Journal Entry 3: The Meeting
I walked past the man, through the doors into a grand hall, the like of which I’d never seen before. Even my memories of the test did not feature a place such as this, a vast chamber, its roof vaulted and so high above me that six men might walk in this room stood on one another’s shoulders. At the far end, I glimpsed another set of doors.
I gaped, my eyes roaming the expanse, trying to take it all in. Tapestries and strange symbols covered the walls and floor. Huge transparent cases lined up to my right. At first I thought they contained hulking guardians, but as I moved towards them, I saw the figures were statues, wearing clothes and armour, the sort worn by the people in the tapestry, but with long tubes attached to a backpack and the white star on red painted on their shoulders. Each bore signs of damage, great cracks and scars in the armoured plates. One of the helms had been smashed in half.
“My time is not infinite.”
I turned towards the voice. A woman with short spiky white hair sat in the centre of the room crouched over a small square table. A second seat was empty in front of her. She gestured to it with her right hand; her left was a shrivelled misshapen thing resting on the arm of her chair. She caught me looking and smiled. “There are many dangers to leaving Limbo. If you survive long enough, you may experience them for yourself.”
I sat down. Her words were strangely spoken with a flavour I had never heard before. “You’ve journeyed away from Limbo?”
“Of course, most wizards do.” Her smile became strained, slipping into disapproval, “unless they can no longer master the portal.”
I took in more of her appearance. She seemed younger than both Vyasa and the servant I’d met, but her eyes were old. Scars puckered the side of her bare neck, disappearing under an ornate blue tunic covered in writing I didn’t understand. Her left leg also appeared twisted and weak. “You don’t travel anymore,” I said.
A thin trace of the smile returned, but no warmth came from it. “You’re old for an acolyte, which is why I tolerate the impertinence.”
“I apologise,” I said, because it seemed the right thing to say.
She shrugged. “Why are you so old to come here? Melmoth said you already wear the brand.”
“Show it to me.”
I pulled up my sleeve and did so; she glanced in its direction briefly then gestured at the table between us. “Do you play?”
I looked down, noting the different coloured squares on the table surface for the first time. As I stared, small counters appeared on the darker hatching. “What game is this?” I asked.
“It’s called Spires,” the woman said. “We teach it to new students so they might learn a valuable lesson.”
“And what is that?”
“That life isn’t always what it seems.”
I frowned at the counters, trying to see what she meant. “I suppose you must play to understand,” I said.
“Yes,” the woman replied. “But you already understand life - you have lived - others have not,” She leaned forwards. “Besides we’re playing a different game.”
“Yes, there are questions you wish to ask me and in turn, I am curious about you; far more interesting than pieces on a table.” She waved her hand and the counters vanished. “Ask of me then.”
I chewed my lip thoughtfully. “Where is the man who brought me here?”
She smiled again. “You know his name?”
“Everyone knows of Vyasa,” she replied. “He wanders as he wishes, no ward or wall may contain him. His purpose was to seek you out and bring you here, so I might find potential in you. After that, he travels on, the next waif or stray to find and drag to the tower and door.”
“What do you want with me then?” I asked.
The woman shook her head. “Our game has turns and it isn’t yours. Why did you leave after they branded you?”
I shrugged; answering that meant little to me. “My family couldn’t cope without me. I went back to them. When my mother died, I came here.”
The woman nodded slowly as if I’d given her some precious lore. “I want your gift and your power,” she said. “I will free the chains that bind your true nature and by doing so, make you strong. If you stumble though, I will claim you and renew myself.”
“I remember stories like that,” I said. “My mother once told me wizards eat the children who’re brought here..”
“Perhaps some do,” she replied. “Your turn now to ask a question.”
I thought for a few moments, but the next inquiry was obvious. “What’s it like?”
“What’s what like?”
“Out there,” I waved my hands. “Beyond Limbo.”
“Limbo is existence waiting for something better. Some, like your mother, cannot wait long enough. Beyond are countless worlds to be discovered,” the woman’s eyes grew distant. “They are as different as rock and tree, but out there people don’t just exist, they live.” Her gaze returned to mine and she tapped the table with the index finger of her good hand. “For turns and turns, the gifted are tested and trained in the towers to be sent out through the portals into the Fractured Worlds. They discover new realms where the poor remnants of humanity might thrive. These gifted as lords return to lead others with them into new kingdoms. Each follower owes all to their wizard lord. Sometimes the price of a new life is too high.”
I frowned. “Surely anything is better than being here?”
“Really?” the woman scowled at me. “People starve on the broken stones, but at least they starve free. Would you give up that freedom for the whim of a tyrant to sate your aching belly?” She sat back. “Some would, some would not. Each of us has lines we will not cross. That is why you went back to your family, wasn’t it?”
I flinched from her stare but nodded. “Yes I suppose it was.”
“Good,” the woman said. “Then I learn your limits.” Her right hand reached out and a long stick faded in to existence in her grip. She leaned on it and hauled herself up from her seat. “Now we shall train you and see your strengths.”
I rose from my chair as well. “I’m ready,” I said.
The woman laughed. “I doubt it,” she replied and turned away.
by Allen Stroud