April 17, 2009

Ripples and Ramifications

On August 14th 2003, New York City was engulfed in darkness.
   Down in its blackened streets, clouds obscuring the glaring moon’s gaze, Roche marched towards his destination. At 2:03 a.m., he reached it.
   Adjacent to one of the many public parks, stood an ancient, imposing structure, distinctive against the backdrop of other, more lively houses. It was separated from the rest of the neighbourhood, and steeped in shadow, its blood and ash-stained glass windows swallowing any nearby torchlight rather than reflecting it. For decades, it had remained untouched; cracks lined its pale yellow skin, gnawing away, feasting on a corpse too proud to die.
   The whole thing reeked of dark magic.
   It had taken him years to figure out how to lower the building’s defences. The spell originally cast had been incredibly potent and complex, and, with Roche’s poor knowledge of the mystic world, nearly impossible to crack. But, through family contacts and much detective work, Roche had found the keeper of the knowledge he coveted – a wizened old vagrant, half-insane with hunger. Lying in an alley, drunk and decrepit, the man had whispered the magic’s source: unnatural light.
   Like everything in the universe, magic always needed at least one constant to operate; appliances need electricity, humans need air, nature needs the sun; and, in this manner, the mysterious mechanics of magic become that much more mundane.
   But even with this knowledge, Roche’s task had verged on the impossible. Tonight was the product of countless years’ planning, innumerable hours of research. For blackouts occurring unaided in this region were an improbability. And Roche was not a man who left things to chance.
   Calmly, he ascended the cold concrete slabs that preceded the building’s entrance, and withdrew from his pocket two short, slender pieces of sharpened plastic, placing one in either hand.
   A quick glance behind assured him that he wasn’t being watched. The park, like many of the surrounding buildings, was filled with sleepers, some in huddled groups, others finding solitary shelter beneath the protective arm of a tree or canopy. All in all, the city was very peaceful tonight.
   He stooped forwards, and inserted both plastics into the door’s antiquated lock, fiddling and shifting them around, waiting for the desired response. His hands were sweaty, suffocating in the night’s oppressive humidity, but after a few seconds, the door gave way. It manifested its protestations in one loud, mournful creak.
   Roche entered, and clicked the door shut behind him.
   The front room was like a memorial, an area dedicated to some long-past royal dynasty. Meticulous paintings of people dressed in wealth and power were displayed along the walls, each one studying his entrance with their piercing eyes. Ahead, a wide staircase adorned in gold and crimson carpet rose upwards, diverging into two at the far end before sweeping back on itself, curving upwards to the building’s highest levels. Even the banister had been masterfully carved, wild, indistinguishable forms swirling into existence at either end.
   Roche forced his mind back to the present, to the reason why he’d come here: his mother. For months now, her health had been waning, her bleak face turning more and more ghostly with every passing day. She was aware that someone had been tampering with her health, but, in her weakened state, had been unable to pinpoint the source.
   Still, she had one hope left. Within this house lay an ancient crystal ball, millennia old. Legends had dated it back to Merlin, the Egyptians, even unto the dawn of time. Some wrote of how its contents were the last wisps of a dying universe. But that was just conjecture. What everyone agreed on was simple; it was capable of healing all ills, magical or otherwise.
   As he was her only son, his mother had entrusted him with retrieving it. According to her, it was the only chance she had.
   With controlled trepidation, he made his way up the staircase. The path was long and winding, passing many endless corridors and emotionless statues. One of them was even of his mother. Her sister had owned this house before she had died, and, as such, there were many lingering links to his family. By right, his mother was the legal owner of the building; still, she’d never set foot in the place; her sister’s memories brought back too much pain.
   At last, he reached the top. The two stairways coiled back together, and stretched forwards, leading the way into a dank, dusty room, scarlet light slashing at its heart.
   Striding forward determinedly, Roche entered. Several bookcases flanked the room, their thick wooden arms sinking beneath the weight of hundreds of musty books, each one a unique compilation of knowledge kept secret for generations. A great arched window encompassed the end wall, depicting a brutal battle, where a towering figure looked over the bloodshed below; the whole image was emblazoned in light, overflowing with power and purity, its history spilling outwards and enlightening the oppressive gloom below, protecting the room’s most desirable item: the crystal ball.
   It rested on a stout, black pedestal, flawlessly formed, faultlessly designed, seething with an unparalleled perfection; a myth made substance.
   Furtively, Roche extended his hands, and, delicately, picked up the object that, since childhood, had been at the centre of his thoughts. He could still envisage clearly the fist time he’d heard about it: sitting in his mother’s forbidden library on a wet summer’s day, he had grasped desperately for any tome he could reach, trying to waste as little time as possible. A thin, slender book had effortlessly captured his attention, refusing to let his gaze slip away. Giving into temptation, he had carefully withdrawn it, opening it with a religious reverence.
   Page after page fell back, slipping through his grasp, before finally stopping with a pre-determined purpose at the text that would change his life. Hungrily, he’d devoured the information, until the footsteps outside signalled it was time for him to leave. Hastily, he had put the book back, but it had left an indelible impression on his mind.
   Now, standing here, holding this sacred object, it was almost too much. The crystal ball; the cure. His mother’s only cure. The only chance for the woman who had withheld him from the rest of his family; who had selfishly kept secret the wonders of magic for so long; who had only one heir.
   Crystal shattered against stone, piercing the room’s decades old silence.

   Somewhere deep within the recesses of his soul, Roche heard a wail of pure anguish. He savoured it.
   Smiling, Roche surveyed his inheritance. Legally, it wasn’t yet his, but in every other way that mattered, he owned it. It was just a case of being patient. And, after waiting for years and years, what were a few more days?
   Still, he couldn’t stand and admire forever. There was still so much of this place to see, and his arrogance needed confirmation of his brilliance. With a stride that revealed his feeling of invincibility, he strode from room to room, soaking in the building’s ancient wonders. Old, priceless robes were stored in a large, mahogany cupboard, each one made of the finest materials and most exotic colours; another room housed a wide, stone pool of still crystal water, which dipped and swirled to reveal any place the user desired; there was even the Arantsi, a silver amulet with an emerald at its centre, which would grant the owner immortality, so long as he or she wore it.
   Yes, this place was everything Roche had dreamed of. So, it was with immense satisfaction that he wondered back down the long, winding staircase, prepared to bear the agony of leaving, safe in the knowledge that when his mother died, the curse guarding the structure would forever be repealed.
   His mind was still half-occupied by these glorious notions when he returned to the front of the house, and reached forward to pull the door handle aside. It didn’t budge. Stifling his confusion, he pulled again. Nothing. Putting all his weight into it, he pulled hard. Harder. He used his legs to push against the door’s frame, for added strength. Within seconds, he had resorted to punching, kicking, even using his shoulder as a ram. Nothing.
   Dropping to his knees, he thought about what could have caused this. The answer sent his blood cold.
   Slowly, he twisted his head to face the nearest window; blades of light sliced through its glassy barrier, quietly silencing any delusions of grandeur. Frantically, he rushed across the room and looked outside. The sun hovered in the east, illuminating the landscape in an eerie morning glow, while street lamps and buildings flickered with activity, mocking him, haunting his mind with whispers of defeat.
   With controlled terror, he shifted his gaze to the window’s arched frame. At first glance, it appeared perfectly normal. But Roche knew what to look for. Fearfully, he looked closer: lining it edge, a thin, white mist shimmered, intangible and impossible. Because it meant the curse had returned. It meant he had mistimed his actions.
   It meant he had made an error.
   Swallowing hard, he held back the surge of panic that threatened to drown him, and ran through his options, searching furiously for a solution. Only one came to mind. Breathing in for the self-control he needed, he sprinted upstairs.

   Roche stood at the doorway to the room of the all-seeing pool, regaining his composure. What followed would have to be done perfectly, if it were to have any chance of success.
   With all the calmness he could muster, he marched boldly in, and leant over the pool’s reflective surface. For a brief moment, he saw himself; his hair was a mess, and his usually pristine clothing was scruffy from his efforts to pull back the door. It took him several moments to rearrange his appearance in a manner which pleased him; only then did he dip his hand into the pool’s icy water, and allow his thoughts to drift along the water’s smooth surface, gently guiding them towards their distant target.
   A ripple glided across the pool, reshaping its image into something far more familiar.
   Placidly, Roche said, ‘Hello, Mother’.
   ‘Roche?’ she croaked weakly. ‘Did, did you manage to obtain it?’
   ‘Yes, Mother’, Roche said tiredly. ‘But I need your help. There was an…unfortunate turn of events. The defences have returned prematurely. You have to get me out’.
   A hint of surprise seemed to flash across her exhausted features. ‘You know I can’t do that’, she replied. ‘I’m’, she hacked a cough, ‘I’m too weak. If I could’ve lowered the shield, do you not think I’d have done it the first time?’
   ‘Yes, I know’, Roche continued, worried his distress was staring to show. ‘But can’t you, I mean, can’t you manage it for me?’
   ‘Not in my present condition. But don’t worry. That crystal ball you have…it can heal me…all you have to do is hold it, and picture me healthy. Then I can release you’.
   Roche remained silent. He had no response.
   ‘Roche, please’, she hacked. ‘What’s wrong? Why aren’t you doing anything?’
   She coughed hoarsely, then again, and again, each cough coarser and more sickly than the one that preceded it.
   ‘Mother?’ Roche shouted, alarmed.
   It was getting worse. Her head began to loll, flailing back and forth, before slumping heavily into the comfort of her pillow. Here eyelids fluttered. Faintly, breathlessly, she whispered, ‘Why aren’t you…?’
   But Roche didn’t have time to respond, even if he’d had something to say. All he could do was watch and despair as his mother’s image wilted and died, effortlessly sinking back into the water’s murky depths.
   Roche was rooted to the spot, shell-shocked. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t think. It took al his willpower to shake himself out of his daze. Desperately, he dragged himself back over the pool, and stabbed his hand in urgently.
   ‘Mother!’ he shouted. ‘MOTHER!’
   The silence of eternity was his only reply.

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