John Brunner – The Traveler in Black

“Of all the qualities I endowed you with,” the voice said, “the most potent has proved to be a certain witty elegance. A-a neatness, a sense of practical economy!”

“I’ve fostered it,” the traveler agreed. “Having but one nature, I must needs make the most of what I owned.” He gestured with his staff at the barely-seen view. “Besides, was it not that practical mode of thinking which reduced the opportunities of access for the ancient ones to these few should-be-barren acres?”

“Yes, it was.”

“And was not that the designated purpose of my being?”

There was no answer. After a while the traveler said, “I’m sorry. You must be feeling grievous loss.”

“I?” Beside him the One Who had assigned him to his task, come to witness this last confrontation in the guise of a tall pale and extraordinarily thin girl, shook back long locks under a wide-brimmed hat. “Loss of the other natures that were mine? Why, not at all! Is it not the goal and purpose of the universe that all things shall ultimately have a single nature? I know that to be true, for I decreed it.”

This was what they had not realized at Cleftor Heights: that Tuprid and Caschalanva, Quorril and Lry, and moreover Wolpec and Yorbeth and Farchgrind and Fegrim and Laprivan of the Yellow Eyes, and all the countless rest of those elementals, were the fellow-natures of the One Who had conceived an age in which no creature should possess more than one nature-and had created a personage with many names as earnest of that eventual occurrence.

Accordingly, the last remaining nature of that One spoke with the traveler and sounded weary.

“So here I stand, my friend, to link with you like the fingers of a pair of hands, interlocked. What remains to me is what you never had; what remains to you is what I never had. It is a question of complimentarity. But after all these eons you understand that.”

The traveler nodded, and she heaved a sigh.

“Hah, yes, old friend, my page is past-past like that unnatural night which will nevermore be seen in Cleftor’s vales! Eternity at last has found its end, because the powers of chaos have been tamed. And with what little fetters! The wish of a child to help her mother; the distaste of apprentices for then: master; the annoyance of a pedlar-man; and the love of a sister for her stupid brother!”

“Then my time is past too,” the traveler said, ignoring her recital of his tricks-to-triumph-which was just, because all he had was in her gift. “And… And I’m not at all sorry. I was almost coming to miss the enemies I matched against in other ages. You could have undermined me by that weakness.”

“I could.” The answer was predictable. She could- everything. Now, however, it was a question not of “could” but “would,” and the time for willing chaos had gone by.

More silence intervened, and then the traveler stretched and yawned.

“I long for rest,” he said. “But-one more thing. Who is to come after us?”

“Let him decide who he is,” said the pale girl, and took him by the hand which lacked the staff. Turning, they went together into absence.

The End

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