John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

And with a hop and a skip he departed in the wake of a saucy-eyed girl who was bearing fruit from the garden to the feast the people were preparing.

Another who was in the Moth Garden was a black-clad traveler, whose face twitched into a satisfied smile when he heard Eadwil’s words. He did not need to wait longer or listen more.

On that same knoll from which the spokesman of Acromel’s forces had addressed the Margrave, Bernard Brown sat with his chin in his hands, staring gloomily at nothing. His dismal contemplation was interrupted at length by the presence of one who was not a stranger, who stood before him leaning on a remarkable staff.

“I’ve seen you before,” said Bernard slowly. “Well, who are you?”

The black-clad one chuckled. “He to whom the task was given of bringing order out of chaos in this corner of the universe,” he replied. “And who are you?”

“I’m not sure I know any longer,” admitted Bernard after a pause. “I thought I was Bernard Brown until recently, and that I was a rather ordinary kind of person. But these past few days people have been telling me so repeatedly I’m a god that I’ve almost been convinced of the idea.”

The black-clad man clucked with his tongue. “I’m afraid that isn’t true at all,” he said. “So-since I was responsible for involving you with all this-I’d better explain.”

He sat down companionably alongside Bernard on the knoll, and gestured in the air with his staff. A short distance away, in a pleasant meadow, some clinging ground-mist cleared to reveal the ruins of a castle, smoking quietly.

“An enchanter called Manuus dwelt there,” he said. “A person with-so to speak-a vested interest in the chaos which formerly engulfed the entire universe. This sort of thing.”

He gestured again, and out of a hill a mile or two this side of Acromel a-a-a… Well, a pair of yellow eyes peered briefly. What could be seen in those eyes defied description. It made Bernard shudder with amazement and repugnance.

“So where am I?” he demanded. “Or is it a question of when am I?”

“Neither. We are speaking of a borderland between chaos, existing in eternity, and reason, existing in time.

At this moment, the balance is uncertain, but it is tipping, bit by bit. You have been quite invaluable in tilting it beyond a crucial point.”

“I don’t understand!” complained Bernard.

“No matter. If you did understand the nature of chaos, men being what they are, you would certainly be conceited enough to wish to exploit it. This in fact is what those vain enchanters do: turn the forces of chaos to their own advantage. But, logically, to control chaos with reason is to impose lasting order on it. This implies in turn that sooner or later chaos will reign no longer.”

Bernard’s face exhibited sudden comprehension. “I see!” he exclaimed. “In other words, these magicians or whatever necessarily destroy what they most desire to preserve, by imposing rational control on it.”

“You get the point exactly,” said the one in black.

“And it’s up to you to ensure that things come out right?”

“Alas, yes!”

“Hmm!” Bernard rubbed his chin. “That sounds like a tough chore! Who landed you with it, if I may ask?”

“You may not. I’m very sorry.” The tone was final; still, the words were succeeded by a chuckle. This black-garbed fellow was really very pleasant, Bernard reflected. Casting around for the other question he had meant to put, he recalled it.

“Well, then! May I at least ask what it was I did?”

“That, yes! You see, there was dissatisfaction in Ryovora so long as the people felt they had to have “a god. So I gave them one… of a kind. And after all that, they realized their god had done nothing for them which they could not have achieved by using their heads. My compliments, by the way, on the elegant manner in which you demonstrated that.”

“I was scared silly,” confessed Bernard.

“But you kept your wits about you, and refused to be overawed by mere size. The universe is a big place, and there are many corners of it where chaos on the grand scale still obtains. This, then, is a valuable attitude to inculcate.”

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