Thursday, October 18, 2012

X. The Mirrored Lake

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. 

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