A Mirror For Mantra Chapter 1
Written and edited by C.D. Lee
"A Mirror For Mantra" Chapter One: Reflections
"Could yet the fair reflection view,
In the bright mirror pictured true,
And not one dimple on her cheek
A tell-tale consciousness bespeak? --"
- Sir Walter Scott
I saw despair in her cobalt-blue eyes, but like a
prisoner behind a glass wall she was inconceivably beyond my reach. I pressed my head
against the adamantine barrier. When would the day come when I could again take Eden into
my arms? I knew when. -- Never! Hers was a prison from which none alive had ever
escaped -- none, that is, except myself, a feat which would never be possible for me
Distraught, I turned away, my heart beating with a rapidity which left me breathless. This is folly, Lukasz, I told myself, she's not here; it's illusion, fantasy.
Eden was gone.
But why gone? Because I have loved so seldom it made no sense that Destiny would deny me what so many other men achieved despite the brevity of life. I almost wished that I had accepted Archimage's final offer -- his final treachery, his fool's trade. If I had surrendered to the inevitable would I not now be with Eden -- somewhere beyond the Soul Walk, in that place from whence the White Light shines?
Buck up, Lukasz! What's happened to your old tough-mindedness? When did that cold stone in your breast become a human heart?
The planetoid, rotating away from the sun, had darkened; but the Godwheel cast a glow much stronger than Earthly moonlight into Vahdala's shadow side. But even as I let my eyes wander over the strange architectural my past, present, and future seemed to merge -- all my suffering reduced to a single point of searing pain without beginning, form, nor end.
The dark pall over Vahdala's time-scored ruins -- once a city of gods, now a mortuary of ghosts -- weighed heavily upon my spirit. Who could gaze upon the decay, the vanquished glory, and not be humbled in the knowledge that Time slays all things? Life is never more than a brief wait until the hour of death, and Death is the sole certainty in a universe ruled by blind, careering chance.
Men die. Sorcerers die. Even so-called immortals eventually perish. Vahdala's superhuman inhabitants had called themselves gods and yet all of them had expired centuries before Lukasz was born -- and I have lived longer than any man I know.
Longevity, Vahdala seemed to whisper, is not immortality; otherwise, should I not be called a god myself?
Me, a god!
Gazing into the star-bespangled dome of an unknown sky, I wondered whether gods had souls. Lowly Man possessed that gift -- a fact that no one who has seen the Soul Walk can deny. But did a dead god's soul exist in paradise or in torment? Or in nothingness? Though warmed by my magical aura, I shuddered at the grotesque contradiction of a god dying, as if touched by a sepulchral draft.
If gods cannot help even themselves, what hope is there for creatures who are infinitely lower?
Though I speak of gods, it was not the unquiet spirits of long-dead Vahdalans which beset me; it was the ghost of an ordinary woman. The voice and image of that one shall ever haunt me, no matter how long I live, no matter how far I travel -- a woman mighty in my heart and yet so frail that any of Vahdala's fallen gods might once have crushed her between his inhuman fingertips.
Had it only been a few short weeks ago, in that misnamed Season of Joy back on Earth, that we two had stood side-by-side in this place, mortals abducted from another universe, castaways bedazzled by an alien city of crumbling wonders? And do I remember, also, that we were happy? Only fools affront jealous Fate -- and Fate grows indignant when mortals rejoice. That is the painful lesson taught me by fifteen hundred years of living! How could we who had suffered so much have believed that all our trials were at an end? Why did we not foresee, why did we not at least suspect, that nothing lay ahead of us -- nothing save violence, loss, and unendurable bereavement?
My eyes burned remembering what we had almost possessed but never quite attained. Where might the soul of Eden Blake repose? Elysium? Lethe? Either would grace my beloved with peace -- but those of us doomed to live know no such solace.
My betrayer, my former friend Thanasi, oftentimes called me a lone wolf. He was more right than wrong, perhaps, since wolves mate for life and the beasts, once having lost their trothed mates, spend the desolate years of their widowhood as lonely wanderers.
There is an agony of the mind and spirit which a man sometimes expresses in uncontrollable laughter, until stinging tears blind his eyes and renders him scarce able to draw a sustaining breath. This grief, although terrible, is no rare thing, alas. I have lived long enough to known it at least twice myself. It is the laughter of the tragic clown.
This peculiar cachinnation, one must understand, heralds sorrow, not mirth. Oftentimes it sounds on the wind like strangled sobbing, but is true laughter nonetheless -- the need of the tortured soul to vent itself in hilarity.
But there is a time to laugh, and a time to . . . .
Again I confronted my reflection in the lustrous stone, a slender form wrapped in a mantle of blue -- the cloak in which I have so often hidden my shrinking figure as if it were the sackcloth of a penitent.
And I saw, too, the glitter of my golden cuirass beneath the starlight of Vahdala's shapeless constellations.
Like a somnambulant I reached out to touch the facing
stone, as hard and cold as the armor itself, remembering the many times that this
sparingly-cut breastplate has safeguarded the underlying woman-flesh from spear, knife,
and bullet. -- But one soon learns that mystic armor is no proof against those far-deeper
wounds which life's evil auspices score upon the soul.
You grieve too much, Lukasz. It will drive you mad.
I sank back supported by the wall, my breath growing ragged, my balance unsteady; Vahdala's atmosphere was thin, I realized, and Eden's mortal vehicle very weak.
Weak in body, yes, but not in spirit! Who is weak who has saved her lover's life three times in the wild frenzy of battle?!
Would that I had died by the hands of my enemies, if only my sacrifice could have kept Eden safe among those who needed her. But instead it was Eden who had been forced to trade her life for mine. Soul-shocked by Necromantra's magical bolt and dying in my arms, she had begged a parting boon, and to this I had plighted by solemn oath, unable to do otherwise. But that faithful promise would define the whole future course of my existence -- and also alter the destiny of whomsoever else my life should touch. I shook myself. This brooding was not like me; Vahdala's peculiar atmosphere was heightening my depression.
Enough of this, I thought, -- it's time to go home! I didn't want Eden's children waking up to an empty house and wondering why their mother wasn't clattering around the kitchen, why the smell of oatmeal wasn't filling the morning air.
There was nothing left for me in Vahdala, but back in Canoga Park I had responsibilities, distractions, companionship -- and these things, simple though they may seem, had so far made living possible beyond the hour of Eden's death.
Therefore, I drove away my demons with a mighty act of will and focused anew upon the slow-running stream of my inner power. Once more the manna stirred my being like a germinating seed bursting its hull, sinking its roots, spreading its life-renewing tendrils through my bloodstream, revitalizing me. . . . .
Focus, Lukasz, focus.
I gave an incoherent cry, more in release than exultation, and plunged into a spiral tunnel of cascading light. I had traveled so many times before -- once even from Vahdala -- but Eden had been with me then. This time no happy lover would clutch me at journey's end, no eager lips would seek for mine. I would be alone.
It's not good to be alone.
If only Eden had not died. . . .
The wormhole suddenly flared out and my boots slammed
into terra firma. Leaping space and time always left me dazzled and temporarily
night-blind, but fortunately when I'm impaired a more subtle array of faculties kicks in
-- this time registering a scattered vegetable-presence and also a mammalian scrabbling.
The latter suggested something too large for a rat and too small for a human being. -- A
small dog? A cat probably.
With my vision rapidly clearing, I saw that I had been spewed into the same barren San Fernando Valley lot from which I had originally launched. A glance upward assured me that the familiar Moon floated as a silvery sheen behind low-hanging stratus and pollution.
I was home -- almost.
Two teleportations within three hours takes a lot out of a person, but, with an effort, I managed to generate a powerful updraft and lift off.
Me, flying! Though an astonishing idea, I hardly stopped to think about it anymore; I simply enjoyed personal aviation the same way that, presumably, a wild bird does.
"My heart knows what the wild goose knows;
And I must go where the wild goose goes;
--- Wild goose, brother goose, which is best,
A wandering foot or a heart at rest? . ."
To tell the truth, I fly not only to get where I'm going, but also to work out stress -- and my life grinds out enough of the latter to crush boulders. Some guys bash a punching bag to burn off their anxieties; I fly.
But this was going to be a relatively short jaunt and I
scarcely had ascended to a convenient cruising altitude before I need to assume a descent
pattern toward the Blake house.
Luckily it was still night; if Mantra was spotted too often along this block people might start wondering. Sure, I go around masked, but how many neighborhood women have Mantra's build and coloring? Besides Eden Blake you can count them on a clenched fist!
I must have been right about Vahdala causing my gloom because my spirits picked up considerably within spitting distance of a familiar bed. The kids would never even know I'd been away -- and, in fact, I'd never dare tell them how close Mom had come to dying for the hundredth time. But as things stood there would be oatmeal on the breakfast table -- at least once more.
Would I always to have keep huge secrets from members of my own family? Well, I certainly couldn't level with Gus! -- I wouldn't put it past the Bart Simpson of Canoga Park to try blackmailing Mantra for a new Sega system -- and that would only be the beginning of a lifetime of creative shakedown! On the other hand, Evie knew I was Mantra and I'd been letting her in on a few tidbits now and then -- things to thrill and excite a small girl, not frighten or upset her. -- And to be perfectly honest, there are plenty of things that Mantra's seen and done which upset even a hard-case soldier like me.
But she's an angel compared to what you used to be,
Unfortunately, Evie also knows that I'm not her real mom. I occupy her mother's body, of course, but my soul never experienced of her first six years of life -- a fact which I regret more and more as time goes on. Despite our genetic link, I was only some kind of foster mother. Or did being divorced from her father make me a step-mother? Or did a borrowed body define me as a biological mother after all? What defines a parent anyway -- the body or the spirit, the heart or the soul?
Thinking about Evie brought back my melancholy. There had been a terrible moment last January when circumstances forced me to admit that I was a stranger's spirit inside her mom's body. I would never forget Evie's look of shock when she see seemed to misunderstand what exactly had happened and demanded to know whether it was I who had killed her real mommy.
The question nearly floored me; I'd sworn that I hadn't, that I'd loved her mother and also loved her. The idea of accepting a substitute in the role of mother absolutely appalled her and she told me that she wanted to go live with her daddy. Instead, I urged her to give me a chance to do my best for her, that her mother had trusted me and asked me to take care of her and Gus. After some soul-searching the little girl had consented, but ever since that day, whenever it seemed like Evie was accepting me in Eden's place, something would always spoil it -- something like realizing that I didn't remember some detail that her real mother would never have forgotten -- and then she'd go silent, or turn away, or even start to cry for no reason.
For no reason? She was just seven years old and a kidnapper had murdered her mother in front of her eyes! Worse, to everyone but her Eden Blake was still alive, and so she even couldn't mourn her lost parent openly. There was no one to whom she dared explain her pain -- not her brother, her father, or even her granny.
Evie hero-worshiped Mantra and kept her confidences, but was I asking too much of a girl her age? And if so, what else could I do? I was the last of my kind and if I gave up the sanctuary of Eden Blake's identity I'd have no place to go except an empty motel room. Worse, I'd forever afterwards carry the shame of having violated an innocent home, and of bequeathing it nothing but misery.
Archimage's idiotic scheming had cast a long shadow.
And I still couldn't see the end of it!
I touched down behind the rhododendron bush. All this
sneaking around was a bother; I'd learned to vault between universes, but still didn't
know how to perform tricks as simple as turning invisible. People consider me a
world-class ultra -- and maybe I am -- but in so many ways I'm still a novice with nearly
everything to learn regarding the limits and scope of my powers.
I flashed into my civilian garb and then went phantasmal, traipsing like a ghost though the back door -- too tired to remember that using magic around the house might attract an enemy sorcerer. The kitchen was pitch dark, but after more than a year in the Blake home I could have walked it with both eyes closed.
So why did I bang my hip upon a chair and have to strangle a cry of pain to keep from giving the impression that someone was dying? Like any parent, I instantly blamed the kids for rearranging some of the furniture while I was away -- being too woolly-headed to recall that both my little crumbcrushers had gone to bed well before I'd lit out for Vahdala.
Evie's door is at the head of the upstairs landing and that night it seemed to tug at me. Before becoming a mother -- if that's what I am -- I'd never had much to do with children. Maybe that's why some of my occasional impulses tend to perplex me. How odd, for example, to want to tiptoe into a child's darkened room just to listen to a little girl's sleepy breathing -- and finally to bend down and plant on her cheek a kiss too gentle to awaken her.
I shook my head, deciding to let Evie enjoy her rest; parental smooching would have to wait until she came down for breakfast.
On second thought, I'd have to let Gus in on the mushy stuff, too. All the child-rearing books say that little boys need a lot of affection to keep them from growing up to be drive-by shooters. But kissing Dennis the Menace had proved to be an acquired taste -- and I'd have enjoyed it a good deal more if only he didn't always act like I was subjecting him to public humiliation.
Continued in Chapter 2 of A Mirror For Mantra! Now leave your comments below.