Mantra: A New Twist #5
Written by C.D. Lee
Created by Mike W. Barr
Property of Malibu Comics
"A Mirror For Mantra" Chapter Five: The Castle
"For the gambol and the jest,
Thou wert wont to love the best,
Graver follies must though follow,
But as senseless, false, and hollow."
- Sir Walter Scott
That night, in my castle, I knew how a ghost must feel.
What was I? A man? A woman? Or only a specter recalled from the grave? Was it the second or the third which Archimage had promised me in the year 451? I hardly think so. Had he deliberately sought to deceive? If not, had I deceived myself?
Something tickled my cheek as I paced the echoing corridors. "Damn dust!" I swore and dabbed the corners of my eyes with my sleeve. Where was I, I wondered, looking around at the empty vaults. I remembered long ago when a boy sitting fishing on the banks of the Rhone, thinking about the places he'd go and the things he'd see. Never once had he imagined this. How had that boy come from that place to this?
You made your choices, Lukasz. Now live with them.
Or die with them.
Keen memory can sometimes be a curse; it makes the past always present; one is never free of it. In the orient they have a torture called the thousand cuts. That's what life comes down to when one lives too long. I had loved and lost two women; I had seen countless friends and comrades pass away, and each of them came back to me as an ache or a sigh of sadness. Among the latter I remembered Thanasi, who betrayed me, and also Hamath and Yaron, whom I betrayed by abandoning them dead upon the floor of a junkyard shack for the dogs, rats, or police to discover; I didn't feel anything when I looked down at them; I couldn't be involved, I couldn't be bothered. -- And, what was worse, I had hardly thought about the enormity of what I had done afterwards.
-- Until now.
Pretty shabby, Lukasz, pretty shabby.
I have killed often, hated often, but loved seldom -- and all along I'd assumed that none could love me, either. The years, the way we'd lived, had made love seem a risk and an irrelevancy; what did love have to do with the vengeance I sought? How had I become that person? I wasn't born so; I hadn't been reared to be so. What changed me? The murder of my wife Marinna? I only know that from the day she died I'd shunned emotional involvement. Maybe that was why I'd found the Blake family so hard to cope with, the way they offered me the love they'd reserved for Eden and expected me to give back the same. But who was I to love anyone?
I don't think I ever would have weakened, ever have accepted them, except that Eden's spirit, once banished by Archimage, had reawakened within the confines of my own skull and insinuated itself into the life which I had stolen from her, and also into the life of Mantra, which I had created in the shadows. Before I had overcome my amazement at her presence, Eden had become a beacon for my eyes, parting my darkness, casting a glow into the darkest recesses of psyche. She had reopened my ears to the beating pulse of the living, had helped me to understand the whispered meaning of a sigh. She had made me vulnerable again, human again.
Yes, all too human. That was the cruelty which Eden Blake had done me.
And that was why I still loved her.
I pitied the Eden of this world for her blindness and wished I could do something to open her eyes as she had opened mine. How strange that these sorceress hands of mine cannot heal. I had seen both Necromantra and Boneyard shrug off the direst wounds, and Necromantra, at least, had been much less experienced than I. So then, was healing a gift granted only to the necromancer? I shook my head. Saints healed, too. Maybe that was my problem; I was neither necromancer nor saint. I was only some sort of super hero.
Or so people called. It's hard to even think of myself that way; for far too long I've looked on myself as only a fighter -- and, in my worst moments, as only a killer.
Suddenly something flashed before me, calling my attention back to the real world. I had unknowingly strolled up before a ancient mirror whose glass had flowed, distorting my image amid its deep rills of warp. I smiled bitterly to behold my twisted features and recalled a legend about a mirror which reflects only the truth. This could easily have been that magic glass, reminding me that beneath the comely image of Eden Blake I was a fraud, a grotesquery.
No mask can conceal the monster you are, Lukasz.
I turned away. I was more than a monster! The years had changed me, true; they were my enemies, true; but could I not rip the centuries away like dusty cobwebs and recreate the man I had been back in 450 A.D?
I slammed my fist against the stone wall and as it ached I asked myself yet again, did this life have meaning?
It did, because, for me, "meaning" reduced to two words, Eden Blake. She had been lost, but now she was found. In a way, Eden had been reborn into this strange parallel world, as I had been myself. True, this Eden had not shared with me what my Eden had shared, but could not time and proximity enrich us with new experiences -- as long as I did not throw away my one last opportunity to live the life Fate must have intended?
Open your eyes, Lukasz; you're of no use to her the way you are.
That was true, but couldn't I go back to the way I was before? Couldn't I do it all over again? Was it possible that the same action performed in the same way might yield a different result? Couldn't I once more hold Eden close in my arms as her husband-to-be?
Yes, it was possible! NuWare probably existed in this reality, and J.D. Hunt wouldn't be out for Mantra's blood here. I wouldn't tick him off by demanding any kind favor this time; I wouldn't even bring the subject of being an ultra. I'd simply pay his fee for the job required. A couple millions of dollars could put a smile even on Hunt's greedy face and buy redemption from the devil.
A couple of million? -- What was I thinking? I had less than two hundred to my name! -- In fact, I didn't even have a real name in this world.
While I could coin a new moniker easily, it wasn't so easy to come up with large amounts of money. Pinnacle, I knew, had made millions cheating Las Vegas with her telekinesis abilities, but that seemed awfully sleazy. Yet, shouldn't I change my way of thinking? Wasn't my code of ethics out of date, as dead as the years that crackled dead under my feet like a fall of autumn leaves? Hadn't I endured into grasping and corrupt times when even Presidents stole blatantly and the man in the street didn't seem to care, not as long as he got his own special perk or his welfare check in the mail? The ethic of the day had sunk to, "I want what I want, no matter who gets hurt." Any other attitude only drew a chuckle or a shake of the head.
Why fight it? Why try to be better than the world I lived in? Was stealing wrong if it got me what I most needed? Wouldn't love and peace, after so much hate and war, justify any sort of crime?
But there is more than one kind of crime, Lukasz; think about it.
I didn't dare be hasty. The Eden of this world seemed to have a good marriage and I'd hesitate to spoil it. But Gus Blake was Gus Blake and so had to be a bounder -- down deep if not on the surface. Why should I roll over for a man like him? I could win Eden from him fairly. I could --
I could be a home-wrecker! I could fill little Gus's eyes with pain. I could hurt Evie, too, and rob big Gus of the rewards of standing by his wife while many another man might have run.
Lukasz, have you no decency? Haven't you done enough to that poor woman, to that poor family? You have no claim on them; you never had! Go home, make the best of the mess you've already created. It's the bed you've made, so go lie in it.
By now I had wandered out along the parapet, where I cast my burning eyes upon a starless sky, which was as much below as above me.
A human castle can be a grim thing, but had any ever felt so forlorn as this? Many a French chateau overlooked meadows, lakes, or woods; this rampart overlooked nothingness. My castle was an empty, silent mausoleum filled with the centuried dust of Archimage's futile scheming, of his vain ambitions. Though I had been made the wizard's legitimate heir, I realized now that he had had nothing to pass on.
At least he had had me for an heir. Who did I have? There had to be someone, if not now, later; wasn't that the way of the world? Death and succession, death and succession. No one lives forever and what one has he naturally tries to pass on. But Archimage and I had both tried to stand outside the pattern, the one established by Creation's inflexible rule that the Wheel of Life crushes all things. The very mountains turn to dust. . .
. . . And even gods die.
I tried to think back to before I met Archimage, -- to those other faces which shared and shaped my boyhood -- my mother's face before all the others. I still could see the glitter of her candle-lit tears, the iridescent light on her hair as her head bowed in prayer. Despite all the disappointments Mother knew, all the sadness she endured, she had had plans for me, and also hopes; she had offered guidance -- wise direction, I now knew -- but to what end? I was not like my mother. I'd made my own choices and gone my own stubborn way. And that way had led me to this impossible place, to this astonishing shape, and to this incomprehensible time. But where was I? Which way should I turn next? No mortal could consul me, surely, but to what greater entity should I turn after so many years of neglect; to Whom should I lift my clasped hands or bow my chagrinned head?
Can a god ever redeem a mortal? Can a god even help himself? I asked, remembering Vahdala with its forgotten pantheon ground down under the irresistible juggernaut of Time. Death is the certainty, as I have said, and Life is only the preparation for it. When that truth is recognized, what place remains for a god?
Vanity, Lukasz! Don't pretend you've never had a god.
My inner voice had again spoken true. Hadn't Archimage been a god to me? Hadn't his powers been awesome to behold? -- And if they did not seem so great as those powers fabled of the world-creating God of the Testaments, certainly his had equaled the tribal gods of my ancestors, the Goths and the Polons. My god could even banish death, and so I had served him faithfully and well -- while around me my mother, my friends, and my world, blew away with the wind.
But in acquiring a god I had also acquired a devil, a swaggering, vengeful icon of fear and hate. Between the two, savior and fiend, Archimage and Boneyard, I had slowly surrendered everything which most human beings hold dear. Before I understood what was happening I'd become an earth-bound ghost clothed in ever-changing flesh.
My god and my devil. I had killed them both. I had struck one down in folly and one in anger, but strike I did. How could I have so unthinkingly removed the twin pillars supporting my fragile way of living and believing?
-- But I had done so, and now this void, home only to myself, was my reward.
Quo vadis?, Lukasz?
When I awoke in the morning I asked myself this question:
Does anyone need me here?
The answer was "No."
Did anyone need me back where I come from?
"Yes" -- a qualified "yes," but that had to be good enough.
I wanted to go home.
Okay, Toto, how?
An army travels on its stomach, so I had a pancake breakfast at the Green Parakeet Cafe to energize my 130 pound body with every possible erg that syrup, butter, and a quart of caffeine could provide. Then, after paying the tab, I got out of sight and Shazamed back into my Mantra outfit.
Five minutes later I was perched high upon a rooftop, drawing in all the usable energy within reach: air, vegetation, animals, and even some of the life-essence of those human beings occupying the building at my feet.
My skin went prickly with the incoming waves of manna. Once I had taken in all I could, I visualized a lens behind shut eyes and envisioned the captured magic flowing focused through its curvature. This is the technique that I've developed for leaping between worlds -- but this time the formula wasn't working; the magic churned inside me but didn't take definite form! I began to grow agitated; all that I was holding in began to hurt. Failure. Deny it though I might, the fault of was in me, not my stars. I suddenly realized the terrible, self-defeating truth: part of me still wanted to stay!
-- still wanted to be with Eden, though my head told me it was an impossible dream.
I crumbled to my knees and clutched a lightning rod lest I tumble thirty floors to the pavement, too dazed to fly. In the end, chilled in a bath of sweat, unable either to utilize the accumulated power or to retain a charge so enormous, I had no choice but to dissipate it -- and so I did, in a great harmless flare of light -- a dazzling flash like a glint of sun into the eyes of every onlooker. This sudden, impotent release left me as weak as a kitten and curled on my side, still clinging miserably to my anchor. As I lay there, my teeth chattering, I pulled my magic cloak close about me, as if the ensorceled fabric had been created for no other purpose than to provide its derelict wearer with warmth.
I couldn't go home; I might never be able to.
I shuddered to think how long I'd been gone. A day and two nights? From Friday night to this Sunday morning? That was not a long time, but I realized that it could be the beginning of an eternity. What my endless exile mean, to me, to others?
Even now little Gus would be remembering that I had threatened to leave his sister and him more than once, giving him all the proof he needed that even his own mother couldn't love him. He'd be feeling angry and abandoned, but wouldn't want anyone to know that he was weak enough to actually miss me. He had to show the world that people, even those he most depended on, couldn't hurt him no matter how hard they tried. Evie, on the other hand, would be guessing that I was off doing some "Mantra stuff," and that would keep her from worrying for a couple of days. Even so, when it started getting late on Saturday afternoon they'd have called Grandma over to stay with them -- and she'd have done it, all the while blaming her irresponsible daughter for imposing on her. But I was getting to know Barbara Freeman well enough to guess that "Mom" would be seriously worried about her wayward offspring -- about me, that is -- after spending a restless night of fretting.
This very morning, a hour or two from now, Grandma would call Gus Blake and discuss my absence. They'd decide not call the police in right away, of course; I had a recent history of sudden disappearances, after all, and even of neglecting the children. Gus would give her encouraging words but when he hung up he'd be thinking about calling his lawyer to start his long-delayed custody battle for the children. I sometimes felt guilty keeping them from him, their real father, but he didn't really want just the kids. -- He wanted Eden along with the kids -- and if he couldn't have me, and he couldn't, he wanted to hurt me.
But Gus was Gus; I had more serious problems than him. Tomorrow my Aladdin supervisor would have to write me up AWOL, but once the agency realized that I wasn't just absent but missing, they'd consider the possibility that my disappearance might be job-related, that maybe enemy operatives had taken me for a ride. They'd probably put an agent on my case, but so what? He'd never find me. Neither would the police, whom Mom would have called in by Monday night, regardless of what Gus thought.
But Mantra, too, would have vanished. The tabloid press would probably run Elvis-type stories about her for years, going on about how Mantra has been found alive here or there, sometimes saying that she's working in Las Vegas, alcoholic and hooked on pills, and sometimes that she's retired from the world into an Italian convent. My fellow ultras would wonder what had happened to me, too, particularly Prime, but he'd just have to keep wondering.
Mantra would have blinked out of existence as suddenly as she had appeared less than two years ago.
Somehow I think "the golden sorceress" would be missed most of all by little girls -- especially the members of my fan clubs who seemed to think that I was all that a woman could be. What a incredible joke!
Maybe I'm a woman; at least I've told myself that I am. Womanhood's probably better than a bullet in the brain, but am I any kind of hero? Even though I've had to do a few things that needed to be done, I've never tried to make the world safe for freedom and justice. The fact is, I've lived too long to believe that any one person, no matter how powerful, can pull that job off alone.
What's a hero, anyway?
As Lukasz I'd fought for vengeance; as Mantra most of my battles have been forced on me. It all could have been funny -- the man forced against his will to become the world's most famous heroine -- except that it always seemed to become something more than that when I looked down to see one of those little girls pointing at me flying by and asking her mommy to buy my action figure, my ultra doll house, my latest collector trading cards. Little girls like that always made me think about the little girl I knew best, Evie. She had used to want every bit of tacky merchandise with Mantra's name or mask-symbol printed on it until she realized who and what I was, and how I had come into her life in such a sad and important and way.
Sometimes, when Eden's -- when my -- daughter hears something about Mantra on the TV news and smiles my way, all the ridiculous things people say about me stop being funny. I've always considered myself a cynic, but I've found that there's a limit even to the accrued cynicism of a millennium and a half. The things people expect of Mantra have somehow become bench marks to measure myself against. Why? I don't know -- unless it's because some part of me hopes that if I work hard enough at making the world love me, maybe I can love myself just a little better.
Is that the stuff of heros?
Lukasz always carried too much baggage to be a hero.
But it might have been different for Mantra.
Maybe he -- she -- already was a hero.
My fists clenched determinedly. I wanted my life back! I wanted my home and my kids back. I even wanted my cranky old mother back!
Well, it's easy enough to say "I want my life back!" but nothing ever comes just for the asking. Who was there to help me set things right again? Think, Lukasz, think! As far as I knew, not one ultra could carry people through space and alternate dimensions the way I could. -- Not under his own power, at least. Warstrike, on the other hand, had pulled the trick off one time to get me out of a jam. -- And I knew exactly how!
It was time to get back to Edgar Strauss.
The story continues at http://www.geocities.com/mantraverse
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