The Beginning Chapters

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2. BATHED IN LIGHT

…can’t. resist. the shiny…

 

“Do you still remember this moment?” Asantra asked. “The sun that morn, so bright.”

“I cannot see Today in a day gone by. I would not know,” he replied then.

She leaned down and brushed the sparkling morning glory drops off the grass. Gently, she raised her hand to Amondire’s face. Fingers, wet a little, left a shining smudge on his cheek.

“I remember,” she whispered. “This light in your eyes, sometimes I miss it so…”

He tilted his head. “What had befallen you, I cannot imagine.”

A faint smile appeared on her lips. “You wouldn’t understand… yet. You wouldn’t believe.”

“Had you seen it?”

Unsure, she didn’t answer.

“In this past Today. Had you seen it then?”

She shook her head no. “I had never looked far enough, where I should not look at all. Yet today…”

A pause.

“Yet today?”

“I cry because of that. For if I had, we could still… be.”

“Are we not?” Amondire asked.

“Are we?”

“I would not know. After all, I am not even here.”

 

:o:O:o:

 

Asantra woke up with face wet from tears. She could almost feel that morning breeze brush over her skin, fresh grass touching her fingers. There were smells too, so different from the stench of this dead underground city. She palmed her eyes to bring back the darkness, desperately trying to cling to the dream, to keep the images from fading.

Hile would call this masochistic, and in a way, she was right. No dream, no vision, and no memory hurt Asantra as much as this one. An imaginary scene, based on something that maybe happened a long time ago. This, this was hers. This was not a gift, not a vision, not a punishment. It had nothing to do with being a prophet, nothing to do with Madram. It was a simple dream. The last one that still came to her, when all others were dead.

Alas, the law of dreams was that they were fleeting, delicate like snow under the summer’s sun.

First went the image of his face, so quickly she wasn’t sure she had seen it at all.

Then followed the light of day, the green of the trees, the azure of the sky.

“Don’t leave!” she cried out in anger, but neither her dream companion nor the beautiful trees cared to obey her command.

It’d been two years since Amondire had destroyed half of her soul.

Asantra was awake. She opened her eyes to face the Crown. Looking at the place now, it was difficult to believe that a few decades ago it had been a thriving city of locari. Through the open gate of the church she lived in, Asantra could see the town spreading underneath. Outside, the lamplight was not needed – everything was bathed in a delicate light from colorful rocks embedded in the stone walls around. A passerby would have been halted by their astonishing beauty, but to Asantra they became a mockery – pulsating with light, as if promising her more, but never delivering. Like an eternal dawn, that kept the sun trapped just below the horizon.

When Amondire dumped her here, he threw out the last few people still living in the Crown. Some of them came back soon after, though he warned them not to. That time, it was not a threat, it was but a fair advice, and it was through the people’s folly and stubbornness that they would not listen. At first, Asantra worried what would happen to them. She could sometimes hear a voice echoing in the cave, signaling that someone was still alive and around. Now, she didn’t think much about it anymore, and she had ceased asking Hile about it too. Maybe everyone was dead, maybe they had moved out. Asantra didn’t want to know.

Waking up after long periods of the Dream wasn’t pleasant. Asantra’s numb body hurt, but at the same time demanded movement. She kicked off the covers and scrambled out of the bedding set on the floor. Quiet whispering coming from the corner, and the barely audible buzz of the colorful rocks outside were the only sounds around. Asantra crawled towards the balcony on all fours, afraid of falling; she couldn’t trust her muscles anymore.

The thump of her hand hitting the wooden floor of the terrace echoed in her mind with the memory of the last words Amondire had ever said to her: ‘I did’.

Always, always they rang through her mind whenever she woke up; the persistence of the memory, the clarity of it, they were maddening, so different from the dream she longed to keep. Shaking her head, she began to hum to herself in an attempt to muffle it all. She crawled a few more steps to the wall and groped for a loose brick. When she found it, she began trying to take it out. Hile kept Asantra’s nails short, which made it quite difficult, but eventually the wall yielded, and the brick came out. Asantra put her hand into the warm crevice, and took out the amulet nested inside. On a thin platinum chain hung a drop-shaped translucent red stone, enchanted to forever be warm. An artifact like that was worth a fortune, but to her, money had long since lost its worth.

This was a memento. Something priceless to the one she had taken it from. To give it back would mean the beginning of her redemption.

If only he would come.

“Milady, please, not this again.” Asantra suddenly heard Hile’s warm voice. Her maiden walked up the last few steps and came over to crouch by the wall. “I swear on my parents’ graves that I will return it to him,” Hile said. “Don’t torment yourself with it, let me help you.”

Asantra shook her head and put the necklace back behind the brick. “It’s my apology, Hile. But today that’s not what concerns me.”

The maiden’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “It isn’t?”

After Asantra’s soul had been broken, her gift that once had allowed her to see the future began to trap her in the past. The Dream came in cycles, and each cycle led her through the past – her own, and the past of those whose fates were tied to her.

At least that was what Amondire had told her.

Once the cycle caught up to the present, she would wake up for several days or weeks, and then begin a new one. In the middle of the cycle, she would sometimes wake up for moments like this one. Clinging to reality, she would try to stay awake and wait by the amulet. It never worked. Once the Dream wanted to claim her again, her mind had to obey. Asantra hated it, while Hile couldn’t understand why going over to the better past could be worse than staying in this horrific reality; Hile said it was a merciful blessing, no less. But Hile had never felt the feelings that filled those visions. A man knowing he must jump to his death would have a hard time enjoying the view from the cliff.

There was a thought, however, an idea that just wouldn’t leave.

“What if Amondire lied to me?” Asantra looked at her friend. “He said that I was revisiting the past, but the past is something that cannot be changed, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Hile said. “What do you mean the Sinhail lied, my lady?” She would always persistently stress the name.

“What if this–” Asantra waved her hand around “–what if this isn’t the present at all? What if this is actually a vision of the future? What if each time I wake up, I am actually asleep?”

“I’m not sure I understand.” Hile frowned and took Asantra’s hand to measure the temperature, then placed her own palm on Asantra’s forehead. When the Dream was getting closer her fever would rise, but Asantra felt fine. Lucid, for a moment longer.

“The cycles, Hile, they change. They are different, just by a little detail, but things change, I’m sure, I felt it. That means that they cannot be the past, right? Because the past cannot change.”

“My lady, I’m sorry, but this is not a dream, this is reality. This is the present,” Hile said quietly. “You can’t remember everything perfectly. Please, don’t start to torment yourself with another delusion.”

“Of course you’d say that! And of course he would too. I mean, if this is just a vision, a dream, a nightmare? Neither of you exists, not the way I saw you, not the way I see you.” Suddenly Asantra felt invigorated. This, this was what she felt, this was what made her so calm this time when she woke up. In the cycle, she felt like something was different, and when she awoke there wasn’t that misery filling her. This could all be just a nightmare, she had a reason to believe it now.

“The cycle is changing, Hile. This isn’t the present. This is just another vision, so different, so long, and contrived, that I got tangled in it. Got cheated, tricked to believe that it was a reality. Can you see it?” Asantra asked, then waved her hand. “Of course not, you’re just a–possibility. I, me, here, the Half-gone, I am just a possibility too. Ugh…” A sharp pain exploded in Asantra’s mind, a migraine. Just one of the many pains a broken soul brought upon the body. “If this is a dream, then I will have a memory of this. And if this is the moment I free myself of this awful premonition, then the cycle I’m in the middle of now is the present. I will have dreamed of this moment, Hile, when I awake in the morning. And I have seen what follows, there’s…”

The thoughts were beginning to scramble, Asantra’s mind was starting to give into the Dream – or the wake up – and she had to acknowledge that this wasn’t true. She had to help herself see through the visions within visions.

“My lady…”

“No! Shut up. Not much has to change to prevent all of this. If just one of us had understood, if one of us had just done what they wanted to do, ignored the rules, just done it… If just one of us would stay… there would be no Sinhail. Stay!” Asantra shouted with all she had. “Stay! Stay.”

She was forbidden to look into the future. She will have blocked these dreams in the morning, will have tried to forget them the moment she woke up, just as she had been taught. But if she could remember just some bit, if she could listen and change this little thing before it was too late, then the real present and the real future wouldn’t follow the visions from the cycles of the Dream.

“Stay. Stay. Stay,” Asantra kept repeating, in hopes that the word would break through the walls she built against the visions. Relentless and loud, some things were impossible to block out.

One of them had to stay. She could stay. If she wouldn’t stay, another must.

“Stay. Stay. Stay.”

“My lady, please, you’re getting feverish, come, let’s get you to bed.”

“Someone has to stay.”

“I’ll stay with you, Asantra, I promise. I won’t go anywhere.”

“Not you, Hile. Me. Or… others… One. Just one. Stay.”

“Where are you in the cycle, my lady?”

Asantra realized she had been somehow moved to her bedding, the soft fur felt so good on her parched skin. Hile began to rub a flowery ointment over her body. It brought relief.

 “Where I…” Asantra tried to reply. She repeated Hile’s question in her mind to make sense of it. “Ah. The beginning of it all. The murder.”

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