My first trip outside of Earth was to Mars, in the last year of my life. I was so afraid then, of almost everything. It was during that trip, while watching the sunset from a terrace in Mariner’s Valley, that Damien and I chose to live in the Ultraverse.
The 29th century was well advanced. Humanity had colonized the planets, moons, asteroids, and comets of the solar system, and was launching the first exploration missions to other stars. There were no wars, unemployment or hunger. Most diseases were a thing of the past. But there was a price to pay. A strict birth control. When we turned 200 we had to leave, to make room for the new ones. We had to choose: either be part of one of the exploration missions of distant worlds (our bodies rejuvenated and strengthened thanks to nanotechnology and genetic engineering), or go on to inhabit one of the countless digital worlds of the Ultraverse.
There were all kinds of possible choices, when it came to keeping the memory of the previous life, when we happened to inhabit the Ultraverse. You could keep essential aspects of it, keep nothing at all (few chose, or were forced to choose, something so drastic), or keep all your memories. The main difference between living in the Ultraverse and choosing an exploration mission was the breaking of the Link with our Artificial Intelligences when leaving the real universe. In it, the guidance of these had become so essential that it was difficult to establish where the person’s mind ended and the AI’s began. Many chose the Ultraverse for that reason.
I met Damien when I turned 161 years old. The summer we traveled to Mars, our 38 years together were coming to an end, and coming to an end far too soon. I was about to make the decision that had always scared me the most; torn between sorrow at knowing that we could be sharing our last moments, and what it would mean for me to say goodbye to Circe, my Artificial Intelligence.
“You have been the most important thing that has ever happened to me,” I said, “but Circe has been with me for nearly two hundred years. It’s my whole life, Damien.»
For me it was a terrible idea, to say goodbye forever to Circe. Damien had grown up in an amun family. He had never had an AI. Also, he was much younger than me, even though, at almost 90 years old, he appeared to be my 199 (because the amun also renounced longevity treatments).
“I gave up my dream of traveling to the stars for you. And I’m willing to give up what time I have left in reality, for you too. I don’t know what else I can give you, Wini.»
When I met Damien, he wanted to sign up for one of the far world exploration missions (which anyone who passed the tests, even if they weren’t 200 years old, was eligible for). I worked in the admissions program (where part of my job was to interview applicants). He then underwent his first longevity treatment; but year after year he delayed his desire to leave the solar system behind. One day he told me that the real reason for starting treatment was to be able to spend more time with me. Years later he was diagnosed with a rare disease, for which his body rejected the nanotechnology that would allow him to travel to space.
In the end, I chose Damien. It was on that terrace, under the clear blue sky full of white clouds of a terraformed Mars. We decided to be settlers, in a digital world. After all, I had always been afraid to leave Earth. We would be like the explorers who were part of the missions to other stars, but without the inconveniences of the trip or the risk of those missions. We knew that if something went wrong we could go back to Limbo and start over, on another world in the Ultraverse.
During the last minute of our lives, in the VR complex on Mount Olympus on Mars, with only seconds to go until our bodies were incinerated and our minds passed into the Ultraverse, Damien and I linked hands. At the last second, a terrible scream ripped through my consciousness. It was the lament of Circe, my Artificial Intelligence.
I woke up from the stasis dream, in the middle of a chaos of alarms and emergency lights. In my hazy memories, I couldn’t tell when I had left reality behind to plunge into the Ultraverse. The coma induction inside the stasis cabin, in the simulation of our trip to space in the interstellar ship «Perseverance», overlapped perfectly with the moment of our deaths in reality. If I had ceased to exist, I had not realized it. I would only notice it for one difference: My AI would no longer be with me.
In any case, was that the normal operation of the simulation? Why did everything start in the middle of an accident? I didn’t remember that Damien and I had signed such a thing in the contract.
I was wrapped in the artificial skin of the skinsuit, which served to adapt our bodies from the cabin ecosystem to that of the new world, and it fitted like a glove, from the bottom of our feet to the top of our heads, where it became a hood. The stasis pods of the other members of the «Perseverance» ship’s crew had come loose from their moorings. They were crossed and mounted one on top of the other, like ships in the battle of Salamis.
«Anyone there?» Suddenly a voice yelled.
But no, that wasn’t Damien’s voice.
I felt a current of air. The salty water invaded my cabin and almost covered my face, which made me finally react, and jump from the stasis cabin to the ground. The water was up to my chest. My knees buckled and I almost fell, gasping. A silhouette loomed over me and picked me up. I shuddered; because, somehow, I knew that silhouette was not that of a human being.
«Come on,» said the voice, «we have to get out of here. Lean on Me.»
«I… who are you? No. Damien…»
«Come on, there’s no time.»
«Circe?» I called. But Circe did not reply.
«Circe?» I called again, louder. Of course, it was a very caveman reaction. There was no need to shout for your particular AI to hear you. «Circe! Where are you?»
What a magnificent resolution, right? We were supposed to have chosen the Ultraverse to leave our AIs behind. And there I was, like a scared little girl, calling out for mom.
«Who are you talking to? There is no one else here», said that being.
«Who… what are you?»
“I’m Gortax, but I’m afraid there’s no time for introductions.»
«What are you doing, leave me alone! Let go of me,” I wanted to scream, but I no longer had the strength. It was just a thread of voice. «If you want to help me, look for Damien, his cabin has to be here, next to…»
But no, of course, it wasn’t there.
«We are running out of time. The ship can collapse at any time.»
I protested, I hit that being, called Gortax. But I had just woken up from stasis. I knew I had to follow a strict protocol to get my motor functions back on track. So when the blackness took me I felt fear and anger, but not surprise.
In fleeting glimpses of reality, during fleeting awakenings, I felt an irregular wobble. A lurch more pronounced than the rest made me hit hard against the side of the cabin. The pain became persistent. With the pain also persisted my consciousness. I opened my eyes.
I was no longer in the cabin. My vision was clear, as clear as can be on waking, but I saw what seemed to me to be the interior of a wooden wagon, illuminated by two swaying lamps of warm gaseous light. The place would have been elegant and spacious if it not had been so old and cluttered. There were trunks of different shapes and sizes, many of them open and full of knick-knacks, cloth, tools, potions, books, scrolls, and staves, as well as other strange objects that I no longer remember. A large square canvas of finely woven esparto, painted on the inside like a dark blue sky full of stars, planets and suns that I did not know, rose above me, fixed to some iron, giving privacy to that rattling space.
There were also several wicker baskets filled with colored sand and products that smelled of many things. I identified above all an intense perfume, which seemed to be made from incense and some strange flower that reminded me of my childhood in some forgotten place on Earth.
I got up a little from the bed, curiously, separating the blankets that covered me. I noticed that the artificial skin around me had begun to loosen up. It had small scratches in some places. I raised an arm, to get a better look at one of those rips, and accidentally hit something.
A door opened behind my head, facing the direction the vehicle was moving. Resplendent eyes appeared floating in a face of cheese and pointed ears. No, I realized, when my mind correctly reinterpreted what my hallucinated senses were telling me. It was a man with feline features, his face framed by a full yellow moon, from which rose strange plumes red as blood. I conjured up images of sulphurous Io as seen from Europa. Sure, all of that made a lot more sense.
Beyond that being the silhouettes of some strange beasts could be guessed, equipped with horns that almost crossed the moon, against which they were silhouetted black.
«Gortax,» the humanoid shouted, «she has awakened.»
Okay, that wasn’t Gortax. So there were several of those beings. Magnificent.
The vehicle stopped. There was a silence, which made me aware for the first time, by its sudden absence, of the sound of the rattle of wagon wheels, the screech of springs, the groans of wood, and the hoofs of draft beasts. A bellow sounded. I looked in the direction of the beasts. The first cat thing, the one who had summoned Gortax, was no longer there, but he had left the door open. Then the velvet curtains at the back of the wagon parted, and another catlike, humanoid figure (Gortax, I guessed) momentarily outshone a small blue rising sun. The soft light of that unusual star tinged the interior of the wagon with an alien hue.
«So you’re awake,» Gortax said, as he stepped into the vehicle, letting the curtains fall again.
I did not answer. I stayed silent, watching.
«You do not have to be afraid. You are not in danger. Understand what I say?»
Yeah, I got it, which was confusing enough for me. I felt alone and helpless, not knowing what had become of Damien, and surrounded by strange beings, on an alien-looking planet.
His appearance was basically human, in shape and size, although his limbs had a disconcerting, almost alien thinness. He was dressed in a way that reminded me of the Muslims in the stories of «The Thousand and One Nights«. He wore three overlapping tunics, different shades of green with gold patterns, the last of them a sleeveless brial, all over long, wide ochre-colored leggings, topped with pointed soles that seemed to be a continuation of the leggings, like shoes. But all that was the last thing I noticed, because he wasn’t wearing a headwear, so at first I couldn’t stop looking at his face. He was undoubtedly human and yet he was not. His eyes had pupils that looked like a strange mix of human and cat, albeit with white. His ears were pointed and hairy. The hairy tips far exceeded the tips of the ears. Gortax wore them braided back, and they blended with his not-very-long black hair, which framed a dark, hairless complexion, with dark, intense green eyes.
«I’m not afraid,» I lied.
«Good. We’re not going to hurt you. Quite the opposite,” he said, as he slowly walked over to where I was. His movements were fascinating and terrifying. There was something arachnid about them. «We have rescued you. Your ship fell into the sea; now it lies sunk to the bottom, beyond reality.»
I didn’t know what she meant by «beyond reality». I figured it was some kind of local superstition about the mysteries of the deep, or something. I went to the point, to the only thing that interested me to know:
«And my collegues?»
«Companions? I do not know what you mean.»
«The other cabins,» I said nervously. «My crewmates. Haven’t you rescued them, too?» I think I yelled that.
Gortax was silent for a moment.
“There was no one but you on the ship, Winifred Bataglia.»
«Nope. you looked bad That’s impossible.»
«Why would I lie to you, what would I gain from it, Winifred Bataglia?»
«As you know…?» My name… I was going to ask, but I immediately realized that he would have read it in the booth, so I changed the question on the fly: «My language?»
«I don’t know if I fully understand your question,» he replied. «There is only one universal language. Of course, there are many local variants, all over Acanta, though most of them are unknown to me, even I, an eminent philosopher, astrologer, and merchant. The language was given to us by the gods. And you are a goddess, who has come to our world in mortal form, is not it? Then…»
Voucher. What was it supposed to reply to that?
The wagon started up again, with its entire collection of sounds and rattles.
«Come on, you don’t have to pretend with me. I am not a simple farmer or fisherman from three to a quarter, who has had the fortune to see your ship go down and has come to see what she found. I have spent most of my life studying the Lettand Scriptures. I know that your arrival was written, not clearly, but enough for those who knew how to interpret the Scriptures. Yes enough for someone like me. Our meeting was not accidental, Winifred Bataglia. We were meant to meet.»
Presumptuous jerk. That was my first thought, regardless of anything else. That cat being, Gortax, I didn’t like. I didn’t know if it was better for me to humor him or deny that heap of nonsense. I opted for the second.
«I’m not here for stupid things, cat,» I said, a little fed up with all this. Not only were I not offered answers to my questions, but quite the opposite. «I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I only know that my ship crashed in the ocean of this planet, Acanta, I suppose, if it exists». I finished, raising my voice more and more, visibly shaken. I thought I was starting to get hysterical, and tried to calm down.
«What did you call me?»
«Nothing,» I sighed.
«Cat. You said cat.»
“Look, Winifred Bataglia…»
«Stop calling me that,» I interrupted.
«Why, isn’t that your name?»
«Nope. Yes. But it’s stupid. Winifred will suffice.»
«Okay, Winifred… look, I understand that you’re confused. I don’t think it’s easy for any god to meddle in the affairs of mortals. But don’t take it out on me. I didn’t ask you to come. Your arrival was announced, for many years.»
I decided to humor him, to see if I could get something clear out of that delirium.
«How many years?»
“Many, I just told you.»
«I know you said a lot, but how much is a lot to you: a hundred, five hundred, a thousand, two thousand?»
He looked at me, surprised. I noticed how his pupils widened.
«I guess I should have been prepared for something like that,» he said, and suddenly he looked really sorry. I almost felt sorry for him, «to know how to handle abstract concepts, typical of the gods. You will see Winifred Bat… Winifred, there is no measure of time, here in Acanta. Things happen, days go by. There is a before and there is an after. The years have names, but… number them? There are those who suspect that there would not be enough numbers for so many years. Others of us think that the world, Acanta, is relatively young. We don’t know the difference between a hundred or a thousand. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve heard such terms, and I have to tell you that I’m one of the wisest people in these lands,” he finished, and I no longer felt sorry for him. But I was very amazed. I tried to think before spouting something nonsense, so I chose to remain silent.
Gortax was about to add something else, when suddenly the vehicle lurched so sharply I was sure it was on two wheels for a moment. It immediately fell, with a loud lurch that made my stomach rise into my mouth.
The door that led to the seat opened, and the same catlike being from before peeked out. It was already dawn.
“Gortax,” he called out, “we’re in trouble.»
Gortax and I were a mass of members, of which it was not known which part belonged to one and which to the other. We had rolled out inside the wagon, scattering arenas, books, potions and much more, after a sudden acceleration.
«Damn», the werecat exclaimed, as he broke away from me and tried to get to his feet. «Dirhael, you can tell what the hell is going on!» he yelled, as he squatted down, arms outstretched like a tightrope walker’s. A new lurch launched it against me. But this time I dodged him in time, and he crashed into one of the irons on the canvas. He yelled another curse.
«That’s very kind,» he said, but I had problems of my own. I couldn’t stand up. It just rolled back and forth inside the wagon, like a puppet without strings.
Suddenly there was a sound that at first I couldn’t identify… Something was ripping.
«Watch out!» Gortax yelled, pulling me back as a branch larger than I tore through the right side of the wagon’s canvas. My face missed it by millimeters. I fell back on top of him.
«This is becoming a habit, my goddess,» he said.
A posteriori occurred to me a thousand scathing things to spit in the face of that catty and presumptuous being; but at that moment, to tell the truth, I was pale and out of breath. I pushed him away roughly and tried to get to my feet. But I rushed out to the right side again, which now opened to the outside, with only shreds of canvas flapping madly from the wind and speed. I desperately clung to one of those shreds, when the cart leaned back on two wheels, to avoid falling into the void. I hung from the tarp as the wagon hurtled down a narrow dirt road at breakneck speed. The trees passed like a blur of green and brown. Beyond, just beyond, a completely insane few inches from the wheels, was a ravine, and far, far below, a river.
I screamed with all my might.
«But what are you doing, crazy, come back here!» Gortax yelled. Was there something akin to desperation in that voice?
«I try, stupid cat.» Yes, I think that’s what I said. I think my record of what happened tends to go blank in some desperate moments.
«Dirhael, stop, stop the wagon, I tell you!» Gortax yelled, glancing toward the box. «Oh no. Oh damn no.»
I don’t know how long the car was tilted, on the edge of the ravine, on two wheels. It was probably only a few seconds, but it seemed like an eternity to me. (The record of what my senses experienced, on the basis of which I tell you this story, only keeps abstractions, more sensations than proven facts). In a new lurch, when I thought that my strength had completely abandoned me and that it was better to give up, fall into the void and return to Limbo, I saw what Gortax had seen: there was no one directing the wagon.
In the next lurch, when only the terrible doubt I had about whether this was reality (for which falling would mean dying forever) made me resist the irresistible, Gortax had managed to reach the wagon seat. He stopped the wagon. And I fell, exhausted, to the packed earth.
The artificial skin of the skinsuit hung in tatters from different parts of my body. My skin, in those exposed parts, had a yellowish hue. I assumed that it was something normal, due to the action of the artificial skin. But I didn’t have time to think more. Arrows rained down.
In a clearing in a copse, by the light of the campfire, I sat at the entrance to my tent. The twilight took over the world and sent into the forest hosts of imperceptible nocturnal animals, with strange songs. I was absorbed in contemplation of the fire, reliving what had happened hours before.
They had emerged from the tall trees that lined the dirt road as soon as the wagon had stopped. They glided through the air hanging from almost invisible ropes, so agile that they almost seemed to fly. Despite my fear and exhaustion, I couldn’t help but feel amazed at that scene. They fell around me like gods sent from heaven. They surrounded me. Dirhael lay dead, savagely pierced by an arrow as long as a man. Another wagon, which must have been part of the caravan that was transporting me, had crashed against a rocky promontory before reaching the river.
Then Gortax shouted a word I couldn’t identify, and a being in silver armor materialized out of nowhere. First, eyes like burning embers, which did not give off any heat, on the contrary, froze my spirit and even my will. It was as if his entire form shed from his sockets, a shapeless cataract that became a mockery of humanity, trickling from the empty sockets in which he seemed to forge, to the tips of her fingers. He was wrapped in a black cloak. Immediately he began a swift and deadly dance, in which he drew with his hands runes of wonderful colors, made of light, which, despite all my horror, moved me like a child who attends his first night of fireworks. But the only smell left when he finished wasn’t gunpowder, it was blood.
«Father, no!» one of them yelled.
Then Gortax, who until then had remained unruffled, watching this scene without the slightest hint of emotion, shouted in his turn:
The speed of the deadly dance seemed to slow.
«Aliax, stop,» Gortax said.
The lights vanished into thin air. I had a very strange feeling, as if my senses were picking up things that weren’t there: ghostly sounds, echoing away as the runes faded.
«Rowaru,» said Gortax, walking over to the unfortunate highwayman and uncloaking him. He wasn’t a werecat. She was a cat woman. Young, with long brown hair, blue eyes like aquamarine and an amazing face, with two shades of color, ocher and orange, that drew a beautiful and symmetrical pattern. «By the most sacred, Rowaru, why are you doing this to me?»
«It doesn’t belong to you,» she snapped at Gortax. From the quick glance she gave me when she said that, I was absolutely certain that she was referring to me. There was a mixture of fury, pride and pain in her eyes and in her gestures. Or so it seemed to me, given the dire circumstances.
«You don’t know what you’re doing, Rowaru.»
«No, Gortax, it’s you who don’t know.»
«Wow, am I no longer your father?» He said. «You had almost moved me.»
What a wretch, I thought.
«You never have been, have you?» Rowaru said.
«No, I guess I never have been.»
There was a silence. The gigantic yellow moon, visible in daylight, wept red tears, above the trees and the world. The two strange draft beasts stirred the earth restlessly with their long horns. A couple of Gortax’s men entered the scene, from the trees, with two other prisoners, who had their hands tied.
«What do we do with them?»
«Kill them,» Gortax said, without even a second’s hesitation.
«No, father… NO!» Rowaru yelled desperately.
But Gortax left, not sparing a single glance at the prisoners and the young cat woman.
«Here, you have to eat something,» someone said, bringing a bowl of stew closer to me, putting it under my nose. He was Gortax. He snapped me out of my reverie about what had happened. I hesitated between slapping the bowl and throwing it at his face or taking it and devouring its contents, because I really was starving. I did neither.
I turned my head and looked away. I wasn’t sure how Rowaru must feel, but at that moment I felt so unhappy that, out of pure empathy, I couldn’t help but hate that being.
«She is not my daughter, you know, Rowaru, she is my niece. She was the daughter of my wife’s sister. I am not a monster.»
I kept silent. I was so fed up… Why was I there? What was that world?
«You know, Gortax? I said at last, «I don’t give a shit what you are.»
«Hey, that mouth,» he exclaimed.
That’s when I threw the bowl in his face.
«Mouth?», that was all he had to say, all he cared about? I felt myself shake like a volcano about to erupt. And I exploded.
«Mouth?», I kept shouting, «You just executed two people, who, I have it more and more clear, came to rescue me from the destiny to which it is that you take me, with that story that I am a goddess fallen from the sky… And that is all that it worries you?»
Gortax barely seemed to react. He just wiped the remains of stew from his eyes, otherwise unfazed. Two of his guards made a move to get up, but a brief glance from his boss was enough to keep them from doing so. As for the black-cloaked man, the silver-armoured, light-runed caster, sitting on a rock across the camp for so long, I had stopped thinking of him as a threat.
«I’m not a goddess, you ignorant idiot,» I yelled again. I belong to a space civilization, undoubtedly a thousand times more evolved than yours», I was silent for a moment, «… Ah, but wait, you don’t know what “thousand” means. Well, a lot», I said, as I waved and spread my arms, «much more evolved than yours. Do you understand that, animal? My ship crashed on this damn world, and I had the misfortune that you were the first to find it.»
I felt like crying, but I didn’t want to shed a single tear. I didn’t want to give Gortax a chance to feel sorry for me.
«Yes, you are a goddess,» was all he said, after an awkward silence.
I did not answer.
«I’ll tell you something,» he told me, «look at Dromeneria.»
I didn’t know who he was referring to, nor did I care; but he pointed to the western horizon, and I couldn’t help but look. The great yellow moon could be seen, enormous, beyond the tops of the trees, which looked like black silhouettes drawn in an oriental painting. The night, where the stars multiplied, had taken on a darker and darker violet hue. I smelled of camp smoke, spiced stew, and woods.
«Do you see them, the tears, the red marks?»
Yes, I had noticed them earlier, during the day. Yes, for a moment they had bothered me. But I didn’t have time to explain that feeling to myself; I had been too busy, trying not to die.
«The Tears of Dromeneria. Every so long, so long that no one lives, not their parents’ parents, not their parents’ (and I could say this the maximum number of twelve times, and even the last parents wouldn’t remember it either), the Great Moon cries tears of blood . There are those who believe that she does it for the sins of mortals. To wash away our faults and offenses with her scarlet tears, to make us forget. Others say that the tears commemorate the story of the disappearance of Lettand, the First Envoy, when he left the world in search of his daughter, stolen by the gods. I don’t know how true the legends are, but I do know one thing: the Tears will spread from the moon, further and further, like a crescent red aurora, covering the entire world.»
“Throughout my life, I have been able to study the Lettand Scriptures in depth, Winifred. I have even been able to compare them with other stories, arrivals from distant countries. All these stories agree that the red dawn always brings with it the end of the world as it is known, and the beginning of a new one. That such rebirth be as least traumatic as possible is the mission of the Envoy, of the one who arrives with each new cycle. It’s been so long, since the last time something like this happened, that today people are more afraid of legends than of the truth. There are very few of us who, throughout Acanta, know how to face the end of the world.»
“The Envoy is the key to everything. You are, Winifred. Countless time ago the gods left Acanta. Since then, forever, any attempt at worship or religion has been persecuted. But some of us, in the shadows, conspired to safeguard the knowledge of those gods. You have been rescued from beyond reality, from the bottom of the sea, during the Tears of Dromeneria. You are the Envoy of Our Time. I know, I’m sure. You have taken our mortal form, to aid us in the coming calamities that we would all rather not have experienced. But I thank heaven and destiny, for having the privilege of knowing about you; for being able to find you, Winifred.»
“I know you will find it hard to believe. That is, in part, our great challenge. You must learn from yourself, from within, what you are. You will have to be patient. It is not something that the stories that have come down to me do not notice: Envoys from other eras also came into the world knowing hardly anything about it, or about themselves. You will have to know yourself; you will have to know what your destiny is, to save Acanta. In order to save us all.»
After such a eulogy, after a few moments of silence, the only thing that occurred to me to say was:
«Obviously you’re wrong. I do not have your form. I am not like you.»
But then I had a terrible impression, and I got up, as if propelled by a spring. I went to a nearby creek, whose waters ran, calm and crystal clear, through the trees. The moon and stars were reflected in them, and a cat woman. She was a woman with yellow skin like the surface of Io and long, black hair that framed a face in which eyes with red irises gleamed.
It was me. The thin, lanky-looking cat woman was me. The skin of my skinsuit had almost completely peeled off. There were only a few shreds left all over my body.
Of course, this was not the world that Damien and I had chosen. I didn’t know how this could have been possible, but it was pretty clear that someone had made an unforgivable mistake during some phase of the ALMAS migration program. Acanta seemed like the typical frame world for an epic fantasy, not the colony planet as close as possible to those exploring ships leaving the solar system that Damien and I had chosen. We had dreamed of being farmers, not heroes.
I noticed the presence of someone else, next to me. I assumed it was Gortax, though I hadn’t heard anyone approach. It was not.
«You shouldn’t stray so far from the others. The wilderness is a dangerous place, and more so now.»
He was the being in silver armor who had summoned Gortax’s magic. His metallic voice made my blood run cold. I certainly felt a lot less safe now that he was there.
«More now?» I said, perhaps hoping the conversation would help humanize the thing.
«Of course. For the Tears. We live in troubled times. Hasn’t he told you?»
But I had stopped listening to what he was saying. I had been perplexed, because I wanted to see myself reflected in his silver armor, to verify that the image he had seen of me in the river was real. But who I saw was myself again. The real me. The Wini that had departed from the solar system. That really shocked me, because I had wanted to have a certainty to cling to. Was I a cat woman in a fantasy world? Good. I didn’t understand how it could have happened, but I could accept it, understand it, get used to the idea. But that left me uncertain again, as it had been since I woke up in the cabin of the ship, when I was rescued (or kidnapped) by Gortax.
“You’re seeing yourself as you are. Your divine image,” Gortax said. «It was the last proof that I needed, to know that you are the Envoy.»
I also hadn’t realized that he had followed me there.
«Aliax is an Eidolon Knight,» he continued. «As such, his quantum armor reflects the true nature of things, for each being… as long as they remain in his memory, of course.»
“Look, Gortax, I appreciate the effort, but right now I just want to sleep. It’s too much already, for me. I’m sick of questions that need answering», I said, opening my arms.
He didn’t say anything, so I went to the camp. A new moon, smaller than Dromeneria, pale pink, was rising from the eastern horizon. But I hardly noticed it. A pair of Gortax werecats stood guard, sitting around the fire, of which only a few embers remained. I went into my store. I was so tired that I fell asleep right away, hoping that when I woke up it had all been a dream, or a nightmare, and that Damien would be there, with me, on the planet Acanta we had dreamed of.
The world woke up cloudy, gray, in a different way, and it remained that way for several days, for almost the entire time that our trip to the city of Lexkaria lasted. But it was the same world as Gortax and the werecats. The one that there was no trace of was Aliax, the Eidolon Knight. I didn’t regret it very much.
We packed up camp. They didn’t seem very inclined to a goddess turned catwoman doing the same things they did. In fact, the seven remaining werecats of Gortax’s guard hardly dared approach me, and they certainly didn’t speak to me. But I needed to do things and talk about things, so I wouldn’t go crazy. So I participated as one more. I asked them questions, when I didn’t know how to do something, but it was useless. They looked at me like slain lambs, if they even dared look at me, and looked away, saying nothing. The more daring ones glanced quickly at Gortax first, then looked away and fell silent as well. Only Rowaru dared to interact with me. I noticed that Gortax was always tense when I talked to her. But I realized right away that he wanted to reconcile with his niece (I suppose he wanted to win her over), and that he wanted to wash away the image I had of him, being permissive with me regarding my need to chat with Rowaru , so I took advantage of it. Little by little, we became friends. Not that she had anyone else to talk to either. Gortax’s guards avoided her as if she had ringworm. Come on, like me, although for different reasons.
On the third day the clouds parted. The strange blue sun that I already knew was accompanied in the sky by a second star. This was yellow, much like Earth’s sun. Over time I learned that the position of both stars varied enormously in the sky in a matter of a few days. One could be rising and the other setting, moments in which days without night followed one another, with different luminosities; or they could both be in the same position in the sky. When aligned, they gave a beautiful green hue to everything in the world. On the other hand, those days produced the darkest nights. Since this planet also had two moons, the nights of almost total darkness were an anomaly.
«That’s why you saw yourself as you really are, when you reflected yourself in Aliax’s armor,» Rowaru was telling me. It was late afternoon, during our fourth day’s journey from the camp. The sky was grey again, without even a hint of blue. Despite the sad light and the faded colors of things, I was grateful for the truce that it meant for me to stop being a witness for a while of those alien skies. We were both sitting on the seat of the wagon, she herself directed the urtaki, which is how she told me those tall, spindly beasts with endless horns were called. «Eidolons don’t quite belong to this world. In some places they are known as Lords of the Nexus. Other sources refer to them as the Tellers. It’s a name I prefer, less gloomy and grandiose, don’t you think?» She told me, looking at me. But I, as usual, remained silent. «Sorry, what a fool I am. What will you know?»
I looked away, pretending to be very interested in the animals mounted by the Gortax guard horsemen who flanked our wagon. They were squat, eight-legged beasts that would have terrified me by their giant, hairy spider-like appearance had it not been for their sloth-like, mammalian heads. Unlike those, they could reach amazing speeds.
«Oh, I didn’t mean to offend you, okay? I would never behave like this with a goddess». Rowaru exclaimed, and scratched his snouted nose with feline features. It was a gesture she often made, when she was nervous or worried about something. A part of me was amazed. I put my hand to my own nose.
«I don’t want you to call me that, Rowaru. Call me Wini, please.»
«Okay, then, Wini,» she said, and smiled. I saw her glance to the right for a moment, searching for Gortax. I assumed that my granting her such a degree of familiarity seemed like something to show off to her former adoptive father. That made me feel uncomfortable. It was evident that between the two there was an unhealthy relationship; but I overlooked it. I needed to get along with her. By the same token, I had buried deep my misgivings about Rowaru’s motives in ambushing us and killing several of Gortax’s guards.
«Let’s see if I understand,» I said. «The Eidolon Knights are princes of the most powerful Houses, who devote their lives to magic, dance and war. Aren’t they very different things?»
«No, no, the three things go hand in hand. In the past there were words that covered all three things at once. Magic, dance and war are a whole. All three are the same, for an Eidolon.»
«But is it worth it to them, to be in the service of the Magi, like Gortax?»
“It is the highest honor for any House. In fact, they measure their power largely by the number of their Eidolons, and by the rank of the Magi they serve.»
«Yeah, I think that’s clear to me, but I’m referring to the sacrifice it entails for them. It has to be horrible, fade little by little from reality, stop being themselves.»
«Let’s see, Wini,» she said, and I watched as she savored the word, «yes. Of course, I don’t know if I would like to be in his place… I think. I don’t know, because at the same time it has to be an indescribable experience. They can witness things that none of us will ever see. They can travel between the worlds of Beyond Reality. And they’re immortal,” she finished, with a certain tone in which I thought I captured reverie, but also some naivety.
«Yes, but at what price?» They are hardly human anymore.
Humans. I had realized that these cat beings referred to themselves as such, as humans. I had hardly been shocked; I understood and assimilated that fact right away. Beyond their appearance, it was what they seemed to me. As for the Worlds Beyond Reality thing, it wasn’t a debate I wanted to get into at the time. I was tired of worlds and realities. I wanted to believe that it was part of his transcendent jargon.
«And that’s why you say that my true form was reflected in Aliax’s armor,» I continued, after a short silence, returning to that subject, «because those armors do not reflect the present moment?»
«Something like that. Quantum armor doesn’t quite belong in our world. To this space and this time. I don’t quite get it either. It may be that at any other time you do reflect yourself as you are. By the way, you are fascinating… although you are also a little scary, with those red eyes.»
«Any other time?» I asked her, ignoring her comment. (Although I myself felt self-conscious about my own appearance).
«Yes, there is nothing stable or certain or lasting, when it comes to the quantum armors of the Eidolons. And, I insist, Wini, let it be clear to you: the armors are the Eidolons. The human beings that were, almost no longer exist.»
I felt a chill so strong that Rowaru noticed it.
«Ha ha ha,» she laughed. It seemed to me a somewhat forced, nervous laugh. «Maybe we should change the subject, don’t you think?»
«No, it doesn’t matter,» I said. Rowaru maneuvered the two urtaki to slow down, to enter a huge curved wooden bridge, supported by an imposing wooden structure, which suddenly appeared, leaving behind a grassy promontory to our right. The opposite end of the bridge was lost in clouds of a thickening mist. I looked down as the wagon began to rattle on the wide planks of wood. There was a valley with no visible floor, covered by an impenetrable tapestry of treetops. The vegetation, dark and sad green under the endless clouds, was a mixture of my memories of Earth and of strange plants, which I had never seen before. The landscape, which during the previous days had consisted of vast expanses of parched grass dotted with featureless semi-desert plains, had grown more and more lush as we traveled west. «Gortax told me that quantum armors reflect the true nature of each being, as long as that being is capable of remembering that nature, or something like that.»
Rowaru didn’t reply. I looked at her and realized that she was concentrating on what was waiting for us ahead, at the end of the very long curve of the bridge. I noticed too. For a moment I thought I saw through the mist that the far wall of the canyon was not a natural structure, as I had first assumed. As we approached a little closer, an imposing black tower was revealed between two clouds of mist. It was a dilapidated structure, but still awe-inspiring. The bridge ended at the entrance to the tower. It was the entrance to a tunnel. Soon the mist covered everything again.
«The Stronghold of the Dark Path,» Rowaru said. «Dervishkan stories (for such is the name of our divided country, Dervishkania), tell that in a bygone era there was a road that ascended from the valley to this entrance. Great walls then rose from here, north and south, then west, surrounding the city beyond the tunnel. They fell during the last Tears, just like the road. The wooden bridge was built relatively recently, in the Year of the Snake, by order of the last caliph. An expensive fad to maintain, if you ask me, since hardly anyone uses it, and for good reason.»
«Spirit things,» she answered, in a whisper.
«Wow», I said, «it’s a bit creepy, isn’t it? And there is no other way?»
«Yes, there is, but it would take several more days to arrive. And Gortax doesn’t want to be a day longer than necessary. The Tears of Dromeneria, you know.»
«And you, what do you think?»
«Wini,» she said, and she looked at me with her aquamarine eyes, «I have no opinion. Here only the will of Gortax is done.»
But he had dropped his gaze for an instant, and I had the feeling that he was hiding something from me. She left me deep in thought. Would I have been better off with her, had her attempt to rid me of Gortax succeeded? Or, rather than a liberation, this would have been a kidnapping, and was it Gortax who had rescued me, as he said? Without really knowing why, maybe just because I couldn’t stand Gortax, I wanted to believe in the former more, but I wasn’t sure of anything anymore. What a novelty.
I saw how Gortax rode ahead of us, mounted on one of those strange animals (one with completely black hair, unlike the others, which had white spots), and spoke with the two horsemen who were in the vanguard of the small caravan: Exenne and Guiltas. The convoy now consisted of the main wagon, in which I had woken up, and another smaller wagon, also covered, in which the guards whose turn it was to rest were huddled together, along with several barrels containing the increasingly meager rations of food. At that time none of the seven guards was on break.
«We’ll wait here,» Gortax said. I couldn’t calculate, in the middle of the clouds, how much distance we had left to cover to the mouth of the tunnel, but it must have been very little. Rowaru stopped the wagon, pulling on the reins. Exenne and Guiltás stepped forward, and were swallowed up by the mist.
«Aren’t they taking long, sir?»
The one who spoke thus, in a low voice, after standing next to Gortax, was Pedregas, the one who seemed to be the highest-ranking guard of the seven that still remained, after Rowaru’s ambush. And he was right. I was about to have a seizure. Exenne and Guiltás had been gone too long. What was Gortax waiting for?
«Damn yes,» he muttered at last.
He looked back, his mount pivoting on the spot, as if he were considering retracing his steps back to the beginning of the bridge.
«Mister?» Pedregas said.
Gortax looked at him. There was a mute exchange between the two. The world around us was silent, as if nothing existed beyond the mist. Just us, just the mist, just the road.
«Come in, come in,» Gortax called, pointing toward the mouth of the tunnel, or where it was supposed to be, starting off.
Rowaru egged on the urtaki, and the wagon moved off as well.
My heart skipped a beat when we reached the entrance. Two strange-looking trees, unlike any others I had seen, flanked the mouth of the tunnel, in the mist. We enter total darkness, pregnant with humidity and an eerie sense of loneliness. The humidity was announced in the echo of the distant drops. Solitude was an omen contained in that same echo, counterpointed by our own sounds.
«We’re in,» Gortax said, his voice low. «We’ll go slowly from here. The darkness in here is not a normal darkness. It has its own entity. But listen to me, and nothing will happen to us. Don’t talk if you don’t have to. Don’t yell. We must not alert those who dwell in darkness. And, above all, do not abandon the light. If we do all this, we will have to reach the other side.»
«Who dwell in darkness, spirits?» I asked, alarmed, too loudly. They all turned to me.
«Sorry, sorry,» I said, covering my mouth.
After all, I was a goddess, wasn’t I, even if I was in mortal form. But I wasn’t at all sure they were treating me like one.
At first I thought that the thing about the spirits was just stories. We had been moving for a long time, within the sphere of light projected by one of the gas globes that we had taken from inside the wagon. The only ghosts there were those summoned to our imaginations in the dark realms that lurked beyond this sphere.
The tunnel had to be huge. We were as close together as we could, the ten members of the expedition, having no idea whether we were closer to the north wall or the south wall. We didn’t see any of them. At one point, I completely lost track of time and space. That’s when things started to go wrong, because of the total lack of perspective. I guess something similar happened to others. It was as if we had been there forever. What if life was nothing more than a continual wandering in the dark? Were they real, my memories of anything I had experienced before? I know, it seems absurd, but nothing was normal, in that tunnel.
Little by little, I began to get restless and lose my presence of mind. I was sure I had heard their voices, those of the ghosts. It was true. Yes they existed. We had done something foolish. We had been carried away by the urgency caused by an astronomical phenomenon that surely had a rational explanation, something that had nothing to do with absurd legends of the past. Now was when we were really in danger. Anything would have been better than wandering lost in that darkness.
A loud crack sounded. I don’t think I cried out, but I gave a start that lifted me at least a foot from the van’s seat. Falling back into the seat and feeling myself sinking further down, with an even louder crunch, was the same action, barely two seconds long. My heart nearly jumped out of my mouth.
«What we lacked,» Gortax exclaimed. He had bent down to inspect one of the vehicle’s front wheels. My heart was going a thousand miles an hour.
One of the wheel axles had snapped, and in no time the entire structure had collapsed. Only broken axles, splinters and a twisted rim remained.
“Well, no more profiting from this trip. We’ll have to leave it here,” Pedregas whispered, with a sigh. Only then did I realize how important this snow-white, gray-haired, bearded cat-man was to Gortax. It still took him a while to make a decision. He was visibly upset, in the vibrant yellow light of the gas globe.
«So be it,» he muttered, with a tone I had never heard in his deep voice.
At that time I still did not understand the true dimension of the economic calamity that that setback meant for Gortax’s plans. I had come to think that the only target of this expedition was me. I was wrong.
The Magus gave instructions to redistribute what he deemed most valuable items from the wagon onto the other, smaller cart.
«Take the essentials from the cart and divide it among the Cairoax» (for that is what the octopus mounts were called), he said, in low voice. «We will all have to continue on foot.»
I fell prey to a childish outburst, of which I am not particularly proud:
«Magnificent,» I snapped, «is this how you treat goddesses in this world? If you want I’ll carry a bag on my shoulder».
For a split second, it seemed to me that Gortax was glaring at me. But he did? Immediately there was a sarcastic expression on his face, as if there had never been another.
«Perhaps the Lady Almighty should show off her powers once and for all, to get us all out of this mess.»
If he intended to be funny with that, or perhaps reduce the tension, it didn’t make me laugh at all, on the contrary, I was about to explode again:
«I remind you, Gortax, that I am here because of you, and that…»
«Enough!» Rowaru said.
I looked at her, puzzled.
«I’m sorry,» she said. «Come on, let’s stop wasting time,” and she started walking. She would have stepped out of the sphere of light, if Pedregas, who was carrying the gas lamp, had not immediately started walking behind her, after giving Gortax a look. We all took the road, after them. I felt a little embarrassed, but at the same time I was still angry. None of this was fair.
As we walked, I realized that the fear I had felt before the wagon wheel broke had been psychological. I had been a fool. I had allowed myself to be intimidated by the context, by the fear of the dark and by the tales of the past. None of this was real…
«Wini,» said a voice.
«Damien? Damien!» I yelled. Yes, I know what you are thinking. But I couldn’t help it. It was Damien, I was sure. How else could I have reacted?
«Who?» Rowaru answered, who was the closest to me. «Wini, whatever it is, it’s not real.»
«Yes, yes it is, Rowaru, it’s here,» I kept yelling.
«Wini, no,» Rowaru exclaimed, «it’s not real, calm down.»
«Wini, darling, come to me.»
«Wini, by holy Ishkar, shut up, please,» Rowaru begged me, throwing his hand towards my mouth, with the intention of shutting me up, by hook or by crook, I guess. He shouldn’t have done it. Faced with the horrified look of Gortax, who in the light of the gas balloon seemed like a furious spirit, Pedregas also rushed towards me. He shouldn’t have either. Rowaru’s hand collided with the globe of light, which Pedregas was carrying. It slipped out of his hands, fell to the ground, and there was an instant big crunch of darkness. The sound of breaking glass reverberated in the tunnel, for a couple more seconds.
As the last echo of the last crystal shard died away, I was aware of the chaos I had just unleashed. But at that moment I was hardly affected by the terror that gripped the others. In a way, for the first time, I felt like a goddess. I heard her footsteps, running and scattering; her screams, calling for calm or asking for help, desperate. In short, everything that Gortax had warned us not to do. But I was above all that.
«Wini, darling, come to me,» I heard, like a litany, in my head.
«Damien, my love, where are you? Damien!»
I don’t know if I can describe how important it was for me to hear his voice. I had felt lost, desperate, carried from here to there, without finding meaning in anything; without knowing why I was there, on that crazy planet. They believed that I had come to save them all from a cyclical and fatal cataclysm, but I only wanted to save myself. Damien’s voice was the only light I needed. The one that would illuminate my return home.
Little by little I left behind the screams of horror. I don’t even remember the moment I stopped listening to them.
«Wini, darling, come to me.»
«I’m coming Damien, I’m coming.»
As if it had arisen in a dream, as if it had always been there, for me, a path of white runes like the stars directed me towards my goal, towards the source of that voice. I don’t remember the rooms I went through, nor the time it took to do it. They were glimpses of worlds far away, that passed through me like waves on the seashore and left me breathless. I wasn’t moving, it was the tunnel that was moving. The whole world revolved around me.
Then I opened my eyes.
I was wrapped in the artificial skin of the skinsuit, which served to adapt our bodies from the cabin ecosystem to that of the new world, and it fit like a glove, from the bottom of our feet to the top of our heads, where it became a hood. Most of the stasis pods had been torn from their mountings. They were crossed and mounted one on top of the other, like ships in the battle of Salamis. They were busy. Damien was there, in his cabin. I felt a vicious, sickly, paralyzing fear. No, that wasn’t Damien, he couldn’t be.
For a time I couldn’t measure, I fell asleep again.
When I woke up again, she was there, like a silver goddess. She was Circe. Not her voice, but her, physically her, a gynoid sheathed in throbbing mercury skin. She looked at me, her eyes black as obsidian, and she said, in her metallic voice:
“Look for the trees».
I woke up.
When I opened my eyes, I didn’t know where I was. For a few seconds, the purest bewilderment came over me. Was I in my own bed, in the small apartment I shared with Damien, in one of Earth’s floating cities? Had I just arrived from the world of the living, to the Ultraverse? Or was I in the wagon I had woken up in the last time?
No, of course, none of those things.
I was lying on a large bed, with a canopy of silk curtains, drawn back. To the right of the bed were two small windows without glass, in the oriental style, with multi-lobed arches. Its translucent red curtains fluttered in the breeze, and when they were parted from the windows I could see the blue sky and the sea.
My memories regrouped and organized, and I knew I was in Acanta, in Gortax’s Acanta. The tone of my skin was yellow, the yellow of that cat woman who was now me. The yellow of the goddess incarnated in a mortal human (because, I insist, those beings with feline features called themselves humans).
Suddenly the memories of the dream I had had, or whatever it had been, when I had been separated from the others in the Stronghold of the Dark Path, came back to me.
And Circe. Had it just been a dream?
«Look for the trees.»
What trees, what had Circe meant? And how could it be that she had the shape of a gynoid? Circe was only supposed to be a computer program. A very complex quantum processing AI, yes, but one that could only exist inside a small implant in my own brain, in the real world.
Gortax entered the room, through its only door, directly opposite the bed, and interrupted my musings. I was never going to be able to get rid of him.
«You will have many questions for me,» he said, as he pulled up a chair and sat down between the bed and the window.
«Actually, only one,» I said. «Why don’t you shut up, step back, and let me see the scenery?»
«You might be interested to know that we’ve lost your new friend, because of your thoughtless behavior in the tunnel,» was all he answered.
«Rowaru». I was silent for a few seconds.
«What do you mean?» I said finally.
«That we never found them, nor Guiltás and Exenne. But I guess it was my fault with them both,” he said. «We also lost Aliax. He was the one who found you, by the way. I didn’t want to call him, well, you have to know something, Winifred: there are certain places, in Acanta, where the laws of reality break more easily. These places can be links to other worlds, which in the Acanthian tradition are known as the faerie. Calling an Eidolon Knight in such places should always be avoided; for the nature of it makes them inclined to be lost forever in those other worlds. The Dark Path of Stronghold is a place that should be avoided. A place where space and time do not work as we normally know them. I guess I was wrong. The best we could do is demolish that bridge. But we have so little time…»
«What happened to Aliax,» I said, irritated, because I knew that was what Gortax wanted me to ask.
«It was him, the one who brought you back, before he got lost. His runelight guided us to you. You were unconscious, in one of the innumerable secret rooms that are hidden in the Bulwark tunnel. If it wasn’t for him, we never would have found you. Aliax gave up his mortal life for you, Winifred.»
I didn’t want to hear any of this. I hadn’t asked for any of this. In a new fit of rebellion, I fought against feelings of shame and guilt. But Rowaru… I had to ask him about her.
«And your daughter, did the same thing happen to her?»
«She isn´t my daughter, I already told you.»
Yes, I knew he had told me. But I wanted to avoid the feeling of affection that he was trying to make fall on me, influencing what he, I bet, still felt for Rowaru.
«Yes she is, even if you try to deny it to yourself.»
He looked at me with his dark green eyes, in a way I couldn’t quite interpret. But I think it was, above all, a deep and sad look.
«It wasn’t the same,» he said at last. We lost her as we lost Exenne and Guiltás. We lost them in this world. Not in others. But Rowaru is gone, Winifred,» he finished, so quietly I barely heard him.
It was the sorrow I felt in those words that finally disarmed me.
«I… I’m so sorry, Gortax,» I said, and I burst into tears, an uncontrollable sob, which, once released, gushed out, with no way to stop it. «I swear to you I never wanted to…” The next words were indecipherable babble.
I couldn’t continue. I think I cried for several minutes. It was the expression of sincere sorrow, mixed with self-pity.
When I finally calmed down, I said, still between temporary hiccups:
“It’s just, I didn’t choose any of this. Do you understand? I lived a comfortable and happy life, in my world, on Earth, together with Damien, my partner. Why force us to leave everything? Why only two hundred years? I know you can’t understand it, but two hundred years is nothing, when you’re happy. It’s just a breath. It hardly gives you time to do everything you want to do. It is very cruel, that they force you to leave a world in which you are happy.»
«I know you did not choose to come here voluntarily,» Gortax replied, after a brief, thoughtful silence. As I once told you, I know from my studies on the subject that it is not easy for gods to become mortal beings. But this world is not so bad, Winifred. There is beauty in it. Look, get up», he told me, and I accompanied him to the window. I was only wearing a nightgown, over my yellow, half-turned body. But I wasn’t cold.
I looked out the window for a long time, in silence. Down there was a diverse and motley city, but still beautiful. It stretched out along a semicircular basin, from the sapphire-blue sea, to which a balmy wind sprinkled white sheeps, to the foothills of the mountains, up which it climbed in a chaos of thousands of colored roofs and terraces. Here and there there were buildings and prominent squares, in privileged and diaphanous spaces, where crowds could be guessed whose murmur reached the window, mixed with the smells of the sea breeze and that distant humanity.
«The fief-city of Lexkaria,» Gortax broke the silence, «capital of the emirate of the same name, Lexkaria, once the principal kingdom of the Dervishkan empire or caliphate.»
«Caliphate or empire?» I asked, a little confused.
«It’s more or less the same,» he said. Now that fashions from the northerners of Xidarnia, the Land of Green, across the Narrow Sea, are slowly spreading among the decadent Dervishkan emirates, most people speak of princes, kings, and empires, before that of emirs, sultans and caliphates. If you ask me, that’s a real shame.»
«Yeah,» I said, not knowing what to think.
There was another silence, as I continued to gaze, growing in wonder, at the landscape beyond the windows. There was the promise of an imperishable summer. Little by little I was locating the parts of the chaos that was that city, and I drew a schematic map in my head, of its main streets. I noticed the movement of the masses of people, how they flowed, from here to there, and in what directions. There was something that became clear to me, and that seemed very strange to me.
“It doesn’t seem to me that the inhabitants of this city live in alarm, or in fear. How is it possible? I asked for.
«Because they don’t know,» he replied. No one remembers the old legends. Mysteries of our passage of time, to which I have not yet been able to find an answer.
«But why haven’t you put them on notice?» You, at least you know.
“It’s not that easy. First I would have to convince the rest of the Council. Almost everyone in it considers me a madman, a weaver of wrongs, if not something worse, I’m afraid. But beyond that, tell me, Winifred, why do it? Why fill their hearts with anguish and fear, while not finding a possible solution?» he said, and touched my arm, with a familiarity that made me uncomfortable.
«Look over there on the docks,» he pointed. «The ships of the northern delegation arrive for the wedding of the emir with the princess of Xidarnia. She has been invited with us for several days. Look, do you see them?,» he pointed out, «our delegation arrives to receive the entourage.»
«Geez, I see that you get along well, so that the Xidarnios don’t object to you inviting their princess and having the wedding here, right?»
«Well, it’s not exactly like that. We get along because we have no other choice, Winifred. Right now, Xidarnia’s power over all the surrounding lands is so obvious that they have nothing to fear. It would be insane to allow anything to happen to Princess Dalara while she is with us.»
“The emir’s marriage to Princess Dalara will make our emirate last. If the Northerners are to end up ruling Dervishkania, it’s a good thing we’re part of that government. What you can’t win in war, win with diplomacy, don’t you think?»
It didn’t seem like anything to me; the truth, I didn’t care about all that, so I didn’t answer. I noticed the fragment of Dromeneria, yellow against the blue sky, shaped like a waning quarter moon. (How many days had she slept?) Even during the day you could see, in that fragment of moon, how the red tears spread, more and more. How little by little they colored that part of the sky with a red aurora, an unstoppable hemorrhage.
Truly, Acanta was a beautiful place. Worthy of being known and lived. I realized that I had done nothing but complain, victimize myself, since I had arrived there. And I had made other people suffer, because of me. Okay, it hadn’t been intentional, but it had. I did not give up going back to Damien (despite the fact that a sinister memory lived deep inside me, which had to do with what I experienced in the Bulwark Tunnel), nor did I give up looking for the trees, as Circe had told me… But, for the first time, since I had woken up in that world, I decided to live in it. Not just wandering here and there. Was it real, or wasn’t it?
In the contemplation of that landscape, I had an epiphany: «What difference does it make?». For me that was reality. It was what I was living. It was what I had to live.
«How much left?» I asked for.
«How long until the end of the world?»
«Twice twelve days, maybe less,» Gortax replied.
«WHAT?» I yelled.
“What you heard.»
«And you’re here, so cool? Aren’t you supposed to be doing all kinds of preparations, or… I don’t know, something?»
«And what do you think I’ve been doing for the last few years?» exclaimed the Magi, indignantly. Do you have any idea how much time I have spent studying the Lettand Scriptures, comparing them to other stories, traveling to other countries to learn about those other stories and find those who knew them? Of the businesses that I have sacrificed, to find you?»
I was quiet.
«I see,» he said sarcastically.
«Let’s see,» I said at last, «tell me what I have to do. That I have to do? It’s just, you see, I have no idea. Okay, you told me I had to know myself, remember, so I could save the world. Do you think I know myself well enough, that I’m ready to save the world? Because I do not notice.»
«Actually, it’s complicated,» he said. «In a way, I fear I have unleashed the end of the world myself, by meeting you.»
«What do you mean?» I asked for.
«Well, what… What if finding the Envoy is what starts the countdown to the end of the world?»
It couldn’t be true.
«The Scriptures aren’t clear on that,» he tried to justify himself.
«And don’t you think you should have been sure of that ‘little detail’ before you ‘rescue’ me from the bottom of the sea?»
“It’s not that easy. If it turns out that the end of the world just happens, regardless of the fact that I found you, delaying your rescue would have been fatal.»
«But then, on what does it depend that there is so little time left?» I said. «Did the Tears of Dromeneria start before or after you found me?»
“Before, I think.»
«What do you think?»
«I’m sure there were little red marks on the moon before I took you off the ship.»
“My goodness, Gortax.»
Someone knocked on the door and he opened it, without waiting for an answer. It was Pedregas. I was glad to see him alive. In a way, he made me feel less guilty.
‘Sir, the Council is in session. The emir requires your presence.»
«No, let them wait,» Gortax muttered, scratching his chin.
«Since she’s awake, I want they to meet the goddess now, what do you think, Pedregas, too improvised? This way we will save time.»
«Do you want me to make some excuse on your part and postpone the meeting, sir?»
«No, no, Pedregas. The sooner the better. Tell them that we are coming soon, that the goddess has awakened earlier than the doctors had predicted, so it will be of great interest to all if she attends this meeting. Tell them that she is dressing for the occasion. Which is true. You don’t want to go in a nightgown, do you?» He said, looking at me.
«No, of course not,» was all I could manage to say. Although I didn’t like putting on long shots to be presented in society.
After eating and drinking a few things that Pedregas himself brought us, we left the room. For a long time we went through a labyrinth of narrow stone corridors, spiral staircases, tunnels, passageways, ramps and more spiral staircases, almost always descending. Arriving at an indeterminate room without windows to the outside, which did not seem very different to me from others we had passed before, Gortax took some clothes from a cupboard and gave them to me. Then another person, an older woman, entered the small room. She did not wash me, which I assumed they had done during my convalescence, because the truth is that I smelled good (expensive perfume). The woman accompanied me behind a screen and helped me put on my clothes. If she was surprised by my appearance, my red look, she didn’t give the slightest sign that she was.
So I dressed, with simple leggings and boots, a garment to put on me, and an even simpler belt. The overgarment was a kind of tunic that looked more like a cape, with holes to put the arms. It was an ensemble of ocher tones, and simple decorations of a golden yellow. Come on, all very simple. When I was ready, the woman left, after a brief «Thank you, Elivah» from Gortax. Shortly after she left, she seemed to me as if she had never been there, that’s how discreet she was. I discovered that the cloak had a hood.
«Put it on,» Gortax said. «Keep your head down; don’t look anyone in the eye, if we come across someone, from here on.»
I was about to protest (to maintain the habit, more than anything), but I immediately realized that my eyes with red irises could spread the fire of the rumor of my arrival like wildfire; besides, it was becoming quite clear to me that Gortax had gone to a lot of trouble to keep me hidden in the highest and most inaccessible tower of that castle, keep, or whatever that building was.
«These don’t look like goddess clothes, you know? Rather it looks like something the servants of Ivanhoe, or Sinuhe, would wear.»
Gortax raised an eyebrow.
«We don’t want you to attract attention, do we?» He said.
We reached the room where the Council meeting would take place without major incident. I must have already figured it out, but still I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed. This place was far from the typical throne room of medieval fantasy stories. It was only similar in that it was rectangular. Otherwise it was a gloomy, damp, dark place. It smelled like a sewer. There were several three-armed standing candelabras scattered around the room. Aside from those candles, the only illumination came from a small circular hole, high on the wall opposite the small door through which we had entered. The light outside, pale and meager, fell obliquely, barely illuminating the center of the room.
There were twelve chairs, six on each side, one facing the other, ten of them already occupied by members of the Council. There was a thirteenth chair, empty, presiding over the others. It was plain, old wood, dark and worn, and high on its back was a shield bearing a lion-headed serpent. Two large tapestries, colors faded by dust and damp, hung from the two longest walls, facing each other. On the left was a scene of what looked like a battle. One of the sides carried a banner that read «Xidarnia». His host hovered over a map of the city of Lexkaria. They wore ostentatious multicolored robes, and their faces were covered by golden masks. In the other tapestry there was a forest of trees in which the color green had not been used at all. All the flora was painted in various reddish tones.
I stayed at the front door, self-conscious. Gortax had to give me a little push to get me moving. I walked sideways looking back, because I had no idea what I was supposed to do. The Magi subtly took my arm and led me to the center of the room. Then he took his seat, the first chair to the right of the one he presided over.
I stood there, waiting. I felt more like a frightened rabbit than a goddess, under the gaze of those ten strangers. Well, eleven, if you counted Gortax (it’s not like we were nail and meat either). In a way, I felt indignant again at the fact that they were all sitting and me standing there, waiting, when I was supposed to be the goddess. How far away (on the other side of the castle), my will to change suddenly seemed to me, my wonderful moment of epiphany.
Then, from the shadows of the damp and mossy wall where the throne chair was located, on a stone platform just as damp and mossy, the figure of Pedregas emerged (that man was even in the soup). He announced, in a slightly cracked but solemn voice:
«His Highness Prince-Emir Kernias Alvard Gax, sole and rightful owner of the throne of Dervishkania.»
If you have been noticing a certain tone of sarcasm during these last episodes that I have described to you, and even in some previous ones, it is because that is how I felt at that time. That perspective was what allowed me to face with integrity certain situations that, otherwise, perhaps would have been too much for me. There could not be the slightest hint of sarcasm, however, in the description of Prince Kernias.
Perhaps you think that I say this because of his greatness, physical or spiritual, because of the grace of his gaze or his gestures, or because of the majesty of his clothing. Of course, something like that was what I expected, after such an announcement. But through the shadowy door in the mossy wall came a hunched, limping being, the spitting image of a wet, humiliated, and sickly cat (although without a single hair on its body, like all those beings). He was not big, but small, thin, emaciated. There was no grace in it, but I wanted to help him, so that he would be able to take another step and bear the miserable weight of his existence. And no, his clothes weren’t especially majestic either… Or maybe they would have been, if he had known how to wear them with a little more dignity.
However, when he finally sat up, and looked at me, I couldn’t help but shudder. Not out of fear or fright, but out of surprise. He seemed to me at once the most alien and the most human of those beings. Alien for its coal-black skin, and for its large bulging eyes with yellow irises. He had abnormally perpendicular, catlike pupils; his features sharpened by the effect given by the simple pharaonic court headdress (the typical klaft that distinguished Egyptian nobles) that he wore on his head, topped by a small lion-headed serpent. But at the same time human, because in his gaze I found something I hadn’t felt since he had woken up in that world. Something that was totally different from the way I felt watched by the curious and calculating gaze of the members of the Council, gathered there. I found an equal. That sickly-looking young man, Kernias, had the same mute cry for help in his vacant gaze that I felt in myself.
«It goes without saying that everything that is discussed here today is secret,» Pedregas said, speaking slowly, with an oily tone, while he looked around everyone present. Then he sat down, directly across from Gortax. He put on gold wire glasses and pulled up a small table with an open book, old and ancient, the wood screeching against the stone floor. He began to scribble, his dark eyes shining over his glasses from time to time glancing at those present.
For more than a minute there was silence punctuated by whispers in the ear, nervous coughs, and Pedragas’s scribbling. I stood with my head down and my hood up, unable to take my eyes off the Prince-Emir. Suddenly he seemed to react to Gortax’s impatient, commanding voice.
«Uh-oh…» he stammered, raising a skinny little arm. I gave the feeling that that simple movement had consumed too much of what little energy he had. «Speak, please, speak,” he said, in a sweet, slow voice, which somewhat surprised me.
«With your grace, Highness,» said one of the councilors, to my left. I turned to look at him as he got up to speak. He seemed quite tall. He had gray skin and eyes that were too small, but penetrating, a faded blue, almost gray. His head was shaved clean, and the fuzzy white tips of his ears hung in braids on either side of his face, to meet with a clasp in a larger braid under his chin. The braid was lost within the folds of his violet tunic, on which a beautiful coat of arms was drawn, which did not lack detail.
«Who are you bringing us here today, Gortax?» Is she, finally, your so often announced goddess? Do you plan to fill, perhaps, with this ruse, the coffers that are still just as empty, after your disastrous expedition?»
I did not miss the tone of sarcasm in the words of that counselor, who had a firm voice, but at the same time mellifluous, that seemed born for oratory.
«This is, Ekarion,» Gortax replied, as he rose to his feet, his tone deliberately solemn, «the Envoy of Our Time. A goddess, made mortal, just as the Scriptures announce.»
«So», the so-called Ekarion spoke again, turning his head looking for complicity in some of the other councilors, «if we are to believe that this woman is a goddess made mortal, which is already a lot to believe, are you still determined that the Tears of Dromeneria are an omen of the end of our world?
There was a burst of murmuring, hitherto barely contained, and one or two voices rising above the others, displaying either revelry or indignation, depending on which of the two speakers they took sides with.
I don’t know why I did it. I don’t know why I was so incensed and decided to take sides to defend Gortax. Perhaps because his truth was all the truth I knew, and in attacking that truth, they attacked everything I thought I knew in that world. My own identity. I exclaimed:
«Do you think my eyes bode well for your Tears, Ekarion?» And I turned to him. I took off my hood.
They faced a human (as they believed all humans were), with mustard-colored skin, long black hair, and eyes with irises the color of blood. Impossible eyes that looked at everyone present, from point to point, with a mixture of confusion, pain and fury. I went through them all, from left to right. They all leaned back, eyes wide open, starting with Ekarion. Only Gortax and Pedregas, who already knew me, showed no sign of surprise. Kernias’s reaction, on the other hand, was subtle, indecipherable. It seemed to me that he slightly lifted the corner of his lips, that he frowned very slightly. But unlike everyone else, he not only didn’t back down, but he got up and came over, her walk slow, trembling, hesitant. He touched my face with his bony hands, a soft, warm touch, like someone who can’t see. My God, of course… he was blind. Hence, to a great extent, his slow and hesitant walk.
«I… I’ve dreamed of you,» he said, in a whisper. I don’t think anyone else heard it.
‘Your Highness, please don’t make unnecessary efforts», Gortax said, rising, ushering Kernias to his chair, and helping him to a seat.
After the initial shock, it was Ekarion who got up from his seat to approach me. He looked at me from as close as he could get, so close that I smelled his breath. He had a grim face, as if he were looking into the eyes of the devil himself. Then he looked from point to point, without losing that gesture: at Gortax, again at me, again at Gortax. At last, without sitting down, he approached the Magus’s seat, pointing his finger at it, as he said:
«Ah, you perfidious among the perfidious. You. Only you, Gortax, could be capable of concocting such a thing. You led us to believe that your expedition was primarily for commercial reasons, while spreading absurd rumors about finding the Envoy. You knew that we would never approve of you wasting time and resources proving the existence of ghosts from the past. You fooled the Council, Gortax. But here it is, By the gods gone, here it is. The living image of the Scriptures. She has come to life,” he finished, and he pointed to the ceiling, while he looked at me.
I looked up, for the first time. I had entered the room hooded and with my head bowed. In addition, the ceiling, far and vaulted, was almost completely lost in the shadows. But Ekarion took one of the standing candlesticks and raised it as much as he could, to ward off those shadows. Other councilors followed suit. And then I saw her. I saw myself. It was drawn on that ceiling. It seemed all too real an image, a reflection staring back at me, as if the ceiling were a vast, shimmering, misty mirror. I heard again the voice of the ghosts that had haunted me in the Stronghold of the Dark Path: Who are you? Who are you?, they asked me, in a strange language, whose words I had only heard once, from the mouth of Gortax, without knowing what they meant then.
«Who are you?» I said, looking at the others, without recognizing them, suddenly, because I felt alien to that reality. The image of myself had come down from the ceiling and merged with me, like a soul that had been waiting for time immemorial. I looked around for Kernias, but he had left the room.
Unknowingly, I was unleashing the magic on those gathered there, without their permission. I was not aware of what I was doing, I was beside myself. What was happening to me? A part of me was afraid, but a sense of power dispelled it. I had summoned the Eidolon-Knights from him. They all came through my command, from their invisible realms, to form themselves in the reality of that damp and dark room, to illuminate it with their runes of light and their shining armor, made of impossible materials. The Eidolons, one for each councilor, surrounded me, pushing aside their Magi (for they all were, I realized then, Magi), and knelt before me.
«Goddess, goddess, goddess!» they shouted, in their metallic, spectral voices.
I didn’t understand what had just happened. Did I have that power? I had seen what a single Eidolon-Knight was capable of. Could I summon the Eidolons of other Magi, without his permission, to serve me? That was crazy. I looked up at the ceiling, with some fear and even more suspicion. The image was hiding in the shadows again. Well, that’s better.
Gortax spoke words again that I couldn’t decipher, and it was as if his Eidolon (it wasn’t Aliax) vanished. Soon all the other councilors followed suit. They slowly returned to their seats, but not everyone sat down.
A dark mood had settled over most of those present. It didn’t seem to me that they looked at me as a goddess to worship. More like a usurper.
«I suppose, Gortax, you realize the power you have just brought into the world,» said another councilor, another of the Magi.
There was a loud throat clearing. It was Pedregas. He said:
«Did a goddess fall from the sky, Drossian, and we’re already losing it?»
Someone, who must have been taking the whole matter with a little more humor (like Pedregas himself), dared to laugh at that comment.
“Er… Of course, sorry. With her grace, Your Highness,” said this Drossian.
«I am aware, Drossian, that you will admit that my investigations into the meaning of the Tears of Dromeneria were correct. It cannot be a coincidence, that they coincide in time with the discovery of the ship that came from the stars.»
«You are a bird of ill omen, Gortax,» said Ekarion. Don’t you think that it could have been, precisely, such a discovery, the trigger of the disaster? We know too little about the past to delve into it at will.»
«And what would you have done, Ekarion, when the red dawn arrived at the doors of your house, without having found any solution? Are you so sure that I’m wrong?»
They all fell silent. At that moment the silence was such that I could hear the brush of the councilors’ silk robes. Suddenly a new uproar broke out, this time from outside the room. The door through which we had entered was flung open. Two or three Eidolons were summoned from the shadows. (That’s when I finished explaining to myself the absence of guards in that place, and all the way through the castle to get there. The Magi didn’t need many guards, at least, not for tasks such as their own protection) .
A young page burst into the room, ruddy, sweaty, agitated. She had a silent exchange of glances with Pedregas, who quickly approached her. She spoke in his ear. Then the counselor walked her to the door, and closed it. I noticed that there was a kind of Knight-Eidolon, on the other side; I hadn’t seen any when I entered.
«With your grace, Highness,» he said. «Terrible news, Your Highness, fellow Council members. Princess Dalara is dead.»
There was a commotion. Those who were sitting got up from their chairs and all began to speak at once.
«Order, order!» Pedregas shouted, several times, before, little by little, silence fell again. But it was just a feint. They still hadn’t been able to digest the news.
«It’s war!» one of the councilors shouted.
«What will we do now? another intervened.»
These and other similar comments piled up, haphazardly.
«Order! —Pédregas shouted —I said ORDER!»
When he was finally able to make himself heard, the Registrar Council explained what had happened. Princess Dalara, who had been invited for several days, with her retinue, in a mansion adjoining the castle, within its main walls, had felt unwell after taking a bath. She had died within minutes. All indications pointed to a fatal cut of digestion. But it was clear to everyone present that the Xidarni were not going to believe such a thing. That wedding had been the fruit of years of diplomacy; it was the cornerstone without which the building of peace would collapse. Xidarnia had the power to take control of all of Dervishkania, with its divided emirates (always fighting among themselves), including the one that until then was going to be the only exception, thanks to the marriage agreed between both regions: Lexkaria.
«Gentlemen,» Gortax exclaimed, and they all fell silent. «There is a way to turn the tables on this war. Let’s marry the Prince-Emir to the goddess.»
There were several gasps, though the proposal was such a surprise that silence remained for the most part. The most conspicuous of those silences was mine. I was speechless. I had to swallow several times before I could intervene:
«Bullshit,» I said, though not in the defiant voice I would have wanted, but in what was more of a small voice.
A new chaos erupted, but this was briefer. They all wanted to hear what Gortax would say to my words.
“Winifred, it’s the only way. Consider it,” he said, raising her voice, because he saw that I was going to explode, “please. Let me at least explain it to you.»
I could hardly contain myself. I absolutely did not care what he was going to say. But I let him speak, what was he going to do. Everyone wanted to hear those explanations.
«First, we will announce to the four winds the arrival of the end of the world. There must be no land, kingdom, or nation left that does not know it, between now and the next dromenerian new moon.»
«At the same time, we will give them hope. The news of the Envoy’s arrival. We will tell them that the goddess is here, and that she is with us. With Lexkaria. Finally, we will announce the wedding.»
«By the gods that are gone, Gortax,» Ekarion interjected, breaking the silence that followed his words. «You had it all planned, right? You… You have killed Princess Dalara.»
«And what if it had been, Ekarión?» Gortax replied. «This is the opportunity we have been waiting for so long. With the power of the goddess we will subdue all our neighbors, and then we will turn against the northmen. We will cross the Narrow Sea and claim the lands of our ancestors.»
«Is there, Gortax?» I interjected, sounding almost hysterical. «Do you really believe in the possibility of the end of the world, or was it just part of your plan, from the beginning?»
«I’m just trying to make the most of the circumstances. People believe what they want to believe, Winifred. In due time I planted various seeds of knowledge, which were to sprout and grow to feed the right people, in the right places. For example, the knowledge that the red dawn is beneficial to the land on which it falls. In the following years, it is in these red lands where the trees that bear the fruit of the kroyá grow. It is the fruit from which the main ingredient of the juice is extracted, which, when drunk, gives us the power to call the Eidolons.»
I was suddenly aware, by a quick association of ideas, of the strange taste of the drink that had seemed like wine, but was not (Gortax had told me that it was «a kind of local fermented juice»), that I had given Pedregas to drink, before he left the room in which he had woken up, at the top of the castle.
Then I understood everything.
«Then the end of the world is not because of the red dawn.» It’s because of how people react to it. It’s because of the wars that are born of the greed for power,” I said.
«The end of the world depends on perspective,» Gortax said.
There was a silence.
«Of course,» exclaimed Ekarion, who sat down on his seat, staring into space. It seemed to me that he was looking at Gortax with a mixture of hatred and admiration, if such a thing was possible.
«I’m not going to be involved in this,» I said, and didn’t even want to say his name again.
«You will, Winifred, you will,» Gortax said.
The Magi summoned two Eidolons, and they escorted me back to my room, to my cell, I finally understood, at the top of the castle. I tried to rebel, to remember the words that had come to me before, so that the Eidolons would obey me. But there was nothing left in me of that kroyá juice.