waited. Finally, she turned back to her audience, calmer, but still firm.

“Freeing the Bahro is a noble and worthy task. No matter how they became stuck, they need to be unstuck. But Yeesha ties the enslavement of the Bahro into the Fall of D’ni. She blames the sin of Pride for D’ni’s destruction.  And she is wrong. “

“A few bad Kings, no matter how bad, over 10,000 years, does not a ‘prideful’ society make.  A hidden slave economy, known to only a limited few, does not a ‘prideful’ society make.  What is pride, anyhow? Was the whole of D’ni really overrun by a cultural sense of hubris and importance that caused their society to crumble under its own weight?”

“No. Not at all. D’ni ended because of hate. The hate of a single man. A man so vile, so determined to revenge himself on the society he thought had wronged him, that he manipulated and twisted the feeling and weaknesses of others to his own ends. A man so evil that he was willing to murder every single man, woman and child, just to feel superior, and to become a God. “

Echo opened her arms to encompass the cavern in a vast gesture. “How many people do you think lived here, at the end? Thousands? Millions?  You could drop the whole population of Manhattan Island in here, and we’d be ok. “

“How many of those millions even knew about the Bahro? Maybe a dozen? Maybe more? How many of those millions did anything but go through their day-to-day lives, just like every person on the surface.“

She pointed at the person who’d first raised her ire.  “The D’ni were just like you.  They had jobs, they had families, they had lives and loves and dreams and just were.

“Pride didn’t kill those people. An engineered biological weapon did.  A domestic terrorist did.  They were slaughtered in the streets, and hunted down in the Ages where they took refuge. They died in fear and chaos and confusion. How many of them deserved to die because of ‘pride’?”

“Remember that, when you hear Yeesha talking. Remember that she has her own past, her own scars, and her own agenda. She her own idea of right and wrong, her own assumed burden of guilt for her family’s role in the Fall.”

“Remember, when you start feeling superior to the “prideful” D’ni culture- that millions died in a single day.  An entire culture wiped out because of one man’s evil.”

She looked up as a group of explorers wearing wing suits, some with smoke bombs attached, dove off the newly installed platform on the Arch of Kerath- spiraling down in patterns to suddenly disappear off into their Reltos.

“Explorers have forgotten what D’ni was- a thriving, ancient culture, that ended in sudden tragedy. To some, D’ni is just a cool place to be.”

“Can you imagine holding a dance party or skydiving among the plaster casts of Pompeii? Can you visualize the scandal and outrage if people started just moving in to Pompeii’s old buildings? People visit, people explore, people even picnic and listen to music and enjoy the area, but always with a sense of reverence. Pompeii was buried in 79 AD… D’ni fell nearly 1700 years after that… and yet here we are, reclaiming this mass grave for our homes and commerce and entertainment.”

She lifted a hand to her eyes, like she was in pain, or all the talking had drained the life out of her.

“Bringing new life to D’ni and the Ages is the dream we all shared when we felt called here, but we should never, ever forget what the cost was, for us to have all these wonders to explore.”

She let her hand drop to her side, flipped open her Relto book, and vanished.  We all just sat there, stunned, and considered how nothing in D’ni is really what it seems.

A bit of D’nific. This also appeared in modified form in Unwritten. 

Jen Cavanaugh perched herself on her favorite rock in Takotah Alley, tucked her knees up under her chin, and gazed around the Cavern at the people coming and going. People watching was one of her favorite activities, and it never ceased to amaze her at how mundane life seemed down here, until you really looked and listened closely.

That cluster of people looked like any other gathered at a street corner, but they were carrying spelunking equipment, and going over maps for someplace that didn’t exist on Earth. Over there a crowd had gathered around Echo McKenzie, listening to her tell either an elaborate fantasy story, or having a vision of a lost civilization, depending on who you believed. Another group of people near the Museum were arguing over the finer points of grammar for a language that until now, had only ever had one full-blooded human speaker.

She could hear live music from unusual instruments wafting up from one of the restored ‘pubs’. Every so often a strange blue beam swept through the orange-ish ambient light ,and no one noticed. Under it all was the hum of giant fans, and the occasional ‘WoooOOMMmmm‘ sound of someone Linking in or out; teleporting in the blink of an eye.

The last was the one that really got to her. She could wrap her brain around the ancient underground cavern, that had once been home to millions of people before the plow was invented. She could even (because she’d once dated a physics major) comprehend the idea that there were thousands of possible worlds out there.

However she had yet to really adjust to the idea that those worlds were accessible, just by writing it down, and then using that book to teleport there. It sounded like a librarian’s ultimate dream- “Books take you places!”. And yet every day down here, people casually put their hands on pictures in these books, and poof, off they went. Like it was no big deal, as normal as grabbing a venti double shot latte from Starbucks in Seattle.

Resting her head on her knees she gave a little sigh. Seattle seemed a million miles from here, even though logistically it wasn’t much further than the flight from SeaTac to Albuquerque had been. She couldn’t have known that trying to find out what had happened to her mother would result in something so surreal as a hidden underground civilization. Sometimes she still thought she was dreaming.

Her mother had disappeared late in 2003, when she was 12. For weeks she’d been acting strangely; distracted, preoccupied. Then suddenly she’d packed up some things, pulled cash out of the savings account, and drove off in the middle of the night. The car had been found abandoned in a campground at Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico, with no signs of foul play, no activity on her credit cards, and a completely cold trail. The police eventually decided she’d just taken off, and the case was closed.

Jenny’s dad had started drinking soon after, withdrawing into himself, and a very lost Jen was left mostly to her own devices, slogging her way through her teenage years and the first few years of college without support. When her dad passed away earlier this year, she’d figured she would sell off most of the stuff, sell the house, finish college, and move on.

While up in the attic, she’d been sorting through boxes when she’d tripped, and smacked her shoulder into an old wardrobe that had been stored up there for years, jarring it enough to dislodge a ton of dust…and an envelope that had been sitting on top of it. An envelope with her name on it, in her mother’s handwriting.

Her eyes watering, not just from the dust, she’d sat on a box and pulled out the letter inside.

Dear JenJen,
I don’t know when you will see this letter- I’ve tried to put it where a curious young girl might find it eventually, but hidden enough that it won’t cause people to come after me. I don’t know how to explain why I’m doing this, picking up and leaving everything I have in the dead of night… but it is important that you know that I am not leaving because of you, or your father.
Something is calling to me. Something is drawing me to a new place, a new experience. I can’t describe it, really, just a deep feeling that I need to *
be* somewhere.
Maybe it is a bit like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, this Knowing I have. Hopefully I won’t be creating any sculptures out of mashed potatoes, but like him, I know where I need to go- and yet I don’t know where I am going.
I love you, my JenJen, and I am sorry I won’t be there to see you grow up. Be well, be strong. Maybe someday we’ll meet again.
Love, Mama.

In the envelope with the letter had been a printed out map of the southern portion of New Mexico, with a few forest service roads marked off, and a seemingly random area of wilderness circled.

Jen had agonized over what to do about the letter for weeks, dealing with all the feelings of abandonment and anger and grief it brought back up. In the end, though, deep in her gut she knew she would follow- so she’d taken a leave of absence from school, told everyone she was going on a retreat, and flown down to New Mexico.

She latched onto a tour group headed down to Carlsbad Caverns, hung around with them for a while, just to look normal. From Carlsbad she’d hitched rides and hiked until she was as close as she could get on roads to the area on her mother’s map.

Feeling more than a little crazy, but determined, she’d trekked across the New Mexico desert; following the crude map and the gps coordinates she’d managed to approximate from Google Earth. On the second day, coming up over a rise, she’d found the caldera, and the Airstream parked out in the middle of nowhere.

No one had answered her knock, so she’d kept exploring, finding the strange skeleton, the rusty old silo-looking thing. Down in the cleft she’d poked and prodded at strange contraptions, nearly jumping out of her skin when a small tapestry of a hand print glowed when she touched it.

Finally she’d figured out how to turn the power on,- and when the hologram appeared and the woman spoke, saying “Have you heard of the Deep City, the ancient Uru?” she’d fallen to her knees and stared in wonder.

That had been months ago, her leave of absence long since over. She’d completed Yeesha’s Journey, discovered D’ni, and had her eyes opened to more than she’d ever imagined. She’d not found her mother, but she’d learned where she’d gone- part of a group of colonists who decided to start new lives in a new Age. Jen hadn’t worked up the courage yet to go visit, but she would, eventually. For now, she was content to know she was part of a vast and wonderful secret.

Smiling to herself, she stretched her legs out, and considered going over to hear what Echo was saying (real or not, her stories were usually interesting), when she heard someone calling her name. Coming down the stairs from the Hall of Kings was David, one of the cavern ‘oldtimers’, and one of the people who did unofficial welcome wagon duty when new people arrived, most of them looking just as bewildered as she had.

“Jen! The Maintainers just cleared a recreational Age- it’s got this great heated lake, and these awesome bouncy fungi growing on the shore that extend out like diving boards, wanna come?”

“Sure, Wolfie! Lemme just hop back to my Relto and grab a swimsuit. I’ll meet you in the Maintainer’s Bevin!”

Standing, she flipped open the Relto book on her hip, and squinted her eyes shut in anticipation of the unsettling pull from ‘here’ to ‘there’. Nope, she thought to herself as she arrived on her personal island, still not used to Linking.

Jenny was a relative newcomer to D’ni, still overwhelmed and awed and thrilled by it all. She wondered if she’d ever feel as jaded and blasé as some of the people who had been down here for years acted. Grabbing her swimsuit out of her Relto closet she let a huge grin spread across her face. I hope not… there’s too much out there to discover. 

This is, fundamentally, a fanfic of Seanan McGuire’s InCryptid stories- specifically the Aeslin Mice.  If you don’t know the Mice, hie theyself over to your favorite book source and get the InCryptid books. Go on, this will wait…

This story, however, doesn’t take place in the established InCryptid world; these are not the same mice, not the Prices…this is, I guess, an alternate universe, where another colony of mice thrives with their own deities. The High Priest walked serenely through the halls of his upstairs closet village, basking in the hum of activity all around him. Here, a group of Acolytes were learning the Catechism of the Wet Dog and Can of Paint, another group was gleefully digging through a bag of scrap fabrics and sequins- an excursion had been made to the Garbage of the Costume Lady. He gave them a pleased nod, new additions to their robes and regalia were always a reason for joy.

He paused when a cluster of playing children spotted him, and all ran over to oooh and ahh at him. One of them tugged at his robe “Did you really bite the God on his nose??” the little squeaked. Oh, they’d been telling that story in the Nursery, had they? He chuckled and patted the child on the head. “I did, for lo, even as the Gods protect and shelter us, sometimes we are called upon to provide assistance to them. Had I not bit His nose, he would have missed the Hairy Predator With Many Teeth that was trying to sneak up upon Him in His repose.” The littles all gave a fascinated “Oooohhhhh”, and then scampered back to their play when he made shooing motions at them.

All was well in their domain, if a bit quieter than was usual. The God of Axle Grease and Assorted Lubricants and His son, the God Of Unpleasant Pocket Surprises were out in the field doing Great Works. The occasion of their leaving several days earlier (on the Feast of There Will Be Waffles!) had engendered an Argument with the hugely pregnant High Priestess of Unfinished Projects- said Argument resulting in several new Pronouncements including “You Can’t Be Stealthy In The Woods When You Are Waddling And As Big As A Whale” and “Did You Just Call Me A Whale, Don’t You Dare Come Back Here Without A Whale Load Of Chocolate”.

Fortunately for the congregation, Her mood had improved greatly after the Gods had left, even to an unexpected Celebration of Cheese and Cake *and* Cookies, because She had decided she needed to do some baking.

He stopped at that thought, and twitched his whiskers in suspicion. Baking was not, normally, one of the Priestess’ skills, and was usually reserved for special occasions like Birthdays. Even then She was not often the one doing the baking.  The suspicion growing deeper, he waved a paw to one of the nearby Acolytes, sending him on an errand, while he made his way downstairs.

He skittered down a pipe into the living room, made his way across the floor into the kitchen and sat upon the counter watching his Priestess at work. There were already several dozen cookies sitting out to cool, and his nose quavered in delight at the scent of oatmeal scotchies. He cleared his small throat. Loudly. Twice.

The Priestess turned (To be fair, he thought, She is rather ungainly now…), one hand pressed against the small of Her back. “One step ahead of you, your holiness” she grinned, pointing to a plate on the counter heaped with smaller cookies, and a saucer of milk next to it.

Giving out a quiet, but enthusiastic “HAIL!”, he came over and took a cookie in each hand. He felt a momentary twinge of guilt at not alerting his acolytes right away, but getting first dibs at a warm cookie was one of the perks of being the High Priest, was it not?

It also gave him an excuse to watch his High Priestess unobtrusively. She would stir batter, pause, stir again…sometimes the pause would come with a soft groan, or both hands in the small of Her back. He was certain it was close to Her time, and She wasn’t aware of it, yet. While he wrestled with the theological implications of bringing it to Her attention (nibbling on a third cookie for insight), he heard a watery sound, followed by a very loud curse from the Priestess.

“GOD DAMMIT! NOW? NOW?!?”

Well, that solved that theological question.

She had moved from the kitchen and was now sitting on the edge of the sofa, jabbing irritatedly at Her cel phone. He finished his cookie, and drank the milk (it wouldn’t do to leave an offering half-finished, after all), and made his way over to Her, and placed one small paw on the hand that was clutching the upholstery.

“Are the Gods on their way home to you?”

“No, dammit. They’re out of cel range. They’ve got the Jeep, and an ambulance would take over an hour to get here…and raise questions. Fuunnnngggghhhhhhhh!” She trailed off as her closing epithet became a groan.

Stroking Her hand with his paw, he waited until the pain had passed. “Do not fear. You are our Priestess, and we will care for You.” Before She could ask what in the world he meant, he patted Her hand, and climbed as fast as he could back up to the colony.

The acolyte he had entrusted with duty earlier waited, with work teams sorted and waiting for assignments. The High Priest beamed with pride.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Joan had a vague sense of intense activity around her. The mice were bustling around and part of her brain really, truly wanted to ask what the hell they were up to…but that part of her brain was shunted into the background in favor of the rest of her brain trying to remember to breathe while her midsection tied itself into a giant knot.

As the contraction eased, she opened her eyes to find that the mice had…rearranged? There were older blankets and pillows on the floor in front of the sofa. There was water boiling on the stove, and two mice were using a pulley system to ladle hot water into a mug. They’d managed to stoke the fire and lay out towels, a bowl, string, and two different knives near the sofa.

Four mice hurried forward carrying a paper cup with a straw. One carefully angled the straw near her lips, and she reflexively took a drink. Ice cold apple juice hydrated her just in time for another contraction to take over her body.

It went on like this for hours. Sips of juice or tea, nibbles of crackers, small voices encouraging, soothing. Small paws carefully pushing cool washcloths across her face and along the back of her neck. There was even a group of mice on the back of the sofa with drums and rattles keeping time with her breathing- it was surprisingly helpful, for being little tiny drums. The mice walked when she walked, rested when she rested, sang to her when she cried out. They were not afraid and somehow, neither was she.

And then she was on the ground, curled over her belly as she strained, pushed, guided a small, slippery body out into the world and lifted it to her chest. She leaned back against the sofa and panted with the sudden lack of effort. Her legs shook involuntarily, and her whole body felt like half-solidified gelatin. But the baby was here. She’d done it. She, and the mice.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Priestess of Unfinished Projects was resting, Her newborn God wrapped snuggly in her arms. She was in good spirits, even after Her many hours of birthing. Most of the colony was upstairs celebrating with cookies and milk, and a growing pile of offerings decorated the end table.

The High Priest watched the scene from his perch on Her shoulder.  Several acolytes were bustling about the room, doing their best to clean up the bloodied towels. Two were preparing more tea. A team of mice were moving the bowl of discarded placenta to someplace out of the way.

He had expressed some concern that the Priestess did not intend to consume any of the placenta, given that it was full of nutrients, and that’s what the colony mothers did… but She’d just raised an eyebrow at him and said “No. Just…ugh…no. I’ll burn it later.” Well, sometimes the divine was inscrutable.

His eye was caught by one of the acolytes pausing in their work. They wrung their paws together, as if agonizing over something…then they squared their shoulders, and scampered up the side of the sofa. He expected them to come ask some urgent (to the acolyte, at least) theological conundrum. Instead, the small mouse crept up the baby blanket, and peered at the little face intently.

Tiny whiskers quivvered. Small beady dark eyes met rounded grey ones. A chubby fist uncurled, and a finger brushed soft brown fur. A tiny paw curled around the fingertip.

“Hail!” the acolyte breathed in awe “Hail the God of Gentlest Greetings!”

The Priestess chuckled as the newly anointed High Priest sat on his God’s blanket, and started reciting important catechisms. “Start ‘em early, huh?”

The elder High Priest nodded with a contented sigh. A new God had chosen a High Priest, there were cookies, and all was right in the universe. Hail.