Lucian was already asleep before his head had even fully sank into the satin pillow of the luxurious double bed.
The captain whose rooms we had taken knew a thing or two about good living and must have had funds way above and beyond an army salary, for this accommodation was sumptuous, and his wine was extreme.
I was also tired but in a different way from Lucian’s unconscious near death of exhaustion.
My mind was racing in all directions at once, and the paranoia that had befallen me ever since I had understood not only that the white Serein had been watching us all along, but that their magic operated just fine inside the dampening fields – for how else could they have hovered and kept their distortions flying in Trant’s trap? – was overwhelming.
I needed to know how it was done. I needed to know. I needed to be sure that I would never, ever again be in a position where I would have to eliminate in that dark or watch a Conna of Solland die right before my eyes of a silly little sword stab through the lungs.
I had to know how their pattern magic worked before I would ever, ever allow myself to shut my eyes at the same time as Lucian did, ever again.
I ordered food for myself from the kitchens.
After I had removed his boots and when I drew a soft, pale gold blanket over Lucian’s long stretched out shape, I considered that I would not wish him to be disturbed in a few short moments, so I contacted Eddario with an easy link and told him to address the assembled officers and clerics of the court on our behalf instead, instructing him on what to say and giving him some background information on what we were planning to do to field the inevitable questions.
Beyond that, I gave him full reign to order done what he saw fit, and to stand in for the regent of the kingdoms until other arrangements could be found.
The poor man’s mind was reeling. He had gone from the condemned dead, bastard son of a noble man to being sole ruler of the domain of Solland in a morning; now he was virtually the emperor of the kingdoms. Still, I had some trust that he would conduct himself with honour and some forethought, and was very glad that he shouldered such responsibilities with good grace and without question.
My food arrived and gratefully, I shut the connection to Eddario. I took a little extra energy from the young adjutant who brought a laden tray of fine meats, delicious smelling roasted vegetables and gravies and fresh bread, and never had a meal had such appeal before, and never did it have again.
I soaked it all up with delight and drank the excellent wine and I could feel myself beginning to uncoil inside, to begin to relax.
It was so unbelievably good to just be sitting here, leaning against the bed upon which Lucian snored lightly, all safe and sound in mind and body both of us, and to be able to pick up the patterns around me once more, rather than the awful blindness of my base five senses to which I had been condemned for this time of horror that now lay behind us.
The thought renewed my determination to not ever have to be put into that position again, and I went outside myself then with deep volition and soared through the base patterns straight into the realms of Serein magic that I had come to understand and navigate quite well, in spite of its illogical and overly fine entanglements.
Blowing up the huge barrier around Pertineri Palace had caused damage in the fabric of the Serein layers as well; still, I tracked through with the most intense focus on every little thing that I might have missed before, clues or indications as to where the entry points would be into the realms where the shieldings could not penetrate and where someone could watch all the other levels yet remain entirely undetected.
As I traversed the patterns, back and forth, up and down, side to side and across, I became aware of more and more small sparks of interest and watching. The Serein children, wherever they had been scattered by their traveller’s hosts, were here and they were observing me. At first, I ignored them, then they irritated me, and finally, it occurred to me that they might be able to help.
I stepped into Serein in full mind then and materialised in a landscape of pretty abundance, with long bright green grass and many coloured flowers of interesting shapes, numerous moons and suns above in an ultraviolet sky, and a large amount of small children playing games amongst a sheltering valley.
A group drew my interest and I saw that they were playing hide-and-seek amongst a pretty copse of trees, by a fairy spring that bubbled turquoise water.
Hide and seek.
The realisation nearly knocked me to the ground.
I had been such an idiot!
No wonder that the Serein patterns had been so much hard work and never made complete sense to me in any shape or form. No wonder I had such a hard time with their entanglements.
For they were never meant to be viewed from that vantage. They were designed, manipulated and constructed right here, at this interface of understanding, where there were brooks and skies, and constructs that were meaningful and logical. Here, in Serein, was the only place at which you could understand Serein at all.
As I stood and tried to contain the flood of understanding and the flood of outrage at my own stupidity both, the children ceased their games and came running to meet me, flecks of colour bright across the copious landscape. Some were flying, and I recognised Reyna and her special tribe amongst the first.
I tried to speak a greeting but instead, from my mouth came a white bird which fluttered to the girl, was caught with eager hands and with the most delighted of smiles, she pressed it to her chest where it became one with her in an instant.
Her thoughts encompassed me.
“Oh Isca why have you left it for so long? We have so waited for you! Welcome to you! Welcome!” and the resonance of welcome spread amongst them all, a thousand or more, not one of them older than perhaps a tenyear or so, a high soaring sing song of welcome that hurt me on more levels than I cared to understand.
Soberly, I addressed them all in kind, making well sure I didn’t open my mouth by accident again.
“I thank you for your welcome, and I apologise, you are right, I should have come here much before this time. And now I’m here, I must tell you all that I have come to seek your assistance. Will you help me?”
As one, delighted assent pooled forth and many amongst the children rose into the air like dust disturbed and clapped their hands in sheer excitement.
“Yes! What can we do to help you?”
I sighed and at once, my robe of turquoise turned to shadow grey. I looked down at myself and frowned in irritation. This place was not a one I knew how to hide my feelings and my thoughts as yet, and even as I thought that the robe went night black with despair and I could feel myself fall prey to shadow.
The children called out in deep disturbance and I strangled then all thoughts of guilt at what I’d done to them, and what I did intent to do to those who were by rights, their elders and their rulers, and although my gown remained a black so deep you could begin to wonder if it might just show you stars if you but looked long and hard enough, my next communication was resonant and steady.
“I need to find a something that would lead from this place to another – a doorway perhaps, or an opening of some shape or form, a bridge, I know not what it could be. There is a place beyond and I must reach it soon, for if I don’t, it will become the end of me.”
Great consternation and compassion too descended upon me like an unwelcome blanket and I had to fight the impulse to swat at it like Lucian had swatted at my arm but a short time ago in similar circumstances. I allowed the emotions to pass over me and when they had receded, asked all of them, “Do any of you know of such a place, such a bridge or connection? Have you come across such a thing in your explorations, or your games?”
A buzzing amongst them arose as they conferred within themselves and one another, and finally, one, a boy that looked frighteningly much like a young Lucian, came forward.
He was wearing a green nobleman’s uniform complete with little cloak, and miniature sword by his side – it made me smile to see him thus attired; a Serein child that in other places lived quite meagerly amongst a traveller’s camp, tolerated yet not quite integrated, and he should chose to present himself here in this way.
“I might have seen such a place,” he told me with hesitation and trepidation, build of awe at addressing one they had made into some kind of goddess in their minds, a thought that filled me with the deepest of discomforts and caused a shadow swirl from me to extend to near the boy’s booted feet.
I contained myself and focussed on the intelligence.
“Will you take me there?” I asked as gently and as kindly as I could muster, and he perked up, nodded eagerly and immediately, rose up into the air, hovering at two or three men’s heights and waiting for me to join him.
Perplexed, I cast around for any way as how to I could accomplish a similar manoeuvre, and found supporting patterns in the air that would serve like stepping stones to such a rising. Cautiously, I attuned to them, felt their buoyancy and allowed myself to spiral up, slowly and clumsily, much afraid of falling even though I sternly told myself that here this was not going to be a problem.
It took a lot of willpower to join him up above the heads of the other watching children; yet none of them ever exhibited any signs of amusement or of consternation at my difficulties. They simply observed without judgement and once again, this caused a most peculiar sensation of unhappiness with the corresponding shadow swirl.
I shook my head and sighed, the distraction causing me to momentarily lose my tenuous foot hold on the stepped patterns and I dropped quite a way before managing to stabilise my fall and turning it back into a rising.
“Let’s just go,” I said impatiently to the boy and he, kindly, slowly began to move away in a direction that was marked by a cluster of three fat moons that sat so close to the horizon that you might think they would bump into it at any moment.
I followed, best I could, and as the bizarre landscapes below began to rush by, I gathered a little confidence in the processes of flying here; after we passed a river network that looked much like a giant tangle of silver blue snakes, I actually began to enjoy myself and drew at a level with him, then circled him a few times. He laughed and began to circle too at speed, dipping low and swooping high, and the two of us air-danced our way towards the moons and the never ending horizon.
At length, I made out a flat cerulean plain with a structure in the distance that grew and grew on our approach until I could make it out to be a form of temple, surrounded by many columns in a lighter shade of the same colour, and roughly squarish in shape with a flat roof.
We landed a way from it and set down into a soft dust that did not rise but splashed like liquid about our ankles.
Questioningly, I looked at the boy and he said, “Inside there is a pool. It leads to somewhere very strange. I am afraid of it.”
I nodded and said, “Thank you for your help. Will you wait for me to guide me back if this is not what I’ve been looking for?”
The boy looked at me with his big blue eyes and said, “I am not afraid to go there with you.”
I smiled bitterly. Another one who mistook my misery for strength, it seemed. The thought once more caused a flood of shadow that I stemmed with a hard slamming down upon myself.
Lucian was right about me.
I felt far too sorry for myself, far too often. This would really have to stop, and what a wonderful mirror this place could provide for one who cared to look!
I focussed on the building in front of us, and set off without a further word or thought being exchanged. The boy followed close behind.
Wading through the blue ocean, I set foot upon the steps of the building and noted how every single tiny piece of surface seemed to be carved with minute symbols which I did not recognise. For a moment, the shadows I cast wavered and the boy gave a shout of fear as I changed before his eyes into another, taller, wider one; I smiled and momentarily wished for a mirror to show me the physical signs of transformation that occurred here if I accessed Lucian’s memories inside me so directly but then forgot as the meanings of the symbols and their origins came into clarity and understanding.
The part on this first step I was reading was taken from the story of Sondra, the hero and written in the oldest of the known languages that Sepheal had made me memorise so tediously. I shook my head and felt myself recede to my own form again as I dismissed this as unimportant to the task at hand and instead, looked ahead and through the columns to see if I could make out what lay inside the building.
A dark forest-green gloom, strikingly at odds with the surrounding desert and the stone itself, seemed to come from the centre.
I took the remaining steps, four, five, six, seven, eight, counting up to 12 and then I could see right into the building itself.
It was a squarish base of the pale stone, surrounded by dense walls of columns that touched at the bases and at the tops and left about three hand spans width open between each of them; on each one of the sides, two columns were left out to provide four equal and geometric entrance points. The centre was entirely open, unsupported and empty, and from about four steps onward, was filled with a square pond, set flush into the floor, from whence the dark green light emanated.
I slowly approached and knelt by the side, looking down into the total stillness and the green light and feeling both a real sense of fear as well as a rising desire to touch that what lay inside.
It certainly wasn’t water, and the boy was certainly right to have brought me here.
He squatted a way behind me and beside me.
I turned to look at him, very alien in the green light from below, giving him the appearance of a forest elf more than the child he was, and he said in a whisper, “Will you go inside it?”
I turned my attention back to the bottomless, unfathomable thing and I realised there was no way that I would dare. It was a doorway, alright, yet nothing like any of the many types of doorways I had ever seen, and I was pretty sure that Sepheal would have been just as perplexed by it as I was, were he kneeling by my side and slowly and most carefully, extending a tentacle of magic contact, ready to recoil at the first sign of danger.
I smiled and called forth my little messenger bird.
It appeared immediately inside my head and rose clear through my skull and hair, a most extraordinary sensation indeed in this place where thoughts were more real than reality itself.
It flapped its wings in the green glow and trustingly, turned itself towards the surface. I took a deep breath and let it go and at the same time, my hand went out unconsciously to grab hold of the boy whose name I didn’t even know beside me as though I needed a safety anchor to keep myself rooted here.
The part of me that was the bird fell into the green and was immediately sucked into a profound current. Beside me, the boy send a protest as my hand must have tightened on his arm and that was a very good thing because it helped me keep myself separate and stopped me becoming too enmeshed with my messenger self which dropped deeper and deeper, deeper and deeper still until the light became unbearable in its intensity and broke free, finally into:
A vastness such as I had never known.
A blackness and yet the blackness was alive, more alive than you could begin to imagine.
It was utterly silent yet sang with a multitude of voices and all at once.
It was utterly nothing, and yet it was everything at all, everything that had ever been, everything that was ever to come, all at the same time, everywhere and nowhere at the same time, the smallest and the largest all the same and my mind whirled helplessly, trying to find something to hold on to, some way of making sense of this, some way of stemming the flood of information about everything and yet at the same time, hungrily drawing it in an alien way, a way that was familiar yet made no sense to me whatsoever.
I cannot know about the passing of time – was I in this space for a heartbeat or a million years? – but I could not cope with it any longer and desperately struggled to break free, aided in my endeavour by a calling of my being from the other side, from the side of sense and comfort and control, and I snapped back into awareness, not by the pool, not in Serein, but lying on my side, gasping, with blood pouring from my nose like a fountain, by the side of Lucian’s bed in the cavalry officer’s sumptuous quarters.
I ripped off the borrowed shirt and used it to press against my nose, laid my head back and stretched out on the carpet, making myself breathe regularly and deeply beneath the white cloth that was turning red and warm and moist beneath the pressure of my hands upon it.
Finally, the bleeding stopped and I carefully removed the shirt, testing with my fingertips, and lay for a while longer whilst I tried to ascertain what had happened and what I should be doing next.
Lucian was sleeping, dreamlessly. Poor thing. He deserved rest. I did not have the heart to wake him, yet I also did not have the heart to go to sleep myself as well, much as I wanted to. I was far too afraid.
Cautiously, I sat up, bare chested and light headed.
On the table, there was still some food, long cold and beginning to dry around the corners, and the wine. I cautiously crawled across on all fours, keeping care to hold my head most carefully still; then rotated my body around it and sat down, cross-legged and drank the remainder of the wine.
Slowly, as I sat and from beyond the window, night was marching forward steadily, vague understandings began to form as to the nature of this strange space I had visited. These vague understandings were knowings that I had acquired but they were so – different, that was the only word I could think of to describe them, that I could not understand how to decode them so I would know to understand what I had learned.
It got to be cold in the room, and I had no heart for a magic fire. Instead, I pulled up one of the soft, thin carpets that covered the floor and wrapped it around me like a blanket, closed my eyes and continued the task of somehow understanding the messages from the black space where neither patterns, words nor pictures were used to transmit their information.
It was like chasing your own shadow. The more I tried, the less sense any of it made and my tired, aching brain, slopping wearily and painfully against the inside of my skull with every heartbeat.
It was hopeless.
Finally, I gave up and woke Lucian with a gentle touch that grew increasingly desperate as he was determined to ignore me and stay in sleep, in restoration.
He finally awoke and stretched and yawned and sought me with his sleepy mind, made contact and shot aware in an instant.
“What are you doing? What’s been happening? What time is it?”
His flood of questions were more than I could take and I just asked him to take his turn on guard duty and to discuss these things when I felt a little better. I remember him sliding off the bed and coming across to me, his scent and presence strong about me, and that was all.