Precipice

Feb. 1st, 2009 09:12 pm
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"You should not push her."

There is an intensity to the Lord Shaper's words that belies his calm exterior. Desire looks sharply up, cigarette in hand forgotten. Nearby, a smudge of black taffeta mars a corner of the Great Hall's marble, and two figures stand attendance a few feet away. Death looks back at her siblings irritatedly, but Despair's lumpy form is intent on the girl, as a terrier with a kill in sight.

"Oh?" Desire's tone is calculatedly light.
"Indeed. I do not think she can take much more of this."
"Oh, but it does make the hours go by so much quicker, don't you think? Lends a little interest and drama to the wait?"
The ever-present furrows on Dream's forehead deepen. "You endanger all of your plans by it. For what? You are not welcome in her domain and yet she suffers you with equanimity. But you could be..."
"Shh-!" Desire turns, pointing.

Behind them, a cowled figure stares with blind eyes at the scene before him, a massive book held against one hip. Destiny pulls a quill from the middle distance, and very carefully notes something in the tome. A long moment passes, and he nods, fading into nothingness.

"Well that was unnecessary." Desire's petulant expression changes to disgust as the cigarette between those long white fingers burns out. "Oh for the love of-"
Loud footsteps interrupt the complaint, and a huge lumberjack of a man strides in, tracking red clay mud across the pale and glistening marble.
"Hullo sibs." He scratches his beard thoughtfully. "What have we here?"
"Oh, one of his projects, you know. She doesn't seem to have much of a sense of humor."
Dream opens his mouth as if to speak but closes it again, a stormy expression on his face.
"Huh. She's lasted this long. I think she's made of sterner stuff than either of you realize."
Desire looks confused, Dream looks thoughtful.
"Besides, we wouldn't want to find out if he was wrong midway through, eh? Have to have a bit of a stress test to find out, first."
"We are endangering a very rare tool indeed."
"Even a broken tool can be repaired and put to use."
"But the stakes-"
"The stakes are only as high as he wants them to be. Couldn't let him get bored now, could we? No, no. This," Destruction gestures grandly, "all of this- you, me, her, them - is according to his plan."
"And if she breaks?"
"Then we delay, find another."
"What if she refuses?" Desire flicks a lighter, irritated.
"She won't refuse."
Dream turns back to look at the girl, curled and rocking in the corner of the grand room, tear-stained face held between hands marked with red crescents, hair limp and disheveled against dull black fabric and clacking beads.
"I pray you are correct, brother."

Why now? Why this? It should have been over months ago, why bring him back? And why for so short a time? What are you trying to prove? We've known for years that my heart is implacable - impractical, self-destructive. Why drive the lesson home now? Why? Answer me! Please! Please...

In Prayer

Sep. 18th, 2006 10:27 pm
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It is cold in the Temple. Leaves skitter around her ankles in a dance of reds and yellows, burnished coppers and rich browns. The doric columns of the outdoor structure rise up in their circle, like the staves of an unfinished basket reaching towards the dark sky and twinkling stars. The burble of water can be heard softly from within the innermost circle of the Temple's railings, though she knows that soon, as winter settles its blanket over the City, that subtle sound will cease.

The gusting wind pushes against her, throwing her skirts into the bars of the balustrade as if hoping to push her over it and into the chilly springwater flowing below. Her hair, uncoiled for the first time in many months, flies loose about her face. There is a far off look in her eyes, and her fingers are clenched on the railing so that her knuckles are white with the strain.

A short, lumpy figure appears behind her, dark tattered hair and pale tattered skin and a glint of cruel silver at her finger belying the power held in that unpleasant shape. Naturally, her taller, svelte sibling stands nearby, in attendance.

"He does not love you." It is Despair who speaks first.
"I know." Her gaze is calm, somewhere between resigned and uncaring.
"And he never will, not the way he loves her still."
The girl simply gazes on at Despair, silent.

Desire chimes in, a rich velvet to the Despair's scratching burlap.
"You could take her place, you know. Give him something to think about besides her. Fill his head and his heart and make him forget."
"I don't think so."
"But it's what you want. It's what you've wanted since you met him, all those years ago."
She ponders this for a second, head cocked to one side.
"Yes." She pauses again, gathering her words. "Yes, but I have always known that he is a creature of another realm entirely. I have never even aspired to have him as anything more than a simple visitor, a guest in my realm."
Desire is, for once, silent. Despair looks up into her sibling's eyes and they exchange shrugs. The odd pair turn away from the Temple, and fade back into the night.

"That was well done."
The voice at her elbow makes her turn away from the spring again. Moonlight glints on the silver ankh and sends strands of more silver to play in the tousled dark curls that frolic in the wind. Death leans across the railing beside her, hands clasped.
"I have rarely seen someone shrug off Desire before, much less Desire and Despair."

The girl frowns, eyes closed, and pinches the bridge of her nose as if fighting a headache.
"For there to be Despair, there must first be hope. I have no hope of the Sunbeam ever being more than a casual visitor. And as for Desire, well, though he may but visit, and I would wish him back more frequently, our... meetings... are sufficiently torrid to quench any urgency Desire might foist upon us."

"You are concerned about something else."
"Yes."

There is a long pause, in which the girl sighs, and swallows hard.
"I have... I have become the Scared Whore that I once disdained. I feel no different, but I cannot but imagine how those who are now, how I once was must mock at me and scorn me behind my back."

Death raises one eyebrow. "Surely it's not so bad as all that. I know the one you speak of, and you are not alone in your... lack of regard for her." She takes her ankh in hand, musing "The Moving Phoenix has taken her life in her own hands more times than anyone deems sane, and indeed her exploits may well lead her into my realm someday."

"But you are not like her. Remember that. That is not to say that you aren't allowed to enjoy your... ah... worship." Death grins impishly.

The girl sighs again, fiddling with the braid on the edge of her bodice. "I do enjoy it. Very much. But I want a piece of each of them, some small piece to keep. Even the Temple whores are given their tribute - I simply feel used and cast aside. In... many things. Not just this. I am still without a Companion."
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"It was an apt name you gave her, you know."

The girl shuts the tiny wooden box with a loud snap and a gasp, whirling to see Desire's idle form draped over a nearby setee. If it unnerves her at all that the Endless can come and go so easily in her kingdom, she does a good job of hiding it, instead frowning softly to herself and turning back to the box. It is a small thing, lined in stormy blue velvet, a complicated celtic knot burnt into the lid. Inside sits a single, elf-made laurel leaf, so real in its seeming that one might never know it for an artisans work, except that it is made completely of silver.

Unimpeded by her silence, Desire continues. "You know what the myths said about elves, don't you? That mortals who dared taste the Summerlands could never return, else they'd pine forevermore."

"I am... quite... aware of that, thank you" she grits out through clenched teeth. "I am also aware that that one taste was all I'm ever likely to get." She shuts the box again, softly this time, and turns to the door. Desire does not follow, but merely calls after her.

"You're not likely to shake me so easily. What, did your struggles with the Wolf's memory teach you nothing?"

Stung, she turns, eyes flashing. "He was not a wolf. And I can certainly try."

Purposeful steps take her to the Gallery, but her certainty wanes as she approaches a few lines sketched on the wall in place of the frames they represent. Touching their sigils, the ankh, the mask, she murmurs a Calling and stands back.

Death appears first; unsurprising given her ability to be anywhere and everywhere all at once. Dream's arrival is more leisurely, his image appearing as if a fog had seeped into the frame and then reluctantly taken the form of a tall man with wild hair and galaxies for eyes. She turns to Dream first.

"Lord Shaper, to you I give this dream. I fear I have ill-used it, but it has in return given me nothing but heartache. I understand that this is my sole responsibility, and my fault, and I beg your forgiveness for ever harboring it." She hands him the box, which he takes with a grave look. She turns to Death, looking solemnly out at her from her pane of the Gallery.

"Lady Ender, to you I give this struggle. I do not give it lightly, but I beg you take it, as your sister has taken my hope in the matter." The girl shoots a look to the next frame over, where the hooked ring glistens dully in the diffuse light of the long hallway. Death nods, but touches the shape of the box uneasily.

"You know that you've had terrible luck flouting Desire in the past. I hope you know what you're doing this time."

The girl ducks her head in acknowledgment. "Telute, it is the only thing I can do. I cannot stand any more of her half-rejections, no more of Despair's visits to my Realm."

Death nods, slowly. "I wish you peace, then."

As the Endless fade from view within their frames, she whispers her thanks.
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There is a shelf in the Vault of Memories, one of those few small spaces that escapes the constant roil of the icons around it. On this shelf perch a few small baubles: a dessicated spider, a dusty dried rose, and a cluster of small glass globes. Each globe sits on a tiny pedestal, a tiny frozen world contained within a grapefruit sized sphere. The girl stands nearby, quietly contemplating the collection.

One globe is a welter of light and brightly colored rose petals, of soft green grasses and fuzzy blankets – those first few frozen memories of childhood.
Another sits nearby, flurries of snow, ancient German pines, and flashes of summers spent riding and working with horses.
Nearby, a third globe reflects the dusty golden brown of scorched hills in shimmering heat, splashes of color and texture and the shade of venerable old oaks and walnuts.
It is the fourth that holds her attention now. Unlike the other three, there is movement still in this one: a silvery gray fog twists among giant redwoods, and a strand of golden beach sand twinkles against the deep blue of the Pacific.

The girl picks up the still living memory, cupping it protectively against her. Her cheeks are wet as she looks at it, and she is enveloped in a palpable cloud of nostalgia. Nearby, another globe stands twirling, empty, still forming.

"The Land of the Sainted Cross... I will miss it." She addresses nobody in particular, though at her first words Eddie appears preternaturally at her elbow. A cave forms inside the globe, then a twirling circle of fire, then a glimmer of moonlight on ocean waves appears, followed by the sun on hawk's wings, the dappling of bay leaves, spring jasmine and...

Underneath her clenched fingers the glass grows warm, then hot, then begins slightly to glow as the pressure of so many memories heats and tests the glass. A shimmer begins behind the girl, and it is not until Death's cold fingers are on her elbow that she opens her tight-shut eyes. Her hands are burning on the glass as Death looks silently on at her, but she cannot release them.

"Let go" Death whispers, grasping the girl's wrist. "It's over now."

All at once the girls hands unclench, and she drops the still hot globe, collapsing into a pile of sobbing skirts and bleeding hands before the shelf. Death nimbly catches the globe, shakes something gently from it, and sets it back in place on its stand.

Stooping, She places one cool white hand around the girl's reddened burnt ones, and places something inside them.

It is a redwood cone, small and dark and shriveled against her bleeding palm; no bigger than a thimble, but containing all the potential of its giant parent. It swells and greens as she watches it, the redness and burnt flesh of her hands healing underneath it. Death shoots her a significant look and vanishes.

Still sniffling, the girl walks through her palace to the Great Hall. The hall is silent, empty marble breathing softly the slow pace of the deities that reside there, but the tiny cone takes on an urgent golden glow in her hands. Her eyebrows rise, and she hurries out.

Outside in the garden she stoops, Calling a patch of bare red earth up from underneath the marble paving stones. The earth spills out in a wide circle around her then darkens with her call to Air and Water. Gently, she places the tiny cone within the circle's center and pushes both palms down over it in prayer. There is a rumble, and she turns and walks the few paces to the edge of the circle in the stones.

The tree towers above her by the time she reaches the edge of the circle. It is thick as a carriage, and the branches do not begin until fifteen feet up the red, scraggly-barked trunk. A soft sigh of fog appears around the lower branches, as if it was not so much the fog that grew redwoods, but the redwoods that grew fog. And who could really tell in the City anyway? She looks up at the twinkling of stars between the branches.

"You are my promise, you are my sentry, you are my reminder. I have left it, but I will not forget what I learned in your kingdom."

She takes a breath, inhaling the scent of redwood and remembering the forests she once haunted. And then she turns, and softly returns to her Palace.
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"He burns with his own ego, you know."

The girl is standing quietly in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror tucked away in part of the Palace that few know of and fewer visit. The girl's black gown rustles restively, but the girl in the mirror is lit oddly with the greenish cast of fluorescent lighting, and wears black jeans, a black sweater, and a long trench coat. Her hair is ragged, her fingernails bitten to nubs and her face is tired, and she blinks into the mirror, peering in as if looking through a poorly lit display case. It is the same girl, but it is not. Nearby on the Palace-side of the mirror, a standing candelabra casts a golden light that glints on the jet beads of her skirt, but that also casts a raking light across the gilt whorls of the mirror's frame. In the shadows cast by the flickering candles, one can see the word "VERITAS".

Death looks up at the girl from her crosslegged seat on a nearby fainting couch, and cocks her head questioningly. The girl continues.

"I stood here with him in my arms and in my heart, and you know what I saw in the mirror?" She pauses momentarily, brooding at the memory. "I saw a man aflame, awash in his own self centered pursuit of pleasure. It was a death's head, a grim reaper, with hair of fire. And..." she chokes, "... and with my arms around him, I saw... Beside me, I saw..."

"Me." Death nods, comfortingly. "It's a good thing you aren't still chasing the Flame then, isn't it?"

The girl nods, unhappily, reaching for a tasseled cord by the side of the mirror, by which she lowers a long swath of golden velvet over it, as if to shut out a draught from the other side. The greenish light is smothered behind the fabric's thick pile. She stands, fidgeting restlessly with the tassel, a frown creasing her brow.

"But, that's not what's bothering you, is it?" Death prompts quietly. "You'd let him find his own way into my realm, because it's not your way to interfere with his karmic debt. Good girl. So..."

"It's his conquests! His girlfriends, his playtoys!" she blurts. The force of her words takes something out of her, and she sinks to the floor beside the fainting couch, head in hands. "I'm one of them. I was one of them. But the more I see the women he keeps company with, the worse I feel about it - his choices of partners reflect poorly on my own worth." The girl lets out a shuddering sigh, one hand dropping from her face to clench and unclench convulsively on her knee. "I even... felt sorry for her, for this last one. They seemed so damn happy at first, but he's just a total headcase, and no girl deserves that." She grimaces. "Well, almost no girl."

Death strokes her hair gently. "So what's the problem?"

Her eyes are closed now, as if to shut out the painful truth. "I'm starting to dislike him, as a person. It has the potential to fester into something like we had going all those years. I'm just about ready to chop off that limb now, to save myself the pain of having to watch him burning in the bed he buttered all by himself." Her face is pained as she looks up at Death, beseeching.

"I don't think I want to be his friend anymore."
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The salty air whips by her, tossing her hair back from her face in purple waves that undulate like the ocean before her. The sunlight beats down on her brow and glitters on the water, reflecting and refracting a thousand tiny suns to beat against the cliffside. The girl is at peace here, with nothing but the roar of the sea and the smell of salt air, the flutter of the sun's reflection and the faint pressure of its warmth on her skin and the black trousers and black sweater she wears. Here she need not think, here she need only be. The rock she perches on is decidedly cold, despite the sun, and she shifts almost imperceptibly.

There are voices. They are the faint rasping ones of her shadow servants, and they intrude into her mind like the sound of dry leaves scratching across pavement.

"Issss Sssssshe in here?"
"Yesss, I think sssso."
"Ssssshould we disssturb her?"
"Sssshe did not leave any insstructionss that Ssshe ssssshould not be bothered."
"Well then...?"

One of the voices grows louder, questioning. "My Lady?"

With a near-audible "pop" the scene disappears, and the girl is left sitting on the cold floor of the Great Seeming, the white marble gleaming blankly up at her almost questioningly. She sighs, and her crinolines rustle around her with the movement as she stands, stretching cold muscles back to life, and tucks wayward strands of auburn-brown hair back behind her ears.

"I am here. What news have you for me, that it cannot wait for my leisure?"

One of the shadows cringes visibly, and she sighs again, making a mental note to skip over that detail in the future. "My Lady, there isss sssomeone here to sssee you."

A tall figure in a black cowl steps slowly though the door, a tall scythe grasped loosely in one bony hand. The shadows retreat in fear, and the girl blinks in a mixture of horror and surprise.

"HELLO."

The word drops like an iron weight, resonating in the cold marble halls like the stroke of a gong. An upwelling of giggles follows it, and from deep within the cowl emerges a head of tousled black hair and a pair of smiling eyes. The girl staggers in relief. "Oh, sweet gods, you gave me a turn." The owner of the eyes giggles again, shedding the cowl and scythe which disappear on the floor, and taking one of the girl's clenched hands in her own pale, cool one. "We should talk," Death says, her silver ankh gleaming as she looks around, "Though, maybe not here, unless you really want to."

The room stills for a moment, and then fills with the pungent smell of eucalyptus, mud, and the fluttering of orange and black striped wings.
"Oh please," the girl gasps from behind the rising lump in her throat and tears in her eyes, "Please, not here. I can't..."

Suddenly they are at the cliff again, and she is perched on her rock as before, with the wind and the sun upon her. Huddled close is the other figure, and they spend a moment like that, black clad arms entwined in companionable silence while the girl calms her racing heart.

"You come here to forget them."
"True. But also to remember. These places... These places become the only things I have left of them."
"That's funny, you know. He does the same thing in a place similar to this."
The girl's smile is bitter. "I hadn't expected you to come. He claimed you, you know, and I hadn't expected you to visit the... warring kingdom, as it were."
Death's face stills for a moment, her expression blank behind her dark sunglasses.
"I am everywhere you know. I come for all but I belong to none."
"Forgive me, I didn't mean..."
Death smiles suddenly. "I know. It just seems like you forget sometimes. Like you forget other things."
The girl looks down at her feet on the rock, and notices that blood trickles from her left ankle. She winces guiltily.
"I know. It's been a long time since I needed to do that. It wasn't the same though. I wasn't angry this time, I was just... despairing. I had to do something to express that great pain, to make its mark on the world so I could convince myself it was real. And to remind me that I was still here, still alive."
"Lest you forget," Death whispers. "And did it work?"
"For a time."
There is a long moment of silence, and then Death sighs. "I won't talk down to you, and I'll say it plainly. You are walking perilously close to something that could lead you to my realm by a shorter path than any of us like. We will not tell you what to do, but for your sake" she gestures at the girl's ankle and the trickle of blood that has begun to crawl down the side of the rock "we do ask that you stop. We didn't save you the first time to lose you so soon."
The girl looks down. "I wasn't planning... I... I hadnt... Thank you. Thank you for the warning. I will do my best so that all of your works are not in vain."
Death musses the girl's purple hair with a smile. "Little sister, you know that's all we ask."

Out on the sea a large bird takes flight as the two watch. From somewhere outside the Great Seeming comes the faint sound of axes.

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