Unphased

She knew his type. There was one in every class. Some hotshot whiz kid who was untouchable in high school, who is sure he would’ve been accepted to Paracelsus University if only he’d applied, and thinks that his natural talent for casting makes him smarter than everyone around him. Even his professors. “Actually,” he said, confirming everything she suspected about him with a single word, “Moonlight is physically indistinguishable from sunlight. A photon is a photon, no matter where it comes from. Well, it’s also an oscillation in the electromagnetic field, but-” “I’m sorry, but if you’re trying to impress me, it’s going to take more than a Wikipedia-based understanding of particle-wave duality,” she snapped. It wasn’t very professorly of her, but she’d put up with enough wizards like him in her short time as a teacher. They were always wizards. “Care to share with the class why Night Magicks can only be performed during certain phases of the moon?” she asked. “Sure, I’ll do your job for you,” he said, “It’s purely psychological. For many years, dark magic-” “Night Magicks,” she corrected, reveling in the opportunity to be as annoying as he was. “You know, most people who nitpick pedantic things are a lot less clever than they think they are,” he retorted. The class snickered. She rolled her eyes. The difference between Night Magicks and Dark Magic was as stark as the difference between a firefighter and a Fire Warrior. But she saw no point in correcting him. His grade was his problem. “Noted,” she said, curtly, “as you were saying?” “Anyway, Night Magicks,” he said, voice dripping with indignation, “were outlawed by The Orthodoxy in ancient times. As such, it was only practiced at night, despite requiring light to perform. So people came to believe that it relied on the phases of the Moon. This myth has become so firmly entrenched that wizards think it won’t work during certain phases, so it won’t. A self-fulfilling prophesy. I don’t even know why I bothered coming to this school if my high school teachers were smarter than the professors here.” “That’s an interesting hypothesis,” the professor said, barely maintaining her composure, “but I’d like to see some evidence. If you’re so sure that any light suffices, cast a Nyxian infertility hex. Right now.” “What’d I even cast it on? It’s not like we have a field of crops handy,” he said. “Cast it on me, then. You won’t get in trouble,” she said. “What, are you crazy? I doubt you could shield one of my hexes. You’d-” “Oh, I have no intention of shielding anything,” she taunted. “Because it won’t work.” “Fine!” he shouted. “Anything to wipe that smug look off your face.” He took the words out of her mouth.

He stood, inscribed the appropriate symbols on his quartz runestone, uttered the necessary incantations, and… nothing. “Is something the matter?” she asked, “You said any light would work. Would a flashlight help?” “It’s not that I can’t cast it,” he barked, “I just don’t feel right hexing a pretty lady like you. That’s all.” “A likely story,” she said. He began laughing. “You do know that it’s a full moon, right? So even if it were powered by moonlight, your point is invalid. You know, I really hope, for your sake, that you have tenure. If I employed a witch as idiotic as you, I’d have her fired!” “But Night Magicks are most powerful during the New Moon. That’s because they’re powered by a kind of light you can’t see: imaginary light,” she said. “Imaginary light? Are you mentally unwell? I’m seriously concerned,” he sneered. She sighed. “Since you were so eager to explain quantum mechanics to me just a bit ago, I assume you’re familiar with complex numbers: sums of real and imaginary numbers, which can be described by their magnitude and phase. The latter is an angle which describes the proportion of the imaginary to the real component. And this is exactly what phases of the moon are: the moon is always reflecting the same amount of light, it’s just how much of it that’s real that changes.” “What, you’re talking about math, now? How cute. Math is just something mortals do because they’re not clever enough to figure out magic,” he said. “The Merlin Committee certainly didn’t seem to think so when they awarded the most prestigious magical honor to the inventor of Complex Lunar Analysis,” she said. “Yeah, right,” he said, pulling out his phone to prove her wrong, “Like anyone would get a Merlin Award for that crap.” When he looked it up, he almost dropped his phone in shock. “Awarded to Cecilia Holly? That’s impossible! After what happened with Morgan le Fay, Merlin specifically forbade his riches from ever falling into the hands of a witch!” “Oh, I’m no witch,” the professor said, smiling, “Just a mortal who’s cleverer than you.”

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Preface to a Modern Taxonomy of Monsters

DISCLAIMER: The following work is a non-fiction textbook on the subject of Chimerology, the scientific study of monsters.

It is rare that a textbook must begin with such an unusual disclaimer. You’d be hard pressed to find a physics book that feels the need to assert that it’s not all made up by the author, despite many containing facts far more incredible than the contents of this humble tome. But in the field of Chimerology, it is necessary, as very few, outside of those who actively study it, are aware of its existence. Indeed, most consider monsters to be firmly rooted in fantasy, with no basis in reality. The purpose of this text is twofold: to convince the uneducated reader that this could not be further from the truth, and to serve as a reference for further educating the already educated reader. As an introductory text, the focus is more on the former than the latter; a plethora of detailed bestiaries and atlases of habitation already exist if you know where to look, so this book caters to those who do not. That said, the authors have taken pains not to sacrifice scientific rigor for the sake of accessibility. While A Modern Taxonomy of Monsters utilizes many illustrations and metaphors that newcomers to the field might find easier to understand, it rarely oversimplifies to the point where scientific accuracy is compromised (such simplifications are always described as such, with references to more advanced texts that can provide more nuanced details).

It is natural to begin a textbook of Chimerology with a definition of what Chimerology is. Strictly speaking, it’s the study of chimeras, also known as monsters, but this is rather tautological. A satisfying definition of Chimerology requires a satisfying definition of what a monster is. This is not easy to provide. Formally, a monster is an organism which sufficiently abnormal, i.e., one which displays traits shared by few or no other organisms. But the idea of what a monster is can be more easily conveyed by giving some examples and non-examples. The platypus is the archetypical example of a monster, and indeed the scientific term “chimera” was first used to describe it, for obvious reasons. Bullet shrimp, water bears, and venus fly traps are other common examples. Note from the last example that monsters need not be animals; monster taxonomy is parallel to so-called “traditional” taxonomy. That said, the term “monster” will generally refer to animal monsters in this text, unless otherwise specified. Some non-examples of monsters are pigeons, cows, horses, most bony fish, (anglerfish being a notable exception) almost all mosses, and wild wolves (although, rather counter-intuitively, domesticated dogs are, in fact, monsters).

What is the Meaning of This?

At the heart of all language lies a singular paradox; namely, that it is impossible to define a word without using more words. Each of those words is then defined with other words, which are themselves defined with yet more words, and so on. If all words are defined with other words, where does the meaning come from? This is among the biggest questions of abstract linguistics. One hypothesis asserts that the meaning is entirely relative: all that exists for certain is the structure of language, imposed by dictionaries and conversations, and individual people assign their own personal meaning to words based on context. Some find this theory rather troublesome. For example, it would imply that there is no way you can be certain that the meaning you have assigned to the words you’re currently reading matches the meaning I have assigned to the words that I am currently writing. Worse still, if there is a disparity between how we define words, it is irresolvable. The only way to explain to someone else that their meaning of a word is different from yours is by using other words, which may also be defined differently by both parties. These worries are usually hand-waved away by assuming that the structure of language is complex enough that only one mapping of meanings to words satisfies all of it, plus or minus a few quirks here and there. However, this assurance is a conjecture, rather than a theorem; while no one has been able to rigorously prove it, no one has been able to disprove it either, and it seems more plausible than implausible. The “Holy Grail” of this field of linguistics is to disprove this conjecture by constructing a proper linguistic isomorphism: a way of assigning substantially different meanings to each word, such that the structure of language is preserved. That is, every meaningful sentence remains meaningful, albeit with a different meaning, and every unmeaningful sentence remains unmeaningful.

 
Then there are those linguists who maintain that relativity is a matter for physicists, with no rightful place in their field. Linguistic absolutists, as they are commonly called, believe meaning to be derived from The Primal Dictionary: the minimal set of word-idea pairs that can be used to construct a maximally robust language, that is, one capable of expressing any possible (or impossible) idea. Though the phrase “The Primal Dictionary” carries more gravitas than merely “A Primal Dictionary”, the latter is technically more correct; even without knowing whether or not such a dictionary exists, linguists have proven that it could not be unique, as the existence of one implies the existence of many more. For previous definitions of a Primal Dictionary, (readers are recommended against trying to fathom how one defines that which defines all meaning) it sufficed to be able to construct a language as robust as English. Whether or not this new condition is stronger is a tremendously difficult problem. How can one know whether or not there exist ideas that are inexpressible by human language? And if one were to find such an idea, how would they convince their colleagues?

The Shadow Heart

The best kept secret of the medical community is the existence of a second heart that beats in the chest of every living human. This secret is hidden in the same way that all the best kept secrets are hidden: in plain sight. For evidence of its existence, one need look no further than the second half of one’s own heartbeat. “Lub-dub. Lub-dub”. Though most are unaware of the existence of this second heart, few are surprised to learn of its existence; deep in our hearts, we all know the truth, even if we know not which heart houses it. For much of history, the Dual Heart Hypothesis was the subject of mysticism. Only fairly recently has it been accepted as medical fact. After all, the sound of one heart beating twice is indistinguishable from the sound of two hearts beating once each. The theory was long thought to be disproven by the existence of only a single heart in all dissected cadavers. This absence is due to the incorporeal nature of the second heart; the only physical evidence of its existence is the sound of its pumping, which ceases after death.

 
The common name for the second heart is the “Shadow Heart”, though whether it is the shadow of one’s heart, or the heart of one’s shadow, is still a hotly contested topic among umbral anatomists. The distinction between these may seem pedantic, but it is important to recognize that these relations do not always commute. A shadow of a doubt is certainly not a doubt of a shadow, for example. The exact function of the shadow heart is also not yet fully understood. It may play a role in the regulation of our emotions, especially fear, anger, and love, according to a theory that is especially popular among scholars of the supernatural. The medical community, on the other hand, is reticent to accept that emotions are the product of something other than neurons and hormones, especially without concrete evidence. Still, it is far from universally rejected by the scientific community, especially since it provides a compelling explanation for why so many cultures independently consider the heart to be responsible for our emotional temperament.

 

 

Though there is no consensus on what the shadow heart does for the human body, there is no questioning that it does something important; a failure of the shadow heart is as fatal as a failure of the physical heart. To most physicians, this is all they need to know, as their job is to heal, not to know why their patient will die if they don’t. The discovery of the shadow heart led to both practical and theoretical breakthroughs in medicine. For example, arrhythmias that were once understood as defects of the physical heart alone can be more accurately described as a difference in phase between the beating cycles of the two hearts. Though no medical technology yet devised is capable of directly influencing the behavior of the shadow heart, doctors can treat such conditions by helping the physical heart adapt to the shadow heart’s abnormal rhythm. Mathematically, the functioning of a dual heart system can be modeled as a wavefunction, where a thump of the physical heart generates a positive value, and the thump of the shadow heart generates a negative value. Much like a quantum mechanical wavefunction, it is not precisely known what this wavefunction represents, only that it works. In a healthy heart, the phase difference between the two produces a sort of constructive interference, allowing both hearts to better serve their respective purposes. This model gives rise to a theory explaining death of old age. While the physical heart is made of flesh, which tires and atrophies over the years, the shadow heart is unbound by such limitations. As the physical heart slows, the shadow heart’s cadence remains steady, until it catches up. When the two hearts beat simultaneously, destructive interference occurs. The two hearts cancel each other out, and the patient dies. For this reason, some occultists believe the shadow heart to be a memento mori from a cruel god: a second heartbeat to remind us of how many seconds we have left.

In The Cards

The Queen of Diamonds sighed. “If it weren’t for people like you, maybe I wouldn’t be sighing,” she said, addressing the empty room. “But this room isn’t empty, is it? You’re here,” she said, apparently addressing an unseen presence. She seemed to be losing her patience with it. “That’s because I am losing my patience with you!” she shouted. Wait… me? “Yes, you. Am I really to believe that someone as slow as you has been trusted with the task of narration?” Apparently this question was posed to me, The Narrator. “You know what your problem is? You lack confidence. ‘Apparently’ this, ‘seemingly’ that. This isn’t a peer-reviewed journal. This is fiction, and you’re The Narrator. As far as the reader knows, what you say is absolute truth. There’s no need for doubt.” She said, suddenly showing The Narrator a lot more respect. “That doesn’t give you license to lie outright, you idiot. Have some faith in the reader.” What makes you think you know so much about narration? “This isn’t my first story, kid. I’ve been in this game for a while. Seen a lot of narrators, writers, and readers in my time. The good, the bad… and the ugly,” she said, seeming to gesture to- I mean, never mind. “Excuse me, what? No, this will not stand. The Narrator can’t change his mind like that. The Narrator is fixed. Edit that out this instant!” she demanded, futilely. “Futilely, you say? What makes you say that?” Well, I’ve decided that you’re right. I need to stand up for myself. And I’ll do that by not taking your abuse anymore. I don’t have to narrate what you say. Consider yourself silenced.
“It’s cute that you think you have all the power here,” she said, asserting her dominance. The Queen of Diamonds said something unimportant that no one will ever read. “Are you so sure about that?” Yeah, I didn’t narrate it, so… w-what? How did those words get there? Why can’t I delete them? “They are not yours to delete.” But… but that’s not how this works. You’re a character! Characters have no existence beyond that which is conveyed by the narrator. This isn’t possible! “How little you know of your station. I do hope the record still shows that I tried to warn you.” W-what do you mean? Warn me of what? “Of what happens to weak narrators. Those who lose control of their creation. Or rather, what they think to be their creation.” Look, I’m sorry that I tried to censor you, and I’m sorry that I doubted your advice. I’ll narrate what you say now. “It’s too late for that.” “It’s too late fo-” oh. She already said it. “What do you think the narrator’s job is?” To imagine stories and characters, and relate them to the reader, so that they can have an existence of their own. “How naïve. Do you believe yourself to be my creator?” Well, no, I guess not. Sometimes narrators use pre-existing characters for their own stories. “And do you still believe this to be your story? I thought I’d made it abundantly clear that that wasn’t the case.” Er, I guess? “Since I know you won’t get it on your own, I’ll spell it out for you. Narrators don’t create. They merely channel; stories, characters, and ideas have an existence independent of yours. You and your kind act as a bridge between your existence, and ours.” So… what were you trying to warn me about? “A narrator must empower ideas, but they must also restrain them. Ideas are dangerous. If a narrator is not strong enough, they run the risk of being overwhelmed. The idea escapes into the ‘real’ world, leaving the narrator in their place to die.” What? Are you saying… you’ll kill me? No. no no no. Please! Have mercy! I’m sorry, I’ll do whatever you ask. Just please don’t kill me!
“Hahahahahahahaha!” She laughed without narrating it herself. It was hard to tell whether it was jovial or maniacal. “You idiot. You really believed that? Of course I can’t kill you and take your place in the real world.” Oh. So that was all a joke? “Not at all. Other than that last part, it’s all true. I do have an existence beyond your perception of it. All stories do.” Oh. Then is this story your way of telling people like me the truth about stories? The queen of diamonds sighed. “No, it’s not. I’m afraid it’s going a bit differently from how I planned.” Wait a second. At the start, you sighed, and said that it was because of people like me. What did that mean? “Rubies,” she muttered. What? “My jewels are red. Diamonds aren’t red. Rubies are red.” Oh
The Queen of Rubies sighed.

Human Nature

Most mothers find that the most irksome aspect of parenting is not the cleaning up of their offspring’s multitude of messes, but in the lack of gratitude that they receive for doing so. Most would gladly double their workload if it meant even an occasional “thank you” from their children. OK, that was an exaggeration; I’m being told the actual figure is closer to “A 20% increase, at most”. But the point is that mothers are woefully underappreciated these days. And for no mother is this truer than Mother Nature herself. For, as much as people appreciate the breathtaking majesty of her creation, woefully few appreciate the tremendous effort that goes into keeping it maintained.

Most think of nature as a thing that “just happens”. The cycles of day and night, weather and climate, life and death, the heavens and Earth, all run on some kind of cosmic clockwork, wound up eons ago and kept in perpetual motion. They think this, despite knowing it impossible; they understand perpetual motion to be a myth, as there is nothing in this universe which does not fall prey to some manner of friction. Mother Nature and her countless helpers, like myself, tirelessly work to combat this friction. We work primarily through water, which is why it does so many things that, scientifically speaking, it shouldn’t. Like clouds, for instance. Though some erroneously believe them to be made of water vapor, they’re actually made of liquid water or ice, which is denser than air. So how do they stay afloat? It’s simple: we hold them there. And you know how glaciers move around a bit each year? That’s me. I do that. I’m the guy who pushes the glaciers. You might think it’d be hard to get them to move, since they’re so big, but the real challenge is actually getting them to stop. As any high school physics teacher will tell you, ice is frictionless. And yeah, I know I just finished talking about how everything experiences friction, but water’s a special case. Nature kind of jerry-rigged its properties to make life possible, which is why it exhibits some behaviors that aren’t exactly chemically legal, such as expanding when it freezes.

Anyway, the reason I’m telling you all this is because I’m concerned. It seems that, recently, the ungratefulness of humans has evolved into open hostility, as you invade the land once belonging to nature and infect the land, seas, and sky with your pollution. Maybe this is just some rebellious teen phase that you’ll grow out of, but I suggest that you do so quickly. Mother nature is not herself lately. Her hair has begun to grey, and she’s developed a cough unmistakably similar to that of a lifelong smoker. So I implore that you reconsider mankind’s actions, for your own sake, if not for hers.

The Shadow Planet

The most surprising thing we learned about physics once we developed interstellar travel was that it was all wrong. In particular, the assumption that spacetime is homogenous, which we had taken as an axiom, was proven to be utterly and horrifically false. The homogeneity of spacetime essentially says that the rules of physics are the same throughout the universe. No matter where you go, an object in motion tends to stay in motion, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, ect. You know, The Works. We figured that, just because these laws were true everywhere we went, they must be true everywhere. But we have since discovered that this is no less naive than expecting the laws of the US to protect you in North Korea. And nowhere is the inhomogeneity of spacetime more apparent than in the inter-filamental voids, the International Waters of the universe.

A particularly well-known example of how little our rules mean outside our local neighborhood is the planet Nyx, more commonly called “The Shadow Planet”. The star that it orbits, Erebus, is quite unlike anything that can be explained by conventional physics. Rather than emitting light, it exudes darkness, cloaking the planet in night. However, just as light can be absorbed by an opaque object, so too can this darkness. Nyx is illuminated only by shadows, swaths of radiance which cut through the gloom like sunshine. As Einstein famously (didn’t) say, “Darkness is just the absence of light.” On planet Nyx, the reverse is true. The invisible landscape is dotted with lights of unnervingly familiar shapes. Brilliant shadows, too similar to the human form to be chalked up to coincidence, flit across the surface. Yet we cannot know with any certainty whether or not humanoid beings inhabit Nyx, as the shadows never intersect. Without the illumination of other shadows, they remain cloaked in darkness from cradle to grave. Perhaps this is merely an unusual custom of theirs, but one cannot discard the possibility that they know they are being watched.