Picture Imperfect

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Nothing has happened on the Beginnings Project in a little while. “Warmache,” the previous chapter 12 shifted the genre from magical realism to fantasy. Linn Fergus is a great fantasy storyteller, but after talking with Cindy and Alister, we wanted to stay in the magical realism genre. Linn, and I wanted a fantasy story to submit to TOR, so Linn and I are rewriting Warmache as a self-contained fantasy story, and Cindy and I worked on a different chapter 12 for tBP.
Here is the rewrite of chapter 12 at 4,885 words:

* * *

I felt my stomach lurch and my head ache as my body landed on something. Licking my lips, I spat the acidic, parched dust from them; rusty dirt, dry and cracked like it had never been watered, it broke my fall. I crawled to my feet against a backdrop of red and black clouds mixed with bands of purple, swirling and roiling, producing jagged red lightning flashes every few seconds.

I had landed on a tiny island floating in its own swirling clouded morass. To my left, a narrow half-destroyed stone bridge with torches in metal baskets lined the edges disappearing into the fog. A red flash followed by a spine tingling boom caused me to jump and turn, but there was nothing, not even a mark in the desolate soil. I turned back to the shattered bridge and received another fright. I stumbled backwards and tripped over my feet into the rust dust. Where was I?

Amongst the clouds, I glimpsed the silhouette of a mountainous peak, which the broken bridge led to. As I started for it, uncertain how I would pass, a door creak behind me made me turn. There was no door, but a prolonged rectangle of light which upon my closer inspection I saw was a seemingly endless corridor, loosely floating in its own invisible air, a myopic shifting sleeve of blurred light and an echoing floor.

I stood on its entrance, fearing to step on the black and white decorated floor, until I heard footsteps run past me and inside. Hurriedly I followed the invisible and ghostly footsteps, abandoning the mountain, the bridge and the strange sky.

“Hello? Anybody there?” I called from the throat of the corridor, leaning my body inside, feeling paper-thin as I did so. My footsteps interrupted the reverberating ones and it became a click and tap noise almost synchronized, until it was identical and I could no longer tell if I was hearing my echo or someone else’s.

The corridor was no ordinary corridor; it was a gallery or it turned to one as soon as my perspective of it changed; walking further into it as far as my eyes could see there were large frames hung on both walls. The canvases inside them were just blank and I walked past a hundred of those with no seeming end to this tunnel. The red door had landed me somewhere else, somewhere different and I feared I wouldn’t find Althea at the end of it. But seeing I had no place else to walk, I continued.

One painting, I could see it coming into view, was alive. A thin red line glowed along its sides, and the closer I got, the brighter it became.

I stood before it and watched as a cathedral grew bigger in size, a memory alive; it was red, like the dirt and clouds, the light and it rose high above some floating island. It took up all but the narrowest of spaces around the edges of the frame. It was so detailed I was awestruck- I could see the three circular glass windows adorning the front, each showing a scene of destruction. Giant stone doors sat atop a wide staircase that rose from the end of the bridge. The bridge! Was the one outside this illusion been able to take me there too? Maybe I was supposed to go back, or around. I shook my head. Staring into its ever-growing formation hurt my eyes and I blinked. Fingers in my eyes I shook the sudden nausea away, but when I looked I was no longer staring at the painting. I was at the top of the cathedrals stairs, staring at the heavy doors instead. They opened without a knock or invitation.

The heels of my boots echoed off the red marble floor, and again there was another, a second echo, another set of footsteps rushing past me and onwards, hurried, determined. I didn’t chase it this time, but followed where it had sounded.

Even though there was no sun in here, a phantom light shone through the hundreds of circular windows onto the floor.

The inside of the cathedral was completely barren of furniture or décor, except for five large terraced chain chandeliers holding a thousand candles each. I saw no doors or portals; the building was nothing but a shell, a cold and unwelcoming dome.

“What is this place?” a voice demanded. I lowered myself, pressing my back against a pillar.

“We all need a home.” It was a female voice that answered back the question and I bit my tongue for it was Jezebel’s voice only crueler.

“A home for who?” came the man’s voice again, harsher. I couldn’t see the couple from my hideout, so I tip-toed around the pillar and crouched. They were two figures, yes, standing under the shifting light, but they were mere silhouettes.

“Why don’t you ask her?”

The female figure, Jezebel I supposed, pointed over her companion’s shoulder and somewhere behind me. I span on my heel and felt my breath snatched from my lungs. A woman walked past and she had regal beauty I never knew existed. My gaze lingered on her blue eyes before following her long blonde hair down the curves of her body hidden in a black and red silk gown to where her feet and hair met at the floor.

“King Abraham, what a wonderful surprise. I was hoping you’d come seek my council. My dear Jezebel has done well finding you.” A sliver of ice jabbed my sides as my breathing ceased. Invisible, I stood up and followed the blond woman to the circle of light and faced old Abraham, my past. He was older than I was, dark circles under his eyes, a ruffled, curly hair showing grayer hairs. His gaze though, it held, true to his nobility and power.

“You and I have much to talk about, Abraham. Time is short.”

“Who are you?” he demanded.

Their voices came to me like stolen breathy whispers, but the woman’s laughter rang true like she was real. “I go by many names,” she replied, a twinkle in her eye. “I thought it was obvious.” She glanced at Jezebel; her normally vibrant face was a mask of boredom, a Jezebel I didn’t recognize. Why was she different? Why was she here? Where was here? Why was I seeing this? I had so many questions, but the excitement of seeing Abraham as he had been, me as I had been, cemented me there beside the three ghosts.

Old Abraham’s face changed and he snarled. “Baal! You’re Baal.”

“That is a name given to me by a people who do not understand me and time has long forgotten them. Call me Sarin and be welcomed to my home. Jezebel has good things to say about you.”

The way old Abraham looked at Jezebel, like he was straining to find something good to say about her hurt me; where I thought of her as my friend, he looked down at her, like she was just some pirate scum. “Even if she was just there to help me, I still would have cast her out.”

The woman, Sarin cackled. “Jezebel wasn’t sent to help you. She had a mission of her own and when that failed she was to bring you before me.”

“Well, I’m here. Speak.”

I closed the distance and stood in the circle with them, eager to hear what this was all about. Sarin turned her head and looked directly at me; my heart caught in my chest – could she really see me? She kept her eyes on me for a few heavy heartbeats then turned back to old Abraham.

“What do you know of the Gigians?”

“Nothing,” I heard Abraham admit.

The clouds from outside began to fill the empty cathedral, in the form of smog, rising to the rafters until I couldn’t see the trio. Coughing, I stumbled backwards and fell out of the frame and back into the corridor. The painting had turned black, just like the rest. I picked myself up and stumbled confused as to the conversation I had witnessed. Had that truly happened?

Up ahead another frame glowed, emanated even a timid sound like soft whispering, woven words that I couldn’t distinguish. Just like before, the image in the painting pulsated, resizing and re-emerging. A blink and I was inside the cathedral again, sat at the stairs leading up to an empty altar with lighted candles which a slithering breeze kept extinguishing over and over again.

“You should know much about the Gigians, Abraham, since you’re married to one.”

Sarin made a dramatic pause until Old Abraham beckoned her to continue.

“In the beginning there was the Prime and the Void. The Prime directed the Void’s form.”

Before me a man and a woman appeared on a starscape; they were forms made entirely out of the same cloudy smoke that had chased me away from the other painting. I crossed my legs and listened, a silent observer to what I supposed was my past.

“Together they created a series of universes, tending each from birth to death. They did this for countless cycles. As time passed, the Prime fell in love with the Void and together they gave birth to seven children, five girls and two boys, the Gigians. Together, guided by their parents, the seven Gigians learned to tend to the universes.”

The smog changed into stars and planets, galaxies and nebulae, telling the story as Sarin spoke. I sat transfixed, unable to look away.

“After many, many cycles one of the Gigian known as Masterious began to grow jealous of his father’s power and wanted it for his own. He struck down the Prime and tried to seize the Void as his own. The Void, heartbroken over the loss of the Prime, froze in place, keeping the rest of us from tending to her. Enraged at the Void, Masterious burned his father’s body and created the Earth from his ashes. The Void, horrified, gave the remaining Gigians tiny sections of her to tend.”

I watched as Earth was created for the first time. It was grand and difficult, and it was beautiful; it was worth saving.

“So, Masterious is the Master and he is a Gigian?” Old Abraham asked. I nearly jumped to my feet at the mention of the Master. Was this place about to reveal some secret about the destroyer of Earth that would help me defeat him?

Sarin gave him a wry smile. “Very good, Abraham. So is your precious Luna. She and her Fae work with him to govern the Earth.”

“But, she gave me the Ultimate Invincibility. Luna can’t be siding with him!”, Old Abraham protested. I touched my chest, seeking inside me the power he spoke about. It resonated, quietly.

Luna….had she betrayed me too? Would she? My Luna…

Sarin made a tut-tut sound. “Luna is a wily one; she’ll play all sides and has no allegiance to anyone.”

“Those are lies…” Abraham refused, but was interrupted.

“I would leave that for you to find as truth, Abraham. But in the mean time…” Sarin gestured for him to continue.

“So, you are a Gigian too?” Abraham asked.

Sarin slowly nodded; hugging herself she turned her back on Jezebel and Old Abraham and her gaze fell upon me yet again. We locked eyes, me in my time line, she in hers. “I am the Prime’s youngest. Unlike some of my siblings, I have never forgiven Masterious for killing our father or for breaking our mother’s heart. I have tried once already to destroy Masterious by having Jezebel take your place, but he saw through our ruse and with your help he defeated her. I played my hand and now he’s trying to punish me for it.”

I watched as the images of the smog began to drift apart behind Sarin. Soon, nothing remained but shapeless masses moving across the ceiling.

“So, you want my help now that you’ve failed?” Abraham laughed, a snickering, throaty laughter. “I am already on my path to defeat the Master, so you’re asking nothing, Sarin.”

“You are the key, Abraham, yes. With my help you can destroy the Master and avenge my father and mother,” Sarin replied, a fire burning in her eyes.

“I have the Ultimate Invincibility, what more do I need? Certainly not your help.”

“Is letting the Master beat you until he gets bored your plan to defeat him, little king?” Sarin demanded with a belittling smile.

“I’m to get him to give me the power to destroy him by proving I am worthy of it.”

Jezebel roared in mad laughter. Again I was assured she was not the Jezebel I knew.

“And what master scheme do you have to trick a god into giving you the power to destroy it?” Sarin asked with a twisted, sarcastic grin.

“That’s a secret,” Abraham replied.

“One only Luna knows?” Sarin teased.

I was awestruck, on the brink of dismissing all this as a powdered memory, a fake representation of past Abraham – he wasn’t weak, uneducated or this naïve, not from the tales Zedekiah told me, not from my own shared experience. I wasn’t this meek king who reluctant or not walked away with Sarin and Jezebel, beckoned by their tempting voices and bed-time stories.

“Where are we going?” I heard Abraham demand.

“To get you the power you need to destroy a god, Abraham,” came the reply from Jezebel with a flip of her long hair.

I was out of the painting as they left the cathedral, three completely silent figures. I stood there ignoring the next glowing frame in the distance. Had old King Abraham been tricked? Is this why in my past life I had lost the war, the fight against the Master and his men?

Again I felt so detached from myself. I had become him, my true self in this reincarnation, and yet this felt so distant like it had happened to another person altogether. A memory, locked away in a place that didn’t exist anywhere, a place that was at the very end of everything, a place governed only by time. These actions of mine were trapped here, banished from my existence. Had I truly been just a pawn, leading countless men to certain death in a war I was promised I would win, a fight I was so sure was mine to take?

Whoever put the barriers here had now opened them for me; perhaps it was time to understand my mistakes, to learn from the lesson and choose whether to repeat my actions again and hope this time I would do better or abandon everyone and do this alone carrying the Ultimate Invincibility within me.

I entered the third painting falling to my knees on the cold marble of the other side.

“I don’t need anything you can offer Sarin. Anything that comes from Baal is evil and not to be trusted.”

Old Abraham was standing against Sarin with his fists in balls. The woman looked no less pissed than he was. “Why is my power to be trusted any less than Luna’s, Deafonous’, or the Master’s? I am only evil because I oversee everything that is south on your moral compass. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it is any less potent or reliable. It is all the more so, because it is carnal and pure.”

“I’ll defeat the Master without you,” Abraham replied firmly, trying to stand his ground. He shook with excitement and anger.

I stood beside him.

“You trust Luna’s goodness?” Jezebel asked.

“What has she done to me for me not to trust her?”

“She is working with the Master. You don’t think she won’t tell him what is coming?”

“Why would she betray me?”

“Self-preservation,” Sarin insisted. “She and her Fae want to live.”

“They will live when I am done with the Master. How can I trust you and not her?” Abraham countered.

Sarin chuckled. “You do or you don’t, but has Luna or anyone else every given you a vaster explanation of why things are the way they are? Luna left you scarred with an unusable and ancient power and Ezekiel abandoned you with half a story told. You might or you might not defeat the Master. There needs to be another ruler. Why should I be any worse a ruler than the Master? I wish to unite my siblings and wake our mother so that once again we can tend to the universe. I care little for the Earth; it can be humanity’s to rule.”

We don’t need her help, I whispered and old Abraham inclined his head as if he was listening for my faint voice.

“Abraham.” We both looked at Sarin. She had her hands stretched out for him, palms opened. “What I offer is yours to keep, use it or not. You may think it foul now, but I assure you it is as much a part of being human as the good in you. You’ll just have to learn to control it.”

“There’s got to be another way,” he spoke harshly.

“There is no other way,” Sarin snarled impatient.

In my pocket, I felt the coin begin to heat up. Fishing it out, I saw old Abraham was doing the same. We both held it up, our busts upon it.

“What I offer is already a part of you,” Sarin nodded pointing at the coin. “If you don’t believe me, turn the coin over.”

I had turned the coin over a thousand times, I knew it all too well, but still I held it between my thumb and finger, mimicking what old Abraham was doing and turned it around with my other hand. My bust was there like it had been since day one, but on old Abraham’s coin there was a large X carved into the metal. He looked at it, then at Sarin, then back at it. The X began to bleed; drops of blood fell off the coin and sizzled when they touched the floor.

“Evil is in everyone, King Abraham, even you.” Sarin’s smile was wicked, the cruel wicked.

“Liar!” I screamed overwhelmed by his disappointment and anger…my anger. I felt the pain from that day so far away in the past; emotions and nuances invaded my timeline and briefly my past and present merged.

The sensation drew cold sweat on my forehead. We both dropped the coin, but whereas mine hit the floor and swirled with a piercing ring, his floated in midair.

The room the four of us where in grew very quiet.

“Dead king lives again,” a voice told us, near my ear.

“Only fools’ return,” giggled another.

“King of fools then,” laughed a third.

Old Abraham dropped to his knees, fingers clawing at his temples, at his chest, at his eyes. He screamed in pain and I knelt beside him trying to comfort some ghost. His palms burned, a vivid red mark ruining the skin. When he looked up his eyes are filled with fury, a madness dancing in his dark irises. He showed his palms and they bared a reversed bust. Kill, steal, destroy, these thoughts emanated from him and I clearly heard them.

No, I wanted to say, but the force of his initiation was too much. Our shared pain rendered me blind; a burst of light quickly dawned and faded.

“What the hell…” I slurred like a drunken sailor rocking back to my feet. It was over quickly and it had done much more damage to him than me. I had only caught a fragment of the hell fire he had been consumed into. But that had been inside me once, hadn’t it? Were there traces of those evil intentions and urges still inside me, passed down like a symptom, a paradox, a failure written in my history?

“What happened?” I heard Old Abraham ask. He was slow in his waking, arm wrapped around his middle, his other palm squeezed into a fist. It dripped blood on the gray marble.

“You’ve been given the Scourge. Pure evil. It will be your weapon against the Master. He won’t expect it and it will overwhelm his defenses.”

“I don’t see how pure evil will destroy him.” There was doubt in his voice.

“The Master has a certain way of looking at things,” Sarin hummed, pleased. “Things need to be his way, all else is chaos, and he hates chaos. Pure evil is pure chaos, but it feeds upon itself. It will go until everything is burned up.”

“There has to be another way. The armies of humanity have stood before the Master. It will do so again.”

“And who is going to lead them on this fool’s errand? You, with a pity power and a hope to be spared?” Sarin asked, putting her hand on her hip.

Abraham stood wordless and motionless. The smog closed the scene for me and I sprinted back, desperate to reach the corridor and find the next painting. I threw glances at his silhouette standing numb with the hardest decision to make.

Escaping I walked the stretching corridor again with yet to find another glowing frame. But soon it appeared, a soft puff of light erupting from it, then retracting back into its circulative motions around the canvas.

This one showed a barren land which neither pulsated, nor grew in size. I raised my hand and touched it; the surface was rough and my fingers came back stained with red. The substance smelled like iron and I imagined it would taste the same.

I stared at it for a long time, trying to remember if I had seen it before. A gust of wind broke my thoughts and lifting my head I didn’t face the painting. It was such a subtle transition and I felt exposed and alone. There was red dust at my feet, an oh so familiar soil. I was standing at the wasteland of war stricken Siddim. The Battle had commenced, or it had ended. Corpses of my men and the enemy lay strewn across a landscape broken and bloodied by the machine of war.

As I gazed out on the killing fields I watched as the enemy soldiers, in various uniforms and all manner of dress, stood and started to march back toward the setting sun. I looked at one as he walked by. Sunken and gaunt, dressed in an ancient style armor I hadn’t seen in my previous vision, the dead man looked at me. His eyes were gone and in those empty sockets was an inescapable forlornness. He marched away from me, slowly dragging his dead body.

Soon, everywhere around me, my own fallen men rose, plucking out their eyes, gathering their scattered weapons and equipment, and joining the lonely procession of soldiers. Seeming I was alone, Sarin, Jezebel and old Abraham were nowhere to be seen, I grabbed a young private’s hands and tried to keep him from tearing out his eyes. “Stop, what are you doing?”

He ignored me and with a shoved me aside.

“Where are you all going?”

I ran beside him, waiting for a response that wasn’t about to come.

“He is no longer yours to command, Abraham. He hasn’t been for a thousand years,” a voice behind me said, solemnly. Sarin was standing behind me, her hands clasped together in a prayer. She didn’t look a day older. “He belongs to the Army of the Sacrificed now.”

I was dumbstruck. Was she talking to me?

“Sacrificed? To whom? They died defeating the army of the Master’s, didn’t they?” I asked.

“Your men were sacrificed to try and stop the Master. When they died they became his and joined his ranks. All those who fall to the Army of the Sacrificed join them–be they man, woman, or child.”

“So the battle is lost even if it is won?” I asked again.

“There are grave consequences for both victory and defeat, yes.”

“Back there, in the cathedral you gave me the Scourge. Did that not do the deed? Shouldn’t my victory have defeated all of the Masters manifestations, erased his existence and power over people?”

“Indeed. But you can’t remember what went wrong, can you? You’re so young, yet so old. Your memory is faulty.”

I stepped closer to her and Sarin broke her prayer. She looked no less the warrior.

“You brought me here, through the red door to show me my past actions, didn’t you?”

She nodded.

“I did, yes. This is in a way my realm. Whatever happens here gets recorded and stored in the flows of time.”

“I was on my way to find Althea. I didn’t need to see all this. I have the Ultimate Invincibility.”

“You do, King.”

“But I know how to use it. I know I will use it instead of whatever evil power you insisted upon me in the past and I will win without sacrificing men, without inducing suffering on my people.”

Sarin roared with laughter. “You do not even know what it is you face. The Army of the Sacrificed stretches from horizon to horizon, ten thousand men deep. What you faced at Siddim was just the first wave. You will face the entirety of their army this time.”

Sarin took my hands in hers; the blue in her eyes was white, a crystal reflecting a thousand timelines, a thousand fates.

“He knows you better every time you try to defeat him and you know less and less about him. He is waiting for you, certain this will be the last time you two face each other. You will need to do more than what he did,” she tapped my heart with her thin finger. “The Ultimate Invincibility, the Scourge, the gauntlets, the armor… you will need more than that and a silly, brave heart to kill him this time.”

In the clouds I watched as the Earth grew smaller and countless bodies filled all I could see.

Unwanted, my heart sank into despair. How could I defeat so many?

“Don’t fret, King Abraham,” cooed Sarin. “There is not one grand army in the realms, but four. The Army of the Sacrificed belongs to the Master, the Army of the Living belongs to you. You met and fought the last three battles between yourselves, but this time the remaining two will join, if you can convince them.”

“Who are these two armies?” I asked letting go of her hands and stepping back.

“Deafonous, my brother, has the Army of the Dead. It is vast, greater than the Army of the Sacrificed, but weaker. You need to go to him and convince him to commit his forces on your side.”

“He choose to listen to you and I would assume you gave him this exact vision, told him how weak he is, how impossible it would be to fight the Master on his own. You hope that I would be different and not fail your instructions.”

“But you are different!” She yelled wildly.

“Spare me the flattering,” I snapped back at her.

“I am speaking the truth. Yes, Abraham before failed. He was too eager, too naïve, too uneducated, but you, you have all the resources and you can wield them like a shield and a weapon. For the first time the armies can join and fight under one man’s command. My brother will lend his army to you if you show him you can be the great general his forces need. Tell him of your scheme and convince him you are the secret to defeating the Master.”

“I am no general or commander,” I blurted out before I could stay my tongue.

“You used to be,” Sarin scoffed. “The great and cunning King Abraham! Never defeated in battle, until the Master came to be.”

“I am King Abraham, but I will choose whom to trust, what friends to have, which weapons to use. I could be a pacifist and still win you wretched woman. I don’t need your evil promises, or your armies.”

I turned my back at her, heavy breaths in my chest.

“You will decide the right course, King Abraham. But it seems you will need more time. Find the armies, beckon them to you. Althea knows….”

I blinked away the angry tears from my eyes and…I was back at the corridor with no more glowing paintings awaiting my entry into my memory stream. I waited, hours or days, but nothing changed, no more memories to share, no more lessons to be learned.

Sarin, the keeper of my deepest regrets and failure gave me a choice, a second path different from the one Zedekiah and Jezebel, my Jezebel had worked out for me. Sarin’s words were lies, they resonated with hatred and lust for power, but the armies were a tempting idea. If Althea knew about them more, that was another reason to find her quicker and right the wrongs of past Abraham.

I walked away from the empty frames. The end of the corridor was sitting a step away, just a threshold to be crossed. A red door creaked open. Beyond it was total darkness and the eager splash of waves.

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About Mark Gardner

Mark Gardner lives in northern Arizona with his wife, three children and a pair of spoiled dogs. Mark holds a degrees in Computer Systems and Applications and Applied Human Behavior. View all posts by Mark Gardner

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