Shibusa

Feb. 12th, 2015 05:35 pm
talonkarrde: (color)
For [livejournal.com profile] cislyn

-

A long time ago, when dragons and demons roamed the lands of the Jade Empire, when Tang Seng had yet to make his Journey to the West with Song Wu Kong and Niulang had just fallen in love with Zhinu, there was a little boy growing up called Xiaodi — in our tongue, little brother.

Xiaodi was a child full of curiosity. From the time he could speak, he asked why things were the way they were — why the sky was blue, for example, or where the huli jing — fox spirits — came from, or what made someone one of the Eight Immortals. His parents never tired of his questions and answered them the best they could, but all too soon, there were questions they could not answer.

When they didn't know the answers, though, they told him to consult the elders of the village, the scholars and the mayor, who was appointed by the Imperial City itself. And he did — as a boy Xiaodi played not with wooden toys but buried himself in the books that the scholars referred him to, as a teenager practiced penmanship instead of pretending to be a general of the army, and as a young man was seen more around the magistrate and the town council than the pretty girls that his peers were flirting with.

But every passion requires a devotion that causes other pursuits to fall by the wayside, and so while his knowledge grew, his friendships with others faltered. But to him, it was a fair trade — while he may not have been the trusted friend, he was the proven expert on many topics. While others may not have liked him as much, they did respect him.

Eventually, as he grew and learned, his questions grew beyond what even the wisest men and women village could answer, and their answers grew more and more uncertain and satisfied him less and less. They offered him a role assisting the magistrate with disputes between villagers, and that satisfied him for a while — dealing with cows that were sold as barren but turned out to be fertile and sorting out promises made based on the trickery of yao guai was a new and exciting experience for the young man, one that expanded his horizons.

But what he also learned was that there was a right way to do things, an optimal way — a perfect way, even. As his knowledge grew, he realized at once both how close and how far he was to this perfection — he was sure that his judgments came closer than the others, because he knew more than them — and indeed they often deferred to him as time went on — but at the same time, they were so far from the best outcome, which would require knowing even more.

Even then, there were questions that stayed in his head like mosquitoes, questions that itched for days that simply could not be answered by anyone in the village. But why do we not banish all the spirits, he asked, and shook his head in frustration when the magistrate simply said that it wasn't so easy to do. But why does the emperor not resolve all disputes by putting Qilin in every court, since they only punish the wicked, he asked, and was given only poor obfuscations, ones that he immediately saw through.

It came to a head when he wondered aloud if the government official test should be adapted for all citizens to take instead of only those that wished to be officials, so that those less fit could be removed from society, and openly disagreed with the magistrate's shocked opinion. "But why!" he shouted. "Perhaps then, every judge could answer every question, instead of only giving half answers and truths that are as flimsy as the kites we fly!"

In the silence that followed, Xiaodi knew he had made a mistake and made to apologize, but it was already too late. Disrespecting ones' elders was never tolerated, and the council and magistrate debated for long days and nights on what a suitable punishment would be, as his parents pleaded for leniency. Eventually, they all agreed: there could only be one path for this young man.

He was summoned to a meeting of the council. Perhaps, they said, it was time for him to take a journey — not just a short trip away, but one to the Imperial City itself, where there were libraries and universities and scholars that did nothing but consider and answer questions about how the world worked.

And, the magistrate added, they had sent word of his deeds and his questions, and received a favorable answer from none other than the emperor's majordomo for Xiaodi to study at the Emperor's Library.

And, his parents said, this was for the best, and it would look well upon their family and their ancestors would be proud.

So it was settled, then: exile — though clothed in the softest of silks, exile nonetheless. After a brief parting with his parents and a briefer parting with the rest of the village, Xiaodi was sent on his way to the capital.

It was a long journey of almost an entire moon, travelling across the mountains and the plains, ever north, but Xiaodi made it himself, knowing that he would have little to fear if he treated everyone with respect and took no one than was offered. He was not greedy, nor lustful, and he knew that he had little that the trickster and malevolent spirits wanted.

But he was in his heart of hearts a little bit vain, and there were demons afoot in those days, demons that followed men and women through the woods and took it upon themselves to create other demons like themselves. And there was one demon in particular that might have been a scholar when it was alive, one who took note of Xiaodi and thought that it could ensnare him. It set up a trap for him, weaving its glamour over a decrepit building a few hours away.

Xiaodi found a surprising view as he crested the next hill on the road — in front of him was a library, three stories tall, well maintained and quite luxurious, and he immediately altered his direction to approach it. It only grew more impressive as he got closer, and while Xiaodi had not seen a library on his path from the maps, his thoughts quickly turned to marvelling at the library instead of wondering at its existence.

"Ai!" He shouted, announcing his presence and stepping through the open door, stopping immediately inside and staring up in wonder at the floor-to-ceiling rows of books and scrolls, at the long tables with brackets set up to hold the unrolled scrolls, at the bronze and gold inlays, at the beautiful designs. Truly, this was one of the best libraries that he had ever seen, Xiaodi thought.

The owner turned from looking at one of the shelves in the back and headed down a staircase towards Xiaodi. He — or maybe she — was quite attractive, but of a curiously indeterminate gender. Regardless, Xiaodi bowed and smiled, and received one in return.

"Welcome to my humble library, young man," the owner — the demon — said, smiling widely at him. "I don't get visitors much, but I am fond of them — it's always good to meet new friends."

"Thank you, kind sir — I am a man of words, and I find this treasure simply extraordinary," Xiaodi responded, and the owner smiled even more broadly.

"Are you now? What fortune! Would you care for a wager, perhaps?" the owner asked, to which Xiaodi furrowed his brow.

"I am not a gambling man, sir, but a wager on words intrigues me. What do you propose?"

"That we trade off in knowledge," the owner said, spreading his arms. "Facts for facts, or perhaps theories for theories. Knowledge for knowledge, and we see who is more knowledgeable. It has been a long time since I have had a visitor, and I wish to learn about the world."

Xiaodi thought about this for some time. It would be a way to learn, he thinks, something that he has not had in some time — and yet, the logistics of it would be difficult. Who would check what facts there are, or if the theories are made up?

"How would we find out what is true?" he asked the demon, and the demon appeared to ponder this for a moment.

"Perhaps that would be too hard, indeed. If only we had a dragon to adjudicate, but they all seem to be busy at the moment," the demon said, though without the smile that Xiaodi expected at such a jest. But before he could address it, the demon continued.

"Let us try something different, instead. You see, this library does not just contain knowledge. It also contains a curious machine that I found from the Western mountains, far, far away, in the lands of Tianzhu. You see, there is a flat golden pan on this table, and what this pan does is create what you think. It must be small, smaller than the pan, but it will make whatever your mind shapes. It is a most wonderous thing."

"Let us — you and I — each create something, and have the next passer-by judge which is more perfect. Observe—" the demon said, and pointed to the table at the center of the room. It closed its eyes, and after a few seconds a golden cup appeared, simply materalizing out of pan. The demon filled the cup and drank it, and then tossed it to Xiaodi with a wink.

Xiaodi caught the cup, staring at it in wonder. "I accept," he said, reverently, thinking that whatever the cost, it was a wonderous device that he would perhaps not get to try if he did not defer to the owner's desire for a small wager.

The demon smiled, then, and snapped its fingers, and just like that, the illlusion crumbled away. Its teeth grow to be sharp and jagged, and the wonderous library is no more than a decrepit, abandoned mansion, without even a roof, and decay everywhere.

The golden pan, though, was still there, resting on a table that has only three legs.

"You should've asked what the stakes were," the demon said, gleefully. "But now that you've accepted, you can't back out. If you win, you get to leave; if I win, you stay, forever. So go on, make something. Anything."

Xiaodi closed his eyes, and then nodded. "I accept," he said again, and walked toward the pan. His thoughts are frantic, but in some sense, strangely clear; he will simply use the one thing that he's always relied on — his mind — to get him out of this. And so he started constructing: first a set of bronze, silver, golden chopsticks, then a plate, then a cup, then a chair, a table, then a meal, fresh and steaming — and as he worked, he watched as each item took its form on the golden pan, exactly as he constructed it in his mind, whatever materials, color, shape he could think of.

"Is that what you choose, then?" the demon said, and Xiaodi could almost hear the hunger in its voice.

"No," he responded. "I will tell you when I'm done." And he thinks, harder, faster. It must be more complicated, he thinks, more perfect, and so he directs his thoughts at the pan once more. It changes, then, from roast duck, from dumplings, to an oven, to a wheel that powers an oven, to a windmill, each item appearing and disappearing as his mind shuffles over the possibilities. As he thinks bigger, the edges start brushing up against the pan, but he simply thinks of them as being smaller, and realizes that he can still hold the image perfectly. It's a breakthrough: he doesn't have to make one thing smaller than the pan; he can simply make whatever it is he's thinking of smaller.

Then he thinks harder — if a windmill will work, why not a temple? If a temple, why not a few buildings, joined together? And slowly, a city begins to take form, a miniature village, then town, one that grows as Xiaodi imagines each and every structure, each roof, each wall, each road. Eventually, a full city is there — but it's empty. Empty, he thinks, and then he starts picturing people, and they — small people, only an inch tall, start to appear. The restaurateur, the magistrate, the mother and father, the children at play, the famers and laborers and scholars. With each thought, a person takes shape, until this city contains a reflection of the greatest city that his mind's eye can picture: the imperial capital.

He's almost done, he thinks, and he takes a step back, looking at what he's done. And he holds the picture in their mind, thinks of how everyone is moving, and how they go about their ways, how there are little patterns here and there, and then he smiles — a curious smile, one perhaps tinged with a touch of regret, a dash of understanding — and the city disappears. And in its place is a cup, a humble, wooden cup, one that he remembers drinking from as a child, with a crack on the top that goes an inch down, its handle worn from years of use.

"I'm done," he announces, and the demon looks shocked, the outcome completely unexpected.

"Is this some trick? Fine, then. You can have your cup. I'll win without any effort on my part, simply with your mind," the demon proclaims, striding up to the table and tossing the cup over its shoulder casually, which Xiaodi catches. The demon instantly recreates the miniature city, complete with the palace and the grounds and every bit of it exquisitely detailed. "Who would vote for you, with this wonderous creation here? What a good job you did with your mind, human. What an excellent job, indeed; I will enjoy feasting on you."

But Xiaodi, far from looking concerned, simply smiles. "I, too, once thought that the way to win was to know everything that could be known, to know how every piece of the world worked and be able to predict every action. But the world is too complicated for such things — no matter how much you can keep in your mind, demon, you can not predict everything, and so this miniature is only a poor attempt at capturing something uncapturable."

"Instead, I simply created something simple, something that any person who will walk through this door will know and understand — the beauty of something that is made for you by your father and given to you by your mother, and will stay with you from your first days until your last. That, demon, is a perfection that a clockwork city will never be able to match."

Overwatch

Oct. 20th, 2014 05:00 pm
talonkarrde: (color)
They have her cornered, and he knows that her death is not too far away. And in the past, he wouldn't have done anything about it; he would've watched, would've waited, and would've added to the memorial on the wall, a small scribble among many that indicated where a runner had tried and failed, another life lost. He had never lifted a finger for any of them; what was the point? He had no desire to fall in flames like they all did, in a bright immolation that left behind only echoed screams and smouldering ashes. And those were the lucky ones, the ones that the angels let die without applying their knives.

But this one — there's something about her that keeps him glancing towards the rifle on the wall, the relic from an old war, before wars were stopped, before weapons were banned, before peace was enforced, all by the angels. Angels like the ones surrounding the girl now, this newest runner, this girl that was gasping for breath at having outrun the hounds of heaven, that had escaped the demihuman enforcers, that stood here on this path to the Celestial Tower, where the Adversary could be found.

The runner backs up as the angels come closer, stumbles, falls, and the sunset catches her face for an instant, touches her hair, and it blazes red and orange and the old man in the tower looks through the binoculars and sees his granddaughter, remembers the last time he saw her, remembers the sight of her turning around and saying, "I'll be okay, gramps, it's just a peaceful protest," and remembers her hair, red and blazing, and he doesn't even think about it; he just acts.

Grab rifle, chamber round, cock bolt, take aim, breathe out, fire.

He fires, but doesn't watch the results, the explosion of the angel's head, the burst of light like a grenade that throws everything around it into sharp relief. He doesn't wait to see the light drain from its body; he's already aiming at the next one, has already slid the bolt back, has already fired, all in one smooth motion, and he shifts slightly to draw a bead on the last one, floating there, right in front of the runner.

He looks through the scope and sees that the last angel is not standing around in confusion. It heard the first shot, turned and watched the second shot come, and now it lets out a keening screech, one that he hears from where he stands, high up in his bell tower, in his fort, in his home that he has had for these seven years. He watches it watch him, and he shoots, his aim steady, and cuts the screech off instantly, but he knows already that the damage is done; he knows that the others are alerted.

Alerted, but even he is not prepared for the cloud that rises from the Celestial Tower, the dancing motes of light a thousand strong that have heard the call and know where he is, that will not let this travesty, this sacrilege, this death of three of their own lie unanswered, and they come towards him, a spear of light, lead by the Leader of the Host, and even though he draws a bead and he takes a shot the bodies are packed so tightly together that none fall.

He wavers for a moment, now, knowing that they will be upon him soon, looking into the swarm that gets uglier as it grows closer. It is more a swarm of bees, of wasps, of furious insects than a host of divine creatures, and he sees the madness, the rage evident on their faces. But then he drops his eyes for a moment, and sees the small, dark, figure below, just now starting to stand up — he sees and in an instant he realizes that she is forgotten by the angels, that there is nothing to stop her now, that she will enter into the Tower, that that she may have a chance to end it all, to bring down a false god that has ruled over them for these last five years, that has crushed all opposition, that has kept humanity cowered and low.

And he starts shooting again, methodically, putting bullet after bullet into the host, aiming for the lower tip of the spearhead that rushes towards him. He watches calmly as he puts out a light here and a light there and counts as a body falls, and then another, until they surround him, a cocoon of light, of death, of promised pain, observing this man that has dared rebel against the forces of Heaven itself. The Leader of the Host floats forward.

He raises his weapon once more to aim it at the commander, and then staggers as it charges through him in the blink of an eye. The rifle falls, severed in two, his right hand still attached to the grip, and he tries to flex fingers that are no longer connected. No matter, he thinks.

"I've killed six of you," he says, smiling. "Do you think we could go for one more?"

And he's still smiling as they descend upon him with knives out, promising a slow death, and he's still smiling as the girl slips into the doorway of the Celestial Tower, and he's still smiling as he draws a last, bloody, pain-filled breath.
talonkarrde: (color)
The cheering of the crowds fuels his confidence, enough that it almost dispels the tremors in his hands. But tremors or not, he has accepted his duty. One last chance, he thinks, and with a courage he does not feel, beats on his chest and raises his sword to the heavens, pumping it up once, twice, three times to the roar of the audience. He meets the eyes of his squad — his comrades, his friends, his family — and they share a nod.

Then he holds a fist up, and the crowd obligingly goes quiet as a hovering microphone comes down to record and broadcast his words.

"I am Rakat'ul, and these are my clan, humanity's mightiest fighters." He pauses, as they salute, as one, and then continues, "and the Freten have promised that if we win this battle, they will let humanity go free. I am humanity's champion, and I pledge to you today that I will win this battle, and I will win back our freedom."

The crowd — mostly human, and mostly in chains — roars in response.

"You, alone, defeating the monsters that I send at you — if you win, I let humanity go. Are you ready, then, human?" A high, nasally voice responds, rolling across the amphitheater, coming from nowhere in particular.

"Come at me!" He snarls, and the doors at the far end swing open. A figure skitters out towards him, frightfully fast and kicking up dust.

The enemy shoots forward, and he registers for a moment that it looks like nothing more than a giant preying mantis, although twice as tall as he is. At least it was just by itself, he thinks, and then he has no more time, as it's upon him. The insect raises its claws and scythes them at his face—

—but he has not earned his place for nothing, and dives to the side but lets his sword swing up behind him, neatly severing one of the monster's claws.

The creature trills in what must be its incarnation of a scream, and shuffles back a few steps before falling, ichor coming out of the wound as it feebly rakes the air with its remaining claw.

"Is that all you have?" Rakat'ul says, looking upwards, and starting to feel that, perhaps, this would not be as bad as he feared, as the crowd surges to their feet.

In response, another set of doors opens, and something made only of oily, dark goo slowly heaves itself out the doors. And then another door opens, and a swarm of some sort — though with a pulsing center — hovers in front of the door. And then another door opens — a something of many claws and little else — and then another, and another. Rakat'ul slowly takes them in, realizing that they are beings conjured up from humanity's worst fears — monsters made of the dark, of the shadows, of blades and poison, of ooze and suffocation.

"You brought twenty-four humans with you, champion. Do you hope to defeat all twenty four of your enemies?" The voice asks, and it's almost kind. The crowd starts muttering, subdued, knowing that there was no way he would win.

"No," he says, swallowing, realizing that he could barely look at some of the monsters, that he had those fears that they were preying on. But he continues, taking a battle stance, resolving to take them one at a time. "I don't hope. I know I will. Have them come at me, all at once!"

"But that wouldn't be within the rules," the voice drawls, and Rakat'ul despairs: he knows that he can defeat one, two, maybe five of them, but not two dozen. He searches for something else to say, but nothing comes out, and he simply stands there for a moment, sword wavering.

"Then change the rules," Sarai says, her poleaxe ready, as she steps out next to Rakat'ul. "Let the audience see a real fracas, a real melee. Have the battle be joined between all of them, and all of us, at the same time."

Rakat'ul starts, turning to her. She looked much more determined than he did, but how could a grand melee help them? They would simply get slaughtered, all of them, instead of just him. They could've lived another day, trained more, perhaps come back to challenge the Overseer once more. He almost speaks up, but he's interrupted, as a long "hmmm" is heard through the stadium.

"Twenty-four champions against twenty-four monsters," it finally says, after a moment. "Accepted. You may start the battle, champion." And the tone of mockery is back, and Rakat'ul does despair: they have no chance of winning.

Sarai smiles grimly, and just as he's about to ask her what she's done, she calls out to the rest of their squad. "Hydra formation! Left flank forward! Press the attack!"

And suddenly, with blinding clarity, he understands Sarai's plan — their enemies are all monsters from humanity's darkest fears, monsters that he could not hope to defeat alone, but now he doesn't have to. The monsters were strong individually, but their band of brothers and sisters is strong together. They have trained and fought by each others' sides, knew how to support one another completely, and could rotate to face only the monsters they did not fear. By giving them the battle as a whole, Sarai had provided them a crucial strength that they could use. They must fight well, and they must trust one another, and some will fall, but—

"Rakat'ul, brother, lover—" he hears, and he looks forward, sees the missing center of the formation, the others.

They are waiting, and he takes his place, raises his voice in a voiceless roar, and leads the charge.

Speak Easy

Jul. 2nd, 2012 01:48 pm
talonkarrde: (color)
For [livejournal.com profile] yachiru

---

I hear that you are on your way to visit our glorious capital city of Donoln, yes? You must visit the Hall of Legends, where tall, thirty foot bronze statues line the sides of the great corridor, each depicting a figure who made our Meridia the center of the world that it is today. Most of them you have read about in the schoolbooks — there is Qwistan the Inventor, and Tinkerer Boam, and the Mechapilot General twins Jonasth and Alistan, and even the foreigners Nao’ot the Alchemist and Tzao-tzao the Magician, who distinguished themselves in their services to the empire. You can ask the court historian of all of these figures, and he will be able to recite every important date in their lives.

But the newest figure there is one that does not have a golden plate detailing his life and accomplishments, one figure for whom the historian will apologetically say that he has no solid information about, only that he was monumental to creating the just and prosperous society we have today. This figure stands at the end of the hall, with a wide-brimmed hat drawn low over his face and a long trenchcoat hiding his figure; you can see no details of his face for there were none carved.

I was the proud owner of the tavern and inn, the Burnt Powder Keg, where this man started and finished his crusade, and I saw his acts firsthand as they spread across the country and changed the empire forever.

This is his story.

#

It all started during the Winter of '14, when the failure in the harvest meant that many were to go hungry. Belts were notched tight and what little we had was drawn out for as long as possible; the Keg was barely able to set food on the table for the few guests who were travelling. I had built a reputation for catering to soldiers and officers, which meant that we were not quite scraping the bottom of the barrel as some of the resthouses were, but it also brought its share of complications, chief among them that my staff and I had to continuously exercise good judgment in dealing with some of the rougher, more distasteful elements of the military forces.

This was years ago, before the reign of the Illustrious Charles the Sixth, who plays a direct part in this story. But he comes in later — at that time, we were still serving under the whims of King Geppet, which should tell you something of the circumstances of the time. The soldiers that had fought in the war against the Trinitan Conglomerate had mostly grown fat and lazy without any enemies and the King's narcissism was a poor example for them, and those who were promoted to officers were more often cruel and mean-spirited thugs than the defenders of the citizens of Meridia and downtrodden poor that they had sworn to be.

Things had gotten particularly bad that winter, and rumors had been coming through the few travelers we saw that there were reports of Lieutenants and Mechamasters who had been abusing their authority and demanding a tithe of food and supplies to them personally, above and beyond what the good people had paid in taxes. I hadn't experienced any personally, but there were more than a few officers who had stopped by who were a bit more demanding than I would've liked or thought appropriate; they certainly knew how much everyone had been rationing but apparently didn't care.

It must have been around the first night of the Frostage when Captain Balzir came to stay. I remember that the lights were lit outside my inn and others for those in need to stay without needing to pay, as the benevolent Master Malchiem had done all those centuries ago for our first King. More had always chosen to travel on those days over others, for good reason, but there were still fewer out and about this year — I remember only five or six who had shown up that night, all good folk who had worked in the fields or in various crafts, and not a layabout between them.

Around eight at night, Captain Balzir strode in with one of the most imperious attitudes I had ever seen (and I had served Dukes and Crown Engineers) and demanded that we serve him a feast of boar, immediately. We had only a single hog left, and it needed to last the week before the hunters came back to the market to sell their wares, but he made it plain that either he would have the boar or there would be trouble.

Serving officers often takes judgment, patience, and a willingness to bear burdens that other patrons hardly ever demand; in this case, the harm would have been greater if I did not listen, so I acquiesced and had the entire boar prepared for the captain by our cook, Dharnel,h and had Lusina, the serving girl, personally attend to the Captain.

That was only the beginning of the night; after the boar, he started interrogating the others and by the end, he was haranguing them for any coin that they had — completely sober, mind you — as if he had a right to every gold coin out of their pockets simply because he was in the military. When the others rightfully expressed their displeasure, he stood up, smashed his mug of ale upon the ground, and roared at them that he would send his entire regiment of Steamtanks and Striders after their families, and hunt down their villages if they did not comply.

My behavior at the time was... not honorable. I did not speak up, for I did not want to risk this officer's wrath, even if he conducted himself in a way that did not befit his station. But when Marlene — one of our guests — protested that she had nothing at all to give, that she was here in the city to work as a housekeeper and had not been paid yet, Captain Balzir called her a whore and struck her across the face. That I could not stand, especially on this night of all nights, when we innkeepers give hospitality to all, and I did then offer to pay for her, which of course he took as his right.

Another stranger — Jacques, it was, another innkeeper who had taken Frostage as a good time to visit his family — laid his arm upon the Captain's shoulder and apologized to him for the behavior of the other guests, and offered him another share of gold, which seemed to calm Balzir down.

I comforted Marlene after he had gone to his quarters, and she thanked me quietly, though I only felt more shame that I did not stand up to him before he had struck her. She simply shook her head, though, and told me that it had not been the first time — in the outlands, on the edges of the empire, the soldiers were worse, she told me, though she wouldn't explain more, though I asked. Jacques talked with her much more that night, in a private corner, and it seemed that he cheered her up, for which I pulled him aside and thanked him as they both retired.

After that, there was little other action in the tavern. Certainly nothing that I could remember that stood out, nothing that would have prompted me to think that there would be a murder later that night.

I knew by name and face and figure all the guests present that night and all the staff, and there was no one who was unaccounted for, who I had not personally seen to their room — and as I reported to the police, there was nothing stirring. But there must have been something, for after all had retired, around eleven, there was a loud scream.

It came from Lusina, which meant that... well, Lusina was one who would earn a bit on the side (though only at her preference) and so she had keys to all the rooms. It was her choice, and she had never caused any trouble, so I had let it be; if I am to be honest, I will say that it helped that she even bought some extra supplies with her earnings sometimes, which helped us all out.

It seemed that she had made arrangements with this Captain Balzir at some point, and had climbed onto the bed that night, thinking of surprising him in a rather novel way, when she felt wetness and realized that it was not, rather gruesomely, the wetness that she was hoping for.

When she turned on the lights, her scream was instinctive, and brought the rest of us running. The ancient torture of 'death by a thousand cuts' is the best way to describe what happened; the man had cuts all over his body, through his clothes and around them, and had died by bleeding out through every one. He was, quite literally, little more than a mass of oozing blood; his clothes looked like they had been dipped in a vat of blood and then draped on him, such was the carnage. And his face — I hope he had died before the killer started on his face, for there was little left to recognize as a man.

I reported it immediately, of course; despite disliking the man I still operated a lawful establishment and had no interest in murder — especially not the shame that it would bring upon my inn. The district Minders sent two Prognosticators to investigate, and having never seen them work, I was quite interested in what they did. The main observation seemed to be that they had an endless assortment of tools that seemed to telescope out of their vests — by simply touching an area of their chests, a looking glass would telescope out the top, or a brush would deposit itself in their hands, or a bag; if it were not for the gruesome scene, I would have found their vestments quite interesting.

Their conclusions were quick: the dust on the floor (yes, I admit there was some in the Captain's room that I had rather neglected to clean) had been undisturbed except for Lusina's footprints, and she had clearly not had the time to murder the captain so messily. The window had been open, but it was just a crack and there were no signs on the hinges that it had been open wider, and there were no other ways into the room; certainly no vent that went to an adjoining room, as one one of the Progs mentioned as a possibility. As for the body, it had indeed been cut many times, very quickly; the blood had all congealed around the same time and so it was necessary that whoever — or whatever — had done the act to be quite efficient. A mystery, they declared, one that they would bring more resources to bear on, the next day.

#

It was a quiet week after that — the military investigators had come and found nothing as well, and essentially declared it unsolved, though they posted a reward and welcomed clues from anyone that had information. A few people claimed that there were eastern shadowmasters floating through walls, but those were treated the with the contempt that they rightfully deserved for spreading such nonsense.

I came upon Shiel on the last night of Frostage sitting at the corner table he had taken to frequenting since he had been staying with us; unlike most of the other patrons who had mostly moved on, he had business in the city and used the Burnt Powder Keg as a place to stay for free for two weeks. He was playing, curiously, with a small mechanspider, a miniature version of the ones that patrol our borders. I had seen small, less complex toys like it for children, but this was a remarkable little thing — one that he had constructed himself, apparently — and it could roll up into a solid ball and roll forward to move, and then open itself up and skitter around.

I saw Shiel release one and saw it skitter under a table — clinging onto the underside with its claws — and then go down the center pillar and up the nearest wall; when he whistled, it abruptly dropped into a ball and rolled back to him. I clapped in wonderment, and he started, having not seen me come in, and clutched the toys rather possessively.

"A neat toy," I remembered saying, trying to break the tension that had suddenly appeared.

"Quite," he allowed, and then waited a beat longer, and asked me if I remembered the night that the captain had been killed, if I remembered hearing anything.

I hadn't, I responded. Or, more accurately, I said, "I don't recall hearing anyone, and I do know that I put everyone to bed. There might have been mice moving around, but the kettle was on at the same time and I didn't think it was worth mentioning to the police."

I'm sure you've made the logical jump by now, as had I, but it seemed unlikely — Shiel was the very sort of introverted type of tinkerer, and was very drawn into his work. He had hardly spoken three words to anyone else in all his time at the inn, even Jacques, who he came in with, and didn't even raise his head over his meal the night the captain died. It couldn’t have been him, though those spiders were most certainly a marvel and were certain to sell well.

With that, our conversation concluded and I bid him a good night. I hear he makes his living in Kadath nowadays, though I haven't been able to keep up with him, unfortunately; such is the life of an innkeeper.

#

It was a few weeks after that, near the end of winter when the captain's uncle — himself a colonel in the army — came to pay us a visit. Lusina, Dharnel, and I learned quickly where the younger officer had gotten his rougher personality traits from. This time around, we discussed things beforehand and tolerated a little less than we had before; while we would not openly confront him and bring the wrath of the empire down on us, we were also a bit less interested in being puppets to his whim.

We did set up the feast his messenger had requested, and made sure that it was up to his standards, and it seemed that all was going to be well. But of course, lest we forget the Goddess Miranda's teachings and count our blessings before they come to pass, the night was not over. Before the colonel was even done, he had noticed the looks from some of our other patrons at the resplendent feast he was going through, and sneered openly at them.

"Just you wait," he said, in between bites on a chicken leg, "After this is done, it's time to pay your taxes. And don't think of running — taxes will be double for anyone who leaves the tavern between now and when I'm done eating."

"Master Dhavin—" I started.

"That is Colonel Dhavin, innkeeper," he corrected, without missing a beat.

"Very well. Colonel Dhavin, I don't particularly think it just for you to collect taxes from my patrons, in my tavern, where they are enjoying my hospitality as my guests, as you are." I said, strongly. I had not forgotten that these soldiers and officers were the lifeblood of my tavern, but I could also not let them behave unchecked, as I had failed Marlene.

"I think you forget your station," he snarled, standing up, his face flushed and food forgotten.

"My station is that of an innkeeper and of a loyal citizen of Meridia, sir. I beg your pardon, but I believe my station allows me to state my grievances to you." I ended, with a bow of my head — hopefully one he'd take for respect, but not adulation.

Hoping, I found, is often a fool's habit.

"Consider them stated," he said, with the sneer returning to his face, as he walked around the table and came to me. "In fact, you appear to be correct; I should not be taxing these citizens. Instead, I will be taking my share of your tax, which is payable right now — it will be 500 coins."

500 coins! That was more than I made in a month, and while I just barely had enough to pay it, the 'tax' would have set us back to the worst of Frostage. It was not a burden that I should be asked to bear, and both the colonel and I knew it. When I opened my mouth to protest, he acted first, knocking me to the floor with a gauntlet across the face. I heard Lusina gasp, but she wisely didn't come forward. As I lay there, the colonel kicked me savagely in the side, and then turned to address everyone else.

"We are here to protect you, but this means that you must obey us. When we ask for supplies, it is necessary for the continued protection, and when you do not immediately obey, you are endangering yourself, as this innkeeper has. And when you do so, you may be robbed by the rougher elements who do not respect you, like we do." He drew his leg back and kicked me again, brutally, and I curled up, gasping in pain but not daring to protest.

And just as he aimed another kick, this time at my head, a lilting voice called out.

"Colonel, why waste your time with that fool when there's still a feast to be had — perhaps one you'd be inclined to share with someone who appreciates your actions?"

The voice sounded familiar, and when I opened my eyes and blinked away the tears, I saw a figure dressed in red silk, in the eastern style with legs covered but arms bare, with her hair teased high. It was Marlene, of all people, who was clearly not any sort of a housekeeper, unless she kept house by sating the owner’s more lecherous desires whenever he wished.

I could only watch in shock as the colonel looked her up and down and decided that being with a beautiful woman was indeed more worthwhile than kicking someone who was already down.

"You, and you," he said, pointing to two of his soldiers. "Go through his belongings, and find the gold to collect. If he doesn't have it, destroy everything he has." The colonel said, and I heard the thugs head up the stairs. They would find it, of course — I kept it in my chest at the end of my bed, usually secure in the knowledge that the soldiers that came would protect against thievery; I never imagined that good soldiers would participate in it.

Now, finally, Lusina and Dharnel came to help me up as the colonel turned back to his feast, with Marlene on his arm and more or less pressing herself against him. I drew myself up to a stool and could only watch, shocked, as she spent the rest of his meal entertaining him in just about every way short of taking her dress off, though repeated lewd comments made it obvious that it was just a matter of time and privacy.

I couldn't understand why — this was Marlene, and it was impossible that she would have forgotten Balzir striking her across the face, an assault that might have been physically lighter than the one I received but was no less demeaning. She had gone over to the enemy, in the worst way, and I could only watch in disgust as she threw herself upon him.

With half the food still untouched, he stated that he was finished, and commanded us to clean up, while he stood and made ready to retire. He told his two soldiers — who had come down with all the coin that I had — to guard his door, and then turned to point at me.

"This better be the best sleep I've ever had, innkeeper, or we might find that arsonists have burned your inn to the ground in the morning," he threatened, and finally I understood. I wasn't going to make it out of this, as the colonel had taken it upon himself to avenge his nephew's death through whatever means he saw fit. There was nothing I could do, except, perhaps, run away.

Once, I think I might have done such a thing, but after tonight, I found that there were injustices I could not tolerate, and this was one of them. I started thinking, plotting, even as I humbly bowed as low as I could. He smirked, and then beckoned for Marlene to head up the stairs with him, to 'entertain' him for a while.

Surprisingly, she declined, even as she planted a kiss on his cheek and offered a placating excuse. She said she'd join him shortly, but she wanted to surprise him with an outfit she was sure he would appreciate. He leered at her, grabbed her breast, and said that the outfit he'd like to see most was absolutely nothing on her, but she simply leaned into his touch and promised he'd enjoy it, and he let her go.

He headed up the stairs, along with his guards, and Marlene simply stood there waiting, listening to their boots on the stairs and footsteps in the room above us. And then, for a moment, she met my eyes, and left without another word.

What I saw in her eyes wasn't emptiness, or lust, or greed — it was a determination, a fire that you see in the eyes of great leaders who men die for. It was rare that I had seen it someone not in the military, and it was the first time I had seen it for more than a year, but it would not be the last.

I still didn't know why, though, she was behaving as she did; I only had the hint that there was another explanation for her actions. When she came back, ten minutes later, she ignored everyone else and headed up the stairs. She stopped outside of the colonel's door and asked one of the soldiers to enter. To their credit — as soldiers, at least, though not as citizens of Meridia — they knew their job well and rapped on the door, announcing her entry, even though she probably asked for them to keep it a surprise.

And then, of course, she opened the door and screamed, and I'm sure you can figure out the rest. I won't describe it here, as it was just as gruesome as the first killing, except that this one was even more precise — only the face had been multilated, with the rest of his body untouched.

This time, though, my feelings were more ambivalent; I still valued keeping a lawful establishment, but I also understood that the law and those who were tasked in upholding it were not always the same. This may have been wrong, but Captain Dhavin wasn't a sterling example of humanity. Perhaps it was better that he died, but was it really my call?

This time, the reporting was done for me, by the soldiers who were his bodyguards. The Prognosticators were called in again, and came up with just as much of an explanation as they had the first time, which was to say, nothing. It was a different room, even, and they found no sign of foul play — except for the corpse itself, which was clearly a sign of foul play. But there was no forced entry, no windows ajar, nothing at all that they could find.

I sat in the lobby the entire time, under guard, wondering if my tavern would be burned to the ground and myself strung up to hang for the murder of these two officers, even though I myself had done nothing wrong and could explain none of this. But this couldn’t be a coincidence; even I had to admit that.

It was one of the Prognosticators himself that saved me, as he came down from the stairs and collapsed his tools back into his vest. “Just like the others...” he muttered, shaking his head.

Others? There were...others? I stood, unsteadily, ignoring the warning glance my guard gave me.

“This...this isn’t the only place this has happened?” I asked, with the hope no doubt evident in voice.

“Indeed not, barkeep. It started around Frostage, around here, I believe, but it’s spread since then. This is the ninth or tenth, and there doesn’t seem to be anything that ties them together, except, perhaps...”

“Perhaps...?” I asked, curious at his rather reserved tone.

“It’s not my place,” he commented in a curt tone, ending the conversation and leaving me alone, once more, to clean up the mess. Once more, though, an officer was dead, and I was still alive.

#

It was a week after this before I saw Marlene again; this time, though, she looked much like she had when she first came in, dressed plainly but not poorly. She came in when there was no one else in the tavern — Dharnel had gone home for the night and Lusina was upstairs — and stepped right up to me, stopping with a curtsy.

I almost screamed at her to get out of the tavern, given what had happened and the way she was hanging over the officer, but she stopped me with a single movement, a simple presentation of a small, round, spherical toy.

Shiel’s toy.

As the gears began to click together in my head, Marlene took out a small tube with a shimmering powder inside and shook some out onto a table, being careful not to get any on herself, and then wound the toy once, twice, three times, and let it go.

It unfolded, skittered to the powder, and promptly started stabbing the table. It did no damage to the wood, but I understood instantly, and turned back to Marlene, where she was holding up a small tube of lipstick, and last week’s events became clear.

Only then did she speak.

“I’m sorry for what happened, but I needed to know first that you wouldn't support them any longer,” she started. “We have been watching. I can't tell you everything, so you won't be able to betray anyone. If you think hard, you will know who recruited me, and how we have gotten our tools; that’s all I can say.”

I objected at this point, because I had no intention of joining anything, but she simply shook her head, anticipating my protest.

“I’m not here to demand you join— I’m simply here to tell you of another option, one that doesn't mean either staying silent while crimes are committed against Meridia’s citizens or having your livelihood taken away from you for speaking up against the corrupt. You may not ever need this option, but I wanted to offer you it.”

She took four more small spheres out of her satchel and set them on the bar, along with the one that had rolled back to her, and the tube of powder.

“Counter-clockwise, three turns, they’ll return to you after a minute. If you don’t press on the top of the ball after picking them up, they’ll come apart in your hands. Wash or burn anything that’s had the powder on it.”

And with that, she turned andd headed for the door, stopping only briefly.

"And...thank you. For offering to pay for me. For stopping him."

Then she was gone and I could only stare at the weapons that I had been given, and the choice that was now in front of me.

#

From then, I started to pay very careful attention to the news, and saw that there was something going on. Reports here and there from wanderers who had heard from others, or from soldiers who were a bit chattier than they should be, painted a picture of a movement.

Not a rebellion, and certainly not a war, but something undeniable, nonetheless — enough that if you looked for it, and put the pieces together, you'd see that there was a web of incidents with officers that suffered accidents which were unusual and occasionally fatal. And the rumor was that there was one person linked to all of the recent ones, a person with a hat slung low and a trenchcoat, and that he — or she — was the sign that something would happen.

Only a few were as bloody as the one that we had seen, but all of them had changed something. I started to pay attention to my own visitors, and slowly, I saw my own opportunities to entice certain officers to my inn, and to get close to them without raising undue alarm. It was something I had never done before, but I learned, in the course of a few months, how to put myself in a position where I could use the gifts I was given.

I never did pull the trigger though — at least partially because I didn't find anyone else who deserved it as the Captain and his uncle did. Even if I had, though, I didn't know if I was truly able to do such a thing, even if I was beginning to see that it had to be done.

#

As the summer rolled around and the attacks kept occurring, King Geppet finally started to realize that something was happening, but by then, the entire population did too. Those in power who overstepped their bounds were no longer quietly obeyed, but instead, often openly defied; any further injustice was likely to bring a sighting of the Wanderer, as he came to be known, in his trench coat and long brimmed hat, and an 'incident' would happen shortly thereafter.

Sometimes, the Wanderer would show up in different cities in, if the reports were to be believed, the same day, and other times, not be seen for a week or more. But eventually, he was seen in every corner of Meridia, and his reputation grew, much as the reward for information leading to his capture did.

It was then that the later King Charles cames to the Burnt Powder Keg; he was a lieutenant at the time, and showcased every bit the officer that we needed. There were many tangible things, from how he treated Lusina to how much he asked for, but in the end, it was a simple presence that we felt, a trust and respect that we had for him.

He had a quiet dinner and chatted with some of the other guests, though all avoided the stories of what the Wanderer had done. But then, the Wanderer showed up at the door, and the conversation died instantly.

The brim of his hat was pulled low, as the stories always held, and the trench coat did indeed hide his figure rather completely. He could have been anyone — man or woman — of any height, and the only fact that could be discerned was that he was about average height — which helped absolutely none to identify him.

Charles spoke first.

"Why are you here, Wanderer?" It was a simple question, without malice or anger.

"To ask if you will defend the citizens of the empire against those that would take away their rightful lives, possessions, and liberties." He said — and we knew at least that it was a man. His voice was deep, but not overly so, and most of all, it was familiar, though I could not place where I had heard him.

"It is what I have sworn," Charles said.

"And yet, those others which have sworn such have burned down houses and attacked citizens for not submitting to them personally, when they were owed no such fealty." The Wanderer countered.

"Those, if found, would be punished for their actions."

"And they have been, but it has taken the citizens to punish them, instead of the law. The reason for this seems to be that the law currently only serves those who represent it, instead of all."

At this, Charles paused for a long time.

"You say that there are high elements who support this behavior."

"I do." The Wanderer stated.

"Are you responsible for killing the officers?" Charles asked.

"I am," The Wanderer responded, without hesitation.

"Then you are guilty of murder, regardless of your contentions."

The Wanderer nodded at this, as if he had been expecting it. And then, to everyone's surprise, he took off the hat and tossed it aside.

"My name is Jacques," he said, and the last pieces came together.

"How curious," Charles said, "as that is my name as well."

The two men eyed each other, until Lieutenant Jacques Charles indicated a seat opposite him at the table, which the former innkeeper Jacques took. The innkeeper told his story, then, and I still remember every word.

"I was a humble innkeeper once. For ten years I tended to my inn, on the outskirts of the empire, and did everything I could to make all of the travelers who passed through as comfortable as possible. But last fall, my inn, the Wanderer's Respite, was burned down by a sargeant and his group of men who had found my food not worthy for their tastes. They deprived me of my livelihood, and claimed I was lucky to escape with my life. When I reported it to their commanding officer, he simply sneered at me and told me that I should have served better food, and then kicked me out."

"It was then that I started to wander, myself, to see if this was a poison that only afflicted a few of those who had sworn to defend us, or if it was something that had spread across all of the units of Meridia. And through months of trailing officers on deployments and trying to meet as many different officers as possible, I found that it was an attitude that was growing — not every officer shared it, but those who did seem to be promoted over those who knew their responsibilities and followed them."

"The ones who did not, though — it wasn't just a bit of petty greed, but the corruption of the entire service. I saw those who were beaten for not paying a personal tax that would have made their summers very hard indeed, and young girls who were coerced into relationships for fear of their families lives, to be available at the officer's request or suffer harsh consequences. The officers were setting examples for those under them, and promoting those who shared their behavior, and the citizens suffered for it."

"On my travels, I met Shiel, who was an brilliant tinkerer, and soon struck up a friendship with him — his story is not mine to tell, but he had suffered as well. The two of us first created the tools that we would use to fight this corruption, and understood that we would have to do whatever it took. Along our journeys, we quickly found others who had been hurt and had nowhere to turn to, and we created a network of men and women who understood how Meridia had fallen and what should be done. In fact, one of the earlier recruits was done here, in this tavern," Jacques said, and looked over at me.

Marlene, of course.

"And now we have been fixing the problem, as we must because no one else will fix the problem for us. To leave it in the hands of the law is to be given no recourse at all; instead, as I'm sure you've noticed, there have been changes — perhaps due to fear, but those who used to flaunt their power are now quite meek about it. But I know — and I think you know, Lieutenant Charles, as we've been watching you — that fear can only last for so long, and these officers go out each time with more guards and it becomes harder to make a difference."

"To kill them, you mean," Charles observed, speaking for the first time.

"To stop them from killing and hurting others, yes, much like what a soldier does, except we act on those inside our borders who injure us instead of outside of our borders." Jacques responded.

"To continue this, we need someone who will stand up for the citizens once again, an officer who will tolerate no disrespect or injustice. you're highly regarded inside the armed forces, and I think you can make the changes that make our actions unnecessary."

Both of them were silent for a long time, until Charles spoke again, and I saw why he would become king.

"We are sworn to the citizens of Meridia, not the King or ourselves, and we are sworn to protect the weak and the poor, not take from them. This is the code, and anyone that deviates from it is not fit to be an officer. But the law is still the law, and murder is something that can not be allowed either, as these were not actions on a field of war, even if they are actions that are taken against those who would harm you. And so, I will pursue these crimes that you say have occurred, and I will not rest until all are held accountable for their actions — but this includes you, Jacques."

And Jacques, who clearly saw this coming, nodded and placed his hands on the table. "I know what the punishment would be, and I would do nothing different if given this choice a thousand times."

#

They killed him, of course, hung him from the the gallows in the central square of Donoln. But Jacques had planned for that too, and that night, in many taverns across the Empire, other wanderers in a low-brimmed hat and a trench coat strode through the streets in a sign that the citizens were not cowed, that one person might died but that the ideas he stood for were more than alive.

The Burnt Powder Keg was one of them, I'm proud to say.

After that, changes came swiftly. The Lieutenant kept to his word in rooting out those who were abusing their power, with help from Jacques' observers, and in three months, the purges were complete — including the King Geppet, who it was learned had been taking liberties that were not his to take, which encouraged certain members of the military in behaving as they did. With the backing of the military behind him, then-General Charles was able to convince the King to step down, and was made the next King by acclamation of the people, who saw what he had been doing.

King Charles' first order of business was to construct another statue in the Hall of Legends, one of a man who had everything taken from him by those who should have defended him, a citizen of Meridia who was willing to sacrifice his life for the ideal that we will always have the right to fight back against those who oppress us, whether they come from outside our borders or inside them.

#

Now, I think, you see why the story is one that is not very often told — but I think should be told in the right circumstances, to the right people. Justice is not always handed out by the law, but each citizen has a right to it. We often think of assassins and murderers as those who are cowardly and strike at the weak, but they can also strike at the strong as no one else can, and so change the course of empires, as they did with Meridia.

I know the look in your eye well; you are thinking of those who forced your sister out from her house, and those who have stripped your father of his land, no? If only you had the resources that Jacques had, no? Unfortunately, we can not all change empires — I, for example, do not have it in me to do such things, even if I know in my heart of hearts it is the right thing to do.

But if you are to make your petition to the King for aid in your country of Sanscara, I do believe it may be time for you to be on your way, if you are to catch the traveling carriage that heads to the capitol. Before you go, though, I do have a small gift for you, something I've picked up in my travels. These are five small spider toys, fit only for children to play with. They need to be wound up before being they will move around, of course. Do take care that you wind them up the right way; it is always clockwise, never counter-clockwise. And if you find that your children need more because a few of these break, there may be a tinkerer in Kadath that may assist you. And I think you'll find it rather cold outside as you head up north; may I recommend Taggert's Tailoring in Jonasthtown for you on your way to the capitol?

No, there is no need to thank me for this; I am but a humble innkeeper and I only hope that you will have a pleasant journey, wherever it takes you, and perhaps you will be able to tell me a story if circumstances take you back here one day.



--

A/N: I think this may be the longest piece I've ever written. I like it, though I think there's still some work to be done, but I certainly put more than the usual two-hours-before-it's-due effort into this one. There may be some spelling/grammar mistakes from rearranging things and cutting things out (and let me tell you, there was a lot cut out), but I thought I'd put it up anyway.

Icarus

Jan. 22nd, 2011 03:59 pm
talonkarrde: (Default)
Oh, my son.

He’d always been a bright and clever boy, always watching me work, even when he was young. In those days, I was a prisoner to no king and free to create at leisure, making clockwork toys with gears and miniature galleys which sailed in the ocean to entertain him. I would leave each newest contraption with him and let him roam the workshop with those little wooden soldiers and complicated puzzles, yet no more than five minutes after I left him to his play, he would be by my side, watching.

“Are you not entertained by the toys I made?” I would ask, wondering how I could make them better. Were they too dull? Too spartan? But he would just shake his head, watching me as I designed and created, as I burned with the idea of this one or that one, never without an idea for long. There were tools to fell the trees, machines to harness the wind and water, and more — my accomplishments were beginning to grow, and I could design what I wanted to, choose from what was interesting.

Often, though, the most intriguing were the ideas he would come up with.

“Father,” he said to me one day, “make me a bird, one that can fly by itself.”

“Anything,” I said, “for my wonderful son.”

-

As my son grew older, I was called on more and more for requests that were ever more interesting. Those in power wanted more than just a more efficient saw, or a better windmill; they wanted things that had never been designed before.

A lady came to me, in the middle of the night, without the knowledge of her husband, and requested something...unique. Unnatural, without doubt. But it was also something that no one had done before, something that presented a singular challenge. A wooden cow, she desired, one that had to be to exact specifications — it had to look normal and natural from all sides like a live cow, and yet be hollow inside, so that a person could fit into it. It had to be perfect; she said, and even, if possible, allow the person inside to move around, to wear it as if it was a second body.

I accepted this task, knowing that I was the only one in the world that could accomplish it.

Time and time again, I made something that was, in my mind, close enough, and time and time again, she rejected it, saying it was not perfect enough, not real enough, that there was not enough room for a person climb in. Time and time again, my son would ask me to play with him, or perhaps make him a toy, and I would tell him to play with what he had, to find new things to do, to explore, because I was so close to getting it right. I would play with him after I finished, of course. It took me years, but eventually, I got every detail perfect: when placed in a field, it looked like all the other cows; when opened with a hinge in the belly, a person could crawl inside and be comfortable.

And then, of course, the lady — the queen — became pregnant with a monster.

The king came for me after it was born, and required, demanded of me that I fix it, that I create something which would chain the beast, to bind it where it would never be found. He gave me a challenge — a maze to contain the monster, one from which only I could know the solution. It had to be so hard, he said, that no one else could solve it.

It was irresistible.

For the next three years, I again fell into a single project, an ambitious one where I alone could know of the details as it was being constructed, where I alone had to wander the walls to make sure there would be no stray marks left, that they were erected exactly where they needed to be. I came home late, if I did at all, and left early, because I needed to be there for every stone laid.

“Father,” he said to me one evening, “can you make me a kite? It has been so long since I’ve flown them in the sky.”

And where once I would’ve accepted without a second thought, I was tired, and I had to keep the structure of the maze in my head. I had no time.

“I cannot, my son; play with what you have already. Explore them in new and interesting ways. Push your boundaries.” I responded, and he seem pacified and did not ask me again.

I did not see him much after that, for the maze was nearing completion. It was finished as the king had demanded it to be, and I resolved that my time serving him would be over. I went to the king, then, to ask to be let go, thinking that my penance was served.

His response, of course, was to make me a prisoner, saying the knowledge I kept was too dangerous. We would be constrained to a tower, never be free from the island.

-

He was seventeen when he came up with the idea that would set us free.

“Wings, father — we have the feathers from the doves that roost in the tower. We have the wax from the candles that light the darkness, when the king asks you to look over his crafters’ designs. We could fly free - like the birds you made me when I was young. Is it not possible?”

And a fire burned in me again that had gone out since the creation of the Labyrinth, and I resolved to perfect his idea. The frames would be the slender twigs from the cypress, lashed together; the feathers would be patterned together, with the small feathers between the large, and the wax would be applied in many layers, but lightly, so that the feathers would not be stiff.

Day and night, I toiled on it; I was up before he was awake, and retired long after he was asleep, and the days would pass with few words between us, such was my degree of focus in this work. As days turned into weeks and weeks into months, I labored, until one day, finally, they were ready. They were wings that the gods themselves would have been delighted to receive, gloriously white against the grimy darkness of the tower. We strapped them on to our arms and beat them them a few times; even in the dead air of the room, they could sustain us above the ground.

After three years of captivity, we would be free.

It was dawn when we set out, white wings flashing open across the new day. It was effortless, the way that we flitted across the sky, rising on thermals and gliding across the island, and then across the sea. It was being elevated to the height of the gods themselves.

After we had been flying for a while, he started seeing if he could spin, and dive, and rise higher and higher. I warned him about going too low or high - the saltwater could make the wings too heavy; the sun could melt the wax.

“I’m just exploring, father,” he said, “Pushing the limits of these appendages, as you told me to do before. We could make much use for future military purposes, for scouting, even for the pure pleasure of flight,” and he went on, climbing and diving as I flew steadily on. After a while, though, he quieted, and we traveled in silence across the sea. There were enough thermals, I noticed, that we could glide effortless for long distances, and perhaps even sleep.

I might have, for a time. All I know is that he was ahead of me, and he seemed to be flapping harder than me. And then I saw them; the feathers, floating through the brilliant azure sky.

They were slowly sliding out from the wings, one or two at a time; I looked down, and the ocean had a trail of them. I shouted, and he heard my cry; but he didn’t turn around; when I powered ahead and drew level, I saw that he couldn’t spare the effort, that he was tired, that he had been flapping harder with every fall of his crumbling wings.

“Father,” he said, “I didn’t... want to...wake you. There’s nothing that...can be done. If you try and save me, we’ll both die.”

“My son—” I started, only to watch as a large chunk of feathers started sliding out of the frame with each flap. I looked, desperately, and saw nothing but sea all around us.

I despaired.

“Father—” he said, and then he fell.

-

He would’ve been twenty-two now.

I hear the tales of the labyrinth I build, still; I hear stories of the tools that I have created and how they are like gifts from the gods themselves, and while it pleases me, I would give all of it back for him, my lost son. If I had spent one more day with him, instead of with my ideas, I might still have both.

Token

Apr. 14th, 2010 08:01 pm
talonkarrde: (Default)
For Darius Turing, the ritual started the night after his twelfth birthday. After he had his double-chocolate cake — with six of his friends, his mother insisting that more would be too tiring for him — he happily spent the time with his new gifts, playing with the others until late in the afternoon. That night, he was tucked into bed by his mother, who kissed him on the forehead and wished him the sweetest dreams a twelve year old boy could have.

Just before midnight, however, Darius was shaken awake by strong hands. As he opened his eyes, he saw his dad standing over his bed, the look on his father's face one Darius would eventually come to know as a particular mix of pride and regret; it was the look of a proud parent watching their child go places they could not follow.

"Follow me," his father said, in the ironclad voice that he only used when he was absolutely serious — Darius remembered it from when their house had caught fire not so long ago. Darius was confused and sleepy but he didn't ask why or complain; he was still of the age where children think their fathers infallible, and so it was enough for him.

At midnight, January 1st, 1970, Darius Turing stood in the middle of a clearing and put a geode that had been hastily pressed into his hand onto a small, flat rock. His parents watched him from the edge of the woods, and after a few seconds passed, they called for him to head back to them, which he obediently did. The Turing family headed home, and Darius never asked about what happened, forgetting about it in the weeks after.

Next year, it happened again — Darius was roused before midnight, and as millions of others watched the telly and counted down to the new year, Darius stood alone in a park and placed a geode he was given upon the flat piece of rock in the center. Nothing happened as the seconds ticked away, and his parents took him home shortly afterwards.

As the years passed, the boy was roused every New Year's Eve and brought to Greenwich Park, to repeat the ritual over again. As he grew older, Darius started remembering the trips, and as teenagers are wont to do, started questioning them.

His parents told him that it was a tradition that had to be followed, and that he was the one chosen to do it. Midnight every year, they instructed him, with a geode. Darius was a well-brought up child and accepted this peculiar responsibility as something that was his to do, and never thought to tell his friends of it. It was his secret, though he didn't think of it as such: he simply believed that everyone had something passed down to them by their parents, and his was more active than keeping an heirloom or a plot of land.

But even the most responsible will make mistakes, and it was his twenty second year, celebrating the new decade, when he first missed his responsibility. It was an innocent mistake — a night out with his mates, a friendly pub-crawl, and time escaped him as it does all the youth. It was two in the morning when he woke from his sleep on the floor of a friend's flat, the thoughts of his duty crashing into his mind. He had the geode prepared, but it was across the city, and the sun's first rays had come when he finally stumbled to the rock — the altar, as he had come to understand it — where his duty was to be done.

Darius hesitated, wondering if he should wait until next year. In the end, though, he believed his parents would want him to do it late rather than not at all, and placed the geode down on the stone. He didn't know what to expect, but there was nothing that happened; the early joggers simply saw a young man looking down at a stone, in the middle of the park.

There were warnings of earthquakes more severe than usual, and of tsunamis that would swamp coastal regions. There were dormant volcanos that seismologists found to be unusually active, but it was one year, and there was nothing particularly out of the ordinary.

In 1981, the year after, he was on time, in the park at precisely midnight, stopping to place the geode in its usual position in the middle, face down. When nothing happened though, he felt disappointed. Perhaps it was time to move on from this habit, he thought, as children moved on from needing blankets and toys to help them sleep.

He did not return the year after, or after that, and all seemed to be okay. Perhaps the great nations of the world were slightly more violent, perhaps the Earth itself more unstable, but that could never be due to the ritual that started with a small boy. Five years later, Darius found himself watching the news on New Year's Eve, and it was somber indeed - the newscasters skirted around the topic, but it was agreed that this year would perhaps be everyone's last, as the two great superpowers looked closer and closer to destroying each other.

Darius Turing turned off the TV and saw that it was near midnight; he remembered an old tradition he used to do, and suddenly wondered why he had ever stopped. A few minutes later, he crossed into Greenwich Park one more time, a particularly beautiful geode in his hand, and placed it on the altar at exactly midnight, wishing to all who would listen for it to bring him and the rest of the world some hope.
talonkarrde: (young wizards)

For Rose

---


Nita said the five words and took a careful step, and then another, dodging the breakers and running over the water towards the Made Rocks. Kit had said something about investigating a hotspot before she fell asleep, she thought, but
she didn't quite remember why she had to be there.

As she got closer, though, she realized that it was getting a bit lighter with every step she took. The sun wasn’t getting brighter, exactly – it was more than everywhere was getting brighter. And once she she realized what it was, she smiled and doubled her efforts to get to the old fishing platform. She hadn’t been here in awhile – but the trip, when the Powers granted it, was always worth it.


In the distance, on the platform, she would’ve sworn that something was even brighter yet, even though everything was reaching a level of luminescence that would have made the sun dim – and Nita would know, having been up close and personal with it more than once. After experiencing Timeheart a few times, Nita had learned to stare into the brightness instead of away from it. But this brightness was something else – it kept moving, for one, which is not something most lights did.

Nita suddenly realized who it was and broke into a run, sliding a bit on the water but ignoring that, grinning madly and shouting a greeting, almost tempted to try and hug the spark, the white hole that accompanied her first journey as a wizard.

“Fred!”

(Dear Artificer,) Fred said, doing a figure eight in midair, the equivalent of a grin. (I've blown my quanta and gone to the Good Place!)

“Freddd!” Nita said again, drawing the name out in response to the teasing as the white hole bobbed a tight spiral in what was a big smile.

(You're here too soon again, you know,) he said kindly to her, the words coming across as light, dancing across her skin in a way that was almost ticklish.

"I know, Fred. I’m just visiting; something Kit said last night drew me here. Remembering, I guess, what I used to be. Maybe it will be important tomorrow?”

(There are no accidents, you know. Even back then – you were so young and eager. And you cared very much - about that pen, about doing the right thing, about Kit too. You’re older now, but no less caring.) Fred wove tight circles around her, pulsing happily against her skin.

She blushed a bit, not sure what to say about that, and then looked around them. She could see for miles under the sea and across the sky; in the distance, Manhattan was a pristine crystal palace. Then she looked back at him and frowned a bit, remembering all of their losses and repeating her question from the first meeting. “Was it worth it, Fred? You told me to find out, and we’ve…we’ve changed things for the better. But was it worth it?"

He laughed and emitted light that went across through the entire electromagnetic spectrum, a pure whoop of joy. Nita felt her hair stand up and grinned; he always did forget about the high frequency radiation, though it didn’t matter here.

(It's always worth it, Nita. Look.) And Fred bobbed towards the surface of water, where a sharp grey fin much larger than normal was making a wave more commonly seen behind motorboats.

Normally, Nita would've started saying in her mind the three word spell that would've created a physical wall, protecting herself from the mindless hunger of the shark, but this was Timeheart, after all. And even if it hadn’t been, she knew this particular shark very well, and dove into the water without second thought, canceling her water-walking spell as she went. She wasn't surprised to find that it took only a thought and she had transformed into a humpback again; the eyes on opposite sides of her head, her binocular vision reduced to a couple degrees.

But humpbacks didn’t need to see: Nita didn’t dally as she sang an effusive hello to Ed, rolling on her back and offering her belly in a greeting that only held for a few seconds before she surged forward, singing constantly in her giddiness.

"Hello, Sprat," his voice came, dry as always, his eyes still as dark as night and yet alive with the light that was all around them.

"Ed! What’s it like, Ed?" She even nudged him a bit in her mix of relief and worry, feeling the rough shark skin against the her smooth
rubber of a humpback like the handshake of an old friend. "Did we do right? Do you ever regret-"

"Sprat, you almost sound distressed." His sandpaper voice against her skin was a feeling Nita hadn't felt for years, a feeling that she desperately missed. "You've been here many times now, and you still ask?"

"Well," she fluked backwards rapidly, a whale's embarrassed gesture. "I'm just...asking, Ed. I'm…worried."

Ed bumped her in the snout then, harder than Kit would have, a reminder as to who he was. Timeheart or not, the Master Shark still had and performed his duties. He swam in a circle around Nita, his passionless eyes reminding her that he never changed. And yet…"Before we sang, Sprat, I remarked that I would never hear that which the Blues sing of - the Voices of the Ocean, the Tranquility of the Seas. Now I have."

"Did we-" she started to ask. But this was Timeheart, and she was thinking it so hard, so desperately, that he opened his jaw, showing her the teeth that could have ripped her apart and reminding her again of his creed. "The Sea tells me the price was paid by willing substitution, Sprat. And willing it was. You, young and now loving; I, old and now loved. I am not sorry for what happened." He swam under her and nudged her again, upwards. "Timeheart waits, Nita. But there is still distress out there, distress to be cured."

"Thank you, Ed." She said, singing gently and quietly. She fluked downwards, once, twice, to brush against him one more time, to remind herself of the price - and the reward - of serving the Powers That Be. Ed drew away and then stopped, rolling to display his belly to her - only
for a second, of course, but it was done. And then, calmly as always, he turned and swam away, a dark shadow that grew lighter every moment as he returned to the Sea.

When she could no longer see him, she swam for the light above, heading towards the surface as it got brighter, and brighter still, and finally woke up to the morning sun on her face and the sound of her dad and Dairine downstairs, arguing about what soil composition would be best for Filif.

She smiled, grabbed her manual, and paged through it, feeling the buzz and already knowing what she'd find.

Delayed Temporalspatial Message from Rodriguez, K. Accept?

Yes, she thought, and the notice cleared, replaced with two lines.

Hey, Neets, I was thinking we'd go over some of the undersea samples again -
There's weird power signature in it. Maybe get a chance to talk to S’reee again?”


She got dressed in a hurry and then opened her bedroom door to listen to the conversation - apparently they had moved on to the behavior of Spot...which meant they wouldn’t miss her anytime soon.

Nita smiled to herself, dropped her manual into the otherspace pocket, and disappeared in a clap of air.


Timekeeper

Jan. 1st, 2009 12:19 am
talonkarrde: (Default)
For Rachel

---

The shop’s sign was so old that she couldn’t make out what it actually said on it. Perhaps it was ‘Treasures of Men’ or ‘Dragons Den’; all she knew was that she had been here for years and had never seen it – surprising, because it clearly looked to be older than she was. She walked up to the door and tried to peer inside, but couldn’t make out any details in the dim light.

But she was curious, if nothing else; her teachers had learned to lock all of their cabinets and drawers after finding her poking in them once or twice. She didn’t usually get in trouble for it – she could talk her way out of almost anything – but there was that one time where her quiz grade was much better than normal...and a copy of the answers just managed to vanish from her fifth grade English teacher’s desk. Being called into the principal’s office and getting a ‘we’re almost positive you did this but have no proof’ was still bad enough of an experience that she stopped cheating, but nothing could stop her curious spirit.

So she pulled on the door, first with one hand and then with two. After a couple seconds of it resolutely refusing to open, swung wide so quickly she fell, injuring her dignity if nothing else. But she scampered to her feet and caught the door before it closed again, squeezing inside and taking a look all around her.

The shelves were close to one another and the ceiling was low enough that she would’ve almost been claustrophobic if she weren’t busy being amazed by all the wonderful things there were. An egg on the shelf to her left that pulsed with wonderful designs and moving pastel colors, a skull to her right in a velvet box that seemed to be human…and all sorts of fascinating things that belonged in a Halloween store or horror movie – but weren’t sloppily painted or cheap plastic; they all looked real. And as curious as she was, she was old enough to realize that touching these things was definitely not a good idea unless she had permission, so she contented herself with peering at them closely and trying to figure out what movies they had been in.

She finished walking through the two shelves and approached the back of the store, finally catching sight of the register (and thought, what if someone just hopped in and stole something? What naïve storekeeper had register at the back instead of the front?). There was an owl sitting on a hanging perch next to the register, and she marveled at the work that must have gone into the stuffing and balancing of the owl so that it didn’t fall — until it hooted at her, making her jump and almost crash into the shelves behind her in shock.

“Peace, Adrienne,” an old, gravelly voice called out, and while she tried to figure out from the voice whether crying or being a brat would get her out of trouble, the old man came out from behind what she could’ve sworn was a wall…but no, it was just a trick of the light, she saw that they were just curtains.

“Well?” the old man asked crankily, scratching at his chin.  He had the long ears that she could’ve sworn were pointed and a nose that was longer than anyone she had seen – in fact, she thought, if he had a long floppy hat and dark blue robes, he could be a stand-in for Merlin.

“Well, don’t just stand there, what are you looking for?” he asked again, sounding twice as impatient as he gently ran a finger down the owl’s side, eliciting a much softer hoot.

“Ah, just...well, I’m not really, I just wanted to look around.” She mumbled, unsure of how he would take that.

“You’re just looking around?” He asked incredulously, as if no one ever came into his shop to do that, and stared through her.

“Well, yes, I’ve never seen the shop before and it looked interesting and…” she trailed off as he turned to look at the owl, clearly not paying attention to her. The owl hooted softly again, and the old man sighed.

“Very well,” he said, answering a question that was never asked, and slowly drew back the cloth that was covering the display case. What was underneath convinced her that this was no ordinary antique or Halloween shop, because none of the antique stores had anything like this. In fact, even the jewelry stores that she had been to with her mom had nothing like these.

In the display case were five pocketwatches made out of five different materials, each one clear glass on the front and the back, showing all the gears. The gold one had a large intricate butterfly knob on the side to wind it up; the silver watch had no knob at all. There was one made of obsidian and shaped like an arrowhead, it was darker and almost reddish at the bottom, and clear on top…and one of gleaming platinum, most like a regular pocketwatch, complete with chain and small knob to wind. How someone could carve wood into such precise gears for the final watch was a mystery to her, but it looked it like it was designed to be worn as a pendant, with a string passing through the top, and she reached for it, forgetting that there was the glass in the way.

The old man smiled…but not kindly, more the smile of a teacher who is giving a test he knows you will do poorly on. Without saying a word, he took the case holding the pocketwatches out and set it on top of the counter, letting her take a closer look.

“I am a collector,” he said, pausing until she looked up at him. “And in my collection I have acquired these timekeepers. Each one is different, each one has the power to change your life. I will not tell you what the others do, only the one that you choose. I will, however, tell you one more thing, and answer one question. The one thing is this: the gold and the obsidian can only be used a limited number of times.”

She looked at each of them set out before her, staring at the faces and watching the second hands turn, and began to notice small details. Tiny buds on the wood, the sweeping motion of the platinum arrows moving much more smoothly than the precise ticking of the needle-like lines of silver. She looked over each one for quite some time, and the old man and the owl watched patiently, knowing that some things were not to be rushed. She did not touch them; he did not offer to let her.

“Some of them have marks, does that—”

“Some of them have been used,” he answered, and said no more.

Finally, she pointed at the deep brown-red of the mahogany, and he gestured for her to take it. Slowly, hesitatingly, she reached out and took it from the case, marveling at how snugly it fit in her palm, and at the loop of cord that had no beginning or end, and looked like the wood had grown around it. She looked up at him, waiting to hear what it was her choice did, and was surprised to see what almost looked like a smile on his face, though it quickly disappeared.

“The living wood; the only piece that was not fashioned with tools and heat. Be strong…but allow yourself to bend sometimes. Allow yourself to be uprooted sometimes, so you can taste new soil elsewhere. And let your friends be the wind and sun; although they may not be near you, they will be with you.”

She stared at him, waiting for more, until he snorted grumpily.

“Well, off be with you, unless you intend to pay me with confused looks.”

She scampered off, then, slipping the cord around her neck and tucking it under her shirt, practically running out the door in her haste to get out before he changed his mind and had her pay for something she certainly would never be able to afford. Her mind refused to stay on anything as she headed home, calling up the strangest memories (first time she tasted berry sherbet, seeing who could jump farther off the swings and breaking her ankle but winning!, seeing her dad leave home again for another three month deployment). She didn’t even realize when she got home, and immediately fell into bed, into a dreaming sleep where experiences kept turning into other ones.

In the morning, she found a tiny flower growing right out of the wood where none had been the night before, a flower she isn’t sure what to do with. But a letter on her desk is addressed to her, and it tells her to save the flowers and smell one when she feels like time has been cruel.

And she does, and it saves her more often than once.

#

The next eight years passed as they did for all teenagers: with heartbreak and happiness, confusion and determination (even if wrongheaded, sometimes). But throughout it all, she maintained a quiet aura of strength about her. She became the supporting trunk of her group of friends, always there for them, and yet never seemed to need it herself; whenever she was in trouble, she simply paused, a tree letting the wind pass through her branches. They didn’t know of the pendant that she would look at every night, watching as it somehow grew tiny buds and flowers, as it grew as she did, and strengthened as she became strong. The times were not all good for her and not all the flowers blossomed, but the pendant and her lived and grew.

But what happened in those eight years are her life, and we do not belong there. Our story ends, then, when the pendant shatters.

#

She comes back the night that it breaks, her mind whirling and confused, and he comes with her; his name is Jessie, and they have been seeing each other for a year now.

She runs along the sidewalk, trying to find the shop. It’s one of these, she says to herself, it has to be, please let it still be here. Jessie doesn’t know why they’re here, but he doesn’t care – it’s important to her, and so he won’t question, only support.

“There!” She yells, finding an old shop, and yanks hard on the door. And again, like eight years ago, it resists her until Jessie touches the handle; then it springs open as if greased. She almost runs through the store – but checks herself, remembering the precious items; even in a situation like this, she knew that breaking anything in here would probably be unwise. So she shuffles sideways between the shelves that she could have sat down crosslegged between all those years ago, and finally comes to the register.

Adrienne doesn’t need to hoot this time, for the old man is already there, looking exactly like he did all those years ago, a fact that does not surprise her...but his face is kind, a look that does surprise her.

Though she could say a thousand about how it happened and how sorry she was and how she would do anything to get it back, she only says three words; they are the only important ones.

“I broke it.”

And he nods solemnly, responding with two.

“Show me.”

She reaches towards her neck unconsciously until she realizes that it is no longer there, and then jerks her hand back down towards her jacket pocket, fishing out a plastic ziplock with the shattered remains of the pendant inside. Its gears no longer mesh, the second hand is bent, and the hour hand is snapped off halfway; the wood around the outside has warped and the glass seems poised to pop off, ready to shower the bag with wooden shards.

She sets it on the display and he looks at it critically for a moment, and then up at her…and then past her, at Jessie, who has come to stand beside her and hold her hand. Again, a brief flash of what she now recognizes as a smile, though she does not understand what could possibly be happy at such a time.

He motions for her to open the bag and dump the contents on the display and she does, her hands trembling and recoiling as she touches an edge of the timepiece. He nods, looking over them, and then takes out a small hammer from behind the display.

“Wha—” she almost shrieks, cut off as he brings the hammer down on the pocketwatch. Adrienne hoots reproachfully from her position, but the old man motions everyone to silence, taking what she could swear was a wand and lifting the cord away from the absolutely shattered remains…

And as the cord untangles from the dust and remains, Adrienne gasps, seeing a solid knot of wood at the end of the cord.

“The mahogany timepiece grows with its keeper, reminding you of what is important in your life until it is no longer needed. I don’t need to ask how it broke; you decided that that he should see what it was…and it shattered the moment he touched it. The gift only stays with you as long as you need it; you have learned from it, and it needed to shed all the particular branches and flowers that you had given to it. Now it can grow anew, and help someone else the way it helped you - and you have another tree to lean on, another's branches to be cradled in.”

He does smile now, but it is a smile directed at Jessie, who can't help but smile back. He doesn’t understand all of it, and on some level doesn’t want to – but he understands the compliment he has been paid and his smile is an affirmation of the responsibility he has been given.

“Let it go….”

She nods through her tears, finding the strong pillar of support within her even without the pendant, and turns to the old man. “Thank you,” she says, trying to communicate a thousand different things she is thankful for, but he waves towards the door, never one for too much emotion.

“Live well and remember what it has taught you,” he says, and then grins, and she sees a bit of his spirit underneath the gruff exterior. “Well, off be with you, unless you intend to pay with your confused looks. I don't believe we will ever meet again...but perhaps a child of yours, one day, if he or she is in need.”

And they smile at him and take their leave as the knot slowly unfolds to show a new timepiece, small and yet as strong as its previous owner.
talonkarrde: (Default)
Today we're going to be talking about alter-selves. I know it's a departure from what is written in our syllabus, however, in light of recent events, I believe it necessary to-

No, Terry, this does not mean that we're going to change the syllabus for next week; the next class will still be on the mechanics of interaction between cylindrics and arcane shields.

Yes, Issac, we'll have time to talk about automatons and hardwired circuits pertaining to that field. Now if I may begin?

Thank you. Now, the concept of alter-selves is a central component of the widely accepted and renowned personality theory put forth jointly by Mssrs. Heinlein and Gaiman. We will be discussing the fundamental concepts thereof, reserve some time for practical techniques, finish with the latest research and, if we have time, indulge in some forward extrapolation.

In a departure from ordinary procedure, I would like to start the topic with a personal story. Although it is not the faculty's preferred method of instruction, it is my belief that informing you of my firsthand encounters with the subject will grant some insight the books will not afford you.

About ten years ago, I was working on my joint Masters for the Arts and the Sciences. As most of you know, one must demonstrate above-average skill in the shaping and manipulation of the ether to succeed in pursuing a Master of the Arts. For the Sciences, the final exam is an oral and written examination on the principles behind the physical universe.

What you may not know, however, is that when pursuing the joint Masters, you are required to write an independent thesis without the benefit of any supervising faculty. Furthermore, the thesis must be on currently groundbreaking work - this way, they get research done and weed out those that do not have the willingness to press forth by themselves.

I decided to investigate what was a new physiopsychological phenomenon: the existence of cohabitation within the human race. It had just been discovered that there were two highly separate and yet absolutely bound personalities within each of us. The Artists called them souls, whereas the Scientists referred to them minds, but the label itself didn't matter. The idea, however, of two separate beings that exist in one body and yet never communicate confused both sides and was the issue of many debates.

What intrigued me personally was the possibility of communicating with the ‘other side’,  as we called it: the other spirit. You see, I was a young man, as young as you are now, and thought only of the splendor of discovery and the spoils of fame that breaking this barrier would bring. More than anyone else, I advocated that we go forward with all research to actively contact the other side firsthand, instead of passive observations.

We didn't even know what the other side was, only that there was another side, a sort of shadow-mirror world. But who is the shadow-reflection, and who is the true self? Perhaps it was foolish, what I believed, but I was young and I believed it with a passion. I would be the next Card, I rationalized, paving the road to a new frontier.
 
And so, I began a correspondence with the great Artists and Scientists of the time, and together, we made the Resonance Harmonizer - a portal that would bring the two worlds together. The details of the mechanics and manipulations are beyond this lecture, but suffice to say that it worked, if only for one person at a time. Due to the careful balance of Art and Science employed, they required that the person to go into to be trained in both, in case something went wrong for either side. Given my background and my eagerness for glory, I pushed my name forth through the applicant process, using every contact, calling in every favor I had.

After the press saw the pictures, they seized on another name for it, in homage to an old writer who wrote about a fantastical journey. It helped that it looked much like what the name described.

They called it the Rabbit Hole, and I was the first one down.

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