Room of the Host
"In this piece, two hundred creatures cast in silicone and suspended in translucent oil are trapped within illuminated glass jars suspended from the ceiling of a darkened room. Although many are purposely ugly, the complete environment is eerily beautiful and haunting. Each creature whirs around in its liquid light-filled medium emitting chirps and snippets of song. When any individual jar is approached, the creature inside clams up and stops moving, seemingly in fright, and becomes a dead, sterile 'specimen.'"
--description of "Room of the Host," an installation by Lim Young-sun, shown in the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
Reflect, she said, on your childhood.
(there is a woman standing beside her who has no face)
Fire has eaten the world.
The girl who crouches in the forest breathing smoke is four short summers old. When she was born a raven flew across the moon, in the same heartbeat that her first cry of blued steel and broken glass jangled the stars, and the woodwitch spoke of ill fortune from her ruling vantage over the birth. For months her mother hung sprigs of rowan over the crib, and murmurred prayers at the falling of night. Few and foolish are those who heed not Hyne's daughters in these dim days; the sky has cracked with angry wars of light and darkness for twoscore years now, and those who remember the sun are beginning to die in favor of their feral, half-blind children. In the reborn forests of Centra it is known that the world is in turmoil, and omens have become a science.
Now the girl's mother is dead, and she is hiding amid the tree-trunks, where the fire is spreading. Creatures leave their homes around her, flying for safety, foor-footed cacophony mingling with the cracking of flame. Her breath sobs in her lungs, but she is still as cold stone, as the world wavers in heat around her eyes. Her skin blisters, and she is silent, not daring the whimper that wants to escape. They're coming. They came in the dark of the morning as she freed the fireflies from her glow-jar, beside the lake, watching their tiny sparks spiral up into the sky; they struck down her father and her mother with their blue flame and set the house alight, and then came for her. What their crime is she does not know. Better not to ask, or wonder.
Footsteps to her left, a crackle of twigs, and she is running; the Storm-King's soldier yelps surprise and attempts to give chase, but it is too late. She's known the woods all her life. She leaps through a blazing bottle-neck of vine and bracken, hits the ground as the gauntlet narrows, rolls and runs again, cuts through the black roiling smoke like a brown spider through dirty cotton. They're pounding behind her, clanking metal, perhaps readying their alien weapons for another shot. The smell of gasoline and ozone is everywhere, and the woods are a dazzling sunset palace of ember colors, trees twisted in mortal agony. She runs, lungs burning, smoke pricking her eyes, weeping, her small feet hammering the ground; she runs, that she not know the answers to her questions. She runs, that the woods swallow her alive.
She runs straight into a placeless pocket of cool darkness.
The woodwitch stands over her, her stony old-young face full of thundery nothing. The girl stumbles and falls, her round knees puffing in the blank plane where dirt should be.
It is both a question and a summons, a spell and a comfort, a simple irrecusable word of magic. The girl, all unknowing, nods shyly, looks up with wide golden eyes in their setting of ivory and silver. She has, her mother said, riches in her face.
"Are you hurt, child?" the witch asks. Her voice is a dark pocket in the lake, where cold water rises from the deep, beyond the reach of day. Artemisia stands up, shakes her round-eyed head. The woman nods, stirring bone-dust and phosphorus from her dark braid. She bends and takes the girl's face in her hand. Her fingers are no more than bones; the investigation lasts for an eternity of seconds.
Then, "I will deal with this," the woodwitch says, and steps out of the darkness. The child will never know what happened.
Then there is a cool touch between her eyes, and wet sand oblivion fills her, makes her body heavy. She sleeps.
A fact: Time moves in one direction, and one direction only.
The woodwitch's hut smells of basil and thyme, and the formaldehyde clench of preserved death. Curious and only a little bit frightened, Artemisia wanders and peers between the joined and strangely endless rooms, familiar giving way to unfamiliar, standing on tiptoe to examine shelves of oddities. She woke perhaps an hour ago, on a straw pallet in a blank room that she has not been able to find again since; the cottage seems to shift and shuffle around her as she walks, though she knows such things to be impossible. Or unusual, anyway. Carefully, heeding with a pang the imagined words of her absent mother, she lifts a blown-glass globe down from its groove in a tiny table, cradling it in both chubby child's hands. In its center is an enormous butterfly, its body sleek and black, its wings struck in patterns with rich indigo blue and brilliant imperial purple and dazzling scarlet. Its antennae twitch as it looks at her and flutters its wings, and the faerie-dust they shed swirls around it, a sandstorm in miniature; thunder and wind grow louder outside in time to its movements. She sets the globe gently back in its place, and the storm eases back to its usual low drone.
In the next room there are books, stacks of them, both in shelves and simply piled on top of each other on the dingy earthen floor, lining plaster walls cracked in arcane patterns that almost look like the runes in which the books are printed. The letters, when she looks at a page, are unfamiliar to Artemisia, and shift and roil uncomfortably behind her eyes, making her young mind itch and strange shapes cavort across the back of her subconscious. The room beyond that one is hewn entirely of stone, windowless, bare from floor to ceiling but for a single object that stands in one corner: a small pyramid, perhaps two inches high, carved from a glassy rock of deep crimson. Artemisia does not touch it, or even stray too close. Darkness reigns in the next room, a cavern of wood with tree-like pillars to bear its ceiling; but it is hung with hundreds of jars that glow with blue and gold and green and crimson, strange globular creatures spinning in their depths like small organic planets, singing in a thousand alien voices. When she approaches one to look closer, it stills and goes silent immediately, staring at her with a baleful, ectoplasmic eye. She retreats at last, and it begins to sing again as she backs toward the door.
As she reaches it, the witch says softly behind her, "Be careful of that room. It holds great power."
Artemisia turns, wide-eyed, and whispers a fumbled apology, which the woodwitch brushes aside uncaring. At home, she is now resplendent in scarlet robes that accent the ceremonial tattooes in deep vermilion that swirl and dance over her pale skin, her dark hair loose and strewn with beads and small sleepy creatures of magic, her feet bare and jewelled. A fat, placid silver lizard perches on her shoulder, a red frill resting peacefully against its neck, blinking at the ceiling and tasting the air from time to time. The witch looks at Artemisia steadily for another too-long moment, and then takes her by her small hand, leading her to a small table in the corner of the room that this was not before, where they both sit.
"You may stay here as long as you wish," the witch says calmly, folding her long hands around the lizard and resting it in her lap. Its throat puffs gently, the frill ruffling up in a flash of crimson. "I will protect you, should the soldiers come again."
The girl searches for her missing voice, and finds it at last. "What about Mama?" she asks, plaintively. "And Father? Where..."
The witch inclines her head, just slightly. A tiny birdlike thing shifts restlessly in the folds of her hair. "Your parents have passed," she says quietly. "Naught could I do."
Artemisia nods, and bites her lip; she does not cry, not right now, not where the witch can see. No child stays young for long, not in the days of the storm. "I want to stay here," she whispers.
Thin fingers brush her cheek, and she looks up. The woodwitch's eyes, she sees, change colors every second, and she finds herself captive, like the things trapped in her hair. Cool gossamer fills the world, soothing away what remains of the flames.
"Then I will teach you," the witch says, and it is settled.
They live together, in the tiny hut with more rooms than has the most elaborate mansion (for a hut can be tiny only on the outside, and indeed when it comes to witches, most are), for eleven grey years before the woodwitch takes ill with a fever, turning frail and ridden to her bed. Such things are far from uncommon in the world now, with its plague of darkness, and Artemisia -- now fifteen and almost a woman grown, steeped through her childhood in the secrets of magic -- nurses the old woman as best she can with hot rags and poultices. The silver lizard, whose name she now knows to be Thessaly, droopy-eyed, her frill faded and scales tarnished with age, lies always on the side of the witch's pillow, breathing in great bellows-blasts of her round sides. Her parched tongue flickers occasionally at her mistress's ear.
Artemisia bends over her, to change the rag on the old woman's forehead, and the woodwitch looks up at her with too-bright chameleon eyes. She brushes the girl's narrow wrist with trembling fingers that have somehow grown thinner, and clammily spongy, like wet clay in a rubber skin; she tries to speak.
"Lie still," Artemisia instructs her, tenderly, pressing her burning forehead with gentle cool hands. The witch's head tosses, restlessly, and hair that has mostly turned the shade of Thessaly's hide makes a sweat-damp fan on the rough country pillow.
"I cannot," she whispers, in a cracked-branch shudder of voice; they are her first lucid words in a week or more. "I must give you something, first. I only wish I could keep you from it."
Artemisia frowns, wiping water from her hands onto her plain skirt. "Give me? What?"
"Take my hand," the witch hisses, and perhaps in the young girl's golden eyes there is a flicker of understanding; but she places her hand in the witch's clutch of skin and bone, for she has lived since she was a child in this woman's house and company, and would gladly die for her should the woodwitch say the word.
"Close your eyes," the old woman says instead, and she does.
(dark and suddenly a rush of)
(light. tunnel vision narrow point blank on white curvature spirals conch snail trail of destruction narcotic nuclear condensation completing the hypotenuse squared plus the speed of)
(light. flying falling even in death here there be wrenching distraction destruction nerveless nervous horrific acidic where what nothing hot flood of information crawling mindflesh words of ovaries and mammaries and memories no memory no more not a word world whirled eyes ice skimmed skinned bleeding dying seeing no more but darkness and in this darkness let there be
(words. proteus. igneous. magmeus. aqueous. vitreous bilious fithos morpheus mutatis glissandis. this and this and this. bliss. spells, spelling, dispelling... what? fear. information, too much, too many. words.)
(there is a woman standing beside her who has no face)
(heady, steady, completion of a repository commencement of a repertoire time confusion of a representation of an unknown rhetorical anomaly involving three uses of a snake's eyeball in conjuring of extraplanar)
(speaking out of a light that is darkness in a)
(voice outside trying to get in, no time, no need, whirled, world, cocoon of colors sounds sights memories time lusec memory imprinting inscribing improving refitting never filling composing let me symphony of)
(bring me back)
(magic. the power has a name and never forget whose is it mother i am my breath compressed i am alive no forget about me stolen words stolen mind no please stop help me bring me back no please out of control can't take it have to stop have to let go please help me bring me back it's killing she's killing me have to get)
Her eyes are already open when she returns to herself, though she cannot remember opening them, and her vision takes some time to restore itself as one unified whole. The woodwitch is first to solidify in her vision; the old woman lolls over the bed, looking glazed -- and, Artemisia begins to see, transparent, the clammy sheets visible through her flesh.
"Forgive me," she sighs, in only the wind's abandoned voice. There is a small, sad sound like a bottle uncorked, and a dim clap of light and ethereal smoke. The girl shields her odd-feeling eyes with her hand, and when she takes it away, all that lies in the bed is the corpse of Thessaly, her small bright eyes fixed and her rusty sides lying flat and still. She digs a hole the same night in the earth of the overgrown dooryard, deep enough that the rains will not wash its contents back to the surface, lays the lizard's body in it, and covers the replaced earth with clinging ivy and a stone.
Then she goes inside, and works her first spell. It is very difficult, but the second is as easy as breath.
Your sensation, she said. Your words. Your emotions.
A hypothesis: The higher the speed at which matter travels, the slower time progresses within its frame of reference; therefore, if one could move faster than the speed of light, time would stand still and the traveller would be able to arrive at any destination before the arrival of light, enabling travel to the future or the past.
(i will never let you forget bring me back i am alive here)
The girl named Artemisia is no longer a girl, and her summers now number nineteen. Today the forest burns only with the scarlet and gold of sunset; her bare feet make small slippered noises on the mossy forest floor, carrying her back to the cottage that is not a cottage at the heart of the woods. Her silver hair taps against her back in one hundred forty-four precise tiny plaits (she counted carefully as she fixed them there), her body is wrapped in simple homespun cloth of grey and dark umber, and the tattooes in turquoise and violet that the witch helped her begin, as soon as her body had done with most of its growing at the age of twelve, now span from her brow to her toes, cold firey tongues that speak the days of her new life and her old soul in the ancient languages. The woodwitch is not dead, though the scorched outline of her body's final apocalypse still stains the bed where it lay, in the room that Artemisia has faithfully preserved since that dark afternoon; now Artemisia is the woodwitch, and it is her word that is sought on such matters as portents and visions and doom.
She enters the clever cottage of rooms wrapped around rooms, and walks the proper steps for one in particular, her thoughts troubled and dark as the turbulent sky. There were whispers of the moaning dead in the forest leaves today, and at eleven o'clock this morning thirteen sickly birds flew across the pregnant clouds in the shape of an angry eye. Something is coming, something of dark nature and ill intent, and she would know what in time to prepare for its arrival, despite the foreboding that suffocates her heart.
She steps into the dark mouth of the room she has chosen, walking among the singing jars. In the far corner one hangs alone, somehow pathetic in a bath of ruby light as it raises its solitary chorus, and more so when it falls still at her approach, watching in alert, resentful silence. Artemisia uncorks the jar and lifts its pulsing body in both hands, catching the stinger it aims at her wrist in defiance and breaking it harmlessly off with her teeth. Raising the writhing thing to a ceiling that is lost to darkness, she murmurs a sibilant prayer, older than the world, that makes reality shimmer briefly; and with a clench of her nails and a bend of her wrists, she breaks the creature's gelatinous body into two unequal halves. It thrashes in death agony as it splits, with one hammering shriek of despair that makes the whole room fall silent, and then its tentacles lapse and the phosphorescent stuff of its life gushes free. Artemisia dashes the greater half swiftly to the floor in front of her, careful not to let a single drop spill before it has struck the ground, and raises the smaller part to her mouth, bites off a chunk, chews and swallows it, and eats the rest as though it were a peach with no stone. It tastes of salt water, menthol, and citrus, and the rubbery nothing of its skin. Then she bends over the luminous stain on the floor, feeling the answering glow in her own belly, and begins to read.
Ten soldiers of the Storm-King come to the witch's house that night, nervous and shifting their weapons of blue fire in anticipation of arcane battle, and a gauntleted hand bangs the door with an ominous toll. It opens after one knock, almost before it, and a small, thin young woman emerges in the doorway, looking cross.
"Daughter of Hyne," the soldier says, in what he hopes is a severe and impressive tone, "his Majesty the Storm-King demands your surrender to his Inquisitors. If you resist -- "
But there he stops, for he has just realized that the girl is holding out her hands, impatiently, for the manacles.
"I expected you an hour ago," she says.
The room of interrogation is dirty and small and unfortunate; it reeks of ash, sorrow, and human fluids. She is reminded strangely of her first wanderings through the witch's house when she was small, only here she is not exploring but shackled to the wood planks of the wall, and the only wonders to be seen are, by and large, the faces of frightened boys. The soldiers are really no more than gawky tangles of puberty wrapped up in uniforms, shifting nervously around her like white rooks, pale-freckled and with newly-shorn heads under their ill-matched caps; she can find no fear of them, not even a leftover remnant of the flames of her childhood. She was more than these ragged, dull-eyed scarecrows even when she first came to the woodwitch, and now she can pick out and follow the threads of their lives from start to finish in the space of an indrawn breath, and dismiss them with the ease of exhalation. The one who is attempting to force her to give her name and age, without success (not that they would know any of the proper incantations to make this information bear fruit; still, it is most prudent to be silent), has a goat's-head birthmark beneath his chin, and it is little wonder that, as she can also see, he is soon to die of a curse on his house. She could set it back to its caster and grant him a full long life in a heartbeat, were he not driving his gauntleted fist into her ribs for every silence.
Only two things alarm her, truly, and they are not the blows that drive bile up to her throat nor the painful weight of her crucified arms. One is the Inquisitor, still absent, who will actually be conducting this desperate ceremony. He (or perhaps she) is frightening simply as a mystery; none come knowingly into contact with an Inquisitor of the Storm-King outside of rooms and circumstances such as these. The other is the SeeD. She stands against the far wall, clad in her uniform of crisp off-white linen and impeccable down to the razor-straight white band around her forehead, with one gray boot propped on the wood, arms folded across her chest. Pale brown hair falls curling to her shoulders, and her eyes are blued and cold as gunmetal where they bore into Artemisia's skin, watching her like a jailor, like a juror, like a hangman. She has not spoken since the young woodwitch arrived, and she does not now, but merely shifts her position and continues to observe. The woman is frightening for no reason that Artemisia can begin to define, but her presence is by far of the most concern nonetheless. Though she is silent, her gaze has weight.
The door opens, and the soldiers step away to fall into an uneven line, guilty schoolboys caught at perhaps illicit play. The Inquisitor enters.
He is utterly normal; that is his horror. She might have guessed had she been in a condition to think with any care. He is tall and lean and seems put together almost not quite right, but in a way that one would be hard-put to describe if pressed. He wears anonymous, everyday, civilian clothing of a tastefully high-quality urban cut, in black and gray, his skin waxy-pale as anyone's above his collar and on his too-long hands. His hair is brown, combed neatly back from his forehead, his eyes are brown, mild and benign; the only thing that could be faulted about him is the smile he wears unfalteringly -- a little too perfect, and reptilian somehow, like a crocodile's fanged grin. But even that slip must be intentional. All of this is all too intentional.
The Inquisitor closes the door behind him, shutting out the dingy yellow light from the hallway, and turns to address the SeeD; he is the first to pay her any attention, apart from the soldiers' scattered uneasy glances and few cautious sneers, all of which she has accepted with measured disregard. "Thank you for your time, Lady," he says quietly but not in undertone, smiling that unperfect smile. "You need not attend these preliminaries; but if you have any procedural instructions...?"
The SeeD considers the velvet-coated order, her eyes returning from their momentary shift to rest again on Artemisia. Her silence remains far too long, broken by nothing save the room's breathing and the occasional soldier's twitch.
"Ask her what she knows about time," she says at last, remotely.
And then she leaves.
And though Artemisia knows even she cannot scrye, without the aid of her house and its rooms inside of rooms, into the minds of her captors and observers and derive their plans for her, she cannot help but be struck strangely dumbfounded by that order, so much so that it takes her off her guard; and leaves her to only wonder with near-detachment, as the soldiers unchain her arms and strap her roughly down to the bare wooden table in the center of the room, as the Inquisitor leans over her and unsheathes his lizard smile, what its implications are, and even what its answer is.
What does she know about time?
A proposal: If one were capable of existing in a conscious form while in a state of pure energy, and one had access to an infinite energy source, time travel would theoretically be possible.
In a dark room, both water and blood are black. She pits the one against the other with care and diligence, running a tattered but clean cloth over savaged skin at the cell's narrow basin. The room is circular, near twenty feet in diameter, with some unsettling sense to it that nudges the back of her mind but to which she cannot put a name. It is solid and isolated, all but soundproof, like the room of interrogation, black stone stacked on black stone in unending upward spirals; perhaps it is a tower, though she cannot say for sure. The Storm-King's dubious facilities are all by definition clandestine, and the guards who brought her in would have drugged her had she not consented to a darkening hood. The black walls are enormously, dizzyingly high, more so than seems possible, and the darkness is too great to gauge them accurately; barely enough light to see by seeps in from beneath the door, and from a small barred window that must be nearly a mile up the looming stone. Artemisia cannot tell if the light from the window is natural, as she has not the slightest idea of the hour. Perhaps all of these rooms are buried miles underground, the window opening on only another fiery cavern where the penitent await torture...
She turns her mind away with a practiced, steady hand. Wherever she is, she is here, and here she will live.
Feeling for unseen obstacles before her with her bare foot, she makes her way back toward the solitary cot, shuffling cautiously across the dark stone. Her mind wanders again as she shakes out her hair, now loose, and she thinks of the cottage in the forest, and the few woodsfolk whose troubles she has tended to; she wonders if they will wonder what has become of her, or if they will simply know and let silence fall like curtains around her name; she wonders if --
Artemisia freezes in the center of the floor, one foot before her, eyes wide. All of a sudden, touching this spot, she can feel it, completely, so strongly she cannot believe she ever missed it: there is something /here/, in this room, something sharp and whispering in the air and that sings in the walls that whirl up around her; something strong and old, older than these stones, older perhaps than the ground beyond them, something so old that it does not even remember it exists. It reveals itself to her like a stroke of lightning, burning her eyes with its afterimage. And now she can feel it all around her, and cannot unfeel it, not even when she steps back -- half in experimentation and half in alarm -- from the place on the floor that it came from so suddenly; the feeling ebbs with the departure but does not fade entirely.
She finds the spot again easily with her outstretched foot, and this time encounters a mark at its outside edge: three short grooves carved deeply, side-by-side, in the stone floor. Crouching in the center of that eerie circle of power (ignoring the tingling in her spine and the singing of alien voices in the stones under her feet), she discovers that it is not alone; rather, it is one in a rough ring of similar marks, precisely bordering the place where the power flows strongest. To the right of that first one is a single stroke next to a shape like a flock of birds flying south across the sky, then to the right of that the two-pronged shape alone, then another with the stroke on the other side and then another with two and then three and then a stroke beside a sort of twisted cross and... Artemisia follows them around until she comes back to the first marking, a frown twisting her features. A puzzle, one she almost feels she should recognize... but if she does, the memory is not hers to retrieve. She taps one of the central stones thoughtfully with her fingernail, and it chimes sweetly, like a wineglass filled with water. The sound ripples through the room.
She stands again, dusting her hands, planting her feet where the power is the strongest. Whatever it is, if it has voice and speech, she will speak to it; some lingering spirits can be useful, and at the least it will pass the time. Her voice firm, in the old language of the eldest daughters of Hyne, a tongue that calls to shadows of the world's first trembling days, she calls out to the humming stones:
"What lives here? Speak to me, for I offer a boon."
Something like a shiver; something like a sigh.
But nothing speaks, and the brief disturbance passes like a mere breeze from wall to wall. Whatever it is, it is spun of magic, then, and old enough to feel her compulsion to the marrow of its being... and strong enough to resist.
Disquieted -- but, for the moment, defeated -- she leaves the circle, goes to her cot, and lies upon it, and sleeps.
A law: An object at rest tends to remain at rest, unless acted upon by an outside force.
In her dream, she is still in the cell, still lying on the cot... but now the cell is lit enough to see how far up it goes, and that is because, she sees, it goes up forever, and the stars shine in from above. She does not wonder how there can be stars, or how she even knows what they are, having never seen a star for the cloak of clouds in all her years on the world. She does not question. Such is the magic of dreams.
In the center of the cell, in the hollow of the circle Artemisia has just discovered, stands the woodwitch, tall and dark and severe as ever; the older woman gazes at her from across the room, still just barely visible in the alien starlight, her eyes ageless and dusty with secrets. She looks precisely as she did in life up until her final illness, except that what perches on her shoulder is not Thessaly, but the lizard's parched and bleached skeleton, rattling faintly as her position shifts. Artemisia knows this for a dream, however, and feels no fear. In fact, she is honored, if somewhat apprehensive. It is not for just anyone that the dead return, even in dreams.
"I come with a warning," the woodwitch says simply, wasting no time. Artemisia draws herself up to sit on the cot, facing the witch calmly. A warning is a warning, and best heeded.
"What would you warn against?" she asks.
The woodwitch lets her arms rise and fall gracefully, indicating the space in which she stands on the floor. "One sleeps here who is better left unwoken," she answers, and her voice is low, almost tremulous. Her fear is so alien Artemisia almost cannot recognize it, and it jolts her when she does. Whatever she speaks of frightens her, and to frighten her it must be great indeed. "Do not speak to it, child; it is a danger to all, but twice again to you, for it has set its mark upon you since many a year."
Artemisia frowns. "But I've only just -- "
The light flickers; the figure of the woodwitch wavers and fades for a moment, like a projected image, before settling again. "It is no matter," she says, and her voice is rough, crackling. "I must be brief; I cannot remain here. But I warn you, Artemisia... do not speak to them..."
But she is gone, and the cell is dark.
And then, just as sudden, there is a blaze of light, and the stones all sing in a high piercing chorus --
And then her eyes fly open.
The Inquisitor leans over her, smiling antiseptically, and the soldier who has been readying to splash her with another shot of cold water relaxes. They relax her chains slightly, brush curtly at her dripping face, and then he resumes the rhythm of soft, gentle questions and escalating retributions; it is nothing new. Her confusion is fleeting, and unimportant; perhaps she merely dreamed it all, or perhaps the hours between waking and moving have gone missing in her mind. The way things stand here, it matters little, and she does not and cannot think on it for long, nor should she. In a dark place, both water and time flow unseen.
Time, she said, will not wait.
A complication: The law of entropy prevents the possibility of an infinite energy source, as it does the possibility of perpetual motion; it states that, while energy can never be created or destroyed, it loses quality every time it changes form, and decreases its ability to do work.
(what she knows about time)
(please i don't know anything please let me go please please stop please don't)
Time passes, though how much time she could not say, and slowly it begins to get worse. By day, they make their demands of her mind, and punish her body for the refusals; by night, she washes away her own blood and sweat and traces of charred skin, and tries to sleep, though mostly she only lies restless and awake as ancient mysteries stir and settle in the walls around her. When she does sleep -- and she always sleeps, eventually, for she always wakes -- she dreams of light and darkness, of an outstretched hand and an absent face... and wakes to find herself in daytime hours, with no recollection of the morning. She wakes with words she does not understand, words that do not seem to come from any language, in her throat; she wakes with hot irons pressed to her skin and a small smile on her lips. It seems these days that she has begun to wake more than she does anything else. Her captors are beginning to fear her, and step away in alarm whenever her eyes open, certain that these lapses and behaviors are some sort of plan for retribution -- all except for the Inquisitor, who remains as reptilian and two-faced faceless as ever.
And today, one half-lost scattering of hours among many, she sees that one other is not intimidated by her strange lapses: there is again a SeeD in their company, now that they have progressed to the more important levels of questioning, but not the woman from the first day. This one, who has appeared unannounced, and who seems to be completely ignored by the Inquisitor and the soldiers, is a man -- though barely so, not quite more than a boy. He wears a dark uniform, something she has never heard of in a SeeD, and dusty brown hair spills over his forehead, some kind of pendant hanging from around his neck; his eyes are piercing, fixed upon her, and she sees as he tilts his head toward her that there is an angry scar drawn between them.
She has had no more than a heartbeat to think dizzily that he looks vaguely familiar when his steel-blue eyes lock with hers, and he smiles.
She wakes up, gasping faintly and clutching at nothing; for a moment she is disoriented, as her eyes have opened on only darkness. The cell, again -- but it strikes her all at once that she is not on the bed, but kneeling on the floor, her body bare to the dark stone, at the center of that alien ring of power. Her skin is chilled in patches, and as she moves her arms she discovers why: there are droplets of water beaded along the lines of her tattooes, running down the runes of history in wet patterns, creating new marks. She has had no way to continue the story on her body since coming here, though it doesn't really matter; this is a place with no history, and the marks her torture has left tell her tale well enough. Her eyes adjust to the darkness, slowly, and see that the light from under the door reflects off of hundreds of other waterdrops, laid down in careful patterns over the stones of the floor, millions of tiny points of light in symmetrical spirals and redundant fractals, covering every inch of the cell, with no breeze to evaporate them. It is clearly the foundation for a spell, though no spell she recognizes, nor has she ever heard of anything even remotely similar; she knows she must have put down the droplets, backing herself slowly into this circle with their web, but she has no memory of such a thing, or of anything up to this moment.
It is then she realizes that she is speaking. Whispering words in a language the world has never known, words that she does not know, words that send glassy chills up her spine and over the back of her skull, tightening her skin.
And now, something...
Something is coming.
A wind gusts in sharply from the high window, spiraling down into the tower, ruffling the waterdrops. She can hear the pounding of her heart, reflected in the crystalline tones of the stone beneath her. Her hands lace together, and she is suddenly frozen cold.
A low moaning has slowly become audible; moaning in the walls, from the very air, that seems to come from everywhere around her. The wind rises, rakes through her hair, seems to try to pry her up from the floor. Thunder rolls, then crashes, from outside and above, a roar like an angry lion, like fists on metal. The air fills with electricity, then with the sound of voices whispering, drawing themselves one by one from the walls' voiceless drone, whispering in every language any human tongue has ever spoken. The voices intensify, unify, until they are all one, chanting in unison, growing steadily louder, deafening Artemisia where she kneels; one tongue soars up above the rest, wailing a wavering lament in high descant...
The voices fall silent all at once -- or perhaps they change, all becoming the same voice, speaking these new words. None of the tension leaves the air; the wind continues to howl and whistle, softly, chasing itself in spirals around the circular room. Artemisia opens her eyes, not even remembering when she closed them... and finds no light whatsoever, the entire world muffled in blackness. The only thing she can see, the only thing to be seen, is the figure that stands before her.
It is shaped, vaguely, like a woman, but too long in places, too flowing in others. It seems to glow, faintly, or be backlit, somehow -- or perhaps it is simply a darker shadow than the rest of the world, the silhouette of darkest on dark... and there somehow seem to be too many of it, as if it is itself a double image, and then the first image is a double image's double image, and then that one doubles another... Whatever it is, she can somehow tell that its back is turned to her. And she prays, prays, with a fervor that she does not understand, that it not turn around.
I come, it sighs, screams, giggles, whispers, all and none at once. Behold, I come, every one of me. What do you wish? Speak, that I might know you.
Her tongue is frozen, stuck thickly to the roof of her mouth, breath dry in her throat; she has no words. And even were it not for her terror, she would not speak to this thing, daring not risk her soul as well as her life. Already she is certain that she is in far, far more danger than she can possibly come safely through. How long has it slept? From whence was it born? From whence this incredible, unspeakable power?
Many I come, the thing moans, swaying like a sheet in the wind. Its too-long woman's hands ripple and twist. So many, all dead long ago, one dead after another. Die we do in parades. In succession. One burned until her flesh was dust and rode the wind for eight and forty days. One took two needles in her eyes that stole her thoughts but not her heart. One drowned in a river to prove her honesty; it was always proving honesty, in those days... A shaky titter pierces the air, or perhaps it is a heartfelt sigh. Dead now, dead and buried, buried and gone, but not gone, for again I come. I come for you, small one. Last.
I bear many, and our name is the last. I come first and last, alpha and omega, and always in between. I come for our revenge, our retribution. For the rebuke with fire. We are the succession. I am the successor. And you are...
No, she tries to say, and the word dies in her mouth. No. No to what, she does not even know. It hardly seems to matter. No to everything, to all of this. No.
Something soft, something like laughter or like a cry of pleasure or like a scream of death, brushes over her mind. I are many, and we am one, and I all know so very much, it goes on, this not-woman creature, this thing that runs ice through her veins and whispers with a multitude of corpse-tongues. So very much I can teach. Do you know, child? To be sure you do, for here you lie at the very feet of monsters. But still I ask, for I would know, would that you know. Would that you rise up.
Do you know?
Do you know what they do to witches?
The floor tumbles up and the sky crashes in, and she falls into nothing and everything.
A possibility: It has been suggested that, since all particles of matter in the universe down to the atomic and subatomic levels obey the standard laws of physics, it is theoretically possible to predict their behavior, and therefore there must exist a concrete predetermined formula for all of history and everything to come.
She wakes up; and her eyes open on the face of the Inquisitor, smiling a fish's smile down at her prone form. She is in the interrogation room; it must be day again. Out of pure instinct, she looks quickly around herself, twisting her head as far as the restraints will allow. There is nothing, however, only the grimy room of interrogation, the soldiers standing around, the Inquisitor's oily presence of nonpresence. The SeeD is gone, if he was ever there. She almost relaxes; perhaps it was all a dream.
"...time?" she barely hears the Inquisitor say, and she looks down to find her breasts and belly covered in spirals of water droplets.
There is a rush of singing voices. The faces looking down from above her burst into sudden spires of flame.
She wakes up. She is lying on the straw pallet she slept on as a child, in the most ordinary of her little cottage's rooms. Artemisia can feel the bits of straw pressing through cloth into her skin, lightly dimpling her back, can see the old cracks in the white plaster of the ceiling that she used to count on long nights at five or six or seven. Everything seems perfectly normal, as it always was before; she sits up, slowly, and begins to examine herself. Her body is unmarked but for the tattooes, clothed in the woodwitch's old crimson robe, her skin bare of water. She runs her hands over her hair, finds the tiny braids they cut off in the prison still intact and beaded. Slowly, she climbs to her feet, feeling the cool wood beneath them, listening to the boards creak. There is no questioning this detail, these sounds -- but nor can she dismiss her memory.
Was any of it real?
Is any of this real?
Is anything real?
She has barely stepped out of the doorway and into the main hall when she hears knocking.
The door creaks open. "Daughter of Hyne," the soldier says, in what he hopes is a severe and impressive tone, "his Majesty the Storm-King demands your surrender to his Inquisitors. If you resist -- "
But there he stops, for he has just noticed that the girl is looking at him with a most peculiar expression, like a deer transfixed by light.
"What day is this?" she asks.
She wakes up.
She is stretched on the cot in her cell, her body feeling broken and sore. Faint light spills under the door and down from the window. It is not really enough to see by, not for any distance, but it is enough to make out the shape that is bent over her, hollow, fluttering, elongated and not quite womanish, with one hand pushing down her chest and the other on her lips, forcing its fingers into her mouth. She gags, weakly, her body trying to reject the invader but failing, trying to struggle but held fast; the stones sing in chorus, with rapturous victory, as the creature's whole hand slides in, first to the wrist and then up its forearm. Clammy fingertips tickle her throat, stretching and disgorging the passageways far past the point where by all rights they should simply burst open, forcing their way down through the valves to her esophagus, and to her lungs. Slowly, gradually, completely climbing inside her. Stopping her breath.
She wakes up.
A curiosity: If an object free-falls for a long enough period, the upward pressure of air on its body comes to equal the downward pressure of the object's mass, so that it becomes effectively weightless.
For a moment, she does not know where she is; she has never seen the inside of her cell when it was fully lit. The huge metal door stands wide open, all of its padlocks split down the middle as if by a bolt of some unimaginable thunder, and light spills in from the hallway. The room is suddenly without its mystery, splashed with pale, sickly illumination that makes its objects seem two-dimensional, casts shadows all over the ground. She can see from where she lies that the marks on the floor are gone.
Slowly, Artemisia pulls herself to the edge of the cot, and stands; and calmly, without fear, she walks through the door.
The hallway is lined with bodies. The cell's exit is flanked with a pair of dead soldiers, their eyes glassy and staring, their throats torn out in stringy red bursts above the collars of their uniforms. Murdered, they are identical. She steps over their crumpled forms, carefully, headed toward the distant end of the stone hall. A glimmer of light waits there, one that almost looks natural.
A few more feet down she passes another tumble of bodies, triplets to the twins who lie by her sometime prison. One of them is missing his eyes; the sockets have been filled with sand. A few granules sift out and slide down his cheeks as she passes him, and the tracks look like the desiccated remains of ancient tears. The light is closer now, and she can see it clearly; it is a doorway, leading outside. She can see brittle grass and a gray smudge of sky, and she finds herself walking faster, almost running. The door to the room of interrogation rolls by to her left, with the body of the SeeD from the first day crumpled over her own sword in the doorway; inside, the Inquisitor's naked corpse is stretched out on the table she has spent her days bound to, arcane symbols carved deep into his chest and the skin of his reptilian face torn cleanly off. Artemisia barely even looks, intent on her goal. She has almost reached the door...
...and at last she steps through, into the cool of afternoon.
She stops, and stands just outside the door, the dry grass cracking under her bare feet. The breeze tousles through her cropped hair, swirling her prisoner's shift around her legs, and she squints up at the sky for a moment, letting her eyes adjust to the light of the world outside; she stretches out her arms to either side, as if to capture the wind, and breathes in the air of the world.
At last, Artemisia looks forward again, and sees an eternity of women standing before her.
They stand facing one another, hands linked, in a not-quite-complete circle on the grassy hillside; only two women hold only one hand, and the space between them looks just large enough for one more to stand in. Physically, they cannot possibly be that many -- the ring does not seem that large, and she can see each woman's face -- but somehow, there are millions of them, come from every eon. One has tracks of blood like tears traced down from her eyes; one's flesh has been charred and seared, hanging from her bones; one's belly is stained with blood, the child that has been cut out of her slung across her chest. They are all looking at her, expectantly, calmly.
Solemnly, the two women on the ends stretch out their hands.
And Artemisia, seeing nothing else to be done, steps forward, and completes the circle as she takes them.
No matter how hard you hold on, it escapes you.
A certainty: Entropy prevents the predictability of the future, as each physical interaction between particles results in a loss of heat energy, thus changing the equation of the next interaction. Furthermore, entropy will eventually result in the death of the universe for this reason, as all matter in motion will continue losing heat eternally until all bodies arrive at a static, low temperature.
(do you know)
(oh god. oh god. oh god.)
By the sea there is a castle, and in the castle lives a witch. It has always been this way, or at least for as long as anyone can remember. No one knows how old the witch is; and her name is not Artemisia anymore.
Tide after tide of warriors has come to face her, and all have come and fallen. The beach is littered with scores upon scores of would-be heroes, bodies broken around the wreckage of their weapons. She does not remember why they come, or how many have thrown their small lives into her ungentle hands, nor does she know from where came this castle, nor how she came to be here. Sometimes when she wakes she has vague memories, of swinging beads in the east wind and chanting in vile tongues, of fashioning fantastic beasts from river-clay and breathing life into their slimy red jaws until they grew and roared, or of living in other bodies, in other times, speaking in other voices; but these are only islands in the ocean of her forgetting, and they are always gone within moments, leaving her at sea once more.
By now she does nothing but wake, again and again, never knowing if the dream has ended or where the next one is beginning. She counts the wakings in the tattooes across her back, when it is possible; there is no inch of skin there now that remains uncolored. She has awoken exactly 8,916,100,448,256 distinct times since travelling to the Storm-King's domain, and she continues to do so still.
She walks the halls of her castle now, one by one and around in circles, listening to the rumbles of fanged somethings in the inner chambers; she watches the walls give in to disrepair and crumble halfway apart, and then freeze, stones hovering half-fallen in the air. And she thinks. She has little else with which to occupy herself, these days.
It could be that it wears her face like a mask in the darktime, and plays her body like a marionette, that it forces her to do and say everything she does and never asks her consent. She has considered this possibility. But in the end, she is forced to conclude that it is far more likely that it is she herself who does these things, but it is a herself that she has never seen. That there is a part of any witch, and perhaps any woman, that never comes to the light of day, but cavorts in the shadows, grinning its fangs and waiting, waiting for its time.
That perhaps a part of her has always wanted this.
She passes through a dungeon where skeletons that never had flesh tumble to their broken knee-bones at her feet, up through a stairway and past a gallery of paintings that alter slightly at every eyeblink, with an image on the floor that disquiets her with memories she cannot touch. Walking by this room, she sees that huddled immobile in the corner, facing the joined walls, is a young man: well-built, blonde, wrapped in a tattered and stained white coat marked with red crosses, his head clutched in both hands. She has no immediate explanation for this, but it does not concern her. Things here are as they are, no more.
Down another hallway, up a fluted staircase that soars to heaven in tight spirals. The castle, in its nested rooms, minds her of a house she seems to remember, from long ago. This thought always convinces her briefly that there is some room she very much needs to find... but whatever it may be, it continues to elude her, and most likely always will.
She enters the main gallery, and sees a woman standing at the top of stairs, looking down at her, and
she wakes up in the room of singing jars, curled on the floor, her back to one wooden wall. The only illumination is from the doorway, however, and the only sound is her own ragged breath; every jar that hangs in the room has been broken from the bottom, and they dangle in angry glass daggers, silent and accusatory. There are faint patches of phosphorescent slime here and there on the floorboards, that gradually unite as they near the door, and together form a trail that leads out into the house. Slowly, she stands, and follows it as it spirals out through the rooms, bent over with her hands on her upper thighs. It leads, she finds, to the cottage's front doorway; and then it goes under the door itself, out onto the small porch.
She is just about to open the door when a knock sounds on the wood.
The door creaks open, and the woman who stands outside it turns around, and stretches out her hand.
A conundrum: If a coin falls onto the floor of a moving carousel, will it land directly below the point it dropped from, or below and slightly behind? To all appearances inside the carousel itself, it falls straight down -- but from outside the carousel, it lands behind where it was dropped from, since the carousel and everything on it has moved away from that space; the question depends on frame of reference, and what is true to one is not to another.
She wakes up in the castle, seated in a winged throne atop a high platform, torches to either side casting flickering shadows across a dark floor that glows with patterns. The throne stands in a sort of amphitheater, open to the sky, the storm-heavy wind caressing the dancing flames. There is light for once, however, more than there should be; looking above her, she can see a place in the heavens where the clouds have thinned, almost parted, and the sun shines through as a dim silver disc. She stares at this, for several moments, until it has embedded itself in each of her eyes as a ring of burning gold.
Then there are footsteps, heavy and ominous, down the passageway that leads to this chamber, and she can hear the heavy doors slowly begin to creak open.
When she turns to face the doorway, a silver blade comes down into her vision from a nowhere behind her, cutting away the world before she can even move.
She wakes up on her feet. She is four years old and standing in front of her house as it burns, smoke swirling around her child's body and curling the small hairs inside her nostrils and ears; if she listens, she can almost hear the screams of animals that could not escape the fire, can almost smell the charring flesh of her murdered parents.
Someone is standing beside her, over her, waiting for her attention.
The little girl who will become a woodwitch and then a witch and then something more than a witch looks up, and sees that the someone is a woman. The woman has no face, but still she is smiling; and she is reaching down her hand.
The girl smiles back, and takes it.
She wakes up in battle.
They fight on the floor of the amphitheater, under the metal-and-cotton sky. All the elements are flying from her hands, the matter of the world tortured into other murderous shapes, and still it isn't enough. They are too strong; they will destroy her. They are six in all, and only children. They are led by a man-boy with a scar between his cold blue eyes.
She is falling, falling, falling, and she will never land.
A speculation: Words left unspoken become holes in the flow of space-time, disruptions of continuity, or perhaps simply manifestations of existing disruptions.
(dying is purple and gray)
(oh what am i what have i done what may i do could it be could it over is it maybe is there some way can i)
She staggers into a cobbled courtyard spread between a house of stone and a field of flowers, where a woman dressed in black turns to her as though having awaited her arrival; she comes without knowing where she comes from or how she has traveled, instinctively attracted by the promise of release. It will be over soon. She knows that well, knows that it will be so regardless of whether she chooses to fight or embrace it. She has no voice to speak or scream, cannot bear up under the weight of her own body. If asked the color of dying, she would now be able to answer.
The woman does not ask. The woman only comes to her, with a graceful step, murmurring a few soothing words as she draws near. A cool hand presses to her brow, and then intertwines its fingers with her own; a calm gaze entreats her toward this ending, consoles her through the final concluding step. In those dark eyes, too wise to be doe-like and too strong to be frightening, the witch can see now that, at last, she is again understood.
You don't understand, she tries to say. I may not go, I must stop them... I am responsible for the beginning, and by my hand must be the end...
But she has no voice, and her hand is trapped inside the young woman's; and she can feel the slow draining away from inside, feel herself losing matter and substance as the transfer takes hold. And it feels so right and good to do this, and she is so ready to be done...
She looks dizzily outward, into the middle distance, as her body begins to fade... and she sees the scarred boy over the woman's shoulder, standing behind them, watching her with eyes of helpless hate.
And she looks, trembling, back into the woman's face, but now the woman has no face, and she is smiling --
She wakes up.
She is on her throne in the castle, and the copper sun burns through the clouds, casting the amphitheater into a dizzy light. The children stand in a ragged line before her, looking up at her with a pretty array of mute emotions -- hatred, fear, confusion, anger. She cannot understand what they are doing here, what retribution they hope to hew out of her flesh; she is already dead, and has died millions of times. Why will they not let her stay buried?
"SeeD," she hears herself say into the silence, and it is not her voice; it is far older, so old it has forgotten most of what it knew of language. And as she speaks, she sees that their eyes have begun to fill with sand, so that the grains spill like tears down over their cheeks.
An unlikelihood: Every particle in an object has a finite chance to spontaneously change form, or become absent from its expected position; theoretically, this means that there is a finite probability that entire objects could spontaneously alter in form, state, or position.
She wakes up.
In a dark room, it is easiest to die. She lies on the cot at the edge of her cell, her eternal prison, staring up at the tiny square of light that hovers at the window. Someone is standing in the center of the circle on the floor, but she cannot bring herself to care who, even if she does not already know.
A cool hand slips into hers, and she closes her eyes.
Straw prickles her back, and she opens them again; the cracks in the ceiling spiral and waver before her fixed gaze, pulsing in and out of focus with her breath and heartbeat. Her essence flows steadily out from the palm of her hand, into the palm pressed against it. She is weak, translucent, fading. Fading out of this world. Donor and recipient, giver and taker. The words, ideas, come on the upswells of what remains of her life.
A cool hand touches her brow. The ceiling swims again, losing itself completely in the liquid depths of her eyes. When she can focus again, it is not a ceiling anymore, but only the gray snarled clouds spread across the sky, and the haze blurring her vision is that of smoke. The heat of the burning house bathes itself across her cheeks; the fire itself is only a red-orange smudge across the far edge of her vision. And now she is curled on the ground in the woman's arms, a tiny child held cradled to her chest, the woman stroking her hair, whispering meaningless words, and their hands remain intertwined as she gives up the last of herself into the other, and ceases to be herself, ceases to be visible, ceases now to be anything at all. She is falling back through ages, falling from child to toddler to infant to some fetal not-yet-living thing, and here in this unfamiliar woman's arms she is finally, finally home.
And now they are only in the courtyard, which is the only place they've ever been, and the woman is holding her above the cobblestones as she strips herself away to nothing; and as the last of her consciousness fades and turns to smoke and ash that the wind will carry easily away, she realizes that wherever she has come, there are no clouds here, and she can see the sun.
She wakes up.
"...it will destroy you."
A confusion: When things fall, they don't fall, but they do. Do they?
(no i can't you don't understand i have to please i have to)
(i can't disappear yet)
(Shh. Take my hand.)
Shh. Wake easy, Artemisia. You have been long in falling.
Opening her eyes, she finds herself in the arms of Hyne.
They stand together in a warm, bright place with neither landmarks nor boundaries, a smooth plane of well-lit nothing. The goddess remains a moment, and then draws gently back from their embrace, to smile down into the face of her daughter; Artemisia notes, dazedly, that there is something familiar about that smile, and that Hyne looks like she remembers the old woodwitch looked, when they were both much younger. She looks around herself, untroubled by the inevitable disorientation, and then back at the goddess. She is careful, however, not to look steadily into Hyne's face, as careful as an ordinary woman would be not to look directly at the sun.
"Is it over?" she asks, the only thing she can think to say. Hyne's smile grows, showing the teeth of a full-bellied and laughing moon.
Over, yes, but still in motion, the goddess answers. She seems to shimmer as she speaks, like mirage water heat-glazed to the ground. As it ends, it has just begun. All time is one here; things do not change.
"But what has happened? What of her? Them? It?"
Killed by your righteous raging children, comes the almost-reassuring reply. Born again even as they die. Such is the nature of hatred's begettings.
"You talk in riddles, Lady."
The goddess laughs soundlessly, the sound that of shaking light. Not in riddles, child. In truths beyond your ken.
"It is not mine to see with your eyes, I fear." She considers, gazing at the shifting image of her goddess's form, the brighter nothing behind it. "But I pray you tell me, so that I may follow: what comes now? Is there more to this? Is it over?"
Hands rest on her cheeks, tilting her head gently toward Hyne's eyes, and Artemisia looks up into infinity.
For you, it is, the goddess says kindly, and kisses her. Sleep, Artemisia; your time of waking is done.
And then the world is darkness; but in the darkness there is light.
Blue and gold and green and crimson. They dance at the edges of her vision, and there is some slick and cool floor beneath her feet. What she mistook for some unearthly light, she sees now, was just the joined glow of those distant fluorescents, mixing in her eyes. No matter. It is light, and it will serve. She lowers herself to the floor, dutifully preparing herself to sleep, as she seems to remember someone telling her to do, a long time ago. Who; and who is she? They are questions she need not even think to ask, and they blow away into the darkness unspoken and unthought. She lies down, curling herself around inside that comfortably cool surface, feeling herself settle and spread and ease. It is warm, peaceful, and there is a sense of gentle and slow rotation that she cannot place. Like the rocking of a baby's cradle; she is entranced by the feel of glass sliding by beneath her, lulled and yet joyous. She closes her eyes, basking, at peace. Presently, there is song.
with apologies to Lim Young-sun