Wednesday, October 31, 2012
The next and final part of The Refracted Man continues to lurch towards completion. I'm taking extra care with this one, much depends on how I handle the subtleties of the final act. In the meantime consider this cover, the best I have ever seen. Many thanks to Justin M. Lewis, whose works include Eye-Eighty, Outpost Zeta, and varied artwork.
Stay tuned here for stories every week and a book every month, on average~
Thursday, October 25, 2012
“It is too wonderful to see you,” Lew gasped as he held his daughter. All his heart attempted to spill from his chest. In this room of strange light, with gaps in the ceiling and faded stars beyond he was nothing but a motion, a force coming to rest in the tincture of emotion.The lifecycle of this dream was now finished. At its start desperate opportunism latched onto the Fencer and the Trumpeter and their mad plan to venture into the lands of the Sacred. Through travail it became an anxious mote buried in the innkeep’s chest, a need to know Zaffa’s fate as a seal over his secret past. Often forgotten in the face of their troubles it no doubt carried him far, leaving all he had known, daring death and mad light. He was a beam, cascading through the void of time. Matter and life were as nothing, there was only the direction and the force, when it came down to it, and now his ray had struck the end, bright light dancing. So blinded he didn’t care to notice her strangeness.
They stood in the grand hall, which was a maze. Tilted, curved, the walls often overlapped. Light poured down from the open ceiling, and numerous vents showed glimpses of other rooms and the reflective surface of Lake Ithie outside.
“It is a glory to see you again too,” said Zaffa beside his ear. In such communion there was no need for other words. His breath was ragged and his body light and giddy. He stood up and turned to display his pride.
“This is Zaffa,” he said, while the others drew their weapons slowly. “I have not seen her since she was small, yet I knew her at once. She seems much as her mother, but I would dare say she has my eyes.”
Light admitted by the palace’s mad architecture glinted off Scathra’s knife and was devoured by Dhala’s crystal. That sword remained dark, sullen, of a mood similar to the cold glare in the Fencer’s eyes.
“Move away from her,” demanded the swordsman calmly.
“Whatever for?” asked Lew, bewildered.
“She is turned by the light,” said Scathra. “Do you not see it?”
He mostly saw his daughter. Somehow he knew her, though she was much changed over the fifteen years since their last meeting. At that time she was an infant wrapped up against the cold. This was before the attack on the caravan, when he was still employed by divinity. It was an elder world.
Now Zaffa was long of limb, grown for the most part. Her gossamer dress showed off a lean frame kept strong by the toils of the amazons. She had her mother’s sinuous beauty, the round face, elfin ears and fine nose, as well as her father’s wide, dreamy eyes. Her hair was most reminiscent, being raven black, metallic blue where light of any sort struck it. Yet her skin was the most striking feature, shimmering a kind of mother-of-pearl mixing polished ivory with shades of cerulean and gold. The effect something like watercolor but more vivid and lustrous.
“You can’t!” Lew drew his weapon and placed the girl behind him. At this she giggled and went into the next room, unconcerned for her safety.
“She is an abomination, like the others,” reasoned Scathra. Already stalking towards the chamber where the girl now flitted, the child looking through each gap, window and hole, into the illuminated night.
Lew pointed his scimitar at his companion. His left arm was still trapped in what was left of his shield, but this didn’t matter. The strength of his passion would hold him against all adversity. With a sigh of disgust Scathra took up her stained war club. Besides her was the Fencer, looking thoughtful, but more than willing to simplify matters with his atom-edged blade.
Backing into this next room, a wedge-shaped chamber with a curving outer wall, Lew sought to keep the others bottled up, to fight them one at a time, if need be. To his dismay he was too late, already the Trumpeter had slipped in behind him.
“Are you a horrible monster?” asked the mad musician.
To this the girl responded in the negative, laughing.
“Trumpeter, be so kind as to play a lullaby for our guide, he has grown traitorous,” asked the Fencer politely.
“I don’t think so,” was the reply. From the hall came a general grumbling as tempers rose.
The Fencer made to charge. Lew struck his blade against the ancient stones and the swordsman received a face full of sparks. The young man was quick though, immediately leaping back to avoid the innkeep’s following strike, an overhand blow made necessary due to the narrowness of the corridor.
“Have you seen her eyes?” asked the Trumpeter over the commotion as Scathra jockeyed for a position to strike at Lew. “She hasn’t any, other than the usual, and those are darker than yours or mine. By logic we are far more corrupt with our blue and grey.”
The amazon slowly undid her cloak without taking her eyes off Lew. Strange light danced in those irises. She was far past fatigue now, into madness. It seemed she was unencumbering herself but then tossed the unfurling cloth.
Lew’s sight became lost amongst the folds and he felt his weapon get tangled up in the cloak. A firm hand took hold of him and together he and his assailant fell back into the observing room. Pain sparked up as his head hit the cold floor.
“Move, lunatic,” demanded Scathra’s cold voice through the daze. A noise followed, more feeling than sound, followed by a gasp and the clatter of a weapon on the ground.
Calming hands wrapped around him as he struggled. Zaffa freed his head in time for Lew to see Scathra clutching her ears and looking quite pale while the Fencer advanced on the Trumpeter, the originator of the note. It seemed this was a duel which had happened before as each shifted in accordance to the other; the Fencer’s perfect movements against the Trumpeter’s erraticism, the dark blade against the sterling instrument. Something boiled in the swordsman, Lew sensed the incoming strike.
“What reason is there in harming her now?” argued the musician. “Look around you Fencer. We stand in the home of a goddess ready to be despoiled. And if we rouse the divinity then we are twice as victorious because if any being may know the Answer to the Riddle then it would be a deity.”
The Fencer did not put away his weapon, but froze at the edge of violence. His blade hung over them all.
Lew looked up at his daughter, that strange creature. From this angle she did seem odd, other, a shade beyond mortal.
“This is the Imperfect Palace,” explained Zaffa shortly after the violence was concluded. She didn’t seem to mind such troubles. That horror and death roamed the Sakram and that all her sisters were dead didn’t trouble this little sprite.
Disturbed, the others wandered into the maze-like halls, poking and pilfering. This she also didn’t faze the girl, leaving Scathra to feel scandalized by the wanton disregard for the divine cloister.
For a time the amazon followed the two travelers, harping and nagging them for each mote of the divine household they molested with their eyes, but their troublemaking energies soon outpaced her dwindling faith and she left them to their pillage.
Lew spent all his time with Zaffa. Glowing with love regained he too underwent a change. He worried about his sons back at the inn and searched the western horizon for smoke and disaster. He analyzed his daughter as she led him aimlessly through the wandering halls, her mind caught up with each tiny bauble or treasure, vista or window. Quick to fall in love with a view and quick to become bored, short on words and with boundless energy, she dragged him on towards nowhere, satellites spiraling around Winter’s cold nothing. Worst of all he felt fatigue’s terrible embrace creep up on him and knew his time was short.
“What has happened here?” he asked, hoping to hear her voice.
“My admirer has returned,” she said wistfully. Lew’s stomach contorted nervously.
“That’s an odd way of putting things,” he replied, thoroughly confused.
Taking up her father’s hand Zaffa dragged him through the Imperfect Palace. They passed the Fencer as he rummaged through a storage room and the Trumpeter as he sorted through papers in a study. Scathra had joined them, plucking open a series of tall, fluted crystal decanters at a dresser in a grand bedroom. Potent fragrances mingled.
Past all these the child led her father, then up and up a winding, narrow stair, pocked with view-ports, occasionally opening up as glassless windows overlooking the far shore and Ropahd. At last she brought him to a high wall without crenellation or rail. Below them the shape of the fortress looked something like a ruin, but also, from this particular spot, took on the appearance of a sprawling creature of some sort. Lew saw the legs and arms, but it seemed that in order to see the whole one must be a bird or a cloud.
Zaffa led him to a far balcony and looked west. There was the Sakram and the city of the amazons, girded by the Cloaks to the north and the hamazakaran forests of the south. Lew even thought he could see his inn, a distant speck along the sinuous trail. Then something moved.
In this night, where all things were illuminated, it shone brighter. Centered at that point on the shore where the strange box had been opened a nimbus of light echoed out, defining a bubble which included much of the lake and Ropahd. Yet beyond this a corona reached farther, searching, brightening the night and reflecting off the mirror waters. There, on the silver sea, the Bright Thing flitted about, greater than before.
“It is there,” Zaffa exclaimed, flashing teeth and holding hear hair back, against the wind which whipped those black ribbons wildly about. Here the cold stung their flesh.
“You know that thing?” he asked over the howling air. He was terrified of the awful sight.
“It is admiration,” she said.
The Bright Thing seemed to hear, somehow, however light hears or exists without kindling or sun. Still growing, the shape faced its luminous geometries towards the tower.
“It is Omet.” As she spoke the energies in the snowflake entity flashed and brightened.
“We should get below,” said Lew, trying to latch onto a bit of common sense. He too was entranced by the Bright.
“Stand with me.” His daughter turned on him, dark eyes stark against her bright, skin, the surface of which seemed to swim with the reflection of a pool of water. “I want both my beloveds.”
Her lust repelled him. Under bright night and dark thought he reeled. Across the vast mirror expanse he caught the glowing charge of sorcery and found shade in which to hide.
The Bright Thing exploded, an incandescence greater than the sun, its own colors dazzling into even the darkest shadow. In stereo the silent glory echoed off the reflecting surface of the lake. Twin beams shot through the air, whilst only one hit the tower.
At her pinnacle the girl was transfixed, basking in the ray. Only her shadow remained, lingering like a dream.
Soon this communion ended. The Bright Thing once more contemplated the mirror sea and the girl again stood perfect and true. Her skin was more lustrous now, unreal, a thing of sorcery and another’s touch.
“Are you hurt?” demanded Lew as he sprang from his shielding stone. He pulled the girl to him, a giggling bundle.
“Hurt,” she laughed through the silken blue her hair took on in this reflection. “Pain, loss, trauma, anguish, ruin, catastrophe, calamity, and all the rest are jokes.”
She pointed towards the shifting shape of light again.
“There is devotion,” she said.
“More than me?” Lew asked desperately, shaking the girl by her arms.
“You are more than that,” she explained with a rough smile. “You are at least two things, like I am.”
Bewildered, Lew began to think that he was insane, or lost in another of those dreams brought on by the strange light. He counted on the cold to be his guide of what was real and what was illusion, but lost in the folds of this dead castle and blinded by the terrible Bright he could neither demand nor ask the truth from this mad world.
“What two things am I?” he asked at last, succumbing to her voice.
“You are both father and lover.” Taking on an enigmatic look, he saw her second self and let her go, stepping back. This façade was something her mother wore, like the stolen gossamer dress.
“And what are you?” he asked, falling into form, the call and response between the mortal and the divine.
“I am Zaffa of the Sacred and Gobeithia, the Beauty Beyond Sight.”
Lew found them conspiring in a sitting room and wondered how he got there. All the seats were against the interior wall, facing the outer façade, a sheet of smooth stone bored through with various holes at various angles. If one became bored with a single point of view there was always another, ready with a simple turn of the head. Winter didn’t provide much variance beyond.
Upon entering they stopped talking, which he knew from having children meant they were up to something. He was far too confused to worry much at the moment. He felt as a child under the high ceiling. The cushions were somehow unwelcoming so he sat down on the cold, hard floor.
“I can’t believe you let your daughter out of your sight,” noted an authentically worried Trumpeter.
“I think I will always be within hers,” muttered Lew, much to their confusion.
“His eyes,” hissed Scathra. “He has seen.”
“Yes I have,” he stated strongly. The radiation witnessed from the parapet had filled him with the Bright. The Fencer pounced on his words.
“Have you? Like we have?” demanded the swordsman. “Have you seen what is in these rooms, or has your daughter blinded you to reason as well?”
“Why?” asked Lew, completely numb. He wasn’t prepared for this inquisition but was powerless to stop the Fencer’s avalanche personality.
“Let me show you,” said the swordsman, and proceeded to make good on this assurance.
The man with the atom-edged sword took Lew to the grand bedroom, low and expansive, decorated in faded silks, and well-used cushions. The bed itself was square, an expanse of lustrous comfort. At the low, ebony dresser a cityscape of unstopped vials filled the room with mixed perfume.
“What kind of being lived here?” asked the Fencer.
“A well-heeled lady of independent mode,” he replied distantly.
Unsatisfied the swordsman dragged him through the curtained walls into a dining room with a simple table and a simple chair. These looked rarely used, set up to stare through a window lattice out over the eastern marches beyond the lake.
“How many could a goddess serve in state here?” prodded the Fencer.
“The amazons say this is a forbidden place,” reasoned the innkeep warily. “Perhaps she never entertained.”
Grumbling, the tour continued through a further doorway, leading into a small kitchen and larder. The single oven rose up into a cunningly wrought chimney hidden amongst the upper works of the palace. The place seemed elegant, if rarely used. Dried, desiccated and spoilt food waited in the pantry, there slowly petrifying.
It was about now Lew realized the absent Trumpeter and amazon with a tickle at the back of his mind. There was a plot and he had every reason to believe that it would end in tragedy. Yet, perhaps this might clear his mind.
“What kind of goddess needs a kitchen for one? Or one at all?” demanded the swordsman. The man was eager to win Lew’s endorsement, beyond which lay the avalanche. Those cold eyes of his burned, hints of the Bright at the edges.
“Not a goddess at all,” replied the innkeep. He was too tired to keep this last most precious secret. With the weight of divinity on his shoulders he wandered out of the drab kitchen, towards his favorite room, the library.
With the Fencer in tow he made it to the cozy den, where frozen cushions waited in a cylindrical room wound round with tomes of all kinds. Here he flopped down, sending up a bit of nostalgic dust.
“And what use are books to the holy mind which knows the whole of things?” This was rhetorical; Lew did not expect an answer. “See, the thing you are getting at is that no goddess lived in this place, and this I know to be true.”
“You knew this before we even set out,” glared the Fencer.
“I did not think we would get this far,” sighed Lew. “I guessed that all we would find was a corpse, which I would bury, like so much else.”
“Then, how do you know the Impossible Palace?”
“It is where Zaffa gained her start in life,” he said at last and it felt troubling good to say that divine secret out loud for the first time. “Gobeithia was her mother.”
Just then the cry of the sacred swan went up and the two men took a winding stair upwards, to a partially hidden parapet. From here they saw a flight of white birds descend upon the mirror sea. Great clamors of steel shouted in pain and soon the things had pried up huge squares of two-way mirror. Together they flew on, to the place where the Bright Thing watched itself in the polished waves.
Thursday, October 18, 2012
The Bright laid bare their dreams, each traveler a vessel pushed along by the strength of their desire. In this manner tragedy was forged and horror propagated. A million lines of light crossing and meshing, conflicting, rebounding and scattering, this was the apparition of the self as a thing present, an entity without future, a ghost, stringing the heart along. Rare was the creature which denied their own light.The Fencer and the Trumpeter had come seeking Omet’s Box, a name and a thing which was a mystery to the others. Scathra sought revenge and the flat expanse of death, without pain or possibility. Then there was Lew searching for his daughter Zaffa, a simple quest, but one which hid a more troubling circuit. Circumstance placed a bond between these separate people, but similar rays travel together only so long, gradually venturing apart according to differences in their angle.
It was all like Omet’s Box, a mystery with a big name. In Clea’s green book, held within the Tumpeter’s confused pockets, it was described as being null-metal, black, twenty centimeters on every side. The contents, however, were never listed, only that it was never to be opened. Which was an odd thing to seek out, but desire takes one down strange mazes.
Omet himself was no stranger to Winter. Once a high peer of the Art, he was lost long before the Uplifting took all magic from the ice. Mages had a tendency to leave great legacies in death, but even when they didn’t the unknown shape remaining was often greater than any monument, ruined castle, or curse. This last seemed to prove the Uplifting false, the fact that so much remained behind, haunted spaces, unopened boxes.
The box of Omet’s life was a careful shape, formed according to the transcendent geometries which had made him famous amongst the talented and powerful. He created prisons for energies so volatile and exotic that they existed for but a fraction of a moment, saving them for use with peculiar sorceries, or conversation. In person he was decked in boxes and vessels, so that he might never be without his powerful friends. Death came in culmination of a decade-long duel with a powerful adversary over some bit of trivia long lost to the ice. The box remained, a legacy, something terrible sealed inside, or nothing at all.
Of this the travelers knew little, a few scattered bits left in Clea’s journal. She had come by the box through accident. An icebound noble used the cube as payment for a love potion. She was gone before he realized it was a ruse, his love an illusion. Later, a cold snap froze him and his hunting party solid as they pursued the alchemist. She never had to reveal her intentions or her ruse.
There are many veils of desire, layers stripped away from experience and circumstance. Against Winter the travelers had their hearts exposed and now, after the ice storm, they faced the illuminating eye. The world around was charged with the light, part topaz, part sapphire and diamond, shimmering like a water reflection or a Summer dream, hazy, shifting.
The Bright Thing attacked as a bolt of light, the Fencer dodging aside just as it burned past, melting ice and scorching stone. Not heat was felt in its wake as it whirled in a great arc.
The others readied their weapons but there was no telling what a sword might do to a glare or the harm a club might inflict on a mirage. Yet it didn’t attack immediately. Instead the crackling, flaring stream froze solid in the air above them and concentrated its being into a single vertical filament. Directly below it a dark metal cube rested near the waters.
Now they could see that they stood on the shore. Beneath their nervous feet were frozen sands and beyond that lay an immutable pane of ice. The sun’s place in the sky spoke of midafternoon but against the Bright Thing’s shimmering realm it seemed distant, like a large star.
The filament pulsed and the Fencer’s arm immolated in blue flame. He let out a cry of pain, dropping his weapon as the thing began to drift closer to them.
Rising over the burning man the Bright Thing wavered excitedly. Lew leapt at it, scattering its light as his sword passed through the narrow form. It roared strange and electronic. Now he had its attention.
There was commotion behind him, though he couldn’t take his eyes off the glimmering line. Now it changed, splitting in two and shifting to form a cross. The inner light of the filament grew excited, beads of greater brilliance swelling and racing towards the central point.
Lew cringed. With eyes closed he still saw a great flaring of light turn the lidded darkness red, then orange. Heat flashed over him, as well as a sudden leaping of the heart. An emotion, powerful in its primal immediacy, raced through his being and flared out as the cold Winter wind returned.
Still living he opened his eyes to witness a few licks of topaz flame crackling on his shield where whatever patina on the metal had caught fire from the Bright Thing’s ray. Risking a glance behind he saw the Fencer touch icy Dhala to his arm, dousing the sapphire blaze with a scream.
“It gains in shape!” shouted the Trumpeter.
Looking back Lew saw the cross spin into a circle of light, full of patterns illuminating inner geometries. For a moment he was hypnotized by these fractals but managed to shake his mind free just as the Bright Thing’s luminous mechanisms flashed once more.
He lost track of the others, there were none. He was alone with the second heat, wreathed in the sun. Even though his lids were closed he was blinded. Yet striking deeper than these mere physical phenomena was the emotion. The light was everything, always, purpose devoid of meaning, drive without reason. It was want and lust focused to a singular ray.
Again the heat died down but this revealed a screaming pain in Lew’s arm. Returning cold doused the alien passion within him. Through bleary, half-blinded eyes he realized his shield had been partially melted to his arm. Nausea welled up as the steel cooled, making small, whining noises.
The shape did not stop. Twisting into a triangle it gained in complexity, growing new structures like a snowflake. The Bright Thing was crystallizing its power, concentrating its driving light to lash out at everything which wasn’t the object of its desire. Lew stood agape, pain-shrouded, watching the looming light evolve.
Another shape intruded. A blasting noise, almost visible, struck the Bright Thing. The metallic wind alone almost bowled Lew over.
The entity’s reaction was immediate. It grew in the direction of the noise, as a thing of increasing complexity. At its heart shone the clarity of diamond. Along the edges sapphire and topaz played in the light. Rays streamed from its facets, pooling up into new shapes which then winked into existence as part of the Bright Thing.
Following the noise Lew saw the others scrambling away across the ice and that the note was intended to gain his attention. He ran after as fast as he could, feeling weak and exhausted from the thing’s rays. More of the blasts followed after him, rippling over frozen sands which combusted into oddly colored flame, leaving great glassy swaths to cool in Winter’s wind.
His companions ran ahead, outpacing the middle aged innkeep who dared not look back any longer. His feet hit the frozen waters with a metal rumble. The lake was perfectly flat, the surface reflecting his every movement.
Ahead of him the others stopped and began to vanish one by one into the ice. Then they were gone. His legs almost gave out then. Under the raining light of the Bright Thing despair set in. He knew that if its rays touched him there would be nothing left but colored ash, or worse, a vessel, such as the amazons had become.
In his panic Lew almost fell down the hidden crevice. Into this cunningly placed gap Scathra and the others pulled the innkeep. They helped him down some stairs onto some sort of platform. Above, it seemed there was no roof, even though he had been running across it a moment before. He could see the sky, the clouds, the radiance spilling from the epicenter of light.
A glow heralding its presence, the Bright Thing drifted into sight. It looked down, towering over them. Now it spanned at least a dozen meters in every direction, wings of pattern, panes of light. The vast luminous engine of its being began to pulse intensely and the sky flashed out of existence.
Lew and the others flinched but nothing other than light hit them. When the sky cleared it was there, staring sightlessly, unable to harm the travelers. Their salvation was dwarfed by the realization of the space they now inhabited.
There was no lake. In its place a massive, terraced crater expanded out and down. Cubic platforms staggered into the brightly lit depths, revealing a lush garden expanse fed by multiple cataracts, this being the final destination for all the waters spilling from the Cloaks. The gardens seemed well-tended and carefully maintained, full of wheat, oranges, barley, peppers, and other plants, verdant and plump, the likes of which Lew’s icebound eyes had never seen, not in a thousand divine miracles. Distantly, a white thing flexed and went still.
Warm, humid air gently enfolded Lew. All the layers he wore caught up with him and he thought for a fraction of a second on forbidden Summer, the word mingling with the sensation he now felt. The heady smell of life infused every breath. He was reminded of his inn and a pang of homesickness flared, only to be defeated by wonder.
Elegant steel helixes reached up from below. Following these his eyes met the translucent ceiling once more. It seemed the roof was a grid, held in place by these supports. Each square pane was a huge two-way mirror, letting in sun and heat, but keeping out the wind, insulating this hidden world behind the illusion of a frozen lake. It was an imperfect heaven, squares were missing here and there, though it was difficult to detect easily from above. More stairs in the distance led up to the surface.
“I know where you can find a piece of your missing sky,” mentioned the Trumpeter helpfully.
Scathra sighed, finally looking away from the Bright Thing hovering above.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “There will be no one left to appreciate the Goddess’s beneficence soon.”
“I want to remark on how gloomy your outlook is but I can’t think of a way to do it tactfully,” replied the Trumpeter.
“Do you think it can see us?” She was back to watching the shape. The entity would sit still for a short while then suddenly flit tens of meters across the mirror surface. It did not seem to notice the way down. Perhaps only the living caught its attention.
“It isn’t intelligent,” noted the Fencer, gesturing above while munching on a new kind of fruit. “Ow. This thing has a hard bit in the middle.”
“It is the thing from our shared dreams,” nodded Lew. “Inside the Bright vibrates some boundless desire. Gaining purchase through the eyes it searches for the object of its journey and in those it finds disappointing, which is everyone, it causes madness and other changes. The body becomes merely an instrument with which to direct its lust.”
“Then why hasn’t our amazon joined the ranks of the illuminated?” asked the Trumpeter, stuffing his pockets with produce.
“I have yet to sleep,” she said, her voice strained. “The others became wholly changed only once they rested. Our dreams must be weak to allow such violation, or its dream is that much stronger.”
A fluttering commotion interrupted. Huge white wings blasted them with wind and from conical beaks came angry, territorial hisses as a band of sacred swans alighted on their platform. They clacked their beaks and spread their wings far apart in an effort to seem huge and imposing. Easily accomplished, given their size.
The Fencer drew his weapon but Scathra was too quick for him. She advanced, armed with a bunch of water plants she hastily tore from a pool. Clicking her tongue twice the pristine birds glared sightlessly at the woman. For a moment they seemed to ready for another attack, but then merely pecked the offering from her hands.
“Feed them,” she commanded.
Lew and the Trumpeter did as they were told. The birds were rather docile, when they got what they wanted. Used to the attentions of the amazons they had obviously gone mean when abandoned. Such was the nature of things once cared for being left to Winter’s cold.
“Why was the box opened?” asked the Fencer. He had tried to offer a leek to one of the swans but the thing hissed at him. Sensing Dhala the creatures kept their distance and expected him to do the same.
“Things have not been well in Ropahd,” Scathra said solemnly, though her face smiled at the familiar task.
The seconds dragged out in the peaceful air. Swans, comforted with the proper attentions, cycled in to be cared for, while those sated flew off to frolic in the larger pools. Other creatures lived here, small beasts unknown to Winter. Flying insects buzzed amongst the blossoms while slow-moving caterpillars inched across leaf and stem. There were polychrome butterflies. The Fencer alone knew what they were. Lew felt himself ease into the warmth but the swordsman had little patience for peace.
“So you opened Omet’s box out of boredom?”
“In recent years there have been no new amazons,” said Scathra while running her long fingers over the grace arch of one bird. “The swans failed to bring more of our kind from the Beauty Beyond Sight. It was after the world had screamed, when strange shapes and vast aurora painted the sky and the wind brought alien screams. A fire blazed on the Sakram Trail, in the very spot where Lew’s Inn now stands. I was just a girl then, recently descended from the breath of Gobeithia, but I remember it vividly.”
“The Uplifting,” noted the Trumpeter, but was interrupted by Lew.
“How does this have anything to do with the Box?” he asked.
“Zaffa was our youngest, only recently brought to us by less-than-divine means,” began Scathra, the light in her eyes shining worrisome.
Lew began to look about, desperate for some escape from the words she was about to utter. He contemplated jumping down to the next terrace, a fall of almost ten meters. It seemed the less painful option.
“As she grew she realized the plight of our community. With no new Sacred she would grow to be the last, unless the Goddess saw fit to bless us once more. She was not content to do so, and there were others with her: the young, the troublesome and the spiteful. Zaffa convinced many that we should search through our past for the future, through the vast stores of treasures left to our care. She was a convincing child with an imperious grace. Obeyed, she found many of the wonders left to us by our deity, as well as the box held in keeping for that green-haired witch.”
“What’s the point of a box if you can’t open it?” reasoned the Trumpeter.
Turmoil, fear and disbelief boiled through Lew. If Zaffa had been the one opening then surely she was lost to the Bright.
“Trouble possessed us Sacred for much time before that. In a way, it may have been better to flare out in blood-soaked sorcery than to dwindle to ruins.”
Lew found the Fencer considering this with his cold heart. Without any motive of his own the innkeep was now lashed to the two travelers and their quest, which might prove as fruitless as his own.
“If something leaves a box then surely it can return.” The Trumpeter thought along out loud.
“Perhaps.” Turning on Scathra, the swordsman spoke. “What is that mountain up ahead?”
Following his gesture they could see that a cone of rock tapered up from the depths of the dry lake to breach the mirror surface above. Lew vaguely remembered seeing a small island as he fled the bright thing.
“Holy Isle Jyncris,” she said and almost kept speaking but smiled darkly to herself.
“What’s the matter?” asked the Trumpeter.
“I was about to say that it is a sacred and forbidden place, but realized how foolish I sound.”
“Show us the way then.” In the Fencer’s request there was trouble, but Lew had no argument.
Why they went away from the Box and its now freed inhabitant was only mildly confusing, a dull buzz at the back of the innkeep’s mind. His thoughts wandered as they journeyed through the hidden world of the amazons, a paradise kept hidden in this vast greenhouse. Wondering where his dead daughter might lay—out on the ice, sculpted and insane on the shores of the false lake—provided a bottomless pit in which he might sink his soul. Then he considered his sons, and grew even more morose.
Down and down they went, following a haphazard circuit of wrought iron steps, through gardens, orchards and fountains bedecked in verdant finery lost to cold Winter. Near the base of the island the terraces gave out and there was a pool, a small lake, perfumed with flower blossoms caught up in the water’s passage down the endless steps. Here frogs played on lily pads and golden fish swam in abundance.
Taking a small boat across the waters they saw that it held steady at this level, probably trickling off at an engineered rate into some underground sea or river. There it entered back into the cycle of Winter, like a dreamer waking from a pleasant dream.
The boat took them to a tiny quay, and from this a narrow, winding stair led upward, to the brink of the amazonian myth, to the place where their goddess kept herself sealed away. In truth all they were expecting was dust. The Fencer’s quest was fruitless while the Trumpeter’s curiosity was its own reason.
After an hour or so of beleaguering ascent they broke through a small gap from the mirror ice. Distantly the Bright Thing continued to flash against the polished waters. Its glory shone vibrant and enigmatic.
The structure they found on the island seemed a ruin at first, but like many a cunning work of sorcery this belied a sublime architecture. While shot through with holes and flaws, there was as grace to the curving, folding chambers and hallways. They hadn’t long to go before the inhabitant made herself known.
There was Zaffa clad in stolen gossamer. Lew lost his mind and ran up to her. He heard nothing of his companion’s shouts. There was only the goal and the achievement. His daughter lived, she held up her arms to him. Her eyes blinked with recollection as he took her up, even though he had not seen her since she was an infant. She certainly could not possibly remember the young paladin who held her for short moments while her mother sculpted a future of veils and mythology. This joy was impossible.
Thursday, October 11, 2012
To flee into the normal, the everyday, is a prime fantasy. Lew felt it, the desire to be back in his quiet inn which was never quiet. The past lived on in silence, without echo or song, as memory, idealized and frozen under the ice of Winter. The past was a ruin, a tourist destination for those with the leniency of wealth and ignorance.Yet the past he now confronted blinked at him unwanted and obscene, a creature of flesh transplanted and reformed in blasphemous recollection. His mind went towards the religious. He remembered prayers. If only the holy fire still burned. With it he could scorch this horror from his mind and absolve him of the uncomfortable intimacy he once shared with a being in whose image this thing shared in many parts. The gods were gone and there was no relief.
He had met her on his travels with his Alabaster Glint in a form she wore when it suited. That was such a grace, to be included in her secrets. She had so many. In her time she was many persons, a masked menagerie, all for the sake of her true Art. In this instance she was a white witch in service to the Incariate.
Lew watched in shock as the monolith compilation of stone and amazons thundered to a stop. Vaguely he knew his companions tugged at his sleeve, but he couldn’t shake what he was seeing. In those myriad forms hints of Etha shuddered and twitched. He saw her leg, an eye, the curve of her side in profile, like a violin. Together these things created a jarring constellation where the individual elements were beautiful but the totality seethed like nightmare. Once it had been a dream.
The juggernaut stood half as tall as the amazonian pyramid behind which the others pulled the heart-struck innkeep. Each grimaced at the sight. The legs looks like mincing pegs dancing below the great slab body, itself overrun with colorful eyes, the final apotheosis of the tattoos with which the women adorned themselves. Yet most troubling of all were the torsos growing from the top. When not flopping about from the force of the beast’s stride each employed themselves in varied expression, with some pontificating love or affection, others clashing weapons, or hiding their faces in their hands, or crying. Tears overran the thing. These outsiders were not the pure flesh sought by the Bright and so the beast thrashed in search.
The group had scarce seconds to gather themselves before the noise of many feet approached. Scathra hurriedly led them around another dwelling.
From this vantage they spied the monstrosity slowly turn around the corner of their previous hiding spot. The Fencer pulled them away from sight, yet it was too late. Seeing curiosity it now moved with eager purpose towards their new location. Though they had no notion of its intent the fear was enough to avoid the thing. Ducking into the waiting darkness of one building they felt the heavy weight follow after with a crunch of ice.
Inside it was cold and dark, but hazy light trickled in. The amazons lived in spaces cut according to a delicate aesthetic reinforced by stone, a testament to their sensibilities. This pyramid had two floors linked by a narrow, winding stair. The ground level held a central fire pit and from the ceiling various herbs and plants hung. Cushions stuffed with swan feathers lay about, describing a sprawling social habitat. All the stone surfaces bore detailed carvings, pleasing shapes marking everything with the touch of pink patterns, abstract and meshed. Long, narrow slits in the walls let in the light and the eyes.
Only a moment went before a groaning sound came from the portal they had just entered. Lew glanced back and saw a ream of eyes watching him. The thing had crouched low to investigate to investigate the door.
They barely made it out the opposite entrance when the juggernaut smashed through the building. It pranced about the collapsing structure, kicking up pink dust. Even amongst this confusion they weren’t safe.
Those damned eyes followed everything in their search. Clever pupils blinked past the chaos to watch for prey. Perhaps they could observe that ultimate form to which desire strove with all the brilliance of a lightning bolt. Excited at the prospect that others might share the vision it galloped after, sending up a spray of ice shards into the hazy light.
What followed was a losing game of cat and mouse. The mortals fled from building to building, seeing glimpses of the amazon city as they sought refuge while the juggernaut followed, stalking and playing. Other things of watching flesh wandered the city, some fused, becoming more statues, others still moving carefully, looking for that one true love.
Quickly the travelers ran out of buildings, only the open plains of the Sakram lay beyond, where they would soon be overtaken and trampled. Hefting up a piece of fallen ice the Trumpeter tossed the fragment against a far pyramid. This distraction failed. Instantly the eyes triangulated upon the object, the trajectory and charged their last hiding place.
The Fencer flourished his weapon and caught its eye. Dashing off, he led the thing away from the group, pieces of stone still crumbling from its form. At Scathra’s urging the band found another pyramid, this one of pale blue stone. Against the debris thrown up by the thing’s passing they lost sight of the swordsman.
A gust of wind arrived with a few dusting snows. Storm hints flitted through the eternal bloom of Ropahd’s shroud of light. The result was a mixing of the particles in the air, bringing ribbons of dust and smoke, as well as breaks of sky, showing dark night and the roiling threat of the ice storm.
“Now’s our chance,” noted Lew.
“Yes, to hide well and forever,” nodded the Trumpeter.
“The thing is interested in him. If we are smart about it then we may gain the advantage. It sees well, but it doesn’t turn quickly.”
“What reason is there in helping that bloodthirsty sellsword?” asked Scathra with a tilt of her head.
“My own, that’s all,” he said and ventured out.
Stinging fragments from the storm met him outside. The ground trembled, breaking loose ice which scattered down the pyramids’ sides. Chaos raged all around, making it difficult to tell where the noise of battle was coming from.
“Allow me,” shouted the Trumpeter who appeared beside the innkeep.
Raising his instrument to the sky he let out a note which broke the sky wide open. Lew’s ears rang as all the ice on all the structures came clattering down. The many-eyed beast took no notice as it had no ears.
Chasing this mystery the innkeep went towards the center of the city, as best he could determine in the glare and gloom. At times he was blinded by light, at others shrouded in aromatic smoke. The wind drove harder now, bringing with it stinging ice.
Shattered dwellings rose up like broken teeth and on the ground they found blood and severed limbs showing still-living eyes, evidence of the Fencer’s work.
Following this trail they met Scathra, who knew her home better than they, and since their last meeting had scrounged up a bow and arrows. Before they could speak the Fencer joined them, followed close by the blinking juggernaut.
“You idiots!” he shouted as he limped along. The others scattered as the monster rose up high and then brought its great flat front down on the man.
The strike broke the ground, making each piece of ice dance. Not content with the miss it continued to follow the swordsman, though some of the women on top leaned towards the other travelers in hope of catching whatever it was that they saw in those not part of the Bright.
Scathra sent out flights of swan-fletched arrows, each bearing a prayer. Eyes popped and wept. A good shot took one of the poor fused creatures in the head and she collapsed to rest, blinking. Yet the missiles did little to the main form, that block of granite cut from the northern mountains. The juggernaut’s attentions were fully on the swordsman.
The Fencer retreated until his back was against another pyramid, then continued retreating, on and up the marble slope. Part of a woman wielding a long axe spun and gyrated, striking out as the man ascended. He only barely ducked beneath the attack. Sparks scattered where the blade glanced off the marble, each mote watched by an eye. With a flick of Dhala the attacker lost her head, but inside there were only more eyes, swollen with topaz and sapphire.
Lew watched the swordsman fight his way up the pyramid. Each lunge was met with the peerless blade and every strike from the amazon forms was answered in blood. At last he climbed out of reach but the thing just followed, placing its weight upon the slope, which instantly buckled, collapsing the whole structure.
Leaping from the structure The Fencer flew through the air, sword raised as he landed on the beast. The indigo blade bit deep into the juggernaut’s core, which thrashed him easily away.
Down the Fencer fell, into ruin. Instantly a blast came from beside the innkeep. Something beyond sound dove through the air, a brightness of tone, an echo of souls being forged. The noise mulched the first row of limbs and torsos, scattering a bloody mist which went up with the wind. Turning, he saw the Trumpeter, eyes glaring sharp as swords into the beast.
This gained its attention. Charging, it came at them, spraying blood and looking on. The Trumpeter braced himself with his weapon and slid back under the oncoming force. With a lift of its front the musician was tossed by the juggernaut. Scathra attempted to hobble its legs, but it spun about, knocking her sideways across an avenue. Now it looked on Lew alone.
Despite all his training the former paladin had frozen, barely able to step aside from the abomination’s initial rush. He stood still in the face of this carven avalanche, hands lost in his pockets. Something clinked in one.
Without thinking he threw the object at the beast just as it began to move towards him. The vial he had taken from the Trumpeter’s room broke. Lew swallowed hard, lost between dodging right or left. Then a liquescence overtook the juggernaut. A lick of iron flame erupted. Molten steel splashed over the beast, growing, eager, overtaking the many-eyed monster from the point where the vial had struck.
Released from its extreme compression the air screamed as the metal took shape at thousands of degrees. Waves of heat rolled out, evaporating ice and melting the ancient ground beneath its many feet. Slowly it sunk and as it did flesh and stone, eyes frantic with pain, was smelt and cast forever.
By the time the action of the magic mixture cooled the juggernaut was coated in steel, the warping effects of which took the matter of the abomination and reformed it into a twisting sculpture born from heat and cold, magic and madness. Eyes still looked out from its detailed surface, forever stilled.
All were shaken by the ordeal, so that the ice storm seemed a distant distraction even as shards began whizzing about. This was a violent one, with gusts capable of stripping flesh from bone.
They found the Fencer amongst stones fallen like toy blocks, half covered in lush silks and scented cushions. His head was bloodied and he was senseless, with troubled breathing. Still, he lived.
Breaking bright and cloudy, filled with light and gleaming ice, a Sakram ice storm hit with all the rage of a lost god. The clouds flashed but this light was nothing compared to the brilliant eye opening on the shore where winds took the last of the smoke away. That strange Bright, topaz and sapphire and unspeakable white, seemed to blink as the last veils were shred. It was more in fear of this sight than the flensing storm which forced the travelers to take shelter in a remaining pyramid.
Scathra was quick with the shutters while the Trumpeter made a fire and placed the Fencer nearby.
“It’ll be too hot for him,” explained the lunatic. “He’ll have to wake up.”
“He has a concussion or worse,” said Lew.
“It’s not so bad as that. It is the dreams I worry about.”
“Then we kill him,” said Scathra, keeping an ear on their conversation as she hurtled from window to window, pulling sheets of heavy stone into place over each.
Lew investigated for himself. Yes, there was more blood than damage, that being the way of head wounds. The man knew how to take a fall. But his breathing was strange, fast, excited. Cold eyes fluttered and he mumbled dream-words to invisible entities.
“Where’s Dhala?” asked the Trumpeter. When none knew that name he asked again. “His sword, where is it?”
In their haste it had been left behind. Subconsciously both Scathra and Lew were relieved. There was a horror to the blade, something worse than Winter.
Just as the amazon finished bolting the door she turned and found the Trumpeter’s face up against hers.
“You may be mad but I won’t have it kill us, not while there is still that light out there,” she said.
He made to move past her but she took him and threw him back, being much stronger than he. Yet in this same motion his hands grasped her veil and it came off. Both men saw her eyes, gleaming with the light of damned desire. The Trumpeter didn’t care.
Dancing to his feet he flourished his instrument. Outside the wind howled its own music.
“If you don’t let me to that door I’ll be making my own,” he said, pursing his lips.
Already the woman had her red-stained club in her hands but was unsure if she could reach him before the song left his lungs. Her luminous eyes, like foiled metal, glanced over to where Lew crouched beside the Fencer. Her intent was obvious.
“I won’t be adding to the violence,” said the innkeep. This was his way, to balance situations and diffuse them through opposition.
Like a child let loose in a festival the Trumpeter was at the door in a flash. Scathra boiled with anger, but was defeated and exhausted.
The door howled open, almost knocking the musician over. He donned his instrument like a helmet and ventured into the streaming, ice-glittered light. The same colors danced in the amazon’s eyes. She didn’t bother shutting the door. Lew didn’t move either. Between Winter’s rage and the curse of magic they were but icebound.
“Gobeithia,” muttered the Fencer in the early stages of dream.
Both of them knew that name, though it occupied different spaces.
“He dreams of the Goddess,” noted Scathra.
“That is not what I would call her,” replied Lew in an unguarded moment. He wanted to let the secret out a bit but feared harming their doomed guide.
“What do you know of the Beauty Beyond Sight?”
“I know that what I may say could be far worse than what you have seen,” began Lew with a balancing sigh. “I simply wish to know Zaffa’s fate.”
“She saw the most,” Scathra said from a world away.
The wind continued to howl from the open door with neither of them had the energy to close. Light poured in, bits of ice striking bright as they entered the pyramid. Burning warm the fire danced with the chill breeze.
“What happened here?” asked Lew, knowing this to be the proper moment.
“A trust was failed,” she said simply. “Some years ago a green-haired witch came to us, not wishing to join our ranks, but searching for honest folk on old, liar Winter. After staying with us for a time and studying the great power which resides on the island beyond the still waters she entrusted us with a device holding a dangerous energy. She relied on our purity, so resolute and apart. Despite all that it was opened and now you see.”
The Fencer thrashed and wept glimmering tears. Parts of him struggled in dream-pain.
“What do you hope to find with Zaffa? Even if she hasn’t died then she will be just another eye-bound victim of the Bright.”
“She is my daughter and even as I say it the words seem false and dramatic. There are so many dead and I only want what’s mine? Curiosity accounts for some of my selfishness, and also devotion, yet I can look back and see only the empty ice of the horizon. I know my inn is there, my boys, but I have left them to chase a dream, a remnant of desire clad in yesterday’s gold. So I can say I’m after my daughter, but she is really just the visible tip of an invisible treasure. It’s all like a riddle.”
At this the Fencer thrashed. Even his inner ways were violent. He too bore an inchoate reason. Never had Lew seen his like in his travels, a true exotic from the fringes of Winter wearing the face of a common thug.
“Why are you telling me these secrets?” asked Scathra, eyes gleaming.
“Because we are going to die out here.”
Silence arrived. Though there was all the wind and clattering ice the inner pyramid was a null space without echo or other. Through this void the Fencer was given to mutter and would not wake, no matter the heat of the fire, or how much he was shaken, slapped, poked, or generally annoyed. He spat up conspiracies of light, of red demons, blue strangers, and a woman all lovely and elusive.
After an hour of torment he began to animate. Soon they would have no choice but to cure him of the Bright with sword or club. Then a thundering clamor hit the still-open door.
An ice-encrusted Trumpeter entered and shook himself free of the storm. Blood streamed from numerous shallow wounds caused by the whirling frost. Bundled up in his scarf he held the offending weapon, Dhala, as the thing was called in no language Lew had ever heard.
“Your friend struggles more than most on the second day,” said Scathra.
“That is because he already carries another’s dream around in his head.”
The musician carefully unwrapped the sword out of fear of doing damage to his scarf while making sure his flesh never touched the weapon. It seemed black in the firelight, with the sheen of metal but the form of crystal.
He placed the sword next to his sleeping friend and then set the Fencer’s hand upon the flat of the blade. Immediately the man ceased his inner argument, but this quiet was anything but calm. His brow furrowed and he grew tense, possessed by a potent and personal thought. The storm continued in its rage but now they thought to close the door.
So they passed the storm in pyramidal Ropahd and tried not to sleep. To this end they raided the dwelling and judged its tenants.
In the larder they found dried herbs, hard bread and smoked salmon. In the lofted sleeping quarters above feather cushions, hide blankets, and unfinished clothes, tattoo implements, inks, mirrors and paint, little baubles and beads, niceties, tokens, shiny stones, old shells, objects to be pierced through flesh, small things which amused souls now screaming mad or dead on the ice.
The amazons lived a communal life in their marble bunkers. They tangled with each other in these social palaces. Protected from the outside world they had wide open rooms of peace. The whole city was a cache of beauty, of memory, set according to myth, guarded by tradition and mystery.
The Fencer took up a new round of mutters. Watching, the swordsman grew ever wakeful, but there was no telling whether he would be of his own mind. Scathra readied her club and by now Lew had taken up a curved scimitar from the armory, as well as a shield of dented steel.
The Fencer shot up all of a sudden, hunching forward. He let out a single weep and rubbed his eyes. Diamonds fell. Looking up, his cold, grey irises showed no sign of the flux possessing the others.
“How?” frowned Scathra, the fight going out of her.
“I do not know,” shrugged the Trumpeter as he stole the precious gems. “The sword has a certain effect on the mind, and while it seems to make my companion an icy murderer on many occasions it has the quality of keeping his thoughts sharp for this purpose.”
“I saw your vision,” gasped the Fencer. He seemed energized by his success, renewed. For now his usual brutish and recalcitrant behavior was banished. “I was a ray of desire, lancing across unknown vaults of space, towards a singular and obscure object of affection.”
“Did you see it?” asked Lew.
“No, my old dream returned to me.” At this the swordsman’s enthusiasm waned as he realized their situation and the nasty bump on his skull.
The Trumpeter stopped stuffing his pockets to ask, “Was he there?”
“Yes,” frowned the Fencer.
“The Stranger,” noted the musician.
“Who is this?” asked Scathra.
“His other dream,” said the Trumpeter before his companion would give his response.
The two men immediately prepared to journey out. They filled their waterskins, stuffed themselves and their pockets with smoked fish and bread, and skimmed a few tokens off the dead, who wouldn’t be needing such things anymore. Such was their bluster that Lew didn’t notice until Scathra objected.
“What are you packing for?” she demanded. “There will be nothing out there but more horror and light. The storm is almost gone and with it the Bright will be boundless.”
“We had best not sleep then,” reasoned the Fencer. “Not until we’ve found what we’re after.”
“I think it’s on the shore,” noted the Trumpeter. “It seemed the light is greatest just to the east.”
“And just what are you after?” Scathra’s eyes burned intently.
“Omet’s Box,” said the musician.
Nothing was satisfied. The storm left the fleshy sculptures, eyes and all, a ruined mess. Blood stained the snow and speckled the ruins where the juggernaut had given chase. Everything was shown in stark relief without sun or day or night. The cycle of time was lost in the streams of topaz, sapphire and diamond and the only darkness was the shadows cast by the Bright. Once it had been a city but now it was a necropolis.
This eternal day wasn’t so potent that it blinded, instead it allowed the eyes to consider its texture. Filaments and ripples hung in the air, waving like sea water, sheens and layers and transparencies, textured with soft diamond patterns. All shifted, all flowed.
The Fencer led the way to the frozen seashore. Here a vast bubble, many hundreds of meters in diameter, hung in the air. Its surface was some kind of luminous membrane. Moving closer this skin trembled. He drew his weapon and it became a screaming cluster of insane motes and trailing rays, arcing through the cold, still air at the man with the nightmare blade.