There is no one who truly knows how to face the end that lies beyond the end of the world. One day, the seven Moons shine beneath the Sea of Enkre, as they are supposed to, and the next day you find yourself drifting away, your world diminished to a mere fragment of what it used to be. You open your eyes in the light of the Moons, and for a moment you forget about the cataclysm from the night before, or you think everything was just a bad dream. You look at the alabaster walls around you, still intact, and you tell yourself all is as before. You insist there was no Armageddon, no catastrophe, you tell yourself those galaxies, all those people in them, could not have perished. Even as you cast your gaze upward, you assure yourself that your people are safe, but there are only six Moons in the sky.
Time drifts by and the people speak of strange things, of cities of fire looming on the edge of the Sea of Enkre and cliffs of ice standing beside them, and you notice there are only five Moons now. Mere months later—years or seconds to your strange neighbors—four Moons survive.
When you look up one night (how long the unlit nights now seem) to see one remaining Moon burning brightly in the torn swath of sky, you will have gone through the numbness and pain and disbelief. Even if you still want to deny it to yourself, in your heart, you'll have understood the insanity that is Driftwood: the place where worlds come to die. Shreds of worlds, broken pieces left over from their own apocalypses, push against each other, forever crumbling at the edges, breaking apart a little more each day until they disappear into the Crush at the centre of Driftwood.
By the time even your last Moon is gone, there will be nothing left but a few houses floating on a stretch of sea so small that the people from the other Shreds call it nothing more than a puddle. When the clouds finally scrape across an empty sky, you will have watched the nearby worlds melting away, one by one. You will have seen how their inhabitants vanish when the last piece of their home-world is gone, even if they've run over ten Shreds away, looking for safe ground that wouldn't crumble under their feet, and you will have understood that there is nothing more precious, more important, than the preservation of your own world. By the time your garden wall crumbles into the Crush, you'll be clinging to everything that's left of your world: your customs, your religion, your stories of the Seven Moons, histories of the great galaxies that once formed your world, and the purity of your race. You will forbid your children from mingling with other-worlders and mixed breeds, out of fear that in learning these alien’s ways—their languages and their customs—your people will forget their own and lose the little that is left of your world.
It was an impossible task to keep a curious little boy from seeing other worlds, and even locking him in his room did no good once his bedroom walls crumbled at the edge of the ever-shrinking existence and suddenly his view opened up on three sides to a trio of foreign lands. The elders pretended their world was still there, as they knew it to be, clinging to the last slivers of their reality. They could pretend that they were grounding him for speaking to those kids from the Shred across the street, but as soon as the door was locked on the outside, he was out on an adventure in the Shred to the right, or the Shred to the left, or maybe even the Shred that was right across from the door, on the other side of his bed.
Perhaps it was because the world he'd been confined to all his life was so small, or perhaps it was just in his nature to be so eager to learn; perhaps he had a natural gift for it or perhaps he just had too much time and too little to fill it with, but he could soon speak the tongues of all the neighboring worlds, and then those of the worlds beyond. It wasn't just language: his mind soaked up everything like a sponge: the stories and histories, the customs and traditions, the way people walked, greeted each other, ate their food and drank their strange drinks. Sometimes it seemed he absorbed even their feelings and their thoughts.
He was still but a boy when he walked into Valmoor for the first time, peering shyly from behind the trees that grew beyond the border, in the shard to the east. Valmoor was still a good distance from the Crush then, still large enough to hold a whole village, with rich crops of dewberries growing in each garden, enough to feed as many as ten children. And Elisnor, already old by Valmoorian years, was alone and childless.
The Valmoorans didn't speak to other worlds, and strangers were dissuaded—in more or less peaceful ways—from venturing into the sunny Valmoorian village and mingling, contaminating the local customs with their own. But the boy was so small and harmless and so eager to learn.
The Valmoorans didn't like it, of course. Many protested when Elisnor took him in. But she was determined no harm was to come to him, and the neighbors reluctantly kept their distance.
Elisnor knew he had a family, real parents of his own kind in his own world, but she was determined to raise him as her child for the time he spent in Valmoor. Days were never the same length in other worlds: He could remain in her house for over a Valmoorian week before he was forced to return home for dinner so his real parents wouldn't notice he was gone. Then he'd be gone for two weeks at a time, and Elisnor would miss him and hope, as any caring mother would, that he was eating well and getting enough sleep. He never slept when he was in Valmoor. His internal clock was set to the way time worked in his own world, and so the intervals at which he needed rest were different, as was the speed at which he was aging. He'd hardly grown at all when Elisnor was already an old woman. But, little as he'd grown, he'd grown into a fine Valmooran. He spoke the language as well as any young man born and raised in her village. While an other-worlder coming from the desert world to the north might have learned the root of the word for water and might have, at most, said in truncated words and a bad accent that he needed water, this boy would always say with perfect words and strict obedience to the old ways, that he'd “be thankful to the mercy of the gods for any form of drink they might bestow.” And when the elders marveled at his understanding of their language, he would merely say that to learn a language was the same as to learn of the people who used it. In private, to Elisnor alone, he'd say that learning words could never be enough if one wanted to learn how to speak.
"There are worlds where they have notions no words here could translate, for there is no such thing in this world," he'd say, in the warm, affectionate declinations that he used only with her. "And there are things here that do not exist in other worlds, that words alone cannot explain to the people from any other place. And do you know that people say such different things, they think different things for the same occasion? When one leaves for a journey, for instance, the people of Miorae say ‘May the gods watch your every step,’ for their gods are of the kind to help and protect their people, while the people of Municimore say ‘May the gods look away from you,’ for their gods are cruel and only play tricks on the people who come into their sight. To translate the words of one people to the other would be the same as to set them to war with each other, but to convey their heart, the meaning behind these words, one needs to understand both worlds, to know the people and their worlds themselves, as if you were a part of them."
And, indeed, Elisnor always felt that the boy, in spite of the strange colour of his skin and the slow pace at which he aged, was a part of her world, a part of Valmoor, as much as any pure-blood Valmooran.
He did not stay in Valmoor for long, not long enough for her to be happy. He would often go to the worlds beyond, learning new languages and new customs, and bringing back strange foods and powerful medicine for which he paid with pebbles, weeds and pests that had no value here, in Valmoor, but for which he always seemed to find eager buyers elsewhere.
"One world's trash is another world's treasure," he'd often say when she scolded him for spending too much on the gifts he brought back for her.
There was a good deal of trading, he explained, which could be done with garbage alone, with things the people of one world didn't want, yet those of another world badly needed. And then there were the things all worlds grew to need: building materials, food and fuel, items which always ran short as a world became a mere Shred, a small ghetto about to be plunged into the Crush. For these, one needed to venture out into the newer worlds, the newly-arrived ones still large enough to be worlds in their own right, large enough that they'd lack nothing. And then one would need to learn their language and their customs so as to trade with them.
The boy was no trader. He lacked the patience to follow the same routes year after year, and, while he was quick to spot opportunities for barter, he possessed no true interest in money. As much as he talked of trading, Elisnor could see that what he really wanted—the magical lure that led him farther and farther away from her home—were the worlds themselves: the wealth of languages and cultures, the vast diversity of people and customs and plants and creatures that he'd find in them. She could see it in him: He could have become one of the great Valmoorian explorers, if Valmoor had had any place left to be explored. But Valmoor was only a hamlet now, not a stone of it unknown or uncharted. Driftwood, however, this world of broken worlds, still had plenty of secrets to uncover.
It wasn't long, even in Valmoorian years, before Elisnor barely saw her boy as he passed through Valmoor on his way to other worlds and then back on his way to his other home. But Valmoorian mothers were used to seeing their children only rarely in old age, and so she didn't mind and found that he, of all the boys in her village, was the one closest to the old ways; other grown Valmoorans now remained in their parents’ homes, against tradition, cramped together by their ever-shrinking world. And even when he brought her the potion that would slow her aging, and even when she'd lived to see four generations reach their end, she still felt more like the true Valmoorans than the new youths around her, and saw in him the perfect, dutiful Valmoorian son.
She only remembered his home-world when he was a grown man, and only because it had now reached the Crush. He spoke confidently to her of the measures his people were taking. They carried with them small parts of their world—the pieces of soil that still remained—as they fled far away, striving to keep a part of their existence from sliding into the Crush, from disappearing entirely. He knew, of course, that once a world ceased to exist, its people also vanished, no matter where they were. And Elisnor knew it too, she knew it from him. But as he struggled to seem confident when he spoke of it, so did she, and she often told him reassuringly that he could come to stay with her forever, that this was his new home now, that Valmoor could be his world from now on. And, indeed, even the Elders, the new Elders who'd known him since they were children, now thought of Elisnor's boy as a part of Valmoor, a true Valmooran, albeit one of blue skin.
The plan did not work. When the last shred of the old world disappeared into the Crush, so did its people, no matter how far they had traveled. The only ones left were those of mixed blood, mongrel children of the Shreds, who had never fully belonged to any one world. And when Elisnor's boy did not disappear, she thought he was one of those, one with a drop of otherworldly blood mixed secretly in his veins. It took many more years before she realized a part of him had indeed disappeared with his old world.
He'd made Valmoor his home, his "new world," though it had been his world long before he'd called it that. It felt like he'd always lived a Valmooran, and only Elisnor knew that he pined for his old land and people. Sometimes, when he believed himself alone, he'd stare away toward the Crush and weep. Sometimes, at night, she heard him whisper strange words and names. Once, only once, he'd asked her, "Why am I still alive, Mother? Why am I the only one left?"
She said, "I cannot tell you," and he didn't ask again. But, as Valmoor grew ever closer to the Crush, she began to urge him to travel on to other worlds, distant worlds near the edge, worlds that still had a long time left before they'd be gone.
He was reluctant at first, and when he left he seemed to be doing it only for her sake, to look for food and clothes and things that Valmoor had run out of and would never have again. But she knew him well, and when a year had passed and he hadn't returned, she didn't worry. She had faith that he'd be all right, that he'd merely lost track of time, of Valmoorian time, mesmerized by the wealth of knowledge he'd found in a new culture, a new world.
And, indeed, he did return unharmed, many years later, when the last pieces of Valmoor were standing on the edge of the Crush. He spoke of the new worlds he'd seen, of their language and customs, and of a girl he'd met there, in another world where he felt at home. He spoke of her in veiled words that implied their relationship was such as no Valmooran would approve of, and Elisnor was glad, in her heart, that he wasn't a Valmooran anymore. He'd become a part of that girl's world now, more than he was of Valmoor, and she was grateful; Valmoor was coming to its end and she would not have him end with her world, though she was sure to perish herself.
Elisnor had said she could not tell him why he'd survived, why he was still here, the last of his kind. But she knew, or, at least, she had her theories. One thing was certain: A part of her son had been lost together with his world. She'd always suspected it, but she could see it clearly now after all these years. He hadn't aged at all since that day, as if his body were still linked to a sense of time that no longer existed. Time no longer flowed in his world, for there was no world left, and so time no longer flowed for him. The years would not stop for one of mixed blood, yet, for him, they froze. But when his world had ended, her boy already belonged to another world. He never merely learned words and customs, he learned how to think and feel like the people of each new culture, and, whether he realized it or not, he became a part of that world just as the world, its language, and its customs, became a part of him.
There was no doubt in Elisnor's mind that her son survived because at least one of his worlds had not yet perished, and when Valmoor was gone, he'd survive as part of yet another world, and another after that. She could not tell him, of course. She feared the process would no longer work if he became aware of it, or that one day he'd try to end his life and stop seeking new worlds to belong to, resigning himself to disappearing with his last home-world.
It was only when the final pieces of Valmoor were vanishing into the Crush and she felt herself fading with them, that she realized this perpetual change, this eternal absorbing of new worlds, was the very nature of Driftwood. In a strange, twisted way, Driftwood could be called a world in its own right. It was then that the thought came to her, though it might have been just a delusion, that the boy's new world was not Valmoor and not the world of the girl he'd spoken of, that his new world was Driftwood itself. As long as Driftwood persisted, he would live on, and with him, in his heart, a part of Valmoor and Elisnor herself would also live forever.