April 9, 2004

The Plane of Finding

On the third night, Elspeth returned to the cell door in silence. As before, there had been no sound of approach, and only the noise of reluctant hinges and flickering candlelight through the doorway heralded her arrival.

It had been cold, very cold, and each day more chill than the last. Hélène had found it easy to lose her sense of self, connected to nothing except the rock which lay beneath her skin. It had cradled her, and had reached ancient, icy tendrils into her being and claimed her in its embrace. She was the mountain, and the cliff; and though she was not the forest, she was the bedrock underneath it, and also beneath the ocean, which stretched out into eternity. But she was also something else, and so she said good-bye to all those things, and once again became herself.

“It is time,” said Elspeth, and Hélène tried to rise. Her body, stiff from idleness and cold, did so only grudgingly. Suddenly aware again of her nakedness, she hesitated, unsure; but, from seemingly nowhere, Elspeth produced a white robe. Hélène gladly accepted the garment, wrapping it about herself. Silently and ghost-like, the priestess turned and headed back out into the hall, and Hélène followed.

Outside her cell, the air was damp. Though they stood in a corridor, light shone brightly through arched openings, high above. There was a draft, which brought with it aromas of sea and wood; wet, heavy smells that threatened to blot out the fragile orange flame before them. The wind itself took no heed of Hélène’s new clothing, which protected little more than her modesty. Elspeth glided ahead, raven hair blown about, her footfall seemingly insubstantial as moonlight. Hélène’s own feet, numb from cold, followed clumsily behind.

Finally, they arrived at a large set of wooden doors. Hugely immense, they towered at least twenty feet from the ground, unmarked except for a single, unblinking eye carved across their face. Perhaps it was a trick of the moonlight, but Hélène suddenly thought it could see her there, small and fragile.

She began, for the first time, to doubt her chosen path — something she’d not done once during her long journey, or her days of isolation in the tower. Not once had she felt this weakness; so powerful had been her resolve. But here beyond these doors began the true journey, one nameless and unmapped, and she knew now that she feared it. As if reading her mind, Elspeth turned to face her, eyes inscrutable and dark. They were not the eyes of woman or of beast, but something older and unknowable; Hélène wondered whether they would be hers as well, someday. Biting her lip, she nodded, and Elspeth lightly pushed the doors, which opened as if blown by unseen bellows. As she passed, Hélène couldn’t help but test one, and found it as substantial as it looked.

The room they entered was of a completely different character than those through which they had just passed. Instead of rough stone, it was richly adorned in polished black marble. Hélène couldn’t make out the far walls, as the light was too dim and dimensions too spacious. Braziers sat towards the space’s four corners, and did little to provide illumination and even less warmth. However, the oil was fragrant, and spoke of hearth and cooking-fire, and mountain meadows in summer. Thus the room, though cold as her cell had been, did not bother her for lack of heat. Nor was she assailed by wind, for once the doors swung shut behind them, the air was as still as in a tomb.

Above the floor’s center was a high dome, beneath which sat a stone pedestal. Cut from marble as white as the rest of the room was black, it reflected orange firelight like a beacon. On top of it sat what appeared to be a crystal decanter, filled with clear liquid. Elspeth circled the stone, motioning for Hélène to approach.

“Are you aware of the nature of these symbols?” she asked, brushing her fingertips against the marble’s edge.

Hélène could see designs, inlaid in gold around the rim of the circular pedestal. “They’re the star-patterns of the gods,” she replied.

The priestess nodded. “Twenty-eight in a circle, from Tinagar at the world’s beginning to Varin at its end. This is what we call a plane of finding, and it is here that you will answer your calling, to the service of whatever god will have you.”

There was no chance to question. Hélène had barely enough time to start considering the import of the priestess’s words before she could feel flesh grasp her wrist, and see the flash of steel in the torchlight.

Hélène watched as the tip of the blade was run across her palm, slicing it quite easily. Almost immediately, red droplets began to well up; taking her hand, Elspeth held it over the decanter’s mouth. One, two, three drops fell and mixed with the liquid within, deepening its color to crimson almost immediately. The grip relaxed, and she pulled away, only to find that her wound had closed without a trace.

Elspeth stopped the decanter, and set it, inverted, on the stone face. The stopper was cone-tipped, and yet — incredibly — stood on end, perfectly balanced. The priestess started to chant in a language Hélène had never heard before, a musical tongue which seemed to transcend sound and coalesce into light, centering on the crystalline vessel containing her blood. Slowly at first, but gradually increasing in speed, the decanter began to spin, and as it did, started to weave circular paths across the pedestal. Gradually, the light diminished, and the bottle began to sway. Finally, it all fell in a crash of glass and sound and color, spilling its contents across the marble’s edge.

Hélène, transfixed by what she had just witnessed, did not even notice where her blood stained the inlaid design. Within seconds, it had vanished without a trace. Nor did she see the brief hint of relief that crossed Elspeth’s face upon seeing it. In a moment, that too was gone, and the priestess’s features were inscrutable once more.

“And so it is done. Welcome.”

Posted by eden on 09 Apr 2004 | Comments (0)