In building a fantasy world, one of the most enjoyable activities is to add its monsters. Here’s one of mine. Of all the creatures I’ve introduced into any fantasy work I’ve ever written, I believe my favorite is the Worm of the World, which appears in The Green Stone Tower and in my upcoming Goddess-Born.
In some superficial respects my Worm is a stock beastie. It borrows from the Ouroboros image of the serpent devouring its own tail, which has significance in alchemy and in some mythologies, relating to the cyclical nature of time and life and the circular quality of the alchemical Great Work. Larry Niven also used a superficially similar creature in The Magic Goes Away, where the World-Worm was a dying god. However, I think there are aspects to my own Worm that make it sufficiently different certainly from what Niven did and as far as I know from what anyone has done. (I’m sure that if I’m wrong about that, someone will correct me.)
The Worm is one of the Not-Gods of the world of faerie or the New World as its own inhabitants call it. Some ten thousand years ago, the gods decided to concentrate all of the magic among humanity in the hopes of making it stronger and eventually raising more human beings to godhood. They did this by transporting the magicians to another world through the passageways afforded by the Green Stone Towers. The gods themselves followed the magicians to this other world, and there they and the magicians built an evolving society that had become very magical indeed by the time my tale begins.
But the New World had divine powers of its own: the Phoenix, the Moonbird, the Turtle King, the Wolf Lord, the Tree Spirit, the Mightiest Troll, and, greatest of them all, the Worm of the World. These beings, although similar to the gods in power and wisdom (well, except the Mightiest Troll, who is not very wise at all), were not gods. All of the gods were once men and women who had made a journey beyond death to become truly immortal. Since they were like the gods, but not gods, the People (as the magicians’ descendants took to calling themselves — the people of the Old World refer to them as the faerie-folk) called them the Not-Gods.
Here is how Malatant, Lord of Shadow, the god of cold, shadow, and the evil in the hearts of men, describes the Worm of the World:
“The Worm is the greatest of the powers of the New World, the beings called the Not-Gods. It is the keeper of the world’s magic and the guardian of all its life and health. It takes the form of a mighty serpent that circles the whole world. In the mountains far from my city there is a high peak with a cave at its base, and from this cave the head of the Worm comes to work its magic, speak its rare words, and devour its prey. The Worm always chooses its prey from the flawed, the selfish, the cruel, and the powerful who, if left alive, can work great harm in the world. In this it is not unlike me, but when the Worm has chosen someone to consume, it puts the death of its prey to a good use, which I generally don’t. Understand that the Worm is not a true beast and does not need to consume flesh as beasts do. In a sense it feeds on the pain of its victims, but even that is only incidental. What it actually feeds upon is their struggle, their desperate and futile attempt to keep themselves alive. The pain is merely a way to ensure that they do struggle.”
“The Worm swallows its prey whole and they slide living into its stomach, where they are digested alive. The process is very painful, as you might imagine.”
This in essence is my Worm of the World:
1) It takes the form of an enormously long snake that circles the world underground.
2) It is the guardian of the New World’s life, health, and magic. It keeps watch over the ecosystem and promotes the well being of all life in the world that is its domain.
3) As part of this responsibility, the Worm summons the most evil and powerful individuals from among the People, using its vast telepathic strength, and eats them. It swallows its victims alive and subjects them to a long, intensely painful demise in its belly, feeding on their desperate struggles against the pain and converting that energy into health, life, and magic for the world.
For those who aren’t chosen by the Worm as its prey, it is a powerful benefactor whose work helps make the New World a more magical place than the Old World. (Although the People still avoid it — the Worm is just plain scary!)
For those who are chosen to be devoured by the Worm, though, it’s an incredibly terrifying monster! As described by Gilusa, the evil priestess who has escaped its lure by coming to the Old World, in a conversation with Edwin (who is also not at all a nice person):
“It eats people, and I knew it wanted to devour me, and if I had stayed in the other world, by now I’m sure it would have. I used to dream of the Worm, Edwin. I had awful nightmares about it as a girl, dreaming that I stood by the Worm’s cave trembling in fear. I saw the great serpent head come from the cave and the terrible eyes fix on me. I could do nothing but stare back as the huge mouth opened and it came for me to swallow me whole. And then I would wake up screaming.”
“What a horrible dream! Is there really such a creature?”
“Oh, yes, the Worm is real. It devours only the strong-willed and only the magical. It feeds on their magic more than on their flesh. Maybe it feeds on their pain. I doubt it needs food at all in the ordinary way of a beast. To be eaten by the Worm is the most dreadful death I can imagine. One is swallowed whole and burned to death by the acids in its stomach. It’s even worse than it sounds, because the chosen prey is always a sorcerer and my power would work to heal me and keep me alive in the Worm’s belly to suffer even longer until I was too exhausted to heal. The Worm can feed on someone for a long time if the mind is strong. I don’t know how long I would last, but it would not be brief.
“Worse still, it called to me, Edwin! It was so powerful, so hard to resist! I knew what would happen to me if I went to the Worm, but when I heard that horrid voice in my mind, I wanted to go. It was terrifying! It started calling me when I was a teenage girl and resisting it got harder and harder as the years went by. Sooner or later, I knew the Worm would win. I knew that I would suffer and die horribly in its stomach. It was only a matter of time.
“So as you can imagine, I was very happy to receive this mission from the God of Shadow, for the Worm cannot reach me here and I cannot be drawn by its call. I haven’t dreamed of the monster since I climbed the Tower.”
Good incentive to climb the Green Stone Tower and escape to the Old World, clearly!
So that’s my Worm of the World: a benign power of good providing health and magic to the world, and at the same time a terrifying monster that summons its helpless prey with irresistible power and subjects them to a grisly, horrible death. The ambiguity of it is one of the main reasons it’s my favorite among all my creatures.