by C. D. Lee
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"Could yet the fair reflection view,
In the bright mirror pictured true,
And not one dimple on her cheek
A tell-tale consciousness bespeak? --"
- Sir Walter Scott
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Her tortured expression mirrored what I felt myself, but -- though I longed to take the woman into my arms -- she was like a prisoner behind a wall of glass -- hopelessly beyond my reach. Nonetheless, her lips, so ripe, lured me nearer and I was pressing closer to the cold barrier before I realized it, staring deeply into those welling orbs of cobalt-blue. To my dismay, her features were donning a second mask, blurring behind the condensation of my own hot exhales.
Heart pounding, I turned away; this was not her, I reminded myself; it was illusion, fantasy. She was not here.
Eden was gone.
But why gone? Why had this befallen us? Who was responsible? I have so seldom loved -- so why had the cruel gods of fate condemned me to love one whom I could not keep?
I felt our separation like torture. I almost wished that I had accepted Archimage's final offer, his final betrayal, his fool's trade. If I had, I would be with Eden Blake now.
Buck up, Lukasz! What's happened to your old tough-mindedness? When did that cold stone in your breast become a human heart?
I turned from the black stone wall toward the ragged shadows cast by the Godwheel's reflected light. In this place, my past, present and future seemed to flow together into a nexus. My regret was not helped by the sight of the time-scored ruins standing empty in this one-time city of gods, this present place of ghosts.
The desolation reminded me that Time slays all things. Men die. Sorcerers die. Even the immortals are no such thing and must one day die. Once Vahdala's superhuman inhabitants had called themselves gods and held a sway which they believed would never end. Even so, they had expired long ago, long before Lukasz was born -- and I have lived longer than any man I know.
But longevity is not immortality, sad to say; if it were otherwise, should I not be called a god myself?
Me, a god!
Gazing up at the glittering stars of an unknown sky, I wondered whether gods had souls? Did such souls exist in bliss or in torment? Or in nothingness? Despite the warmth of my aura of magic, I couldn't help but pass a shudder; the antiquity of the Vahdalan planetoid clutched at all those who strode its avenues with a sense of desolation as crushing as bands of frigid steel.
But, oddly enough, it was not the unquiet spirits of those long-lost Vahdalans which beset me; it was instead the ghost of an ordinary woman -- a woman whose voice and image shall ever haunt me, flee where I may, live as long as I am able -- a woman mighty in my heart, yet one who, alive, would have seemed so frail and inconsequential that one of Vahdala's fallen gods might have crushed her between his fingertips.
Had it only been a few short weeks ago, in what is called the Season of Joy back on Earth, that we two had stood here together, mortals abducted from another universe, linked arm-in-arm as paired castaways bedazzled by this crumbling city of perished wonders? And do I remember, also, that we were happy?
Only fools affront jealous Fate by rejoicing. Is that not the painful lesson of fifteen hundred years? How could we, who had suffered so much, have believed that all our trials were at an end? Why did we not foresee, why did we not suspect, that nothing lay ahead of us except violence, loss, and unendurable bereavement?
My eyes burned with the recall of Eden's voice, her smile, her laughter, and the touch of her nimble hands. Where did her soul rest? Either in bliss or oblivion, I supposed. Either state would bring her peace -- but I was denied peace of any kind.
My betrayer, my former friend Thanasi, oftentimes called me a lone wolf. He was more right than wrong, perhaps, since wolves mate for life, and the beasts, once they have lost their trothed mates, spend the sad years of their widowhood as lonely wanderers.
There is an agony of the mind and spirit which a man sometimes expresses in uncontrollable laughter, until stinging tears blind his eyes. This grief, though terrible, is no rare thing, alas. I myself have known it at least twice in the course of my lifetime. It is the laughter of the tragic clown.
This peculiar laughter of which I speak brings sorrow to the sufferer, not mirth -- and oftentimes its sound is carried on the wind like whispered sobs. But it is true laughter, of course -- it represents the need of a tortured soul to vent itself in hilarity.
But there is a time to laugh, and a time to . . . .
I turned back to again confront that lustrous stone, that reflected mantle of blue, that cloak which I have sometimes wrapped about my ashamed figure like the sackcloth of a penitent. There, too, before me gleamed the golden cuirass, aglitter under the shapeless constellations of Vahdala.
Like a somnambulant, I reached out -- the mirroring wall felt hard and cold as the armor itself. So many times this sparingly-cut cuirass has safeguarded Eden's fragile woman-flesh from spear, knife, and bullet -- but even mystic armor is no proof against the far-deeper wounds scored upon the spirit.
You grieve too much, Lukasz. It will drive you mad.
I sank back against the facing stone for support; my breathing had grown ragged, my balance unsteady; Vahdala's atmosphere was thin like a mountain's lofty summit and Eden's mortal vehicle was weak.
She had been weak in body, yes, but not in spirit! Who is weak who has saved her lover's life three times, and he a warrior?
In the end, Eden had traded her life for mine. Dying in my arms, she had begged a parting boon of me -- one I never could have denied her, even had I wanted to. But the pledge I'd sworn was fated to define the whole future course of my existence -- and also alter forever the lives of whomsoever else I should touch.
I shook myself. This brooding was not like me; I told myself that it was only Vahdala's strange atmosphere. Enough of this sojourn, I thought -- it is time to go home! I didn't want Eden's children waking up to an empty house and wondering why their mother wasn't clattering around the kitchen, why the smell of oatmeal wasn't filling the morning air.
There was nothing for me in Vahdala, but back home I had responsibilities, I had distractions, I had company -- and it must have been that which had so far made living possible beyond the hour of Eden's death.
Therefore, with a mighty act of will, I drove away my tormenting demons and focused anew upon the slow-running stream of my inner power. Once more the manna stirred within me like a buried seed in germination, bursting its hull, sinking its roots, rising in branches, spreading through my -- through Eden's -- bloodstream and slowly filling me. . . .
Focus, Lukasz, focus.
I gave an incoherent cry, more in release than exultation, and was plunged into a spiral tunnel of cascading light. It was a journey which I had made many times before -- once even from here in Vahdala. -- But Eden had been with me then; at this homecoming no happy lover would clutch at me in joy and no eager lips would taste mine. I would be alone.
It's not good to be alone.
If only Eden had not died. . . .
As suddenly as it had been created, the wormhole flared out and my boots slammed into terra firma. As always, leaping space and time left me briefly dazzled and the contraction of my pupils had rendered me temporarily night blind. As usual when I'm impaired, a more subtle array of faculties kicked in -- this time registering a scattered vegetable-presence and also a mammalian scrabbling, the latter suggesting something too large for a rat and too small for a human being. A small dog? -- A cat probably.
Anyway, I sensed no imminent danger and, with my vision rapidly clearing, I saw that I had been spewed out into the same San Fernando Valley lot from which I had originally launched. Overhead, the familiar moon loomed as a silvery sheen behind a vapor of low-hanging clouds and pollution. I was home -- almost.
Two teleportations within three hours takes a lot out of a person but, with an effort, I managed generate a powerful updraft and lift off.
Me, flying! Incredible though it was, I hardly stopped to think about it anymore. Yet, though I'd gotten used to personal aviation, I still took the same pleasure in it that, presumably, a wild bird does.
"My heart knows what the wild goose knows,
And I must go where the wild goose goes;
--- Wild goose, brother goose, which is best,
A wandering foot or a heart at rest? . ."
To tell the truth, I fly not only to get to where I want to go, but as a way of quelling pent-up stress -- and my life grinds out enough stress to crush boulders. Some guys have to bash a punching bag to burn off their anxieties; I fly.
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But this was going to be a relatively short jaunt, and so scarcely had I ascended to a convenient cruising altitude than I assumed a descent pattern toward the Blake house.
Luckily it was still night; if Mantra were spotted too often along this block people might start putting two and two together. Sure, I go around masked, but there aren't many neighborhood women with Mantra's build and coloring except Eden Blake.
I must have been right about the gloom that Vahdala inflicts, since my spirits had considerably picked up now that I was within spitting distance of a familiar bed. The kids would never know I'd been away -- and, in fact, I could never dare tell them how close mom had come to dying tonight. But I had been lucky and there would be oatmeal on the breakfast table one more time.
Would I always to have keep secrets from those closest to me? Well, I certainly couldn't level with Gus! I wouldn't put it past the Bart Simpson of Canoga Park to try blackmailing Mantra for a new Sega system -- and that would only be the beginning of a lifetime of creative shakedown! On the other hand, Evie knew I was Mantra and so I could let her in on a few tidbits now and then -- things to thrill and excite a small girl, not frighten or upset her.
Unfortunately, Evie also knew that I wasn't her real mom. I occupied her mother's body, of course, but my soul had not shared the experience of her first six years. Despite our genetic link, I suppose I'd have to be considered some kind of foster-mother. Or was I more a step-mother? Or did a borrowed body make me a biological mother? I didn't know.
The thought of Evie brought back my melancholy. There had been a terrible moment last January when I'd to admit that I was a stranger's spirit in possession of her mother's body. Then Evie, with a look of anguish that I will never forget, glared into my eyes and demanded to know whether I had killed her real mommy. The question nearly floored me; I'd sworn that I hadn't, that, in fact, I'd loved her mother and also loved her. Her face unsoftened, she then said that she wanted to go live with her daddy. Instead, I'd urged her to stay with me, to let me do my best for her, like her mother had wanted. She'd consented, but ever since then, whenever it seemed like Evie was beginning to accept me in Eden's place something would always happen -- like those times when she realized that I didn't know something that her real mother certainly would know. -- And then she'd go silent, or turn away, or even start to cry for no reason.
For no reason?! She was seven years old and her mother was dead. Worse, under the crazy circumstances of my impersonation she had to keep her mourning locked up inside and there was no one with whom she could talk out her hurt -- not her brother, her father, or even her granny -- all because I'd asked her to keep my secret. Evie hero-worshiped Mantra and kept her confidences loyally, but was I asking too much of a girl her age? If so, what else could I do? I was the last of my kind and if I gave up Eden Blake's identity I would have no place to go, and forever afterwards carry with me the memory of having violated an innocent home and left nothing but misery behind.
Archimage's idiotic scheming had left a long shadow!
And I still couldn't see the end of it!
I ducked behind the rhododendron bush. All this sneaking around was a bother; I could vault between universes, but didn't know how to do something as simple as turn invisible. People consider me a world-class ultra, and maybe I am, but in so many ways I'm still a novice with nearly everything still to learn about the limits and scope of my powers.
I resumed my civilian garb and went phantasmal traipsing like a ghost though the back door. It was pitch dark inside the kitchen, but I could have found my way around the house with my eyes closed.
So why, at my second step, did I bang my knee painfully on a chair? Like any parent, I blamed the kids for rearranging some of the furniture while I was away and, being woolly-headed from my universe-spanning exertions, I was forgetting that both of my little crumbcrushers had gone to bed well before I'd lit out for Vahdala.
Evie's door lay at the head of the upstairs landing and seemed to tug at me as I passed it. Before becoming a mother -- if that's what I am -- I had never had much to do with children. For that reason I still marveled at the sort of impulse I now felt -- namely, to tiptoe in to listen to a little girl's sleepy breathing, and even bend down and plant a kiss on her cheek without waking her up.
I shook my head and decided to let Evie enjoy her rest; my kiss would have to be saved for when she came down for breakfast. By the way, I've also started kissing Gus, but that's been an acquired taste. I think I could enjoy it more if only he wouldn't act like I was inflicting public humiliation.
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