Haaaaa… A clouded mist curled out of my breath and stood afloat just a disconcerting moment. It swirled and caved on itself again and again, falling and rising as though possessed by the fragment of an ancient restless dragon’s desire to protect its trove. It spiraled upwards and upwards slowly dissipating one gasp at a time.
My core spazzed and buckled, forcing itself to stop trembling, commanding my body to hold itself still. Why would anyone come to a place like this, in a t-shirt and paint-tattered sweat pants with a growing hole in the left knee? That’s the question of the hour it seems.
My gaze followed the icy particles of my breath into the ethereal glow of the lavender tinted sky. The pale color was startling against the three orbs of light that sat low on the horizon. Two were crescent twins cradling the largest of the three, as though two hands glowing in starlight held a crystal ball vibrant with secrets of divinity. The celestial image was cast as a reflection onto the frozen glass of the obsidian lake I crouched over, greedily protecting every moment of warmth before it too, slipped away. Like everything seemed to slip away.
The flawless surface of the lake in its vastness winked back at me as mysteries underneath floated towards this new creature that I was, scattering green embers of light, only to drift back into the darker depths of the unknown. The color remained. The emerald haze played with the lavender glow and created a ghostly dance for an empty crowd.
“I think you’ve gawked enough, human,” snapped a voice behind me. The sudden intrusion of sound in otherwise mute surroundings almost caused me to tumble from my perched huddle. I waddled in place in a circular fashion, not willing to let go of the warmth, but not being able to ignore the curiosity burning in me. What was this place? How did I come here? Why did I come here? Where was my phone?
Sneering down at me was a savage and terrifying beauty. The steeliness of her silver stare added a sharpness to the set of her chin. She was a painting of otherworldly spite, framed by various hues of blue beckoning to me from a sleek waterfall of hair. I rose stiffly to a full 5’11” stance with wariness emanating from my socked feet to the disarray of my ash colored hair. She continued to glare at me, taller than she seemed before. She turned, half poised towards the sparse forest of maple trees behind her, a silent command to follow. I glanced back at the obsidian and violet wasteland to one side and considered how long I might survive in an environment that was neither familiar, nor seemed terrestrial in any sense of the word. I glanced back at this goddess of an alien tundra swathed in furs of dusky gray. If this place had other life, had animals that made no sound and bore coats like the one she wore, I could only imagine how dangerous a world I’ve awoken into.
“You’ve been summoned by the Queen. You are to follow me, or perish,” she said casually. A smirk replaced the sneer, and something in the way she devoured the fear I could feel in my eyes told me, I would not be leaving the way I came…however it was that I did.
“Where exactly am I?” I inquired, hoping that it was anywhere near some sign of humanity. She simply flicked her steely eyes up and down my pathetic appearance, and began moving towards the edge of the clearing. Apparently, humans are not deigned worthy the answers to stupid questions.
Green embers continued to flutter by me as I stalked after her trying not to slide sideways in my socks and crash face first into the ice. Looking down to catch what it was sending them, I found only the haggard face of a young architect. Eyes the color of a long-forgotten summer that still sought for a place to belong…perhaps one I’ll never find.
The further we walked, the denser these odd woods became, the roots of the trees embedded in the glass disappearing into whatever lay there. Trees require soil, water, and sunlight, right? Right. None of which could be seen in any direction. There was no sound of wind, or the rustling of leaves, or life. Nothing but the hollow sound of boots on glass. Everything stood so still that I wondered if I had passed through some fantastical painting dreamed by an artist unknown. Was I so taken by the image that I accidentally walked into it?
The steady rhythm of the woman’s stride pulsed in me, the fear of the unknown growing over the initial allure of this delusion. The ground remained that mysterious obsidian glass, but green embers flashed brighter, and increased in number until “Shut up!” stomped the goddess. The embers scattered from the deep rumble that propagated into whatever world was beneath us, as though the lights were alive too. We were again enshrouded in the quiet glow of the three moons, and as the cold came back my shuddering grew with violence. The only thing making me take one step in front of the other was the desire to know what the shifting shades of blue in my forest guide’s hair were trying to whisper to me. Never the same streak in the same place, a temperamental ever moving grace…I knew and saw nothing but what might have simply been stardust embedded in once startlingly white, long hair.
Suddenly the scent of maple that dominated the air began to turn sweeter. It was faint at first, and the further we went the scent grew to an almost saccharine quality. The goddess halted, and for a few moments became the idyllic sculpture that rose at the center of an exquisite diorama. She reached up towards the lilac light as if offering some kind of prayer, and in one graceful motion came to kneel on one knee, both hands resting beside her on the glass in a faint caress. I awoke from whatever spell the cold and the forest had cast me under, and I realized glancing around blearily that we were no longer outside. Nor were we inside. The lilac sky still painted the scenery above me, but the trees had transformed into slabs of obsidian stone very much in likeness to the glass we still stood upon. There was a short dais at the center of this enclosed space, on which sat a raven-haired woman adorned with ornaments made of luminous milky stone like they were carved from the moons themselves. She sat amongst a variety of dark velvet cushions, eyes unopen, dark lashes still. It looked like she was in a deep sleep, until she inhaled deeply, nose flaring, “You’ve done well, huntress.” Her eyes shot open, the darkness in them just as striking as her hair. They drank in the light, the sight everything, the sight of me half conscious and half lost. Utterly lost to the cold that I no longer felt around me. “His scent is just as sweet as I had hoped…” she smiled at me predatorily, her voice a lilting echo. A feral desire flashed in that depthless look. “Tell me, human…What was the first thing you saw?”
“The moons, they were the first things,” I hesitated a moment, but if I were in true danger, I would already be dead. Wouldn’t I? “What is this place, why am I here?” I asked, voice trembling from the bone deep chill.
The queen’s smile grew in delight forming two small dimples at the corners. Crescent moons. She inhaled again head tilting. Her eyes fluttering in some kind of ecstasy. “How very, sweet you are indeed. My dear, human, this is but one world of many. One form of purgatory, of countless millions…” she gestured sweeping one arm from the lake to the land to the sky to something beyond that I couldn’t comprehend.
“Why am I here, what do you want with me?” I asked, a burst of courage drawn from nothing but the rising urge to run as far as I could, for as long as I could. It didn’t matter how long I would last, but this strange queen was nothing as what she portrayed. A queen of hunters and huntresses, insinuated I was prey.
“You are desperate, are you not?” A disarray of papers strewn across a large wooden desk. Cups and cups of old coffee, the stale scent intermixed vaguely with notes of alcohol. More images flashed: sketches of sweeping ceilings, opulent mansions, artisan’s shops, anything and everything. But nothing worked. Not the way I wanted. “That is what made you vulnerable to be found, that which you are remembering” she sneered, those ornaments in her hair, around her arms and neck, grew in luminosity. “You have a choice, artist. What is your one true desire? I’ll see it becomes a reality,” the Queen rose from her seat and descended the dais gracefully, unhurried, like she knew I was trapped. I was taken by her gaze, there was no escaping.
“What if I refuse?” I countered, the tremulous quality in my voice not as strong.
“Well, that would be rather unfortunate. You would be dismissing the true bargain of a lifetime,” she offered, and paused only a few feet from where I stood. “You see, I require nothing but a single memory. One memory of your deepest sense of fulfillment by your art, and I will make that desire come true…” It sounded too good to be true. “If you choose to decline however,” a look of deep displeasure marred her regal charm. “You will leave never to return, with no memory of this place. No memory of the beauty and enchantment.”
“Is that such a consequence?”
“You try to hide it, as mortals often do. You may be afraid, but I can see it. It may not be your ultimate desire, but you aspire for greatness and the mysticism of this purgatory inspires a work that could achieve that,” she said. How did she know? How was it true? She could see this secret before I myself could make sense of the fragments of thoughts wandering my mind. I didn’t want to forget what I had seen. I wanted to make it. “Did you know, human,” she drew closer. “That this room…looks like something else to each artist that has been brought forth. Their mind creates a different image, a different dream, that entices the very curiosity you feel burning in your heart.”
Her hand grasped my forearm, touch colder than this wasteland. “Architect, what is your desire?” she whispered. Her eyes bore into mine, drinking in that last memory of a long-ago summer. There was a nothingness in them, a greed and eagerness that elicited abandoned ideas, designs. She laughed under her breath as the coldness crept from her grip digging into my arm, and I fell deeper into that ebony stare. The darkness pervaded all of my senses, until there was nothing left at all.
I stood on the corner of Dew Street and Ebon Way. A full moon peeked at the Earth from collection of clouds and the crisp fragrance of the start of winter tickled my nose. The roads were empty and a short line of cars were parked along the curb of the back entrance. The leaves of great oak trees lining the way up to the large pale mansion rustled in the breeze. At dusk I watched the crowds come and leave the estate where there now sat looming structures, slabs of obsidian, orbs of light, a glittering pond. The scenery incited something in people, drew them closer to this place. It felt like a place one could belong. No matter the person, the history, the life, something about the way this view called to them made them want to stay forever. But of course, the truth of reality always had something to pull them back from any reverie they were lost in. So is the fortune of those who have already found something to belong to. The owners of the land had let the vast front lawn be open to the public, allowing others to gape at my design and creations.
A few months ago, I awoke from my desk with designs strewn, documents to sign, phone ringing with call after call. I was sought after for my work, but never in all of the designs I’d created had I ever felt the true satisfaction of creating a great thing. This was it; this was what I wanted to create. Something that anyone could look at and see something different, something they wanted to see. It was already there among my designs, as though I had fervently drawn and drawn everything I saw in a fever dream that I couldn’t remember. It was undeniably done by my hand. There was certainly an otherworldly quality, but the less I thought of that ageless queen, the less I was afraid of what I bargained. The side effect of using a memory as payment is that you no longer remember what it was. It’s simply a tangled portion of time that the more you try to unknot the more tangled it becomes.
I approached the three moons treading carefully over the damp, green lawn. I dusted off my slacks and buttoned up my coat as the night grew colder. Examining my rendition, the memory of what the real thing looked like captivated me. I lost all sense of thought beyond that singular image. I pulled my coat tighter around the collar, the breeze becoming more and more frigid. A familiar shiver shook my body, and I blinked against the sudden gust of wind that drew tears to my now gray eyes.
“It was beautiful wasn’t it?” asked a voice. A lilting echo. No. I blinked furiously until the sight before me became clear. The queen lounged on her dais, the huntress wearing her furs and eternal smirk standing guard off the side.
“Why am I back here? You have you what you wanted!” the shuddering within me now commanded my whole being.
“Watch your tone, human!” she snapped her gaze from the lilac sky to my face, emanating fury. I blinked in terror, my body seizing, and suddenly she stood just before me inches from my nose. The emptiness of those dark eyes entrapped me once more as she raised her hand and gently held my face. All of the terror screamed within my body for only me to hear it. Everything stood in utter silence. Even the huntress no longer smirking stood in rapt attention at the events transpiring before her. That’s when I realized. I wasn’t cold. There was no chill. It was warm, almost uncomfortably so.
The regal smile returned to the queen’s lips, and she laughed softly in amusement. Anger forgotten. Inhaling deeply, she said, “My how much sweeter you smell. Accomplishment does wonders to stroke the ego of a rising artist.”
“What are you going to do, kill me?” I asked. She cast the echo of a full bellied laugh that shot throughout the room.
“My dear human boy. You had perished when you made the bargain!” She grinned the feral look coming over her expression. Those moon-lit ornament glowed brighter once more. That’s when the burning began. “Your once ephemeral existence now belongs to me for eternity” she said in glee. I panted in pain at the burning that began from her hand and rippled throughout me. In her eyes, I could see my ash-colored hair, turning ivory, pale shades of blue growing in flecks at my roots. No.
The queen’s eyes fluttered closed, and she inhaled again then sighed in euphoria. “The purer the desire, the purer the passion boy. The sweeter the essence of an artist’s gratification for their work. You gave me the direct line to the core of your being, your very reason for existence, your very soul when you gave me that memory.” The burning began to subside, and what I saw in the reflection…
I looked just like the huntress. A male version of that harsh beauty. We had become twins. The very emblems of those twin crescent moons.