Monday, July 11th, 2011

The City of Light and Fire, III

-4-

I followed my companion through twisting tunnels. There was an even warmth in them, and the walls were lined with balls of fire, each separated by the same distance. At no point did I see a window.

We met few others on the way. I saw the occasional glimpse of small creatures, a head shorter than me. I could not say much about them, for they seemed fearful and quickly ducked out of sight. My companion did not speak, nor did he react to the creatures in any way. I wondered whether we were nobles of some kind, or whether the creatures were just generally jumpy. Slowly, more thoughts came into mind.

Something seemed to be missing in my thoughts. I saw something duck away from the corridor, and the notion of us maybe being nobles came to mind. But although I knew what nobles were, I could not recall any examples. It occurred to me to ponder what else I might know. But when I tried to ask myself this, there was only a silence in my mind. I could only think of the things that had already occurred to me.

The cut left by the knife had already closed, but it was still aching. My fingers were drawn to the scar, gently caressing it. I glanced at my companion, but he did not seem to notice.

This was the first scar in my life. I studied that thought, curious to know if it would lead me anywhere else. Then something seemed to move within me. It was as if the idea of a first thing floated in my skull, calling its kin to it. From somewhere in my chest, other ideas leapt up one by one, to join the one waiting in the skull. The natural follower of a first thing was the idea of a second thing, joined by the idea of a third thing, and then the fourth, and then the fifth, and so on, each of them coming faster and faster until I could no longer name one before the next was already there.

I looked down at my hands, and now I saw that I had two of them, each with five fingers. I remembered the idea of numbers, and of counting. And while I could not come up with memories of having counted other things before, I could count the things that I saw now. I found the distance between fireballs in the wall to be about six steps, and I counted about seventy fireballs before we arrived at a door. My companion glanced at me and then spoke, and I counted what might have been three words.

Unlike what I expected, this time none of the cavities in me could catch my companion's sounds. There was something different in them now, a strange shape. The sounds bounced around in me, but failed to find a hole in which they would fit. With nothing to keep them alive, they quickly disappeared. By the time I realized this, the door had opened. I was told to step inside, and again I observed as my body obeyed the command.

It was a large chamber. I paused to take it in. The floor was curved, slanting down until it suddenly grew flat and cold. I could hear dripping sounds from all around me, tiny things falling down from dozens of spots in the ceiling. They made a sound each time they hit the flatness, causing a ripple of temperature that quickly faded. I could see that some of the falling drops were cold, some of them warm. The flatness covered most of the room.

”This is a cavern of memory”, my companion said. He had gone back to using the other sounds, the ones I had cavities for. ”One of many. In each one, water from the city is allowed to mingle with the blood of the prophets, both mixing in a lake to make sightwater. I'll show you the purpose that you exist for. Follow me, and be careful not to fall in.”

With me in tow, he walked to the edge of the lake and kneeled. He raised his right hand and pushed it into the sightwater, submerging everything up to his wrist. He was quiet for a while before he spoke.

”Put your hand in. You're going to feel faint when you do, so make sure you're stable first.”

I sat down, then touched the sightwater myself. When I did, my sight grew hazy. The warmths of various objects in my vision seemed to bleed into each other, becoming hard to make out. I gasped. Had I still been standing, I would have stumbled.

”I'm showing you a piece of my memory. For a moment, you'll become a light-seer, just as I.”

Almost as soon as he had stopped talking, I was him. I was standing in a vast hall, filled with things of all kinds. There were slabs of heatstone, breathing statues of lifeclay, deathblade swords that could cut anything in two in an instant. There were weapons, there were basic necessities, there were luxuries. A large bowl with exotic, intelligent fish; a gem that would stop you from aging, for as long as you carried it with you; drops of a liquid that could only be made at great expense, with no other purpose than to show off your wealth. I saw everything in light-colors. Even in the memory, most of things were ones that I did not recognize.

In the middle of it all, looking around them, were many humans. I hid behind a statue and watched as men and women with feathery wings walked among the humans. They were the harpies, and I could not help but to have my eye drawn to them, their faces and their bodies. They stood a head taller than the humans, and their voices were no less beautiful than their looks. Clear and soft, deep and captivating, each of them spoke in a different manner, but the meaning of their words was always the same. They spoke of the marvels of the things on sale, the exquisite care that had gone into making them, the way they could change the buyer's life. Many humans were led off from the others, one by one or in small groups, to hear more about some specific wonder. The humans made hesitating offers, and the harpies laughed in delight, quick to place a counter-offer.

”Look well at those harpies.” Through the memory, I heard my companion's voice, the voice which felt like it ought to belong to me. ”All the goods we make, they sell. The humans will make offers, now. But before any deals are closed, the harpies will take them to eat, to be bathed, to sate their lower desires. At least for a while, a single harpy can make a hundred beings happy.”

”Look, at them.” There was a sudden feeling of my back being shoved forwards. Still immersed in the memory, it took me a second to realize my companion had pushed me into the water.

The startle and the reality of where I was pushed rudely into the memory. A momentary sensation of panic, confusion over two senses of a body mixing together. A splash, my real body falling into the sightwater, coldness assaulting me on all sides.

”The harpies!”

The words sent my mind back inside the memory, the transition as sharp and visceral as my sudden submersion. And suddenly my companion's need became my own; a desire to imprison some of the harpies, bring them to where goods were made. I did not know why this was so important, but it could not be questioned. The makers needed the harpies; the harpies would not come voluntarily. So they would have to be brought by force.

”Good.”

I could sense my companion grabbing me, dragging me out of the water. I wanted the same thing he did, now.

But the shock had dislodged something in me. A roar of urgency, which for the briefest moment awakened a distant memory of hurricanes. There was something I still had to see, something I might never again see otherwise. Something my companion did not know about.

Again I saw a harpy, one of the many in the memory. But this one was special. It had locked gazes with someone who looked like a human woman, but was something else. As I turned my attention to the human, her skin and flesh melted away, revealing the shape of a lifestone tower below. She was something the towers had created, something that was disguised as a human. My companion had never seen her for what she was, but I had reacted to the signs.

I did not see the tower-woman's eyes, but I knew she was watching me, saying something. The sounds hit me, one after another, physical hits like throwing knives. I did not have the right cavities for them, but they burrowed themselves deeply in my skull, waiting for the time when I would.

Find the key to our words. You are a servant of the tower. That much I understood. The obsession to do so imprinted itself in me, like the obsession to find the harpies had done.

Then there a was a forceful pull, and my body was out of the sightwater. I saw in patterns of cold and hot again. I cried, curling up like a ball. My companion was breathing heavily, but he seemed satisfied. I did not think he realized something unexpected had happened.

That was my final thought before the blackness came.
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Thursday, July 7th, 2011

The City of Light and Fire, II

Part one here.

-2-

The basin had been a mold, shaping me to look roughly like a human. But I was still far from perfect.

The figures that carried me put me down on a long stone bench, and then left. There were other shapes on both sides of me, other early-stage embryos. I did not yet understand anything.

Time passed, and the lava I was made of grew more solid. My innermost parts were still hot and liquid, but I had a firm outer crust. When I had become hard enough to be worked on, the mason had me brought to him. He studied me for a long time, examining me from every direction and seeking out any imperfections. Whenever he found one, he reached for his hammer. Gradually, he shaped me into a man.

After the mason was done with me, I was taken to the clay maker. The beings carrying me were cautious, for the mason had opened holes from which my innards might spill. I don't know whether they spilled any, but when I reached the clay maker, I was still viable.

He studied my shape, and then molded a layer of lifeclay around me. It was much softer than lava was, and more sensitive to heat. The clay maker filled the pair of holes the mason had made, fashioning there eyes. Below them he made a mouth, and on their sides a pair of ears. The clay was as good in shaping heat as the walls of the towers were, if not better. It collected warmth and funnelled it deep into my core. My eyes had been made with particular care, and it now that I slowly began to see.

From the clay maker, I was carried to the edge of a great hall. They placed me next to the other infants, on a belt of heatstone close to the wall. The stone burned hot, keeping us sated. I rested there, together with the others. We watched and listened to the things happening in the hall, enjoyed the ever-shifting flows of warmth inside the stone. For a long time, we remained still.

-3-

My first actual memory is of being curled up on a heatstone. By this time, I had been moved from the great hall to a small chamber. The walls of the chamber were dark, their heat variations too subtle for me to pick up on. Later I would learn that when light-seers said something was dark, they meant a lack of light, not an even temperature. Now I only knew that it was hard for me to see. I heard the sound of dripping water, but did not know what it was. There was nobody in the chamber besides me.

I knew nothing of time, knowing only the present. Eventually I heard a door open. I raised my head, and saw a short, warm figure surrounded by the cool air of the room. From the irregularities of its heat, I would later gather that it had wrapped itself in clothing, a cloak perhaps. It walked to me and inclined its head to the side. Then it touched my leg with its forefinger. As it felt its finger push through the clay, it drew a sharp breath.

It said something in a quiet whisper, but I did not know what. This was the first time that someone spoke to me.

The sounds of its whisper found their way to my ears, and then into my core. They echoed inside me, bouncing back and forth. At times they grew louder, at times quieter. The figure stood before me and waited.

This was the first time that I noticed the cavities that had formed inside me, in my more solid parts. Some of the sounds were caught in one cavity or the other, reverberating inside me. Other sounds managed to escape, either queting down entirely, or getting caught somewhere else. In the end, almost twenty cavities had been filled, one continuous whisper broken down to many different sounds. Now I finally heard what the creature had told me.

"There is a shadow within you, child", it had whispered. "Be careful not to reveal it so easily, or it will be used against you."

The words, clear at first, began to slowly fade. They moved something within me, touched old memories that the tower had once possessed. I didn't know what those memories were, nor what the words meant, but I felt myself nod.

"I wonder whether you understood anything of what I said? No, don't answer that." There was a dry laugh. "Get up, and follow me."

This time, the speech was broken down much faster. My body obeyed the command as soon as I understood it, before I could think about what was happening. I felt my hands reach for the heatstone for support and my feet stumble for balance. My hands pushed me up. I stood on the ground, swaying a little, my balance uncertain. I no longer felt the comfort of the heatstone, and my body shivered in the cold. The one who had spoken turned and walked out, and my legs carried my body after him.

Then he struck, too fast for me to react. Suddenly I had been pushed against the wall, with a cold blade on my throat.

"You could be killed at any time." I felt my companion's gaze, saw the two warm spheres glowing in the middle of his face, close to my own. I let out a small cry of pain as he cut a scar in my throat, the blade gliding effortlessly through the clay. Then he pulled out the knife and raised it in front of my eyes. A small drop of lava was glowing on the edge of the blade.

"Remember that. You have to always stay alert, ready to defend yourself. If not..." He waved the knife. "Someone will put his mark on you."

I didn't know how to reply. Apparently he didn't expect me to. Instead, he returned the knife to his belt and took my hand. The touch was gentle.

"Come."

I obeyed.
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Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

City of Light and Fire, I

The sledgehammers shook the tower of lifestone. Each hit brought with it a wave of pain. The surrounding towers blazed with an angry light, furious at what was being done to their companion. But other than lighting up the darkness, there was nothing they could do.

Almost an hour passed. Eventually the tower could no longer take it. It allowed small cracks to open, near the top. From those cracks, the molten lava inside began to seep out, roll down towards the ground.

The tower wept.

Below, there were four human-like figures. Three of them had been working the sledgehammers, the fourth one had been watching. The three wore simple brown clothes; the fourth one wore nothing. He had earned a leader's body, along with the right to display it for all to see.

When the leader saw the tears, he made a small gesture with his finger. Even though the others had their backs to him, they instantly dropped their hammers. They rushed to grab a basin, fashioned of black jewel. They brought it to where the tears were falling, gathering them together. When the basin was in place, they picked up their hammers and resumed their work.

Gradually, the tears of lava began to fill the basin. They flowed more freely now: each time the hammers struck, tears of anguish poured out. The figures showed no compassion.

Some of the surface lava in the other towers grew incandescent with rage, bright enough to shine through the towers' lifestone shell. All around the four figures, angry shadows many times their size flickered and danced.

Finally the basin grew full. The leader watched the other three each take hold of it. Then he turned towards the south, extending his large bat-like wings. He too grabbed the basin, and the four of them rose to the air. They flew with strong, leisurely wing beats, carrying the basin between them.

As they left, the tower wept even more. It mourned for the part of itself that it had lost to the creatures, a part which it would never again see. The sledgehammers, the tools of the cruel trade, were left behind. They lay on the ground, lava pooling up around them.

After an extended flight, the figures arrived at the black monolith. It stood at the center of the city, many times taller than even the highest towers. The air around it was buzzing with winged creatures, all carrying out tasks of their own.

The entrances to the monolith were irregularly shaped holes. They looked like an attacker had forcibly broken the monolith's surface, not like something purposefully constructed. The four figures flew to one of them, letting the basin down on the floor.

Sixty liters of lava did not cool quickly, particularly not in a basin crafted to keep it warm. Yet the flight had been long enough for the lava to grow solid again. The figures lifted from the basin what was now a single object. They began carrying it inside, suddenly nervous in their movements.

And as I continued to cool, the earliest beginnings of thought began to stir inside me.




A translation/rewrite of an earlier Finnish piece of mine. Feedback is most welcome...
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