My turn. Those words kept cycling through my mind.
What sparked it? Nothing, really. A whole lot of nothing. The Star’s plan crept on towards its fulfillment. I served as guardian during those times when Dolphin was away performing, and let Dolphin do the job when she was around. I studied the annals with Memnos and Jaguar, learned to read ancient Greek, painted, went sailing with Angée, and then – or so I felt – started the whole sequence over. And over, and over, round and round like a hamster in a wheel. All around me mortals were born, grew up, aged, and died. Old friends, ex-lovers, perfect strangers, they all aged, they all died. I stayed the same. The days came, the years went, the decades came and went. I felt as if I was waiting for something, but I didn’t know what, and didn’t know if I should wait in hope or fear.
The turning point came one day when I was working on a new painting and I froze. My mind blanked. The Background scene before me, a part of the road leading to the Pool of Decision, faded out as I lost concentration. I dropped my brush. I sighed and closed my eyes. The power of the Star slowly built within me. I could sense the presence of the All, as I had in meditation many times before, and I found myself wanting to simply drop into it, merge, become one with the cosmos, and forget everything.
I was snapped out of my reverie by the telepathic equivalent of a slap in the face, and Dolphin burst into my studio. She grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me, then took me in her arms. “No,” she said.
“You will not die. I need you.”
I shivered. “I was about to die, wasn’t I?”
“Yes. Falcon, you’re where I was forty years ago. It’s time. You need to leave for a while.”
“I guess you’re right. But I want – I want –”
“I know what you want. You can’t have it. And you’ll thank me later.”
“Yes. Yes, you’re right. But where will I go?”
“Into Background, my love. Just as I did.”
I smiled. “Well, not quite the same, I hope.”
She laughed. “If you find yourself imprisoned, I’ll rescue you.”
“All right.” I packed a backpack with a few items while Dolphin watched warily. I belted on my katana and I kissed her goodbye. “Look after the others for me.”
“Always. It’s what I’m here for.”
“And stay in touch.”
Saying no more, I opened a gateway into Background and passed through.
Once in Background, even though it was only Fae-Ajaccio, I felt better. The lure of the All faded, and I thought about what I was going to do next. I considered going back to the physical plane, and felt such fear and revulsion that I abandoned the idea immediately. Over the next few years, that panic would be my gauge of whether I was ready to return or not. It would be a while, I felt. I shouldered my pack, opened the front door of my Background house, and stepped through into a sunny day, the air smelling of the maquis and the sea.
I strolled through the streets toward the town center, where the High Fae had built one of their gateways into an inner reality. I didn’t plan on passing through, though. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in fact, and was just strolling, thinking, and enjoying being alive. When I reached the center of town, Viviana was waiting for me, leaning against the wall of a bank, wearing a green sleeveless dress and a nice smile. I laughed.
“We have to stop meeting like this, Viv,” I said.
“Why? It’s fun. You leave Dolphin, I take advantage of the opportunity. It makes me feel wonderfully naughty.”
“I haven’t really left her this time.”
“I know. I was just making a joke.”
Viviana is a tall High Fae woman with bright red hair down to her waist, sparkling blue eyes, delicious creamy skin, a flawless body that feels as good as it looks – well, suffice to say she’s a delight, and every bit as smart and insightful as she is wonderful to look at. I used her badly, in my own remorseful opinion, during my rebellion against the Star. She has never held it against me, though. I don’t deserve her at all, and I realize that.
“I imagine you know why I’m here.”
“As much as any of us can understand. It’s a human thing, a Star Mage thing. The Fae never go through this. But in a way, it’s the same as before, Falcon. You’re here to figure yourself out.”
“Yes. And it may take a long time.”
“Well, I’m sure we’ll have plenty of adventures together, and you’ll have some on your own, too. But what I’m here for right now is to give you a piece of advice.”
“Go see my mother.”
She laughed. “You don’t have to sound so horrified.”
“Viviana, your mother is a Dark Fae, and one of the most devious, nasty creatures the Background Realm has ever produced.”
“That’s true. You have to be careful how you deal with everything she tells you. Do you remember what Mama told Angée that time you met her?”
“Vaguely, but how did you know about it? You weren’t there.”
“Mama told me.”
“Oh. Well, it was some kind of twisted stuff about four possibilities for the Sword and how each of them would turn out.”
“Either the Sword would die untimely, or you would become its guardian, or Angée would, or someone else who hadn’t been revealed. Three ways lead to humanity feeding the dark, and the fourth may but may not. But that’s not what I was talking about.”
“Did she say something else?”
“Yes; she said that the Stairway to Nowhere didn’t need guarding because only you could repair it.”
“Ah, yes, I remember. But she said that to me as I recall, not to Angée.”
“No, she was talking to Angée, while pretending to talk to you. She hoped that Angée would take word of it to Dolphin who would dismiss the guards, opening the way for you to reach the Sword.”
“Right, see what I mean? Devious, sneaky, underhanded – why should I meet with her?”
“Because she’s also very wise, and has things to say that you need to hear. She’s the Seer and Prophet of the Fae.”
“Of the Dark Fae.”
“Of all the Fae. There’s always only one, and sometimes the Seer and Prophet comes from us, sometimes from the Dark Fae, and sometimes from the Wild Fae. Mama has been the Seer and Prophet for three hundred years, since the former Seer took the Long Journey.”
“So you think she has something for me to hear?”
“I know she does. She told me so.”
I frowned. “Viviana, does it occur to you that this may be a trap?”
“Yes, Mama’s words always include traps. That’s unavoidable, though.”
“I meant a crude, ordinary trap designed to kill me or imprison me.”
“Oh. No, I’m sure that’s not true. It’s not how she operates.”
I took a deep breath. “You really think I should do this?”
“All right. I don’t trust your mother, but I do trust you.”
She smiled and hugged me. “Come on, I know where to take you.”
Iriana’s house was built in a clearing in a dark forest. It was an appropriately gloomy place, I thought, the trees blocking the sun and dripping with moss. The house itself was a two-story stone construction with a great oak door. Viviana waved a hand in a casual spell and the door creaked open, revealing a dimly-lit hallway.
“I have the key-spell,” she said. “Mama is always happy to have me visit. I don’t come very often. The place is a little creepy.”
We were met in the hall by a pair of naked servants, one male and one female, who took our coats and my backpack and silently beckoned for us to follow them. Their faces were devoid of expression, as if the minds behind them were either empty or securely hidden.
“I see what you mean,” I said.
“Oh, that’s only the beginning.”
The servants led us to a large room where Iriana sat alone at a table set with a carafe of wine and various edibles. More naked people with blank faces stood about. Two of them, one male, one female, knelt to either side of her chair. Iriana herself looked splendid. She had long red hair much like her daughter’s and a similar beauty, but her eyes were green rather than blue. She wore a purple dress that shimmered like silk. She smiled as we entered and rose from her chair.
“Viviana, I’m so glad to see you!” She kissed her daughter on the cheek. Then she did the same for me. “And you brought Falcon with you, how perfect!”
“You asked me to, Mama.”
“So I did. Well, let’s all make ourselves comfortable. I apologize for the poor circumstances, Falcon, but I’m afraid the Dark Fae have fallen on hard times lately.”
I sat at the table and reached to pour myself a glass of white wine. Before I could touch the carafe, a pretty naked girl with dark hair framing a blank-featured face took it and poured me a glass, leaning close enough that I could smell her skin and could have bent forward easily and kissed her nipple. There was nothing seductive about her action, though; she didn’t even smile.
Iriana did. She seemed amused.
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Because our side is losing the Golden Game hereabouts, of course. There’s a harmony, a resonance, between the Fae and humanity. We and those you call the High Fae are linked to the two poles of human civilization, and vice-versa. The link goes both ways. If we were to conquer Taniset and tear it down, the Sword’s victory would be brought closer.”
“Could you do that?”
“At this stage, no. We are too weak, and that’s largely thanks to you, Falcon. Though I hold no grudges. Did you like Kolchia?”
“Did I like what?”
“Kolchia.” She crooked a finger and the dark-haired girl who had served me my wine came quickly to her side. Iriana tapped her on the shoulder and she dropped to her knees on the floor and bowed her head. “This is Kolchia. I think she’s quite pretty, don’t you?” Kolchia did not react to the compliment, but remained blank-faced. “As my guest, you may regard my servants as your own while you’re here. They will be pleased to serve you in whatever way you like.”
She laughed. “But no thanks. Understood.” She signed to Kolchia, who returned to her place by the wall, still without expression. “You find her attractive, but her circumstances offend you. There’s a part of you that wishes you could free her. Your mind exerts pressure on my home and me to drive us out of existence. I can resist that pressure, but the closer the Star comes to victory, the lower the chance becomes that the Earth will follow the Sword’s path, the harder it is for all of us to survive.” She sighed. “Of the four possibilities, the one that happened in the last go-round was the worst, from my point of view.”
“Worse than if the Sword had been destroyed?”
“Oh, yes. The Sword isn’t the only spirit of his kind in the universe. There are magical laws that govern the emergence of newly-mature planets. They always draw the attention of the opposite side in the Game. Not very far from Earth, as such things are measured, two powers are locked in a deadly struggle. If the Earth pops into space under the Star’s guidance, the darker of those powers will see you as a potential adversary. It will move as quickly as possible to crush you, destroy the Star, and absorb you into its own system before that potential can be realized. Without the experience of fighting and defeating the Sword, you would be unable to survive that attack. So the Sword’s destruction would have served us well in the long run. Even better of course would have been for either you or Angée to become the Sword’s guardian. As things are – well, we’ll just have to see how it turns out, won’t we? It could still go either way.”
“Interesting. You’re speaking clearly, Iriana. Not in riddles this time.”
“Oh, well, I’m talking about the past. The past is done. Riddles are for the future. And that brings me to the reason I wanted to see you. I have a riddle for you, Falcon, and this is the perfect time for you to hear it.”
“As you know, your daughter removed the Sword to another world where it has been engaging in pursuits unknown for about fifty years.”
“Yes. Go on.”
“Well, what you may not know – and I’m not even certain that Angée does – is that her little pathway is not like the Stairway to Nowhere, in that it’s keyed solely to herself. Wherever she goes in that world, when she calls on the door to leave it, the door appears beside her. And it will not open for anyone else without her permission.”
“What if one of us did the same thing that she did? I don’t imagine creating such a path would be beyond our ability.”
“It would not. But there are an infinite number of alternate Earths without the Star, only one of which has the Sword. You could make a path to a similar world, but it would not be to that world.”
“I see. So Angée is key to the whole enterprise yet again.”
“She is, and here is the riddle: if you allow Angée to go to that other world by herself, she will fall into the hands of the Sword and its adepts. If that happens, the Sword will control the doorway. The Sword Mages will be able to come to your Earth at will, but you will not be able to go to the Sword’s Earth. Even worse, through Angée the Sword will find its champion – either Angée herself or a – certain other Star Mage. Without such guidance, the Sword cannot win this bout of the Golden Game.”
“That makes sense.”
“The Star will then be placed on the defensive. You will lose your most important advantage against the Sword, which is the relatively high technology of your Earth compared to what he has been able to develop. You will not be able to simply open a door, enter in force, and establish a base from which to convert and liberate the people of that world. The initiative will fall to the Sword.”
“And your conclusion?”
“Isn’t it obvious? If you wish to be sure of victory, do not let Angée go to the Sword’s world alone.” She shrugged. “There is the riddle. It’s for you to solve. The future is not fixed, and even a Seer and Prophet can only know so much.”
After some pleasantries and a light meal, Viviana and I bade farewell to her mother. I took her to a Background version of Niagara Falls before Europeans arrived to make it all touristy, and I laughed and hugged her.
“What are you going to do, Falcon? Are you going to contact Angée and warn her?”
“Because it would be the obvious thing to do. Because it’s what your mother advised me to do. There is useful information in what she told me, and I’m sure it’s the literal truth, but equally sure I don’t understand it all, and that her advice is a trap. The best thing I can do is to ignore her riddle until I solve it.”
“Ah. That makes sense.”
“Angée is very tough. She can take care of herself. And besides, there’s one thing about the riddle that I do understand. Iriana said that if we wish to be sure of victory, we should not let Angée go to the Sword’s world alone.”
“We don’t want to be sure of victory. The whole point of the Sword is training, Viviana. We need to learn how to play the Golden Game, and we won’t be able to do that if we make the contest too easy. So let the Sword have the initiative, let this not-so-mysterious Star Mage go to become his guardian, let the whole business present a challenge. Only then can the Sword do what it’s meant to do.”
“Not so mysterious?”
“I know exactly who he is. But never mind that. That’s for later. Right now, I need to decide what course I’m going to take over however long it is before I’m ready to go back to Earth. And your mother’s given me that answer, too.”
“Oh, yes. She said that events in Background mirror those on the physical plane and vice-versa, so that changes in one realm are reflected in the other. I knew that, but I hadn’t reasoned out the consequences. If the Dark Fae could destroy Taniset, that would bring the victory of the Sword closer. And similarly, if forces of wickedness, cruelty, and oppression are defeated in the Background Realm, that will advance the cause of the Star.” I drew my katana and tested its edge. As always, it was razor-sharp. “Viviana, I’m going to become a knight-errant, a righter of wrongs. Will you come with me?”
She grinned. “Sounds like fun, Falcon. Let’s do it.”
That was the beginning of some of the most enjoyable and, strangely enough, carefree years of my life. I put concerns about the Sword and the Golden Game aside for later, although in the back of my mind I knew I was playing the Game still, and focused narrowly on my Quixotic crusade to rid the Background Realm of evil.
There was plenty of evil to be fought. The Background Realm is the world of dreams, and some dreams are nightmares. I bypassed mindless brutality and bestial violence and concentrated on intelligent evil. I slew vampires. I overthrew tyrants. I stole from the rich and gave to the poor. I led strikes against robber barons and put the Pinkertons and police to flight when they tried to fight back. I led popular rebellions against lying, corrupt Commissars. I dueled and defeated cruel dark sorcerers. Word got around the world of dreams and I became famous: the wandering Star Mage and his beautiful partner, the sword-swinging, spell-casting champion of light. Falcon the Avenger they called me, the Sword of Justice, the Bane of the Shadow, the Star’s Champion. My life was in danger a lot of the time, and I had to remain always on my toes. I was injured more than once, and pleased to have Viviana for backup.
I met with Dolphin periodically and learned that nothing much threatened the Star’s program, which proceeded as planned. Angée continued her threefold relationship with Memnos, Jaguar, and Thad Stevens. Jaguar dealt periodically with angry Crystal Mages who were smart enough to see the writing on the wall, but not smart enough to know that challenging Jaguar to a duel without the Crystal’s go-ahead would solve nothing and probably be fatal. The member nations of the Asian League adopted democracy. The global economy shifted towards socialism as automation made jobs increasingly scarce. And so on. Nothing needed my attention, and it was four years from my departure date before I felt ready to go back.
Four years I wandered the Background Realm, protecting the weak, righting wrongs, and slowly turning the world of dreams a little brighter. At rumor of my approach, wicked ones would either go into hiding or, if they were bold, come out to challenge me. It made for interesting times either way, and the accounts of those battles would grow dull with repetition. I will therefore skip over four years of wandering to the time when I began to feel more comfortable with the idea of returning to physical reality. I decided, as a final achievement before that, to besiege the stronghold of the mighty sorcerer Yomin the Grim, who called himself the Lord of Darkness. Yomin ruled from a great fortress, massive, multi-tiered, constructed of black stone and laced through with spells. His realm was a dream world of slaves, a good metaphor of the world the Sword would build. Breaking his power would be a good move, I thought. So I gathered an army, which was not too difficult given my growing reputation. I offered the job of leading the army to General Lamont Savage, whose land I had rid of an order of invisible assassins two years earlier. General Savage, hero of multiple wars between his country and its perpetually-hostile neighbor and rival, agreed happily, and so under his expert guidance we invaded the Realm of Gloom.
The Dark Lord’s army met us on the Plains of Lamentation, where he had defeated an earlier alliance of foes. We won that battle and pressed on, driving our defeated enemy towards Kurash Thom, the Dark Tower. They turned, stiffened with reinforcements, and met us in the Ashen Gorge. We were outnumbered, but Savage pulled a trick on the enemy leading them into a powerful spell of confusion that I laid on, and their formations fell apart. The survivors fled into Kurash Thom itself. That fortress was suicide to assault, so we settled in for a long siege.
There are rules to wars in the world of dreams, especially ones involving archetypal figures such as a sorcerous Dark Lord. I knew that there were only three ways for the Dark Tower to fall. One was through a wrathful intervention by the Gods of Light. I saw no way to arrange that. Another was to find and destroy the secret source of Yomin’s power, which might require infiltrating the Dark Tower itself, either to retrieve that source or to find the agency capable of destroying it. Unfortunately Yomin had no such Achilles’ heel as far as I knew. That left the third method: single combat. If the siege were pressed hard enough, he would lead a counterattack eventually, because – well, because this was the Background Realm and he was bound by the laws of the place as much as I was. Perhaps more, as this was his home, while I was merely a long-term visitor. It would then be up to me to face Yomin in battle and defeat him, man to – whatever he was.
I figured it was going to take a while, so I set up a fairly luxurious headquarters complete with a temple for major magical working, a full kitchen, and a jacuzzi. Every day I would spend an hour or so riding the circuit of the siege, yelling in my amplified voice that Yomin was a worthless coward and encouraging him to come out and be a brain-dead idiot instead, although not in those words of course. Every so often he’d send a sortie. Sometimes it was stealth forces on foot, sometimes a lizard cavalry strike, twice airborne wyvern riders. We beat all of them back with weapons and spells. I made sure my own magic was prominently displayed. I wanted to give the Dark Lord the idea that if he wanted to get rid of this pain in the ass, he’d have to do it himself. I also kept up the stream of insults and challenges.
It did, of course, finally work. Those are the rules. After a dozen or more counterattacks had failed, the gates of Kurash Thom groaned open and a wave of darkness rolled out. Hidden under the moving shadow were unknown forces whose marching feet drummed upon the packed earth.
“Sortie!” I called out. “Form up!” Savage blew a horn call and started shouting orders. The men sprang to arms and formed up behind our fortifications, manning ballistae and bows (this was a low-tech war), watching the sky for flying beasts and the flanks for cavalry moves.
From the impenetrable darkness ahead of me, now less than fifty yards away, a deep horn blew. The enemy shouted battle cries and charged, the shadow moving with them. Suddenly realizing what it was, and that our men were threatened with a blind fight, I drew on the power of the Star and released a counter-spell. Lines of light spread from me in a delicate spiderweb of white glory. They failed to completely penetrate the shadow, but as the enemy forces closed with ours, we could at least see their forms. Arrows flew and the enemy began to fall. The counterattack hesitated, except for a wedge at its center. I mounted my horse and called for our elite knights to ride to meet that wedge. I had a feeling that this was it. I sensed that finally I was going to come face to face with Yomin himself. I drew my katana and spun defensive spells.
Facing me on foot was a deeper shadow roughly twice the size of a man, carrying a massive weapon – probably a broadsword, but in the gloom I couldn’t be sure – to match his height. The ground shook as Yomin the Grim thundered forward. His troops and mine alike drew back to give us room. I dismounted, preferring to fight on foot as well.
A spell tried to whisper in my brain. My screens held it out, but it was strong enough I could still sense it. Yomin swung that huge weapon and brought it down towards my head. I dodged. His stroke whacked into the ground and dug a pit. I struck at his leg, trying for a hamstring move. He avoided that, and my blade rang against his armor without cutting through. Seeing that I would need more than good steel to down the Dark Lord, I drew power from the Star and wove it into my blade while dodging three more strokes that made more pits in the ground. The armies around us had stopped fighting, all eyes fixed on the contest of champions in the gloom.
My sword shone blue-white like a hot star. I went on the attack, scoring seven cuts on Yomin’s legs, none of them enough to bring him down, each one evoking a cry of pain and anger that shook the earth. My eighth attack he met with a parry. I could see him a little more clearly now, as his shrouds of shadow had been weakened by my will. He looked like a giant in full plate armor. His face was hidden by his black helmet, but his eyes glowed golden through the visor. His weapon was indeed a broadsword longer than I was tall. Black fire wreathed the blade. It met my sword in a burst of flames, dark and light contending in their own struggle. The battling flames spread to engulf us both. As they did, the scene of our combat faded from view. I struggled to keep hold, to concentrate on what I was doing, but the vision within a vision engulfed me and I was elsewhere.
My mind flew through scenes of misery and horror. I saw Angée bound in shackles, screaming as sparks of black lightning flickered over her naked flesh. “She will suffer so for a thousand years,” said Yomin’s voice. I saw Dolphin lying dead, her body burned but still recognizable. I saw Thad Stevens striding through the halls of the Union of Democratic States in New York. People fell to their knees as he passed by unheeding. I saw Sword Mages triumphantly wielding their power over a mass of hopeless, helpless people, forcing on them sexual services, self-torment, or humiliating acts of obeisance. “All this will come to pass,” Yomin said. “It is doomed. Your crusade here in the world of dreams is for nothing. The Sword will triumph and all the powers you have broken will be restored as if you had never been. There are only two choices before you: join the Sword or despair.”
“No!” I struggled against the spell, trying to rip apart the vision and return to the battle, but all my efforts seemed only to strengthen the power of my mental prison.
“You have spent years fighting phantoms and ghosts, when you could have been preparing for battle in the physical world. The Star Mages are weaker for your neglect. The doorway will open and the Sword will come conquering. The people you would save will be reduced to bondage, as they deserve, as the world’s order demands. All because you fell prey to weakness and cowardice and fled from your duty as the guardian’s heir. Because of you, Dolphin will die. Because of you, Angée will be tortured for centuries. Because of you, the Star will be destroyed and all humanity’s hope will come to nothing.”
“No,” I said again, but quietly. Something, some instinct, took hold of my mind and I ceased my fly-in-the-web twisting of the will. With a conscious effort at surrender, I stopped struggling and began to let the visions pass by as they would, paying them no attention. I sought a place deep within, beyond the power of Star or Sword or Dark Lord, that place where each soul connects with the All from which we come.
“It is not ordained,” I said. “You show me one outcome of the coming struggle, one I knew already was possible. We take a risk, but there is still hope. For us – but not for you.”
I found the calm center, the place where I was no longer Falcon, but All-That-Is, the One reality that defies the illusion of Many. From that center, calm spread outward through the storm of vision. The images faded and vanished. Peace returned.
“Let’s finish this,” I said.
With a sound like ripping cloth, the spell broke. I was back in my body on the field of battle. Yomin towered over me. His sword blocked mine, as if no time had passed during our magical interchange. I followed through on the stroke, letting his massive blade slide off mine and plunge one more time into the pitted ground. I spun, whirled around behind him while he seemed to move in slow motion, and swung a deadly blow across the width of his broad waist. My sword sheared through his armor, flesh, and spine. He cried out and fell to the ground, bleeding profusely and paralyzed from the waist down. Another stroke took off his head.
His power was broken, and so were the foundations of his citadel. With a rumbling thunder, the Dark Tower shuddered, sundered, and crashed in ruin.
The rest was a mop-up. It was over. So was my sojourn. It was time to go home.
I emerged onto the physical plane in Ajaccio with nary a twinge of fear or worry and walked through the streets of the town towards my house. Mortals sold things in the market, fished in the sea, hung out on the beaches, and did all those things that make up life. I saw people of all ages from infants in strollers to slow-walking wrinkled ancients soon to die. They were just people. I thought about what I had accomplished during the four years of my wandering. I discounted any effect I’d had on the course of events in the real world. I was sure it was negligible. More significant was the effect on me. The four years of crusading had hardened me. I could fight and kill without going into a nauseated backlash afterward. I could face terrible evil without fear or doubt. I could accept the events of time and the harshness of the world without letting it cripple my own love and hope. I had become very strong. If I could impart that strength to other Star Mages, I felt we had a chance.
Years later, I reflected as well on the lesson of my final struggle with Yomin the Grim. From the moment his spell engulfed me and sent me into visions of doom, I was beaten. He had won, and it was not until I surrendered, stopped struggling, and transcended my limited self that I was able to break free. Falcon could not defeat the Dark Lord. But All-That-Is could, and could use Falcon as Its vehicle to do so. I realized, reflecting on that battle long after the fact, that the essence of the Sword was selfishness, its adepts locked into their limited identities and pumping as much power and aggrandizement into and through those identities as they would hold. To meet them on the same terms was to cede the battle. Either we would fall before the enemy or we would become them, both a defeat. We could win only by rising above and outside that definition of the Game. The Cosmos that they rejected was stronger by far.
I rang the doorbell of my home. Dolphin opened it with a smile.
Everything was fine for years after that, until the Star’s plan finished and Hell came calling.