Thursday, October 4, 2012

VIII. Journey to Ropahd

Zaffa broke into the holy demesne with a bit of steel twisted by the fires still smoking over the cold palaces of Sanctum.  The lock shattered and the sound echoed over the ever-still waters.  The great silence had been violated.
              Despite this disruption no divine curse fell on the girl, no fire, no thunder.  Her entrails didn’t boil and no disease fevered her brain as retribution for defiling the Impossible Palace.  It seemed that no-one was home.
            Gloom and dust ruled within.  To call it a palace or a mansion produced a trouble of cognition amongst the tangled halls.  At a distance it seemed that a craggy fragment of stone jutted up as Lake Ithie’s only island.  Closer it revealed itself a sort of broken ruin, some artifact of ancient Winter’s harsh hand upon civilization.  Only now, past the gate, did Zaffa witness the divine ruse at work.  But a question remained: why did a goddess need to hide?
            Inside it was dark, but Zaffa didn’t notice.  Her eyes illuminated the interior world of lost divinity.  If Gobeithia, the Beauty Beyond Sight, still existed then she was worlds away from this cold place smelling of dust and dried plants.
            The structure’s architecture spoke of broken grace.  Walls like curtains swept along, curving and bending.  Rare were the flat surfaces in this place.  Here and there many tunnels extended to other rooms, but these were often small portals through which one had to crawl.  Hidden defiles and optical illusions cast by the warped interior haunted the intruder’s mind as she went off with glee into the forbidden cloister.
            She had never wanted to do bad so much in her bare fifteen years.  In two folds she danced and played through the halls of the lost Goddess.  All the Sacred had been assured She would return, that there were times when centuries spanned between the advent of Gobeithia on the physical plane.  Outsiders, those few rare adventurers they caught attempting to uncover the aloof secrets of the amazons, brought rumor of dead gods and fallen heavens but their voices mattered little to the Sacred, who lived apart.
            Zaffa hoped they were right, an uncanny thing, this desire, and skipped about, looking for the object, her eyes piercing through the rude matter in hungry search.  She was too young to have seen the Beauty in person, knowing only that her birds were foul-tempered creatures and that the older virago held themselves with a siege atmosphere out amongst the plenty provided by the Goddess.
            Covered by the dust of days past she found strange things.  A bedroom with a decayed mattress, a desk holding papyrus sheets with joyous, mind-blurring writing, and a bank of perfume which conjured a trill through her body with each one she opened.  There was a laboratory and a library, a greenhouse overgrown with plumed fruit and heavy, plush vegetables.  A few rooms held the dusty remains of sacred swans mummified by the dry air. 
            Something whistled, the shrill Winter breeze hungering along with her for this creature of the past.  She followed the noise to an outer room half open to the sky.  Here the noise blew in through a number of curious little holes in the stone façade.

After a time they stopped chasing the Fencer and he slowed down, breath pluming white against the bright strangeness burning on the shores of the lake.  He led them south, towards the center of the light which infested their eyes, some more greatly than others.  If they should sleep their hearts wouldn’t be their own anymore and this desperate understanding drove them on towards the Bright. 
            “I would pay a crown’s price to see beyond your veil,” said the Trumpeter who had grown bored with the pace and thought to make trouble with their amazon guide.
            “In my dealings with the amazons I don’t recall a tradition of veils,” mentioned Lew, who stumbled like a drunk due to fatigue.
            “I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to indulge your whims on this matter,” she said to the Trumpeter with an unseen frown.  “It is good that we are different creatures.”
            “I am offended!” declared the musician.
            “Not as much as I should be,” realized Lew through the haze of light and day.  “You stole my guest’s steed.  Whatever did you do with it?”
            “It served its purpose and died, it’s what living things do.”  Scathra’s cold voice hid her pain well.  The innkeep, being a scholar of silence, sensed this behind the veil.  Perhaps it was best to forget the beast. 
            “Of course we are different!” exclaimed the Trumpeter.  “What fun would there be if men and women were exactly the same?  I sense a shrouded nature to your words, perhaps now would be the best time to shed that veil for the sake of honesty.”
            The insistent musician would not be denied and Scathra, sharp words and all, could do nothing to deflate his mania.  How she longed for a band of sacred swan to descend on them.
            “We amazons do not fit into the dialectic of man,” she explained begrudgingly.  “While we will take in those women who wish to join us our lifecycle is one of divinity.  First the sacred swans bring each new amazon to us without blood or pain at the beginning and at the end we do not perish but are allowed into the Impossible Palace when we have proved ourselves against Winter’s challenge.  In between our lives are primed for the excellence which is lacking in all other portions of this icy world.  Outside the nightmare realm of barbarism strangles each soul; on the Sakram we expand our lives to the horizon so that we may join with the Beauty Beyond Sight.”
            Lew dwelled on each word.  He had heard glimpses of these truths from rare interactions with the Sacred, but this was by far the most comprehensive description granted to any icebound or magician by one of the amazons.  It was this that had calmed his mind those fifteen years ago when the ashes of the Uplifting were still cooling.  He glimpsed hope through her words and was sorely upended when the Trumpeter jumped on a weakness of the narrative.
            “Oh what a fun myth,” smiled the musician, entertained.  “I’m sure there are proper allowances for death by fortune and violence, rites to be performed, ecstatic, gyrating dances.”
            Lew’s head swam and he had to shake vigorously to regain his balance.  None of the others noticed as they were heading off into an argument.  Just then he realized that the Fencer had stopped moving.
            For the moment the amazon’s story stood.  The Fencer had found a number of glassine panes amongst the sheets of hard-packed snow.  Through these gold shapes darted and played.  They had stumbled across a collection of frozen streams. 
            “Burnished salmon,” Scathra noted, gesturing to the gold shapes.
            It seemed that below the layers of ancient snow a few waterways trickled down from the Cloaks, fed not by glacier melt but instead originating in springs warmed by some inner fire held in those mountains. 
            “I am now convinced of a dragon,” said the Trumpeter. 
            To Lew the light became as sound, with a sudden crash he was brought back to reality. 
            Scathra’s moved to stop the Fencer from bringing down his weapon again, the bright ice still scattering from his first strike.  This proved unnecessary.  The swordsman set his weapon aside and lay down at the water’s edge, slowly extending an arm into the current.  A giant hand descended from the sky and Lew blinked and blinked but could not clear his eyes.

In short order Lew knew that most dreams sustained no narrative, that they held only a single element, a monoculture of light or sound or shape.  If he was given space and time to consider this realization it might’ve come to greatness, but Lew was soon granted no other bearing than terror.
            The hand was beautiful, a woman’s long fingers extending from the clouds.  Her skin was transparent as glass, but inside there was no rude matter, no flesh, blood or bone.  Like a flash she contained a pure distillate substance: all that was good and desirable in another.  Her flesh vanished, leaving only this quality obscured by the bleary nature of reality.
            Clouds and sky bled away, the ground gone, and even Lew felt himself shed his skin and stream without form towards her most pure essence.  He was, he realized a light, and this slowed his progress across whatever gulfs of space operated this far horizon of dream. 
            In this form he was directed as a ray towards the object of desire, which rested vaguely on the far shores beyond all possible explanation.  He burned for her soul, whoever she may be, caught up in a current of infinite blues and burnished, alchemic gold.
            The force which drove him, the engine of his heart, was nearly unbearable, stripping Lew of will and thought.  But something darkened his particular ray and further slowed his transit towards the indefinite and salacious.  The power which drove all his fellow beams crashed hard against this transgression, as if he were standing still in a stampede.  An element of self lived on against this tide of absolute desire.  Horror bloomed like blood on the ocean. 
            His attentions tilted elsewhere and he dove away from the coursing stream towards airy wastes which lay to the side of the juggernaut flood. 
            Matter and scene erupted at his passage and he knew of clouds again and icy Winter and all those things which made a life.  Time roared past and he saw his training amongst the paladins and the estate of Yem and his holiness, the Alabaster Glint.  He felt the touch of her hand and the fire of the Uplifting and all those old emotions of terror and love and loss dwindling to survival and the inn on the Sakram Trail.  Like a bolt he crackled past all these, towards a face he hadn’t ever seen and a soul whose existence was blasphemy to some and a constant, if hidden, joy to this one man.

Lew awoke cringing against the light of afternoon.  Above him the Fencer and Scathra held their weapons and watched his eyes.  They found no reason to strike.
            “He is well you see,” explained the Trumpeter.
            “I do not understand.”  Scathra’s voice told of anguish hid behind her veil of jangling discs.  “After they saw the light my sisters went mad, but here you live through the bright dream, as you all did the night before.  How can this be?”
            “You yourself said we are of two different kinds,” noted the Fencer, gauging Lew’s eyes for sign of the possessing light. 
            The amazon looked up at the swordsman.  The thing about veils is that, like a mask, they can accentuate certain emotions by laying bare the body language of the wearer.  Though he couldn’t see past her metal façade Lew noted a sullen lean to her movement before she turned in a whirl of cloak and metal to seek the southern horizon.
            “I think I saw the true dream,” rasped Lew, trying to fill the vacuum of their knowledge concerning the mad light.  “It draws in the soul, aiming it like a lust or a want, like a drunkard and his bottle or a lover towards their beloved.”
            “I dreamed of something else,” argued the Fencer.
            “That is true, so did I, that first time.”  Lew took a few steps after Scathra, hoping she would turn around and understand.  “But this time it was nothing like any other dream.  It didn’t contain elements of my life, just desire and an object of that desire.  I was nothing but a drive towards that purest essence but something distracted me…”
            At that Lew went the sort of quiet which attracted the very attention he wished to avoid.  The Trumpeter smelled blood.
            “Go on, share this distraction,” asked the musician with a smile.
            “It is my business out here,” explained the innkeep tersely.
            “Yes, the vague matter which brought you with us.”  The Fencer’s face hinted at a wry smile.  “You were to meet with someone.  An amazon perhaps?”
            “We each have our desires and I’d prefer that those do not cross,” demanded Lew, trying to strike the same tone he did with his boys when they gained ambitions concerning the inn’s affairs.
            “Zaffa,” said the swordsman.
            Lew’s face went into a harsh battle mask.
            “You spoke in your sleep,” explained the Fencer.
            “I know that name,” added Scathra.
            Lew tumbled with his secret.  Old worry flooded up from where his puzzle was undone, laying bare the pain he had for the one he had given up long ago.  Yet even still this wasn’t the most troubling development.  He dared not even think on the last secret lest a mind reader happen by to pull away his blasphemous mote of dream.  He refused to speak. 
            Exhaustion had finally come and yet he lived.  Lew had gained a spare few hours of rest along the broken stream while the others fished and ate and sat wondering if they would exist past their next dream.  None succumbed to this worry and they left, a few fresh salmon for their troubles.
            Cold wind journey over the flats as ice took hold over the descending rock.  Here the snows were almost silver, ancient packed frost smoothed into an indestructible laminate.  Deep below there was a world, but their experience knew only the husk it wore called Winter.  To the west a dark sky spoke of a coming ice storm.
            In a way it was good to race for the mad light because it granted Lew distraction.  To their credit his companions didn’t press him any further concerning the name Zaffa and even he didn’t dwell too long on those letters.  Winter stripped the mind and laid it bare to the cold reasoning of survival.  Should that ice storm fall upon them before they found shelter all their worries and hopes would be the same, laid down to bare bones.
            Already they were close enough to smell the granary fire which still smoldered, sending up the ash cloud which had diffused the strange, demon light.  But this salvation was minor and fleeting: the ice storm’s winds would certainly blow away the bulwark smoke, leaving all of the Sakram at the mercy of the Bright’s radiations.
            At the cloud’s border their amazon guide made them stop.  She seemed stronger now, this close to her home, but then there was the veil to consider.  Each had one, hiding from each other.  Lew even sensed a barrier between the Fencer and the Trumpeter.  They had a great deal of understanding, yes, but it was the understanding that they would always have a potent conflict between their two modes of being.
            Awaiting her voice the men discovered silence.  Scathra moved her jingling head so she could see past them, towards distant lands south and north and west.  At first they turned, expecting howling amazons or light-crazed Duhg, but no, there was nothing there but Winter.  To the north the oncoming winds sent up ribbons of snow from the high peaks of the Cloaked Mountains, and to the south the sky was still greatly blue and bright with evening rays, casting shadows from the hamazakaran trees and skipping brilliant over the icy Sakram hills.  The west was growing in darkness, the flat shade of an ice storm, coughing up occasional glitter to catch in the declining daylight.  In these each man searched for what the amazon saw.
            “You do not expect to see these things again?”  The Trumpeter posed it like a question but it seemed more of a pronouncement.  He had noted the fatalism in her look, as if Scathra had no intention on surviving the trek into the glowing epicenter.  At these words she ducked into the realm of light.
            Inside they discovered a wonderland dreaming of amber, cerulean and smoke, the tints the light took on this close.  The smell of fire hit their nostrils but there were other scents too, spices and aromatics, possibly the goods burned by whomever thought to staunch the flowing glamour. 
            They were not far from the shore, but they couldn’t see it for the bright glory.  Even diffused it created a sort of bubble where the light grew thick and so they stumbled about.
            Lew bumped into something and muttered an apology to his unseen companion.  The response was only silence.  Daring a peek he found himself watched.
            Eyes stared from a fleshy statue growing out from the icy land.  She had once been an amazon but now wore a skin of blinking optics, each hungry and colorful.  Her form had a supple grace, like a statue in attendance to a goddess. 
            There were more of these in the haze, observing intently whatever they could, looking for their heart.  Of the amazon natives it seemed there was little left but the idealized form stretched into nightmare sculpture, arching towards the settlement, seeking something there.  Some were gathered, groups of women knotted together like tree trunks, all of one flesh.
            Scathra cut one and it bled silently.  Together with the Fencer they slew those they could, releasing them from the endless search.
            Leaving a trail of blood they found Ropahd, the settlement of the amazons.  It sprawled by the shores of the lake, which gleamed strangely through the diffused light.  Low pyramids built from pink quartz cut from the northern mountains stared at the travelers with doors of shadow.  On each surface a layer of ice clung, giving each building a glassy shimmer.  Other structures loomed, but a noise distracted them from behind.
            Hiding amongst the watchers the party listened to the sound of many feet gallop as the ice buckled under a massive weight.  Springing into view Lew’s mind seemed to stretch into painful madness.
            A juggernaut monolith trotted into being.  Its central body was a broad flat slab of marble melded to the flesh of a dozen amazons.  Their many legs held it up, and their many torsos grew from the top, flopping about in the bucking movement of the main body.  It bristled with weapons and saw them all.  The travelers wished it had a mouth so that its glaring silence wouldn’t be so terrible. 

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