The Abyss Stares Back
Jessie realized that she was probably in way over head, but was certainly not about to show it now. Setting firmly in her mind that this dream was taking place in her head, she first determined to see how much control she had. She decided the sword should best go back to wherever it came from. She felt much stronger and more confident when the sword instantly began fading from her grasp.
Standing tall and proud, she addressed the blue eyed man as steadily as she could. “Well Sir Gavin, I am not familiar with Emperor Ricardo, nor do I know what a Paladine Primus is, but my folk have followed and respected Lord Tyr for many a generation, so you and I certainly have no grounds for quarrel there.”
“Apparently, the three of us are going to have to co-exist” Jessie nodded in the armored figures’ direction, to acknowledge his presence and include him in the statement of fellowship. “I know you have my name and I, yours, but I do not know how much you know of my intentions. I am Lady Jessica MacQuarrie, the last of my line, and it is my intention to restore my family line and to re-take and rebuild my family lands. I will accomplish these things or perish in the attempt. The MacQuarries have been accused of many things, being daft and perhaps a bit fey amongst them, but stupidity has not usually been listed among our faults. I know that I will not be able to accomplish these things without help. My mentor Fergus taught me many things, but one of his most important lessons was to teach me how much I didn’t know. You, Sir Gavin, and you, Sir Katarese, are certain to know many things of which I do not. If what you say is true, no one of little worth would be able to hold conversation with me the way that you two are doing. So I would appreciate your aid, knowledge and advice.”
Jessie couldn’t help but grin as she took in the two strange figures she may have gained as secret allies. “I can’t promise I will always heed it, but I do promise to always listen. What say you?”
The blue eyed man gestured with his left hand, a sweeping motion that left a sparkling shimmer in the air behind it, and in that moment the world shifted beneath Jessies’ feet.
Where the ground had been black glass straight out to an unnatural horizon, now all changed as the ground beneath her feet softened, and became grass covered earth. The sky brightened with the dawning of a clear sun, and trees and bushes grew to form a natural clearing around the three of them. Within the space of a scant few seconds, the forbidding blackness had disappeared to leave behind a clearing vibrant with life and music. Birds sang, just out of sight, and the wind felt pleasant across Jessies’ cheek.
She looked around, taking it all in, and realized that she now wore clothes, and not her Lauchlin disguise, or even her proper clothes from before the tragedy, but the clothes she had worn while learning the sword from Fergus. She felt a flush of anger, and began to form a snapping accusation, but caught herself just in time. “It’s not from them that the clothes came, is it now? No, I lost control for a moment, when I saw the clearing Fergus used for his teachings. Damn it all, I have to be stronger than this here. It’ll do no good at all to let these two see me as weak.”
Three wooden chairs of a style similar to, but not exactly like, the folding camp chairs Jessie had seen among her fathers’ roving patrols appeared in the clearing, and both Gavin and the armored figure moved to sit down. Jessie felt it would be rude to stay standing, no matter how much she’d have liked to, and sat down facing them.
Gavin looked around the clearing for a moment, as if seeing it for the first time. “Your Fergus did a fine job of teaching you, with the time he had. I’ll grant you that you’re one of the best natural fencers I’ve ever seen, but it took a great deal of wisdom to teach you a way to use your speed instead of your strength, the way your Borderlander traditions have grown.”
As Gavin looked around, the armored figure, blue flames dancing through his visor, stood and began to walk around the clearing, head turning this way and that, gazing at nothing Jessie could see. Its’ armored gauntlets raised and twitched, looking for all the world like one of the midsummers’ carnival musicians, directing his meager band of performers. As his hands jerked and wove, racks of black steel appeared at the edges of the clearing, festooned with many weapons of all shapes and sizes. Structures of wood rose out of the earth, high and tall, without walls or ceilings, made all of beams tilted against each other at crazy angles, soaring upwards into the sky. Jessie could make out ropes hanging, within, and what looked like figures of smoke and shadow haunting the upper reaches of the structure. Smaller structures of wood and steel appeared to fill most of the rest of the empty space of the clearing, moving in ominous ways, with the armored form of Katarese choreographing it all as he danced among the grasses.
Gavin grew a wide grin as he continued, “Oh, I think it safe to say that you’ll be getting some advice, young Lady Jessica, mixed in with a bit of knowledge and perhaps even a bit of aid. You see, there isn’t much me or my friend can do about the strength or training of your body, but there is a great deal that we can do to aid you in strengthening your mind and soul.”
“Master Katarese, when he came to the dark lands of the banished spirits, saw something in me that appealed to him, and he has worked with me in the Dreamtime for many centuries now according to the way time passes in the real world.”
“In that time, we have both learned a great deal about how the mind and soul work together.”
“Not to press a point too fine, milady, but true balance comes from strengthening the intellect, the spirit and the flesh in equal amounts. Now, most folk would have no idea how to achieve such unity, or even what Unity for them might mean. After all, you can strengthen the body with exercise and see the benefits almost at once, and feel the stiffness and soreness that comes from overexertion of a particular part or group. And you might be lucky enough to have trained with a master that knows how to stimulate your spirit, as well. But only a very few ever discover that the mind, the intellect, the very ability to think, conceptualize and reason can be trained, strengthened, exercised and grown.”
“Well, milady, you are fortunate in that regard. For in all the waking world, you see before you two of the most learned teachers in the art of the mind and soul that you ever could hope to have met. And we have all the time in the world in which to help you learn. Allow me to show you something.”
Gavin stood up, and clothes in the light colors of sky blue, edged with deep indigo trim swirled around him in a sudden tornado of wind. When the miniature tornado passed, he was fully dressed, but still without weapon or armor of any kind. He gestured behind Jessie, and said, “Behold. The world of your dreams.”
Jessie turned around to look, stepping to her side as she did so to keep an eye on Gavin, feeling ridiculous as she did, but not wishing at this point to look as if she was careless in seeing to her own defense. What she saw made her mouth drop open in surprise, but then she quickly recovered and focused on taking in as much of what she saw as possible before the vision vanished.
What Jessie saw was the clearing continuing on behind her, but across it, spanning a good 30 feet of open space, a great gap as if the image of the clearing were painted on parchment, and someone had ripped that parchment so that a great tearing hole appeared. The edges of the hole were rimmed in angry orange fire, and the image framed within gave the impression of being seen from a great height, and from a great distance.
The scene within was of an unending sky without visible ground or terminus, and flashes of lightning and the thunder echoes of raging storms were felt more than seen, from all directions. Floating within this raging atmosphere were distant islands, some of ruined stone, some of forged steel, some apparently of natural land, thick with trees, their roots showing hanging beneath them.
Even from this impossible distance, creatures out of nightmare could be seen walking through the jungles of some of the islands, their heads scanning the skies. Strange creatures with leathery wings flew between the islands, or over them, and strangest of all, Jessie could see in the furthest distance what seemed to be a castle, its’ massive turrets clawing at the sky from both above and below, drifting on the flashing winds.
Gavin’s strong voice did little to soothe Jessie’s sudden fear at the strangely terrifying sight. ”Welcome to your first conscious glimpse of the Dreamtime, Lady Jessica.”
“What you see is a real place, caught between the worlds of the real and the realms of the Immortal Spirit. There, a conscious mind can make what it can imagine, as real as anything forged of fire and steel. There is the place where an untrained dreamer may drift if he or she is strong enough, drift and be lost forever, never to wake up again. If they are fortunate enough to find their way back to their sleeping body, the sights and visions they have experienced there, without control or a frame of reference, or the inner balance to be at peace with their own imaginations, can sometimes leave them shattered, their sanity wrenched from them by what they think are visions of the future.”
“Sometimes, it is not the dreamer that returns to the sleeping body, and strange beings walk the night of peaceful cities and towns, inhuman entities watching from behind mortal seeming eyes.”
“That is a place that some of the most terrible and powerful beings claim as lords and masters, and where, if you are talented and strong, you can enter in whole body and travel across great distances, to appear at the side of a sleeper in your own world, many far reaches removed from where you began.”
He touched Jessie on the shoulder, guiding her to turn around, and she could see the concern on his face. “Lady Jessica, there is a small black isle within the Dreamtime, which the axe is bound to as the place it uses as a prison for the remnants of souls and presences that it takes as victims. When your friend called you back to the mortal realm, she freed you from that prison, but she could not close the door behind you completely. We are standing here as presences on the border between your soul and your mortal body, where thought and memory run wild. That tear represents a door, here, within your unconscious mind, that lies wide open to the Dreamtime.”
“Master Katarese and I have hidden the door from those others who look for such things, but the only way it will stay closed is when you have the strength to close it yourself. And the sooner you start learning, the quicker you can be about it.”
“But it’s not all what you might think of as tragedy, Lady Jessica. Oh no, not all. If you can survive long enough to learn what you must, and get strong in and of yourself, you’ll be able to walk the Dreamtime as a clear eyed traveler, and your mind will be a ferocious trap for the unwary that seek to enter it.”
The grin returned to Gavins’ face, although the worry remained in his dancing eyes. “I despise mind pirates, milady, and it will truly be my pleasure to teach you everything you can learn. And in this place, with your sleeping mind touching the Dreamtime ever so gently, a single nights’ sleep may be perceived as a week or even more. Leaving us with the time to at least begin on your studies… if you are willing.”
Gavin held one hand up, and it looked as though a hand mirror, of silver-chased metal in a most antique style, appeared in his grip.
“Look within this mirror, lady, and see how you truly appear to Master Katarese and I.”
Jessie took the mirror from Gavin’s hand, and turned it so the silver-backed glass was towards her. Feeling no small amount of nervousness, she looked within the glass.
Staring back at her, wearing the very clearly defined clothes she had worn while studying the sword with Fergus, was the shape of a person, with poorly defined outline and features. As she watched, the features of the eyes, nose and mouth became better defined and more life-like, but still resembled nothing so much as a very young child’s poorly realized drawing of a person, with features too regular and at the wrong angles and proportions to each other, the skin the wrong shade and too smooth to look real, hair looking more like a cloud of spun cotton than something that would be seen under a hat or helm.
In short, she saw a monster, like a crudely forged, re-animated puppet from a child’s play, grown to life size.
She continued to look, unable to tear her eyes from the mirror, and an involuntary gasp left her lips. As it did, she saw the crude slash of a mouth on the figure in the mirror mimic her movement.
Gavin gently took the mirror from her hand. “Have no fear, lady. What you see is not you. It is only how you have imagined yourself, and that is what others here would see. Your outward appearance is wholly created from your own imagination, and your sense of identity and self.”
“Here, what image you project is the one that you see in your mind, and feel in your heart to be true, but it is affected by how precisely you know and can understand. When you summoned a sword to your hand for your defense, it was most precisely imagined, and if you had been less off-balance, you might have noticed that it was actually more than just a normal sword, it was what you were determined to bring to your hand, the most perfectly realized sword you could then summon from memory. You were quite focused, and it was a bit more solid and deadly than a real sword might have been, for your imagination and training remembered the essence of balance, and edge, and the strength and flexibility of steel, but gave no thought to nicks, or burrs, or imperfect forging. It appeared more of reality than the hand that gripped it.”
“In my time, people would say of a thing, that they knew it as well as the back of their hand. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the phrase, but tell me, how well do you truly know what the back of your hand looks like? How well can you clearly call to mind the very features of your own face? Your hair color? The shape and color of your eyes?”
“Here, you project your own inner image of yourself. And normally, you would not even have a mortal appearance. You would be a thing of emotion and energy and powerful intentions, for you would not think of walking from place to place, but simply of your desire to move to that place, and there you would travel. It is when you are tied to the mortal body, that you move through the motions of the physical world. You train yourself to act without intentionally directing every muscle or nerve to react as you wish. If you had to command your lungs to breath, you would swiftly lose the rhythym and suffocate.”
“Part of what we have done is help you balance yourself. We integrated the other fragments of soul within you, and part of that work has left you able to function here, among as, as a discrete entity without fear of being absorbed by us. But there is only so much anyone can do to help guide you, without you taking the steps yourself. To become strong in and of yourself, you must succeed in the most difficult challenge there is, that I know of.”
“You are going to have to become so confident and assured in your own sense of self, that who you see in that mirror is who you truly are. Only then will you be able to know, for an absolute certainty, the difference between what within you is of you, and what is from the outside world and foreign to you.”
“And it will be hard, because it is not something you can force. You cannot, by force of will, take control of yourself. Force, control, these are actions that come from within, to take something that is, and try to make it be something it is not. To force, to take control, means exerting energy and effort to make something mold itself to your will… but inevitably, there will be a time when you are distracted, lose your concentration, become tired or are unable to direct that will… and what you have controlled will be free to return to normal.”
“No, you must grow and learn yourself, shape yourself into the person you truly wish to be, so that there is no control, no force, no exertion of energy. You must be what you show to the world, at all times, without effort.”
“And we will help you.”
Gavin stepped back from Jessie, and waved his arm as if to encompass all of the gymnasia and equipment that now littered the field.
“It may be the hardest training that you will ever know, but I assure you, young lady… we will help you.”
“And may Tyr have mercy on anything fool enough to invade your mind after that.”