I sat alone away from the others that night. We could only tell the divide between night and day based on the change in the air. The days were long and stifling with the heat, while night fell with a decrease in temperature, unseasonably cold.
I perched myself on a hill looking off into the distance at the walking dead; what few remained of them. I cleaned the blood off my gauntlet with an old rag Ember had stuffed at the bottom of her basket. I felt remorse at staining the armor, but it did not dull the gleam or power continuously radiating through the metal and glass. I tried to remove it, but I felt my skin pull with it and stopped fearful I’d have to rip the armament completely off my bone.
It was mine and has no intention of leaving me anytime soon.
I have to wonder though why it does not manifest in the other world. The scar Breeze left behind remained visible, but neither the mask nor the gauntlet transported to the otherside. Cloak warned I would be without my powers there, but I could open doorways and as he confessed, would no longer require dreams to come and go.
We journeyed on with Rhada Khar. The Rhylian did not speak much and made Little Ember uneasy. She kept to the opposite side of Cloak a great deal of the time, as I had shown my ugly side once too often. Besides, it was Baphomet she knew and admired, not me. I was just the guy with his face.
I slept very little and woke groggily to find Rhada Khar standing over me, arms crossed, watching me avidly.
“You were watching me?”
“Rhylians need little sleep.”
“Well, don’t. I don’t like it.”
“The others are concerned for you.” Rhada Khar said settling into the sand next to me, uninvited and unarmed.
“They have nothing to be concerned about.”
“You are important. It would ease their minds to know you care to be near them.”
“Did anyone ask you?” I snapped. “Why do you care anyway? Shouldn’t you be trying to kill me?”
He stared forward unflinching, but I knew I insulted him.
“You’re angry with me?”
“To say the least.”
Rhada Khar turned away from me, ashamed. “I do not pretend I am innocent. I did not believe you to be the One. I shame my father for my lack of faith. But if you demand greater punishment, I will not stop you. I will honor your deathblow if you will it.”
I didn’t want to kill him, just as Baphomet didn’t kill him in the Omphalos temple.
“Look, I’m sorry if I wounded your honor or whatever. It’s just it’s all a bit much right now. I’ve been through so much the past few days; I haven’t had much time to think about anything but trying to figure out how any of this happened to me, and why I’m the one who has to fix it. I know you fought with Cloak and Ember, but I am in no rush to trust you. You’re here, that’s great, but don’t think I’ve forgotten that you were an agent of the Lamia.”
“It was not her orders alone I was forced to fulfill.”
“Forced? By who? Baru?”
“The Alchemist is persuasive.”
I understood then. He wasn’t completely under their sway, just another pawn; another puppet dancing to the devil’s fiddle.
“What did he promise you?” I asked sitting up.
“Among my brethren, we call it ma’ii-kaanenh, but you would know this as brother.”
“Why? Totemo Khar lives.”
“How can you know that? Baru is a monster and a liar.”
Rhada Khar placed a heavy paw against his chest. “My heart remains whole. If he were beyond this world, I would know.”
The Rhylian warrior rested on the back of his legs and raised his head toward the sky like a wolf. He opened his mouth and produced a long howl that somehow transitioned into a beautiful lament. I had not anticipated such melody to escape the fearsome mouth of this tank of a beast, but the notes filled the haunted air, sending his song and heart across the broken universe.
When he finished, he lowered his head and withdrew the warhammer at his back, laying it in his lap.
“I know you do not trust me, but my hammer is yours should you have need. I do not assume to know what awaits us in the Citadel, should we reach it, but I would not have you venture its halls alone.”
He faced me earnestly, his stern features softening in the harsh light. Though he would never admit it, being a noble and proud creature, I could tell that he too was as lost as me. He needed a rejuvenated reason to fight.
We found the terrain unforgiving as we continued on. Our wandering led us to the farthest reaches of Nous and into the sea itself. Walking the dried up ocean floor was a major undertaking and we were met with various areas that required a great deal of alacrity. Climbing into the valley of an abyssal plain and routing our way up was no easy feat. Fortunately the same skill Baphomet inherited from the Craft was passed down to me. I moved with a clumsy elegance, but managed with claw and foot to ease up and over a series of submarine ridges.
Cloak, who could to some extent fly, did not use his abilities which I found rather odd and instead remained solid and corporeal moving up the sloping landscape like an amateur mountaineer. He looked silly trying to manipulate his limbs, an ancient spider trying to find his way up into his web. Rhada Khar moved as I did with Ember secured to his back.
I became apprehensive as we climbed the hill. Strange figures rose on the horizon, indiscernible at our distance, but wide, mountainous shapes rising toward the sky. Edging closer to the top of the hill we found ourselves overlooking a grim display.
Far ahead the husks of massive vessels sat sun scorched in the desert like skeletons in an elephant graveyard. Some were pitched on the ends of their hulls, or overturned like whales belly up. I pictured their crews trapped inside, long dead of course, but still waiting to be salvaged from their unfortunate tombs and properly buried. A disturbing thought, that anyone would want to be buried in such a perilous place Nous had so obviously become.
“The Armada of Kasteel,” Cloak said standing at the peak of the hill, his hood cutting low across his mask. “They were the ocean guardians of the Citadel. These mighty vessels mounted a defensive wall to bar the Trespasser’s path, only to find the waters that had been their livelihood were now their enemy.”
“So much death, Cloak. How can I redeem so many souls?”
“The brave require no redemption,” the Rhylian spoke appearing over my shoulder. “They seek only remembrance.”
A valiant sentiment, but gravity continued pushing down on my shoulders.
“Come on,” Cloak said, exasperated. I could feel the heat of his breath rasp on the back of my neck. “We make camp and rest ourselves.”
The winds were cold and shrill, a stormy sea breeze sweeping in finding no tide to roll along. Ember sat tediously trying to start a fire to keep us warm. She held the Spark Wood in both hands speaking to the dormant spirit of fire, but with each spark the wild wind descended to snuff it out.
She must have felt my eyes watching her because she looked up, her hair slashing across her mask. “You could speak to the fire too, you know?” She said tossing the block of wood into my hands.
I held the Spark Wood and studied its mystical engravings. “I’m not sure I know what to do.”
She sighed and shook her head. “I showed you before Baphomet, don’t you…?”
She cut herself off and clamped a hand over her painted mouth.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to…”
She shivered and I could hear a light sob pass through her lips behind the mask.
“It’s okay,” I told her pulling her close. “I miss him too.”
“But you are him. I know that.”
“No worries, little one. I’m still getting used to it all myself. Now come on, show me how this works. Again.”
I concentrated on the piece of wood in my hands, speaking to the air, asking the fire to come into me. I drew in steady breaths, releasing them slowly.
“Good, very good,” Ember observed. “Just like that. Don’t be afraid. Fire keeps us warm, cooks our food. Gives us light in the darkness.”
I focused on the words warm and light. They became heat and blaze and I could feel a tingling in my fingers and in the air around me. I could feel the air gathering, the velocity of its gales sensual and effervescent. The wood in my hand crackled and flickered, humming in the net of my fingers. It gravitated towards me, currents of energy flocking to me and I was no longer speaking to the latent flame, but to elements far and wide. The earth responded with a low grumble and the air with a delicious sigh, and even the sweat tearing from my pores under strain and warmth ran across my skin like raindrops pelting down.
“You’re doing it!” I heard Ember exclaim.
I held fast to my concentration, but her excitement began to mingle with my own as I realized I was in fact gathering heat into the palm of my hand and focusing it through the piece of Spark Wood.
But then her small voice became raised with concern. “Wait, what are you doing?”
The world heaved under our feet, the skies rolling with whip cracks of thunder. I couldn’t open my eyes. The pull toward the elements was too strong. I was gathering the air and the water from my own body and the earth, pulling these forces into a single cohesive element.
“Canaan, can you hear me,” Cloak interjected. “You must relax, you’re trying too hard.”
He was barely audible; my ears a noisy wind tunnel growing louder and louder. The Spark Wood floundered in my hand and I felt my body rising off the ground, levitating in mid air, encased in a whirlwind of sand and debris. I could hear them calling out to me, trying to rein me back down to earth, but the wind and the fury of primal forces swept through me, communicating through my cells and blood. A confusing, but intriguing conversation I was unable to interrupt.
The interior of my mind began to glow, brilliant light expanding from a single point of origin, like a single star in a jet black sky plummeting toward the earth. The force blossomed out like a boulder rolling down a hill and smacked right into me thrusting me off my invisible axis and shoved me against the ground with the burst of celestial fireworks.
I felt the Spark Wood pop out of my hands and opened my eyes in time to see if fly up into the air and burst into flame. And as I came down hard against the surface, I watched as the white moths flittering nervously around Little Ember burst one by one like incendiary shells and fell to the ground.
“Hey!” Ember cried. “What’d you go and do that for?”
I sat up raggedly and groggy, shaking the sand out of my hair. I looked around finding Cloak and Ember huddled over the remains of her moths and
“What a thing to do!” Ember yelled hammering her tiny fists into my stomach. “You didn’t even ask them.”
“Em, I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t know what I was doing. I got carried away.”
“An understatement,” Cloak cut in, bemused. “Perhaps you should keep practicing with your glass animals. Hone your focus before you accidentally crack open the world.”
“Hey now, that’s not funny. Beginner’s…”
I stopped mid sentence realizing that Ember’s face was melting. Colors were running down over the cheeks, washing away at the corner of her mouth. Not the paint itself, but the dirt and dust collected over the past several days. Something began pelting me on the top of my head. Tiny pebbles coming down faster and faster. I opened the palm of my armored hand and stared tearfully at the reflection of the sky in the polished surface.
It was raining!
Cool, cleansing rain spilling out of the tortured skies. It came down heavy and strong, and Ember forgetting all about her dead moths began to dance in the downpour, laughing and washing her dirty little arms in the natural showers. The sun and the moon remained in flux and the sky its blistered purple, but there was rain once again in the wasteland and though I did not know how I produced such a miracle, it was good.
We took shelter in one of the overturned boats. It lay on its side and was bowled like the inside of a turtle shell. I continued to practice my newfound abilities, first replenishing Ember’s basket with fresh Oneiroion flowers. It was simple enough and with the rain coming down, they required very little of my blood. It was all very Last Supper with my blood giving nourishment, and though I was unsure if I could turn a stone into a loaf of bread, the flowers were sufficient for now.
To make amends with Ember, I gathered the moth corpses and compacted them into a glass orb like insects frozen in amber. I then began the arduous process of reshaping the wings and their tiny limbs cast in glass. I offered them to her, but she didn’t seem amused by the gesture.
“They are gone, never to shine again.”
She rolled over on her end of the boat and went to sleep listening to the melody of the rain. Rhada Khar stayed outside. He removed his chest piece and sat out on the ground like a watchdog, his silvery blue fur soaked into a deep purple.
“Don’t worry about the girl, Canaan,” Cloak said sitting down next to me. “Every living being must learn folly, or face a lifetime of ignorance.”
“I really thought I had it. I could picture it all in my mind and the fire was there, but I got distracted somehow.”
“It’ll happen. But to be fair you did make fire. The rain however was unforseeable.”
“I have a lot to learn, don’t I?”
He nodded. “But you have the yearning, so it will come.”
Though I couldn’t see, I knew he was smiling.
“Look at it this way, my young master. If the rain doesn’t stop soon, you might’ve made yourself an ocean.”
When the others, including Rhada Khar who found a sleepy serenity at last, were fast asleep, I continued playing with the glass moths. I dedicated long hours to uncover how to make them live again. I tried and failed to use my blood to revive them, but it did not have the same effect as it had on the land.
Frustrated, I picked one of the figures up and balled it into my fist. I reined back my arm like a pitcher about to launch a fast one, and gritted through my teeth, “Why won’t you live!”
I released the glass figurine into the air and it flew through the continuous downpour vanishing out of sight.
I hunkered down into the belly of the ship and sighed. “I guess you can’t have it all, you big dummy.”
Just then I saw a light zip through the air in front of the ship. At first I mistook it for a flash of lightning, but then it zipped back again and then stopped and hovered in front of me.
It was ablaze with radiance, but it didn’t simply shine, it was made entirely of light.
The sound of its wings made sweet music and flittered and danced happily in and around the droplets of rain, the light catching giving the impression of diamonds falling.
Sometimes, just for a moment you can find beauty in the most unlikely of places.
When Ember awoke the next morning, she found a halo of her beloved moths singing and dancing like pixies over her head.
Her shifting eyes had never shone so blue.
When I learn the secret of the Threads, I’ll be sure to paint the sky that shade, just for her.
I prayed through the night that the rain as Cloak had jested would make an ocean, but there were only puddles. It was a start at least, but would carry us no faster toward our destination. The long journey resumed and we were on our way.
The trudge through the rain proved a hindrance as time wore on. Had I busted a water main in Heaven or what? It cooled the wasteland heat and gave us clean water to gather, but in the end it hindered us, with every mile taking longer than the last to traverse. Over time I realized Cloak was not himself. I could see that the journey was wearing on him as much as any of us. His powerful aura was different. The threads of energy that outlined him remained flowing constantly, virile as ever, but his demeanor to carry it lacked the luster I had known. When I confronted him, he tried to derail the conversation, telling me to concern myself with the journey ahead, not his state of being.
“There’s something you’re not telling me. You were gone such a long time and then you come back going all Gandalf on everyone in the temple, but now you’re I don’t know. You look tired.”
“My ailment is none of your concern.”
“Aha! So you admit you’ve got an ailment.”
“Insolent boy, go entertain the child, leave me be.”
I persisted much to his chagrin.
“I just need to know that you’re going to be beside me in this, Cloak and not run off again. I still need you. Even if I say I don’t. I do.”
“I know, young Architect. It was for that very reason I did what I had to do to ensure we stand a chance inside the Citadel.”
“What Cloak? Tell me. What happened to you?”
Cloak rose up and drifted out onto the earth. He threw back his hood which receded from over his head in a haze of black vapor. A mane of jet black curls draped down over his shoulders and back. He turned to face me and as the curls fell around his masked features his eyes flashed two brilliant orbs of blue lightning.
“Do you doubt my power,” asked Cloak, his voice of many rising from somewhere deep and unknown, filling the wasteland with its gigantic immensity.
“No,” I replied, my heart leaping into my throat.
He could be quite terrifying when he wanted to be, his shadow long and spreading like the wings of a great bat. His aura emitted a low drone, like the whir of a wind turbine.
“Then leave it be, and get some rest. We are so close.”
I swallowed my heart back into my chest and stood in front of him. “I can rest later. I want to talk about this now.”
He heightened the intensity of his glare at my persistence.
“The bargain is done. We should not dwell on what has past.”
“What do you mean? What bargain?”
He wouldn’t answer me.
His evasiveness began to frustrate me. I could feel my fingers curling, my muscles tensing. A stiff breeze raced through my hair. The world shrank around me, closing in around Cloak and Cloak alone.
“You ask me to trust you, but how can I when you conceal so much from me. You once told Baphomet you had so much to tell him, well tell me.”
He twisted his body and began to walk away from me. Fire burned in my belly at his indignation.
And then it began to spread.
“I demand to know!”
A flash of light lashed out of my mouth and smashed into his corporeal form like a sledgehammer and sent the living shadow flying a few feet into the sand. He landed with an audible boom and I stood back agog at what I’d done.
I couldn’t believe it. It took Lamia every ounce of her power to duel with the indomitable Cloak and all it took me was a roar. I charged over to where he landed afraid I’d just killed my dark guardian.
Cloak was on his feet in an instant, but the light raced over his form in fluctuating belts conforming to restrain him in place. He shook frantic and wavered like ink in a vase of water before reassembling himself into a solidified and elegant shape. Eventually the bands of light dwindled like shrinking starlight and he took a moment to regain his composure.
“You’re full of surprises, aren’t you, young one?”
“I’m serious Cloak. We’re more than equals now, remember? You have to level with me.”
He took a moment and readjusted his mask, drawing his hood back into place, dark smoke rings clouding over and concealing his lustrous curls.
“Power, Canaan. I bargained for power, an immeasurable reservoir of power and knowledge done to assist you and to ensure our inevitable journey to the Summit of Pleromabraxas is successful. But a sacrifice was demanded and I offered myself, my immortality. So yes, we are more or less on level ground my young master. We are both powerful beings, but alas mortal.”
I understood now. His exhaustion, his weakened aura, it was mortal limitation on one who had known none before.
“I retain all my gifts, but they are costly and require more meditation to replenish them. It is not easy for me to show weakness. We were not…You did not create my kind to fall, and we have fallen many, many times. I’ve done all of these things against my better judgment; my dealings with Baphomet, my sacrifice, all in servitude for your journey. I am forever and always a Theurgian and your faithful guardian.”
“But mortal? Why, why would you do such a thing to yourself?
“My oath; my vow, Architect.” Cloak said placing both hands on either shoulder. His lightning blue eyes peered into me and for a moment I thought he might wrap me in a fatherly embrace. “I am with you until the end of one or both of us.”