Most keep a box of dreams hidden within their person. This place can be called the heart, but in some cultures it is the brain and in others an aura visible only to those with the gift of the Art.That there is such a distinction between the icebound and magicians is a telling one. Minds locked by the ice and the need for survival, mundane creatures keep their box of dreams frozen tight, never to be released, except in small ways. So, when serendipity manages to thaw their prison a bit of light escapes. But the talented rarely had to keep such desires hidden, basking indulgent and satisfied by whim.
That wasn’t the case for one magician, Omet of the Brilliant Eye, a shaper nonpareil who could capture the lightning bolt furnace of the Lattice at almost any frequency but could never win the heart of his most desired Gobeithia, an independent creature. His want hounded him through all hours and planes. In danger of becoming overwhelmed with unfulfilled passion he took this energy and hid it away with his Art, so he could cogitate on more abstract and accessible matters without the trouble.
So it was a funny thing that this desire, the physical container itself, became a goal of the Fencer and by extension the Trumpeter. Now unleashed on a world lacking its most sought after bride, it had found the next best thing.
“It’s after Zaffa,” said Lew, wishing he had never found her. His heart swung the other way now, towards nihilism.
“If we can bottle up its light then we will be saved,” reasoned the Fencer, intent on the action of the birds. “They will die anyway, those swans. Their world is gone and soon the careful garden below will fall victim to the same entropy which freezes the joy from the rest of Winter.”
The cold-eyed swordsman looked back at Lew then while the plot concocted by the amazon, the musician and he took form. Scathra flew on the back of one of the birds, directing the project with the calls she learned tending the creatures.
“We saw the Bright strike the upper tower.”
Lew made to leave, followed close by the Fencer intent on confrontation, but a cry rang out.
The Bright Thing was being hemmed in, fleets of swans carefully placing the mirror panes in a dome-like array around its most perfect and crystallized light. But as it was concentrated more tactile radiations spilled from its being. A bit slower than their fellows, a group carrying a lower plate was hit by a rippling haze.
Even before the burning remnants plummeted to the now exposed garden the Fencer was past Lew, racing down to salvage the project. Lew didn’t stay long. He had to find Zaffa, or whoever she was, again, despite any misgivings he might have about their relationship. He sensed a further plot.
The maze-like nature of the Impossible Palace stymied his memory. Was that particular parapet this way, or that? He had been here years ago, whisked off by his new love to bask in her secret attentions. In youth the inconsistencies of life and divinity had been exciting and new, now he just wished to find his way back to the upper tower, the place he had last seen the girl.
Crossing a wavering hall he suddenly took to a shadow. The Trumpeter stalked through, gauging a way up, muttering. It seemed the musician was after Zaffa too, part of the same conspiracy no doubt.
Resolved to reach her first Lew let the man pass before following, his footsteps covered by the buzzing, glitching noise of the Bright Thing as it roiled with energy.
Possessed of a mad intelligence the musician was at home in the strange contours of this place, but this same tilted nature plagued him with curiosity. He quickly deduced the way up, a narrow stair hidden behind a fold of stone, but was just as quickly distracted by a side room containing a garden of petrified trees.
Lew stopped still in his tracks as his quarry turned. Leaping from the darkness he raised his metal-clad arm. He was at the edge of his capabilities and one mistake would leave him at the mercy of the Trumpeter.
Pain rang up his limb as the metal connected with the back of the musician’s skull. The Trumpeter fell senseless to the ground. Not wasting a moment to determine if the man was alive or dead Lew took to the stairs. When he was sure no others followed he broke out running and arrived at the top, in a darker place.
Now the mirror trap was almost complete and the swans mostly dead. Some were burned, some collapsed, others petrified or turned to gemstones, vanished, pulverized to dust or blasted to smoke. There was no end to the light’s emanations, or its beauty. Such was desire unbound by the flesh, raging across all frequencies. The night sky seemed closer to the truth of darkness now that the entity was shrouded. Even some stars showed.
Of Lew’s daughter there was no sign. Where the strange ray had hit the parapet, as it had done on numerous occasions since the opening of the Box, the stone showed discolored and pearlescent, gleaming slightly in the dark. At a glance it was making the girl not into the true Gobeithia, but the notion which fueled the Bright’s existence, the image of its desire. Looking out over the now broken sea he tried to make out the others, but saw nothing save hint of great wings flapping amongst the stars. A closer motion caught his eye.
On a lower balcony Zaffa leaned out past the railing, as if straining towards her lost love. Like the enchanted stones she illuminated the dark slightly. He called out to her, but she started up afraid and ran back within the twisting structure.
For the briefest of moments he thought about jumping down and braving the insane crenellations of the roofs and spires, but sense took hold over passion. He raced back below, taking the narrow steps three at a time, almost falling on several occasions.
He found no sign of the Trumpeter at the bottom and grew concerned. Grabbing a gold candlestick he began working his way through the halls, quick enough that he felt progress was made, but carefully enough that he might not meet the musician by surprise.
Hearing footsteps he took to a sequence of rooms, bare places where Gobeithia kept numerous small beds, medicine, all warmed by carefully constructed furnaces kindled by her magic. Empty now, the old sheets and clothing had been left to decay, dust filling the place where children once were. Everything was cold. The sounds kept on ahead and he followed quicker.
A platform, one much larger than a balcony, opened up, hidden amongst the fake crags and window-pocked viewing rooms. From places like this the goddess liked to view the world around her, and yet not be seen. Here Zaffa glimmered, facing him, nowhere else to run.
“You tricked me!” she cried in obvious pain. She held herself as if she was trying to hold onto her very skin. Raven black hair tossing in the wind, she backed up closer and closer to the narrow ledge beyond. From that gap in the rock the mirror trap could be seen reflecting stars.
“I was with you, I had no knowledge of their plan,” he said defensively. Then he realized he was speaking to the wrong being. “You aren’t Gobeithia.”
“My devoted is gone and so are the memories,” she said, clinging to the changed flesh. “I remember power and dream, magic and immortality, worship. The nursery beyond was once full of the children I had taken from the undeserving and in this place the sacred swans would take the future to Rohpad. I am the Goddess, the Beauty Beyond Sight.”
Yet there was terror in her voice that this might not be true. Backed up against the far edge he now saw past the girl to that one last gap remaining in the mirror trap, spilling insane radiance. It was a funny prison, as prisoner could still see out, if it had that faculty, while none of them could see in. He would’ve thought on this more if not for the sharp bit placed at his neck.
“You hit me!” announced the Trumpeter who was far stealthier than he looked. “I know you had to, but we needed to make sure she wasn’t going to let that thing out of the prison, or stop us or breathe death rays or something.”
Lew could tell there was something more, but the turmoil in the tall man’s voice made it difficult to determine.
Then the world shifted. Just as the Scathra battled the last pane of mirror into place, sealing itself by the heat of the thing trapped inside, a tremor pulsed through the whole of the Sakram. Now bottled up by itself the light was rebounded infinitely. Growing, growing, growing, vast power, crystalline and beautiful, was focused exponentially. Even though its light could not escape the world went strange.
Rays, more potent than visible, cut through them all. Lew fell to ribbons, each element of his being spread out over an expanse of space without matter or time. The presence of others jostled against his own, colors seeping like ink. Together they were a wet painting, pliant against the shaping brush of whatever force commanded the firmament. As one they fell upon the abyss.
A world rose to catch them. Soft mountains stretched up against a night sky where the stars all streaked to vertical lines leading to the high moon, burnished silver, pain and perfection. In the lowlands, all of snow, fine and hard like a coarse, sandy beach, thoughts and concepts lay about in tumbled chaos.
Most were squares, strips of color, amazon baubles, pyramids, spheres, some recognizable, some not. Lew found his sons as statues, and his inn broken apart into mansions based on each style he had used in its construction. There was the Alabaster Glint himself, silly hat and all, a mannequin majesty clad in his faith. There were things he didn’t want anyone to know, secrets he had hid so well that even he had lost their measure. All was laid bare on the jumbled plain.
Nothing was clear, the air vibrated every molecule. The colors were fuzzy and the cold buzzed in the ear. Lew swam through this revelation to the shouts of his own fears. Truth hunted him.
“Oh you,” bubbled Gobeithia as she rose from the memory matter, her lips clusters of dreams, and her hair the night sky. Eyes as large as lakes pondered this new existence.
“How do you live?” gasped the man, his breath streaming into sunlight, life and coiled gold.
“I don’t,” she said with her non-voice borrowed from the stars. “All you hear is my echo sounding off the iron bell of your heart.”
“So what is this place?”
“The Sakram and all its contents excited to a higher state,” she considered, still forming more of her body. “Must be a kind of magic.”
This was the sorceress he remembered, which was fitting because such notions were the blood and bone of this new body. Collapsed, the parts seemed to make a whole being. It was beautiful and he began to cry tears of diamond, topaz and sapphire.
“There, there,” she said but was distracted by the moon.
Madness overwhelmed the man. Lew could find no reason to exist here and knew he would be buried by his memories which shifted hungrily.
“I’m surprised there is anything left together of your being at all,” she noted. “It must be something in the cold.”
Tall, white mountains stretched into spires, part of a city without reason, outside of time, from some other aspect of Winter. Feeling Scathra’s thoughts she had seen these before, through the vision imparted by the Bright. All he wanted was to be back at his inn, with his boys, but those parts were insignificant compared to the freezing metropolis.
Memories of others, this was the affliction. He realized what must be elements from the Fencer, the Trumpeter and Scathra. There were albino narwhals, petrified hands, and frightened elk, crimson rage, silver madness, and midnight sorrow. These things were his too, he felt and knew them, their beings enmeshed. Above all there was cold.
Looking about he realized that Winter’s chill was held in the very sand of this place, the atoms which formed the state. What then was that other cold? It lay in a certain direction.
“You’re not going to stay like this are you?” she asked at last, pulling her eyes from the moon.
“You aren’t Gobeithia, she’s dead,” noted Lew with realization popping into existence is a globe of light.
“That’s right,” she said and became a mountain, some hills and a haze of color like an aurora at the far horizon.
Guided by the otherworldly cold he swam through the paradise remnants and, half-drowned, half-drunk, found the source. Completely unchanged from the prosaic world Dhala stood pierced through a mountain of foes, many so terrible that Lew trembled, his fear becoming a bird.
The Fencer was there already, climbing the still-twitching mountain.
“Why don’t you fly?” asked Lew.
“I’m no sorcerer, not even in my head,” spat the man. He wore a cloak of stone, a clasping chain tightening around his neck.
In the distance the Trumpeter frolicked with a number of notional entities, while above Scathra flew on her swan. Here the city opened into a sort of grand square which swam with the tumbled remains of so many minds. Together the whole glowed with bright moonlight. Lew noted a constellation of red stars directly above them.
The summit achieved, the Fencer pulled out the blade. Immediately the impaled enemies gained life and set about their play.
Incredibly the Fencer did nothing but consider the weapon. Its cold could cut through anything, which meant he didn’t need to think or consider, only act according to that absolute. Along this edge the universe might be divided into two, a binary constraining the all.
Fear occurred to Lew as a spilling yellow ink dripping from his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. This turned to butterflies and tugged at him to flee. The enemies below were far beyond his capabilities and the Fencer was now consumed by the weapon’s glassine depth.
It wasn’t Dhala realized the innkeep while all others were entertained to death by their thoughts. The cold edge held by the southern swordsman was reason’s ghost, given similar shape in this place, but different in use.
“The stars!” he shouted to the swordsman, who took no notice. So Lew flew himself over the tower-pierced wonderland into vast nothing of black, star-streaked space. The ground gave way and as its vibrations lessened his thoughts became more lucid.
Above hung the source of the cold, a cluster of glowering red stars. They were eyes here, sightlessly expressing a dream. Reaching out to them his fear spiked but failed to become a separate entity. Even as his thoughts gained clarity his own flights of fancy grew difficult, demanding all his concentration to stay airborne. His will bent towards light, a stream of energy reaching to this chilling heaven. Jettisoning all other aspects of his heart he strained with all his will towards that one desire that might slow the mad world of the Bright Thing.
When the cold became unbearable, infinite and dark, he knew he was there. Taking a trembling hand he plucked the constellation from raw black space.
Instantly he saw the world as it truly was. About them sprawled the broken mirror lands, a few patchwork pieces still reflecting the night sky, the rest falling into the dark gardens already withering from the cold. He stood on one of these plates, where the others mused in that other, symbolic world of desire. There the Fencer clutched at nothing, and the Fencer danced with his instrument. Scathra lay embraced with a dead swan and poor, strange Zaffa, sprawled as if dead.
Beyond them lay the imprisoned source of this delusion, the Bright Thing, the Light of Omet. In constraining its ray within its watching tomb they had inadvertently concentrated its energies and the resulting resonance echoed through this part of Winter, driving them all to madness. The Bright could see its desire, but was unable to reach out to her. The plan by all rights should have worked, but there could be no telling the vagaries of magic or the dangerous outpourings of those energies loosed from the Lattice of the heart.
Dhala burned into his hand, filling him with the terrible absolute of the world as it seems. All his cares seemed distant and objective. It would take a turbulent heart to keep its heat against this lick of frost.
Of course he went to Zaffa first, past the others in their plights. She had the appearance of death, but up close her back moved slightly with the effort of breathing. Rolling her over Lew noted her livid pallor, a poisonous blue. It seemed that normal, youthful Zaffa was so tethered to the notion of being Gobeithia, that if one were denied the other died. Without godhood life dwindled within her.
Not knowing what else to do, framed by the mad prison reflecting the stars, he walked over to the Fencer and placed the flat of the icicle sword against the man as he fought with shadows. With a shudder this inner conflict subsided.
“I don’t know how, but this horrible thing seems to help,” sighed the innkeep against all his troubles and pains.
“While its touch is harsh the sight it gives is more clear than crystal,” noted the Fencer, somewhat ashamed at his weakness. He watched the others dance amongst their hearts. “We must let it out.”
Lew followed the swordsman’s frown and saw it lead to the mirror prison.
“She’ll be overcome at last!” exclaimed Lew. “We all will. Can’t battle such a thing as light.”
“Then let go of my blade and play in its madness,” glared the man, his cold eyes glimmering in the dark, not with the uncanny Bright, but with the intensity his true grey. “Enjoy yourself while it lasts because I will deny such fantasy.”
Lew watched his daughter dying of slow change on the cold metal sea.
“What would you have me do?”
“We must hold Dhala together, as it is our only remedy,” reasoned the Fencer. “Then we will join hands with the others and take your daughter-goddess-lover to her admirer.”
They did this, dispelling the shattered joy from each dreamer. The Trumpeter complained while Scathra barely awoke, nearly dead with exhaustion. Carefully they held the icy blade by its jagged hilt and their blood mingled and froze together. His left still encased by the shield remains Lew was unable to carry his daughter. Scathra did it, resilient beyond belief.
Under watching stars the band moved as one across the mirrors. The few that remained rattled ominously. Gobeithia’s ancient works were coming undone at last. The wind was up and sudden gusts managed to rip a few more of the squares off into the air, just as must’ve happened with that first pane they found in the copse. It seemed forever ago.
Beset by the wind mirrors shook and screamed around them. To their right a sheet tore loose and went mad in the air. Any unlucky bend to the wind would bring its scything edge down on them, or perhaps upend the surface they traveled, casting them down into the dying garden below. Swans in various forms of death lay about, feathers fluttering.
If fear was a prophet they all had a vision. Not more than two panes away from the mirror trap the wind hit them. Lew would’ve lost his grip on the nightmare blade if it wasn’t frozen to his skin. The pulling made him scream. Worse than this he felt their current surface begin to lift up.
“It’s loose!” said the Trumpeter and broke and ran.
“Come back you dimwit!” shouted the Fencer after his friend, but knew the musician was far too sane at this moment. By running to the far edge he balanced their current mirror. Until they stepped off.
The last sight Lew had of the man was him running with those long legs, trying to reach the balance point again, where he’d at least have a chance at surviving against the wind’s power. But he was already babbling mad with the unseen radiance spilling from the Bright Thing. The Trumpeter fell down into the dark gardens, vanishing amongst the shadowed green.
Howling a war cry, the Fencer dragged the remainders onward, over the last pane. Before them loomed the faceted prison in which the Bright Thing searched ever outwards, rebounding impotently and vibrating the Lattice in such a way that the world shook to imaginary pieces. If it couldn’t have its one true desire then the result would be devastation.
When they got to the front plate, the last one Scathra sealed closed, the Fencer took Zaffa and pushed the last true amazon away. Instantly she collapsed into a pile of dreams.
“What are you doing?” Now the cruelty had gotten to Lew, but what he saw in the Fencer now was not man. It was a demon.
“Stand her up,” commanded the swordsman, pointing to Zaffa.
Lew began to protest but the Fencer chose that moment to tear the innkeep’s hand from the frozen hilt. With a scream he was left with a bloody palm, much of his skin remaining on the device. He saw now that this was part of the sword’s dark material. Despite the pain he felt unearthly vibrations once more taking him apart and to that other Winter.
“You haven’t much time now, hold her up.” The Fencer went to the mirror and saw himself. For a second he paused, as if considering his cold actions, but then flourished the weapon with the intent to let all that bright insanity out again.
Lew held his daughter close. It could be the last time, and while the stars shone in beautiful darkness he felt the cold of Winter cut through not only his clothes and flesh, but the spirit too.
Like with Dhala’s clarity he knew the full lay of the past. There had been a time of magicians, who played their dreams on the realm of men. Gobeithia had been one, assuming the role of a goddess to a group of amazons, girls stolen from the icebound and brought to live in her realm as a sort of playground and indulgence. She had been his goddess too, part of a short, sharp love which had ended with the Uplifting, when Sol came and both she and the Alabaster Glint had burned out there on the Sakram Trail. He had nothing left then either.
Screaming at the blade’s touch the mirror trap opened. Immediately the Bright spilled out, parts of the grandiose whole. This was all that remained of Omet, who bottled demons and spirits, energies and flux, but whose greatest legacy was his potent desire, all directed towards slippery Gobeithia. She had been goddess and lover but was never all things to any one being. The ray, the Bright Thing left behind by dead Omet, raged at this incomplete lust.
The metal opened and the Bright came out. For a moment the grand shape it had assumed while pondering the mirror lake showed in its full polygonal glory, but then it became the streamer of light once more. Blistering the world with the heat of a billion hearts it leaped towards the girl, who stirred with life now that her shaping spirit was returned.
Fast and true a shadow intruded. In silhouette Lew saw the Fencer stand before the Bright Thing and hold up his weapon, not to attack, but with the flat of the blade held before him.
The bolting entity struck the dark glass and screamed. Dark shapes blossomed, bubbles full of sorcery, cubes of force, pyramids bottling the remains of the once great. For a second these impossible notions spewed from Dhala’s crystal. Like a prism splitting sunlight the weapon’s facets tore apart the Ray of Omet into components incapable of surviving on Winter’s prosaic plane. They flashed into the Lattice with the cry of metallic tears.
She billowed out with the end of all hope. Zaffa felt the last affection, an enfolding around her, warm and caring. Never had this come to her in those years amongst the amazons as they kept to their strictures and competed against each other for the whim of a fake goddess. There had been much good will there, but nothing as close as this.
The strange colors left her and that goddess died again at last. She was not her mother. She was not the molding forces of Winter or Rohpad. She was potential unrealized. In a way this excited her.
Too much of her life was gone now, burned up by the crazy light’s touch. Flensed to the spirit she felt the cold and the man holding her held on that much tighter. She couldn’t breathe and didn’t want to.
At last her soma gave up and she spilled back into the Lattice. In transition she knew memories outsider her experience, tangents in the world crystal intersecting upon her nous. This was Lew, his spirit merged with hers this close, in this strange death blossom sparked by the dying sorcery. Goodbye mother. Hello father. Hello dream, light, spark, flutter, Lattice.
Omet’s remains broke apart into something which fluttered like snowflies. From each eye on Dhala’s blade came the things, colorful and buoyant, flaring up then dwindling away. Only the Fencer knew their name.
It had been something. Lew felt the girl come apart in his hands. She hadn’t died as others, to rot or freeze. The sorcery left Zaffa and she saw him with sane eyes one last time. Then she was gone, transformed into a fluttering cloud before returning to the Lattice. He was half sorrow and half glad, all cold now that the driving force of their journey had been diffused.
The Fencer had almost immediately collapsed from his feat. Swooned from the energies washing over him, he became introspective in the face of life without the Trumpeter.
Lew went to nudge Scathra and she seemed too light. Already her soul was gone, leaving nothing but a husk. Such was said of saints and those strong in spirit. Her eyes stared cleanly into the mirror ground, free and victorious at last. All exhaustion gone, she slept in balmy eternity, though some said that souls returned to the Lattice would come forth again.
He lifted her up and took note of her eyes’ true color. They were jade shot with shards of amber, hazel and fierce to look upon. The calm in them didn’t last.
Fighting his way up the Trumpeter came sopping. He had fallen into the lake below.
“Wake her up man!” he shouted with happy ignorance. “We are victorious. Where is your daughter? Shouldn’t we share our joy?”
They found the box where it had been left on the shore. It had been quite foolish for the girl to open it, but these were empty times and Lew knew the allure of looking inside.
The Fencer picked it up gingerly, careful for any lingering sorceries.
“Afraid it will bite?” Lew asked
“I do not trust any sort of magic,” said the swordsman.
“Except your own,” continued Lew bitterly.
The savage did not respond. At no point did he even look in Lew’s direction. He had found the only remnant of his goal: a box of nothing. Sure the material might be fantastic and its holding properties unchanged, but it was still just the empty vessel for his quest. Zaffa had won that light, for better or worse.
“Take it and go,” said the innkeep savagely.
Now the Fencer turned his way.
“You heard me; you aren’t welcome at my inn.”
“Come on!” began the smiling Trumpeter. “What of drinks and company? Yours is the last place for weeks.”
“I expect you’ll survive,” was all the explanation Lew gave as he made to bed down in the remnants of the gardens. A bit of warmth clung to those parts, though soon they would freeze. A cold hand took his shoulder.
“I expect a reason,” said the Fencer. The man’s eyes were cold, but concern had crept into his voice. The ice thawed.
“Through you I have lost Elac and Zaffa. Scathra lost her life in your mad play and I can’t put aside your savage treatment of her at the end, despite victory. I am broken. All that is left is the ice and I can’t explain it any better than that. I have a certain sense of proportion; I have gone with you this far, but you may not go with me any further tomorrow. I suggest you head east. There will be elk and fish and maybe, some weeks from now, another town will show itself and you two can be their problem.”
This seemed enough for the Fencer, troubling as it was. The Trumpeter went anxious and Lew felt a bit bad about that. He wished the man would play a song. No luck. They spent the night in cooling silence, their sleep deep and dreamless.
The morrow dawned grey and bleak. Frost-blackened plants told of the future. Neither group did much to prepare. This part of their lives was done.
Taking the box, the Fencer and the Trumpeter disappeared into the rising sun. Only one thing had been said between them. The words stuck with Lew as he trudged through the ruins of Rohpad, stopping only to pilfer a bit of food and water and pull a fur over his shoulders.
“I think she did a good thing,” mentioned the Trumpeter. “Zaffa saved a lot of lives by burning that silo. If not for that the Bright would’ve been everywhere. She endangered us and she saved us. Very responsible.”
The words were a cloak worn on that madman’s shoulders as he and the Fencer moved on to other chaos and the far realms of Winter in search of that most elusive Answer.
At the end of all journeys Lew was a broken man. His right shoulder would never be the same after being dislocated by the Duhg and his left arm was wracked with constant pain once his sons managed to pry the molded steel from his flesh. The resulting infection kept him laid up for weeks.
Yet he had his boys and this was most illuminating. Part of him, a romantic, secretive, former paladin, that part had gone out, abandoning six sons for the sake of a daughter which never knew him and had been part of a great chaos in his life. Gobeithia would certainly have sent their daughter to the amazons in any event and Lew would have no purchase on her heart, for she was a mage and her whim was as true as the cold.
That part was burned out. Now he was absolved of his past and could recline on the back of the younger generation. With the Bright gone the Sakram gradually returned to its former, inhospitable self. Travelers came and went like the passing snows, the wind blowing both on and on.