It's cold, colder than you've ever been; a poison that seeps through your pale skin and reaches your bones and chills the marrow within so that you can barely move. Panic assails you, the first emotion in an otherwise blank mind, and your green eyes widen as the only thing you see is white, the white of your ragged dress, of your pale skin, and of the cold frost that surrounds you, an impossible snowscape that seems to go on forever.
You grope about you, blinded by the lack (or perhaps, the sum?) of color. You try to find your bearings and stand up; you fail and collapse on your knees. You can't move. Fear stabs your heart - you're going to die. You try to stand again; again you fall. Sobbing, you crawl into a sitting position, your slender body wracked with shivers. How could you die here? It's ridiculous, you must be dreaming. 'What is this? Why am I here?' Then, another question, one that accentuates the panic until it's an iron lance plunged through your chest and twisted around. 'Who am I?'
You try and think. You glimpse vague visions, images. A picture of a mother you've never met. A table full of materials next to a roaring fireplace. Neatly arranged dolls, crafted by hand. A woman with black hair, and a book, and blood, and fire...
For a moment, all feeling disappears. The cold, and the pain and the fear of death become nothing during a long, sharp breath of disbelief.
Then you scream.
You scream and scream and scream again, beating your fists against the ground, pulling on your long golden hair so hard you tear out clumps, dragging long nails over your face until the skin breaks and your blood stains the snow.
Eventually, your throat gives out and all you can do is whimper and lie on the snow, crying as you bury your face into your arms.
You wake up, your eyes surveying the interior of a four-poster bed so soft you feel you might sink in it. You blink, trying to adjust your vision to the daylight filtering in through the curtains. Is it morning or afternoon? You cannot tell.
You consider getting up, but find little motivation to do so within a painfully hollow heart. You find you don't care for living even one second more, so what's the point? You've lost everything, so it scarcely matters where you are, or why, or who saved you from the snow.
You sigh, feeling your breathing grow heavier as sleep threatens to overtake you again. 'I'll stay here,' you think to yourself, 'and close my eyes and hope I'm dreaming and not move an inch until I wake up. But because it's not a dream....' Your breathing wavers at the thought but you find yourself without the strength to cry. 'Because it's not a dream, I'll never wake up; so I'll stay here asleep until I wither away, like a princess in a fairy tale.'
You close your eyes. 'At least I'll die comfortable.'
You sink deeper into the darkness, feeling your consciousness slowly disappear into nothing. This is not sleep, but death. Once it all fades completely, you will not awaken.
Or perhaps, you think as your mind slips into nothing, perhaps you will? The darkness, you realize, feels familiar - you've been here before. You remember a sharp pain in your head and your vision going at first blank, then dark, then engulfed in bright flame that faded away into the distance no matter how much you grasped at it as you felt yourself falling down a deep well, falling for what felt like hours, and then days and then eternity.
And you remember whispers and symbols, and a shining golden braid.
And you remember how, finally, after centuries, the fall stopped. And then the cold.
Something saved you from death. Something pulled you out of the dark.
Your green eyes snap open.
"The book," you murmur, voice incredibly hoarse. "The book!"
You cast about the bed, finding nothing. Then, suddenly full of vigour, you jump out of it, pulling back the curtains. You rub your eyes at the sudden light, the breeze around your body telling you you're naked or mostly so. You don't care - the moment you get your vision back, you start looking about the room, opening closets, drawers, knocking over the things on top of the dresser, simultaneously scouring the room and ignoring everything about it. You can't find it; you start to panic and breathe heavily, you can't find it; something starts to tear you up inside, first a vague feeling of nausea, then actual, physical pain. Why can't you find it? You can't bear the thought of having lost it, it feels like the ultimate defeat; you've lost everything, everything, everything, so why-
The book is on a nightstand to the left of your bed.
You let out a sigh of relief, then a sob, then start crying again, grabbing the book and pressing it to your bare breasts, holding on to it for dear life. Then you feel something cold and metallic press against your skin.
You pull the book away from you to get a good look at it.
It's changed. The ragged, ripped leather from the cover is now pitch black and smooth and new, the corners are not worn, but tipped with solid gold, and the edges of each page have been painted gold as well. Moreover, the book can't be opened. Golden chains encircle its width, attached to a large lock made also of gold and encrusted with rubies and sapphires the size of pigeon's eggs.
You run your hand over the lock. It looks incredibly complex, with no apparent way to manipulate it and no discernable keyhole.
You look closer, and shudder. There is a long, thin, spatter of blood over the leather, starting from under the lock and moving up before disappearing. You turn the book around. There's nothing unusual along the back.
You don't understand, but having it is enough. Standing on wobbly legs, you head back to your bed and lie down, pressing the book against your chest. Perhaps with this, you won't die alone.
Called,writing. OK, guys, look. I've tried (been trying this past week), but I figure if I try to write the way I did before (as in really large updates with a long wait time), I'll just lose interest again. So, I decided I'm going to try a different approach and try to update every day, even if each update is a lot shorter. Hope you don't mind.
There is something musical about the world in stillness, of the wind rushing through the blades of grass and the water flowing from the streams and fountains that dot the garden, water clear as a pane of glass.
You've already spent hours here, sitting on the grass under the shadow of an apple tree. It gives flowers but not fruit, not yet. It probably never will, in this world that stands still in time.
You run a pale hand over the book on your lap, feeling the heat of your skin fade away into the coolness of the golden lock. You've been in this world for so long, and yet you still cannot open it.
"You do that enough, you'll end up just rubbing the lock away," someone says behind you, and you feel her breath on your neck. You smile. You know that voice and the smell of that perfume.
"That would take forever, " you answer.
"We have forever, Alice."
Yumeko sits down next to you and smooths over the creases on her long red dress. She rests her head on the tree, then grabs a flower -fallen to the grass from high above - and places it on her long golden hair. Her grey eyes seem to shine as she smiles.
You turn around to look at her, admiring every inch of her form. You really wish you could believe her. "I'm not sure," you mumble, taking a deep breath. "Even as still and peaceful as this world is, I don't feel immortal."
"That's because we're not. Not how you think, anyway." says Yumeko, taking your right hand away from the book and placing it between her own. Her skin is warmer than yours. "If you hurt me," she said, "I will die. But it's not about death, Alice." She frowns. "I think I understand as much now. Each of us fell down into the darkness before Shinki saved us; each of us, save you, were there long enough to lose ourselves to the point we had no name to go by. And even now, we're fragile. Touch me wrong and I will break. But."
Yumeko takes your hand to her lips and places a soft kiss on your slender fingertips. You sigh. "But there is nothing to break us in this world," she continues. "Everything inside here is peaceful and everlasting. And, as you know, its walls are unbreachable. The rot that claimed you outside won't touch you here. And so, no matter how fragile we are, if there is nothing to break us, aren't we unbreakable? If we can age and decay, but there is nothing to make us do it, aren't we ageless? So yes, Alice, we do have forever. You just don't realize it because you're still too aware of a mortal frailty that if you think about it, doesn't exist inside here, only outside. And why...." You notice that she's been edging closer to you with each sentence and is now pressing up against you. Her warmth and presence are intoxicating. "Why would we ever leave?"
You look down at the cover of the book, the golden patterns shining back your distorted reflection, save for the one place stained by blood. "Why..."
"I can't say I understand completely, Alice," Yumeko whispers into your ear. "I lost myself in the darkness before I came here, and I don't remember who I was. But I can only imagine, if it was so painful... maybe it was best to forget." She places a hand on your waist then leans in a bit more. "Maybe you should just let go." ---------------------------_----------------------------------------------------------------',-,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,..---------------------
See, I normally don't like to interfere with the voting process. However, these scenes are important.
So, if you're going to vote and haven't read the story before, please familiarize yourself with the flashbacks from Act II (>>34422). This is going to sound pretentious, but if you've only just started reading (or stopped long ago), the story's probably not going where you think it's going.
You shudder as you stare at the edge of the endless abyss you have been led to. Though it is massive and apparently infinite, you could not have seen the cliff, your sight blocked by magic and entranced by beauty.
You feel a chill crawl up your spine. For the first time in all the years since you arrived here, you feel the cold of the bitter winds touch your skin again, as though a protective veil had been harshly lifted. Instinctively, you clench your book, the source of all your misery, closer to your chest. The cold, hard lock presses against the fabric of your dress. Even in this moment of utter torment, it refuses to budge.
Yumeko, your poor, sweet, beloved Yumeko, has betrayed you.
"I'm sorry," she croaks as she steps to block the path downward.
"No you're not," you snap, turning around and leveling an accusatory glare. Your heart is pounding madly in your chest. You notice she hasn't pulled a weapon, but somehow in your mind you have no doubt that she really is going to do it.
"Yes I am!" she screams, grey eyes wide, her voice cracking under the volume. She wrings her hands together, then brings them up to her pale cheeks with a clenching motion, fingernails digging into the skin. Finally she lets go, her shoulders drooping as if she were exhausted, tears running down her cheeks. "I am. But... but... I prefer this. I prefer this, even if you hate me forever. Because I'm giving you a choice. I'm giving you a choice, okay? Shinki on her own would just have killed you, but... but... hand me the book. Go on, hand me the book. We'll throw it over the cliff and forget this ever, ever happened. Please." She reaches out with her right hand, beckoning to you.
You look at her hand and then meet her eyes with your own gaze. Images flash by your mind of all the happy years you've spent here. You remember Yuki, and Mai, and even Shinki who in some strange way had become something of a surrogate mother. And Yumeko, with whom you'd had something so close and warm you ran out of words that could describe it.
It doesn't matter. All those people betrayed you the moment you got close to solving the puzzle of the lock. Given that, everything else they did before rang hollow, evil, false. "No."
Yumeko recoils as though she's been struck. "Please..." she murmurs. "You have to realize what's at stake. This world is bound off, closed entirely to the outside. There is no magic here save for the magic used to create it. But if you open that thing, you'll be able to bring in magic from the outside. And if you do that it will mean there's nothing stopping anything, any horrible thing, from entering the world. So please, please just give it to me. We can end it all here! Please!" She stretches out her hand again.
You gaze upon that delicate hand, but remember only that night of blood and fire that set you on your path.
A spear of cold stabs through the inside of your chest as you utter the word. Yumeko shakes her head and looks at the ground. She takes a deep breath. "I can't... I can't kill you."
She clenches her fists, then looks up and glares. "I'll take it, then."
You don't have time to react, before you know it Yumeko is upon you, a hand on your shoulder, the other trying to wrestle the book away from your iron grip, for the last time in your life her sweet smell intoxicates your mind-
Still clinging to the book, you slip on the snow, and fall off the cliff's edge.
You fall and fall and keep falling. The seconds stretch into hours and the hours into days, months, years. Yumeko and the cliff's edge, if you could ever see them, have long since receded into the darkness, an inky blackness that surrounds you physically but also mentally - it dominates your thoughts, such that you can feel nothing, nothing at all. Not pain, not suffering, not regret, not joy or happiness, nothing.
This is true death. You've been here before, having fallen into this blackness after that night of fire. They - all of them - were here before. And all of them talked about a darkness and sleep, that were then disturbed by vicious images and a sense of persecution. But whatever it was, Shinki had saved herself from it, and then she'd saved the others.
But though she believed to have done the same to you, in reality nothing had disturbed you, then. Just as nothing disturbed you now. Something, something within you, keep the darkness peaceful, calm. It surrounded you but did not smother you.
But even then, all was still lost. Bereft of thought, of light, you could do nothing more than sleep, clutching your book to your chest.
Without light, you cannot see it, even though you can feel the cold metal of the lock against your hands. Without light, you will never read it. Without light, you will never open it.
And you were so close... the intractable, keyless mechanism could yet be opened, you knew, if you could answer the riddle carved into it.
You realize you're thinking again. But it matters little, this thought is only of defeat - who could answer the riddle, if you did not know what it was? How could you know what the book was asking? And if you knew, could you possibly know the answer? All the pain that had been inflicted on you, and all the love that had then also turned to pain, had driven you, spurred you on, but it was for naught.
"It was... nothing?"
Something burns inside your chest, like a candle lit inside your heart. How could everything you've felt and seen be nothing, nothing at all? You can't understand that.
"It's not... it's..."
It had to mean something. Anything. All this suffering that has spurred you on, all the love that had enabled you to keep going without succumbing to the cruelty inflicted on you, all the pain that, now that this love had turned sour, still demands that you open the book, if only to make it mean something.
The fire in your heart seems to burn brighter, more painfully, at this. What meaning could it all have? What meaning could all that suffering that moved you have, beyond making your soul scarred and ugly, if it had been for naught?
If you had not suffered, you would not be here, you would not have tried to open the book.
You would have lived happily, free of care, but you would not have touched this world, you would have known nothing, nothing at all. You would have lived and loved and then died, like a match struck before the wind, and magic, the magic you dreamed of, the one your father whispered as fairy tales when you went to sleep...
Magic would never have been real.
The candle lit in your heart has turned into a roaring flame, and the pain inside it burns more fiercely than ever, and yet, and yet it causes you no anguish - rather, it becomes part of you, a strange, otherworldly power.
Suffering had brought you here. Suffering had set you upon the path, it had made you walk it, it had made you reach the end. It had meaning not by itself, but by what it had made you do. Only through suffering could your wish for magic have been granted.
It is a dark, lonely truth. It hurts deeply, terribly, because you know that what you lost will never be recovered, and because you know that it had not been you who chose to walk down the path, but foul circumstance that had thrown you into it.
Now, you could end it. You could surrender to the darkness, to a long-awaited, blessed sleep, and dream, dream again like you dreamed before, and come back to a semblance of the peace you had left.
Or you could suffer, as you had already suffered terribly. You could keep going, not because you accepted the vile hand fate had dealt you, but because you still held onto a tiny sliver of hope that one day, one day, you could defeat it, and finally, truly feel whole again. Because you could still, somehow, in your human soul, witness all the pain and sorrow that had been inflicted on you, and, still somehow, believe that if you could push beyond it, its fruit would be happiness and perfection.
It floats above you, and a bright light shines from within the lock, illuminating your face and driving out the darkness. Slowly, timidly, the mechanism moves and parts aside, and the covers snap open.
The veil before your eyes is torn away, and finally you can see.
Beyond the darkness, beyond the pages of the book, you see the true nature of everything you have laid eyes upon, the hidden key to every lock, the shining golden braids supporting every wall, every law and concept, the runed circles through which thought takes shape and physical form, how to make, how to undo, how to break in half and put back together... and the more you see, the more the darkness is driven away, until you're no longer falling but floating in a massive column of radiance.
Just finished going through this and my god KW, this is an amazing story. I can understand losing steam after so long but, please please continue to write this story and someday finish it. Cause you just got yourself a new faithful reader.