Sanctuary of Shadows
The interior of the sanctuary is, not surprisingly, dark, but it is not pitch black by any means. The main sanctuary chamber is cut through by reaching shadows, in alternating bands and patches of black and white, all created by strategically placed light sources, and the light that comes in through the curiously styled windows. Just as the stained glass windows of the Aspect of Shadow are formed in a way that makes it hard to tell what is part of the window, and what is part of the frame around it, the shadows about the room serve to camouflage much of the interior space, and as day and night chase each other outside, the shadows engage in their slow dance, lengthening and shortening, blending together and splitting apart.
It is not uncommon for those unaccustomed to this place, if they should be careless and hasty, to stumble and blunder about and for those more cautious to show it in their halting and hesitant steps into the sanctuary. The lone cheetah visitor does not fit into either of these categories, at least in her poise She walks without any hurry and without any sense of great confidence in her surroundings in the least, but neither does she cower or duck needlessly, or blunder into unseen obstacles.
The style of her dress seems a montage of different styles It is not the look of something scavenged together, or carelessly thrown together from mismatched garments, but rather a careful fusion of cloth and jewelry.
The well-trained eye of someone accustomed to appraising baubles a shopkeeper, for instance might be able to detect a Nordikan cut to the dress she wears that sheathes her digitigrade legs, the hem swaying here and there as she walks. The many-folded drape that shawls her upper body hiding her arms and torso has a suggestion of Khattan style to it, particularly given that it is of a more common variety of zolk, and has folds that echo the design of the robes of desert traders.
The woven leather headband she wears, with its many loops and small crystal-like beads woven into it, carries a hint of Savanite styling, but the beads hint at the use of technology in their manufacture, making Abaddon a more likely candidate. A necklace and matching earrings, bearing a Creen motif, are quite certainly of Savanite origin, though Star-shapes of silver hang with the colored earrings and rest upon the larger necklace beadwork, their style pointing once again beyond Sinai's bounds.
The cheetah comes to a stop, and stray curls, earrings and crystals dangling from her headpiece sway for an instant and then come to a rest, as she pauses, statue-like, in an open area of the Sanctuary, marked in stark light and shadow by a filtered sunbeam. All patches of white on her clothing seem to glow a faerie blue-white, and the crystals about her brow change from clear to become speckled with points of fluorescent blue, green and magenta as the light hits them. Around her, the Sanctuary seems to vanish into a maze of shadow-play, as she alone is clear, obvious, and vulnerable.
Two spotted, golden hands slip from the folds of the shawl, and, in carefully punctuated movements, spell out with their motions, "I am here," softly breaking the silence with the rustle of folds of zolk sliding against each other. In the light, a ring can be seen on one finger a band of hazy, smoky black and purple and another ring a marbled stone band inscribed with some sort of runic script that has an appearance of being cut from the stone with tiny claw-marks.
For a moment the darkness of the room seems to pulsate and move, as though it were a living being. Glimmers that looked to be decorations on the walls shift and move … and finally rise up. The movement suggests that a figure had been hunched down in the darkness, possibly kneeling, but it's almost impossible to tell for sure or to even define the shape without eyes accustomed to seeing in the darkness. "Yes," a voice answers. It's a neutral baritone with a hoarse edge to it, as though it does not see much use. "You are here. I have heard Shade's report and I trust her word enough to not think of you as an undead being, and Moon-Brow has also told me of many things." There is a soft hissing of an exhaled breath.
The cheetah responds by folding her hands together and nodding once. She keeps her chin held up, her back straight … much like a slave in Rephidim many years ago, up on the auctioneer's block, standing so that she might be judged and appraised, examined for any blemish or fault. Or perhaps she's just doing her best to keep a stiff upper lip.
A pair of glinting pricks of light seem to grow in size in the darkness and focus on the cheetah like twin stars appraising a world. "Why are you here?" the darkness asks. It is not an accusing question, but it carries a serious tone nonetheless.
The cheetah signs, "I had to come. You had to know. And … I have to know." The angle of her head declines a few degrees at the break in pace as she finishes the last sentence.
More movement, circling around the cheetah as the figure begins to pace. His footsteps are slow and heavy. "If you know me at all, then you know that you dance on the edge of being a dream or a nightmare. Do you know this?"
The cheetah nods. "Yes. I have thought long and hard about this. But I could not believe that you would prefer, if given the choice, not to know. The trouble is that I do not know how to prove anything to you. If all I do is to raise more questions, then I apologize, and I will leave, and trouble you no more."
"I know nothing yet. This is why you are here. Do not confuse my questions with accusations or remarks made out of fear. I am not angered, and I am not frightened. I am simply at a crossroads and I am trying to determine which path I should take." The darkness gives away flickering glimpses of the pacing figure within it, a flash of a beak, the movement of a leg, the play of light from the feathers of a wing. "You said you knew why I would have reason to fear you… If you know of these reasons then tell me so. You are in my sanctuary and all may be said here freely. The shadows know how to hold their secrets."
"You may not be afraid, but I am," signs the cheetah. "And I fear that you may think of me what Moon-Brow first assumed I must be some sort of fake, created by that sorceress, sent back to torment you, or to harm Enos and Pouncer. I pledge to you, by all that is holy, I am no such creature, and I wish no harm whatsoever on yourself or them, but I know full well that such a monster would claim the same thing."
The pacing pauses and the sound of ruffling cloth can be heard. A flash of vibrant color flutters out, like a lethargic bolt of lighting from a clumsy god and flutters slowly to the ground to rest near the cheetah's feet. It is a Creen feather, long and vibrant and painted like a swirling rainbow, there are tears and stains that hint of blood marring its surface, but not enough to obscure that it truly is. "Do you know what this is?"
The cheetah stoops down to examine her feather. Forgetting herself, though she has two hands out and folded together, a third hand slips out of the drape, reaching out to touch the feather … and then to retract, brushing away a tear welling in her eye.
The cheetah murmurs something in a language with feline overtones, then sucks in her breath and lets it out again. "'You kept it,' I said," she says in slow, accented syllables. "I gave it. You kept it. So long."
"My anchor," the shadows reply. "Tell me what you remember of the time that you gave it. It was a moment that none could have witnessed except those who were present."
The cheetah looks up, though she is still crouched on the floor. She looks at Shadows through wet eyes, and says, "You asked a boon. A token of what you fought for. I had only this to give you, from my mantle. And you gave my husband a new name." She raises her hands, and signs the name "Star's-Vision."
"You also gave my daughter a gift, a gift that I had once given to you. Do you remember that as well?" He sounds softer now and the two glints of his eyes flicker out as he resumes pacing.
The cheetah smiles faintly, reaching up with one of her hands to brush at a silver pendant resting upon the beadwork that serves as a necklace. "A silver Star," she says, tracing the shape of her necklace as she says it. "But not quite like this." No, the pendant she wears looks like a more "traditional" Star than the one that was acquired on Paradys.
"You came here to tell me who you were because you wished for me to know. Although this will probably add more burden upon you, there is something I should tell you that you deserve to know as well." The movement stops directly in front of the cheetah and the twin glints of light reflecting from the tinted sockets of an armored faceplate look upon the Savanite once again. "Rose is dead. The war swallowed her, as it did so many of the warriors here."
The cheetah looks up at the armored Vartan, and gulps suddenly. She chokes on an attempt to speak, then fumblingly signs, "Jade-Eyes did not tell me. But … we had so little time… "
"I frighten you, don't I?" the knight asks. This time his tone is almost gentle, like trying to coax a truth from a child afraid to speak it out of fear that they may get punished.
The cheetah looks down, then nods and shakes her head, then repeats aloud, "Yes … and no. I … I'm so lost. I remember you. But I have many false memories. They seem so real. And I remember her. I am not her." In a quieter voice, she says, "I am nothing like her."
"Time will change a man, or a woman. It paints you, it ages you, it turns you bitter or melts you into something pure. I am a great deal not like the man who stood on the deck of an airship and watched the City of Hands die, and then watched a string of deaths follow. I no longer even hold the name I did when I stood there." The helmet dips. "My most trusted spirit mage tells me that you are not a construct, that you are a living person. One of my dearest friends tells me a story describing things she does not even comprehend herself that explains how it would be possible for you to stand here before me. And you yourself come here and face me, knowing full well that I could destroy you, and yet you still come… simply so I should 'know'." He draws in a slow breath. "I will not deny that I am not fully convinced, but I also feel a spark of truth to you."
He rises again. "Go out and ask the squire guarding the door to take you to the center garden in the Sanctuary of Roses. The light is better there. I will meet you shortly. Will you do this?"
The cheetah looks up, and nods quietly. Then, she rises to her feet, taking up the feather with her. Carelessly, a pair of hands brush at the folds of her dress, while another pair sign, "As you wish," and one of the remaining two hands reaches out, holding the feather out to the Vartan once more.
Shadow delicately draws the feather from the cheetah's grasp. The colors of it vanish as it is tucked into his belt once again. "I will speak to you again in a few minutes. You have trusted me enough to show yourself in the darkness. Our next talk will be in the light." There is aflash of purple as a cape swirls in the twinkling blackness of the sanctuary, and then the shadows swallow the figure entirely from view. The chamber is silent.
The cheetah stands there a few moments more, folding her arms, one pair after the other, back under her drape, and then she takes a deep breath … and turns, striding back the way she came, out of the Sanctuary of Shadows.
The Sanctuary of Roses has become a mix of order and chaos over the years. The bulk of the garden has remained as it always was with neatly trimmed hedges and a multitude of carefully tended flowers blossoming throughout the garden. But over the doorway to the Champion of Roses' private chambers, the story has changed dramatically. Thorny vines have been left to bar the door and ward off all who dare to come near it. They savagely curl across the archway and onto the door itself as a sign that it has not been used in a very long time, and that there might be a secret purpose to this.
As a counterpoint, the garden seems almost peaceful. A fountain burbles in the heart, ringed by alabaster benches carved with images of roses. Blue-tinted roses float in the heart of the fountain like lilies and smallofferings and trinkets can be seen at the bottom of the fountain. Holy books have been left on the benches for squires and pilgrims to read in their meditations. The air smells of peat moss and earth … and of life.
A cheetah sits on one of the benches, a finger holding down a page of a book that she peruses, even though there is no breeze to risk blowing it here.
Not much time has passed, although it might very well seem like an eternity anyway for the Savanite. But soon the sounds of heavy hooves pressing into the dirt of the garden can be heard, a bit heavier than many of the other feet the cheetah may have heard in her short time here. Over one of the hedges, a cowled head with a bright yellow beak can be seen bobbing its way towards the center garden. The black wings rising up behind the figure are unmistakable.
The cheetah's ears flick, and she glances up, then quickly sets the book aside, habitually tucking a bookmark strip to hold the place. She stands up, smoothing the folds in her skirt and drapes.
The Vartan picks his way through the hedges with a practiced ease. He motions for the cheetah to seat herself again and eases himself down on the bench next to her, grunting softly as he does.
The cheetah sits back down again, folding her hands together.
The Vartan sits and just looks into the fountain for a short time, his own hands folded in silent prayer. When he finishes, he makes the sign of the Star against his chest and turns to look at the cheetah again. "Am I less frightening now that I am in the light?" His face, except for the section of his beak poking out, is hidden under his cowl, but he is no longer armored. He is clad in a simple violet robe, much like the squires and priests of Golgotha wear.
The cheetah smiles self-consciously. She nods. "But it is not the lack of armor. It is … that you are not meeting me with a drawn sword and a raised shield, so to sign."
The Vartan's head dips. "I do not look the same as you may remember me. It may be that you have doubts as to who I truly am when I show you my face."
The cheetah looks away, saying, "Are you so changed? Surely not so much as I."
Shadow reaches out and gently grasps the cheetah's chin, turning her face back towards him, to look at him as he pulls the hood of his cowl back with his free hand. His face looks to have aged not four years, but ten. Grayflecks the edges of his beak, his eye-ridges, and peppers the crown of his head like a whisper. His right ear has been notched to half the size of his left, and the left side of his face bears a long white slash from the center of his forehead to his left cheek where something looks to have narrowly missed damaging his eye. Both of his eyes look moist, but not to the point of streaming tears. He does not take his hand away, although his touch is as gentle as one handling a baby bird.
The cheetah's eyes strain, as she painfully takes in the toll of the years on the Vartan. "I'm … so sorry," she whispers.
Shadow shakes his head. "I should apologize to you. I failed you. I couldn't protect you."
The cheetah looks away. "I wouldn't have let you," she signs. "Duty required much of us. I couldn't have allowed you to compromise your honor for me."
"That wasn't it. The boomer was a fake. The real one wasdropped on Babel and reeked of the betrayal of the Nagai and the Babelites." He frowns. "I knew something was wrong, but I blindly followed the orders given to me and it cost me the whole reason that I joined the order. For all I know, Mage Qing set me on the boomer chase just to orchestrate the whole siege. I was blind and stupid."
The cheetah frowns, and signs, "We were lied to by expert liars, who had every resource at their disposal to make their falsehoods seem real. Can we be truly stupid for believing our eyes and our ears and our other senses, when there is nothing else to suggest otherwise?"
"It does not lighten my heart." Shadow looks down at his hands. "I could not protect you, I could not protect the Temple when Faraon was crawling his way through its halls and sending the Knights to be slaughtered, I cannot even protect my own daughter from the beast that wants to claim her. And now … I question my own purpose."
The cheetah shakes her head. "But why?" she says, then reverts to sign. "I know only pieces, but I know enough that terrible times have passed … but is that not in the past now? The wounds may take much time to heal … but is your purpose any less noble?"
"Protecting a country that hates me? A Temple that branded us as heretics and culled our numbers? For all I know, I was serving Faraon's own purposes during the war. The Temple has allowed its own guardsmen to swell while our numbers dwindled. They set us free from their service the way one would free a sickly animal so that it could crawl away and die." Shadow wrings his hands. "I still love Rephidim, but every hand that was raised to bring me here has been cut down. I have prayed to be able to forgive that, but I do not have the strength within me so I am yet a failure again."
The cheetah frowns again. "I am sorry. I have been here such a short time. I want to tell you that you're wrong, that everything will be all right … but I hardly have the strength to hold my own head up, and not yours as well. Is it all really so lost as that?"
Shadow reaches out and takes one of the cheetah's hands perhaps that is his answer. He looks at it, tracing his thumb across her palm and quietly studying the lines and markings across it.
The hand is fully grown, yet it has a certain newness to it perhaps a hallmark of the artificial formation of the cheetah's body. A ring on one finger bears some scratched runes, while another has swirling patterns of black and purple the latter being far more Third-Vision's usual style.
"What will you do now?" Shadow finally asks, his eyes remaining fixed on the cheetah's hand.
The cheetah shakes her head. Even though Shadows holds one of her hands, she has another pair to spare, and so she signs, "I do not know. I do not know what effect I will have on Pouncer and Enos. I do not think I will return to the Savan Jade-Eyes is Priest-Queen there now, and that is her right. You may not think highly of her, for what has happened in the intervening years, but she has changed, and learned many things. She is more my sister now than ever she was before. But my return would only sow discord."
"Lady Willow of Dack has made it clear that I am welcome in the land of Kroz," she signs. "It is an intriguing place, and one where I might find many distractions, but I am not so certain I would find any purpose there. Perhaps my home is no longer on Sinai at all."
The Vartan nods, drawing in his breath again. "When last I needed direction, I sought it with the Champion of Amber. I think travel would be good for me." He looks up. "If I did such a thing, would you come with me?"
The lady cheetah smiles. "If you asked me to go on a journey to any place on any world, I could hardly refuse. You have been my best friend, and somehow like a father to me as well." She looks down. "I hate to think of the anguish I put you through. We have been through horrible times. I can only hope that it will make us stronger. No one should be able to say of us that we were given our victories on a gilded platter. We have paid … in blood and tears." At that, she stops signing … and leans over, throwing her arms around the Vartan, burying her face in feathers and sobbing.
Shadow breaks down as well, hugging his friend close exactly as he would hug Pouncer after waking her from a particularly bad nightmare. His arms shake with restraint as his will screams for him to hold Third-Vision as tightly and as close as his strength can manage, even though the effort would break her. He just buries his face in her hair and cries, for his throat is too tight to speak.