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     Mask memories 

...Memory stirs...

White Mask

A child runs through the forest. A robe, richly bright-embroidered, has slipped off one skinny shoulder — a child old enough to be put in clothes, too young to know what it means to wear them. A silver-haired child whose glance darts from tree to bird, caught everywhere.
A mother's voice shouting. Not patient, not yet urgent. The child attends this, with the same interest as bush, flower, fascinating new rustle underfoot...
The name, again.
A moist leaf, torn from a tree, clutched in a small fist. Tossed in the air. Blown about, blown upwards again and again, as the child dances back and forth, face raised, flushed, puffing madly...
Mother's voice interrupting the game. The child spins once more, dashes back towards dinner.
The leaf flutters about in the air. It circles a tree; then rises to a high branch, clings there. It seems to bend this way and that; then it casts loose, and flutters determinedly after its thoughtless maker.

Gold Mask

A man and a woman; they lean on each other, a dim and distant exhaustion. Between them, they cradle a dark-haired infant. It is the only thing in the world, as they always are.
A silver head shakes; a hand draws back the blanket. The infant has a clubbed foot — twisted and drawn in.
The couple put out their hands, once again. Light curls out of the air. Blue and green, violet and no color at all, luminous currents slide down the infant's limbs. It twists and whines, fretting, but the child is exhausted as well.
Then the light splinters and is gone. The foot is unchanged. The infant gathers itself for another howl. Its parents rock it absently, but they are looking at each other. The silver-haired one snaps a word — both know the anger is self-directed, and is despair.

Red Mask

True and heavy beams of wood frame the hall; it is dominated by a high table. At the head of the table, a tall figure stands — silver hair, intricately stitched robes — drawing all eyes.
A sharp gesture. To one side, a half-grown boy frowns, tries to ask a question. He is shushed fiercely and without a glance.
At the door, uniformed guards carry in a bundle of cloth. The silver-haired figure stares at it — stares at it for long moments.
A guard, moved finally by the silence, unfolds the cloth. Eyes jerk; but there is still no sound.
Eventually, the tall figure moves a hand again. The wet red stains that have been revealed sparkle, glow, and slowly vanish from the cloth. It is only a gesture; it is all anyone can do; it is nothing.
Muffling a cry, the boy leaps up and limps for the door. Hurrying, his uneven steps are more halt than usual. His face twists in pain; but no one moves to help him.

Brown Mask

In a darkened library, someone works alone. The tall shelves are crowded, but the rows of titles fade into shadows; only the desk is illuminated. A map is spread upon it. The pen, moving across its face, annotates and speculates.
Nearly half the map is tinted red. Along the border, marks and notations cluster like wasps.
The silver head snaps up, as an officer enters. He holds a pale cylinder, the length of a tall man's finger. He places it on the desk; he bows; he turns and leaves. At no point do his eyes rise from the floor.
The cylinder, unrolled, proves to be a length of parchment: filthy, closely lettered. The tall figure reads it, once. Then the pen, taken up once again.
In the blank heart of the red-tinted region, quick strokes now emblazon the shape of a crutch.

Green Mask

A tent rests in mud; it is rigidly upright, defying its stains and any weariness. Once-gold laces twitch against once-white cloth. Then a figure is emerging. It too is rigidly upright, stained and dirtied, although the hair remains silver.
Facing the tent are four soldiers. The man they surround is a soldier too; but his red sashes are hasty, crudely torn from some flag and stitched to a soldier's common clothes. He looks too young for them.
The man carries no weapon, though his escorts eye him as if he might pull one out of any puddle of mud. What he carries instead is a length of hacked wood with a shattered handle. He kneels — in the mud — and lays it at the tall figure's feet.
The eyes that peer down from beneath silver hair seem only tired. The figure turns away, and reaches for the tent flap again. But a fist clenches on the lacing; harsh yellow light splinters the air.
A length of wood, which might once have been a crutch — once, a war ago — flares into fire, ember, and ash.

Blue Mask

The rooflines of the city are slate over brick; but the tower is older stone. A silver-haired figure looks down from an embrasured window. The largest building in view faces the tower, across the square, perhaps in challenge. Its brick arches frame an intricate web wrought of iron. The web shapes a symbol: an ornately styled crutch.
A small carved crutch hangs at the figure's throat; but this is simple, a few splinters of wood. Absent fingers have smoothed the rough wood to a polish, here and there.
The people in the square do not look up; they go about their business quietly. Or — all do but one. One dark cloak is thrown down suddenly. A woman stands revealed in bright-dyed rags. She is shouting, up at the tower, out through the square, around at the citizens who move away from her. She spins, gesticulating. She points at the arched building; she points at the tower.
Above, looking down, a brow furrows beneath silver hair.
But the guards are coming, pushing through the crowd that melts away from the square. In moments, the ragged woman too is cleared from sight.
The face in the window watches this. Not, perhaps, pleased; but satisfied enough. And then the face turns away, back to the books and artifices within the stone tower.

Black Mask

The one who stands in the field has silver hair, but it is cropped, and faded with streaks of white. The field has no corn, only muddy ruts.
Behind the tall figure is a city; a bright city, with white spires, but perhaps a cold one. There are lights within it, but they do not move.
Before the tall figure is an army. Its soldiers are arrayed in mail and gilt tabards. The sign on their tabards is unrecognizably changed. There are very many of them, and they have come a very long way, but now they too are still.
The front rank shifts, and three figures come forward. Each carries a tall spear, held upright; brilliant blue luminosity whirls and knots on each spearpoint. The light falls on the silver-haired figure, and casts a long red shadow behind him, pointing back at the city.
The three soldiers begin to bring their spears down. The blue radiance flares hungrily.
Then it goes out. The tall figure has raised one hand. No more than that; the spears are clattering atop each other in the mud, and the three soldiers are on their knees, huddled over their empty hands.
The gilt ranks shift again, and now it is no ordered movement. Mail-bound faces look up, at the aching black opacity which has begun to open above the silver one's raised hand. The hurting blackness is the sky now, and the army begins to run—
...your memory ends abruptly.

Black Mask (continued)

— too late, for your bitter wrath is descending—

(absorbing the mask)
—the mail-clad mob swirled, and turned, and began to run. Of course it was too late. You watched their life force separate into strands... still swirling. Interesting. You regarded the scene until the last tendrils dissipated. There had been a pattern to it, beyond the overlay of animal pain and terror.
You returned to your cityworld, considering a possible theorem. Further interruptions would be unlikely, for at least a generation, and you needed the time to think.

     Absorbing the masks 

You know this: When you sneak out at night to gaze up at the stars, you can hear them laugh and tell each other stories. Cannot everyone?

You know this: Life takes its own course, and sometimes no reason nor argument nor urgent need can divert its speaking tide.

You know this: The incidents are not the essence, and the blood is not the life. But the incidents of blood are a symbol beneath every human thought.

You know this: Mathematic art may chart the course of a messenger, or an army, more precisely than a knotted string on a peg-nailed map. But the simple string is an art which can be seen and felt. Thus does the general see and feel.

You know this: To win a battle is never a gain. It only means you may resume the burdens you bore before the war. You do not look forward to them.

You know this: The dance of symbols is the movement of the people. Perhaps you have not studied them enough... but your own studies, the symbols of worlds within and above, press you so.

You know this: These people interrupt your studies—

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     Diagram world 

Someone is talking, though not to you:

White

"It's easy to think of //|//// as a story." The name is a meaningless burst of noise. "That's self-delusion. A story is about someone else, but the story is told to you — or you tell it. It's about part of you.

"There's a story about the birth of
\\//|, the first word, the first spell. The first child. But the end of ||/\// wasn't a story, because /|// wasn't about anything about /|////, at the end."

Gold

"I remember the master saying that the world was blind bits of meaningless matter. All us kids reacted the same way, of course — that's silly, that's only unalive things, people are different. //\//\ was saying it with the rest of us. /|/|\\ was already seeing life and thought and that stuff directly — saying it was all dead was even sillier to /|/ than to the rest of us.

"
/\||| got a funny look after that, though. Like, thinking about the little charts and patterns we were taught in basic alchemy, the ones that controlled how dead matter moved and combined. Once //// said something about if people moved the same way. I said, what, if they were dead? Then we laughed and yelled Necromancy, you know, and ran down to the pond to play chase-the-zombie. Little kids."

Red

"Well, I hardly know. What does any mother know? Isn't your baby the most beautiful thing in the world? Your own blood... but you think of yourself as the child's blood, really. \\|/// was more perfect and wonderful than we were. We knew that.

"And then, such a talent — my husband and I were never surprised. It was only fair. All parents are like that.

"Afterward, I might have wondered if it was too much. But I wasn't alive any more, of course."

Brown

"Is it possible? None of it is possible. The world is meaningless points of dumb matter; that's the first thing we tell them. Matter can't stand up and start changing the world. Except that it does; we do. You have to start with the absurdity, or you won't get anywhere.

"And the meaning in our heads, which can't be there in the first place,
certainly can't get out and start changing the world, ignoring even the blind interacting strictures of matter. That's impossible too. Except that it happens.

"That's why we call magic 'the Moral Art' — it's
about the way we see the world, not about the world itself. Maybe it always has been in our heads, and not in the world at all. That would just mean that it's more real to us than the world is — as real to us as we are.

"I love that idea. Wouldn't it be
funny?"

Green

"See, now, you're talking about |||// as a General, as a Princeps, as a Pontifect. And that made sense once. If you speak for the people you're a Pontifect, if you lead an army you're a General, if you conquer a city-state you're a Princeps.

"After the boy died, though,
|\|/ stopped doing that. Sure-sure, it took decades really. //////| still marched with the armies and collected the taxes and heard the Pontifects and sat over the laws.

"But if you rewrite trade routes by changing the weather, then you're a, a what? How do you talk about that? If you invent a new nation, what are you? If you change what money means? If you create a new way to make laws, based on something you see in dreams of another world?

"I was born in a city-state and I died in a nation — that's what they were calling it — and I didn't even live more than one lifetime. I can't imagine what it's like for
//\\\\. Well, that goes without saying, sure."

Blue

"Everyone who can read knows the world is a ball. Some wizards can fly or see high enough to see the curve. I suppose you cannot see towns or roads from that high. Much as you cannot see people from up on a mountain.

"You can still see yourself, however. And you aren't any bigger. Comparisons are misleading.

"Events seem smaller as they move into the past, and that's just as much an illusion. The tragedy or triumph looms as large as ever it did. You may not feel it, but the influence has shaped everything you've been since then."

Black

"Limits? I don't believe I know any."

     Memory palace 

Orrery machine

"But is it reality?" The question sparkles with unheeded eagerness; the questioner's gaze is fiercely entangled among the turning rings and delicate gears.

"Of course it is not," comes the reply. "The model has not even the right form. The sky is not full of wheels upon wheels. But—" overrunning the interruption "—that does not mean the model lacks
power." The voice is suddenly dry. "Symbolism and intent, child. What better symbol for power than this: a machine just within our own limits of understanding?"

Mountain garden

"Nothing delights a wizard's mind so much as a formal garden."

"As a focus of power?" —Eagerly.

The reply is a laugh. "Why spoil it?" And then soberly. "But as you carry yourself through years and ages, do not hold such a garden — even a living one — unchanged. Such an artful place is smaller than your mind; you cannot inhabit it without growing small and comfortable within it. Build it — destroy it — rewrite it from lifetime to lifetime. Some masters of magic," the voice adds in afterthought, "come to prefer the gardening."

Stairway from shed

"To stand in a dreamhold is to be no more than a thought in a wizard's dream." Or so it is said... somewhere. Certainly this stairway is changeable as a dream.

Cavern

"The technique of the memory palace is commonplace," says a voice you remember, "not just among wizards, but in all the mantic disciplines. One commonly uses one's home as an anchor: familiar rooms, passages, possessions become the keys to organized thought and knowledge. By passing through the house-in-mind, one passes unerringly through memory."

"Of course, among wizards, the technique may be elevated to a new plane."

Examining form in subterrane world

"...Those who seek in certain remote places — at the roots of mountains or on lifeless stony islands — find traces of men who predate the history of Man. Ruined buildings, monoliths, carvings. Stones of monumental, inhuman size. Signs that cannot be read; sculpture that will not please the eye."

"Then an empire once flourished, before the names and kings we know?" This voice you recognize, with no perceptible surprise, as your own.

"Some tell so. But see you," the other gestures, "these traces are
only found by those who seek. Always and only. So say: are they remnants of a past which is lost? Or are they remnants of the present, always to hand, but out of eye; until a seeker's eye shapes them?"

Spire gone

"Take thought upon a youth-forgotten dream
That comes again to crowd you from your bed
Which roils now with waves, or grief, or stone
Where once you slept alone inside your head."


You do not know whose voice once sang that to you.

After recovering memories

"You tear the borders of nations!" comes the angry shout. "No. You are the nail, obdurate from an ancient age, upon which nations snag and tear themselves. No thought has passed in the civilized world for an dozen centuries which did not scrape upon your presence!"

"So?" you reply. "Then soon you shall have peace. I shall tear open the borders of the world. I shall take the step outside."

     Doorstep Ending 
The ringed moon hovers before you. You settle your regalia about yourself, and step forward.

For a moment, the voices of the stars are a thousandfold rushing whisper. And then the portal opens; and you can understand every word and note.

Somewhere, a child runs through a moonlit forest, gazing up at a bright-marked figure which has always shone, will always shine beyond the Doorstep. It is only within your mind that the song begins at this moment...

The stars are welcoming you home.
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