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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
"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."
"/\||| 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."
"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."
"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?"
"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."
"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."
"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?"
"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
"Of course, among wizards, the technique may be elevated to a new plane."
Examining form in subterrane world
"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?"
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
"So?" you reply. "Then soon you shall have peace. I shall tear open the borders of the world. I shall take the step outside."
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.