“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.