Chapter 14: Mary, The Astrologer
By Renko Doremi Rodenburg
Maxwell trailed after Fleur through the mirrorworld, passing by a fading mirror figment, a reflection long since detached from its owner. A noble, once, but now without anything to anchor it or maintain its self image, it had started to become runny. A stream of colour and flesh trailed behind it as it swerved around the cobblestone path of mirrored Luson, wailing and lamenting its unfortunate circumstances.
“Do I create a new reflection everytime I look into the mirror?” Maxwell asked.
“No, only if you’re too far away from your previous reflection or if he has faded away already. It happens when you or he wanders off too far,” Fleur explained to him.
The mirrorworld was her world. It was strange to see the pale and underweight girl in her element like this, so confident. Almost happy.
“It’s terrifying,” Maxwell said. “I don’t think I can comfortably sleep in a room with a mirror ever again.”
“You shouldn’t,” Fleur said.
A world completely composed of reflections. What wasn’t reflected by mirrors in the real world, did not exist here. Voids, either black and empty or filled with decaying, greyscale vistas of long ago. What was reflected was imperfect, and when reflected no longer, it started to change. Decay.
Mirrors in the real world were like bright windows, where reflections of people stood happily mimicking their original’s movements. When the original moved away from the mirror, despair set in.
“What happens if something happens to your reflection?” Maxwell asked. He looked around, to see if his own reflection was anywhere near.
“Depends,” Fleur said.
“If it’s connected to you or not. If it’s not, no harm done. A new reflection will form when you look in the mirror next.” A grin formed on her face. “But if I were to, say, stab your reflection while you’re still attached to it, it’d be as if I’d have stabbed you.”
She seemed so very satisfied with this. It made sense, Maxwell thought. The way he understood Fleur, her life was marred with feelings of powerlessness, of alienation and being outcast. This power of hers gave her back a semblance of control over things, even if she seemingly never used it.
Never used it, until a while ago. They’d been going around the Twin Cities spying, stealing and sometimes just sightseeing like this for weeks now, and when they did, Fleur sprang to life like nothing else.
“You really are amazing,” Maxwell made sure to tell her.
Fleur shook her head. She didn’t handle compliments well.
As they wandered through impressionist vistas of an alternate Luson, they approached the Spire. Only parts of it were fully reflected, so it was covered in shadows and gaps and other occultations.
“How many people know about this art?” Maxwell asked her.
“Not a lot,” Fleur replied. “Magicians and Alchemists of the Spire know that it is possible, or at the very least know mirrors are bad news. It’s why they only have them where they need them. But the world’s been diminished, and many things have been lost. I don’t think there’s any magicians left who remember the old ways of walking the mirrored world and speaking with reflections.”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Maxwell said.
“What?” Fleur asked. A hint of discomfort in her voice, as always when she wasn’t sure of something. She was easy to push off-balance, even by accident.
“I’ve heard that a couple of times now, ‘This world has diminished’, but I’m not sure what it means,” Maxwell explained to her.
“Ah,” Fleur said. “No, you wouldn’t get it.” Now she was self confident again. She knew something he didn’t, and felt safe, secure in her superiority.
And in this state, he wouldn’t be able to get anything out of her.
“It must be hard,” Maxwell said.
“What must be?” Fleur asked.
“Being the only person knowing these things. Seeing the high-and-mighty Magisters of the Palace and Spire march around while barely grasping things you mastered before they lived.”
“Yeah,” she said. Hoarse. Solemn.
“Why aren’t you there?” Maxwell asked.
“My kind is fading, Maxwell,” Fleur replied. That, too, he had heard and read before.
“I don’t understand that,” Maxwell said.
“You wouldn’t, yes. Just explaining the metaphysics required to understand it would take me weeks. And it is deeply personal. It’s not something we share,” Fleur explained.
“We; as in your sisters,” Maxwell said.
“I’ve read about some of them, you know,” Maxwell carefully prodded her.
Fleur stopped walking. They were almost at the base of the Spire now, on paths Maxwell had traced there with a mirror a day ago.
“You can discard anything you have read about them,” Fleur said. “Mortals have no idea who we are anymore and connect hearsay with idle speculation.”
Maxwell wondered if he should attempt to posture himself as more than he appeared to be right now, to try and goad her to elaborate for once, but decided against it. It was better to appear meek and vulnerable, naive and friendly.
“I’ll stop prying then,” Maxwell lied. “You’re a good friend Fleur. I’m happy you’re living at House Charis with us now. My days have never been more fun than they are now with you,” he continued. That wasn’t a lie- going on adventures with Fleur and dragging her through the streets of Lusan and Luson had given a semblance of meaning and direction to his previously rather vapid and directionless life.
“I-” Fleur started, but choked on her words. Tears started to run down her face.
“Fleur,” Maxwell said. “Fleur?”
“It won’t last, Max. Even if I don’t screw it up, eventually you will die. Either through a stupid attempt at wooing a dryad, or by some miracle you’ll live out your petty seventy or eighty years and then die of old age. You’ll be a fading memory and I will be slightly less, again, than what I used to be.”
“I see,” Maxwell said. “That’s easily resolved then. I’ll just have to become immortal,” He winked as he said it, and put a hand on Fleur’s shoulder. For the first time, she didn’t instantly push him away.
“You can’t,” she said. “Nothing lasts forever.”
“Not even you?” He asked.
“No,” she replied. “Not even me.”
“I’ll stick around as long as I can, then,” he said. “Adventures with the freaks and outcasts of House Charis every day, until I die of dryad and you fade away, whatever that means.”
Fleur shook her head, then giggled a little. “Look at us,” she laughed.
“I don’t get it,” Maxwell said.
“Coming all the way here to cry about the passing of days,” Fleur said as she pointed around.
Maxwell laughed. “That’s the Lands Lost for you,” he said. With that, he moved his hand down Fleur’s shoulder, over her arm and into her hand. “Let’s go, those books aren’t going to steal themselves,” he said, gently pulling her along.
For the first time in weeks, Fleur seemed to genuinely smile.
There weren’t any teachers, guards and other hindrances at the Spire. Maxwell had made sure to avoid catching the reflection of large groups of people the day before, so that they could move through the mirror-Spire uninterrupted to their destination.
“God,” Maxwell said while climbing up one of the awkward stairs haphazardly built into the crooked hallways of the tower. Before he could continue his sentence, Fleur interrupted him with a “Which one?”
“Force of habit,” Maxwell said. “You know the one. What I meant to say was: Autumn, who designed this place, what a demented lunatic that must’ve been.”
“It wasn’t designed for men,” Fleur said. “The beings that built it had wings and ships that sailed the skies. The entirety of Luson was built for them, originally.”
“That,” Maxwell said, stopping on the massive staircase to catch his breath for a minute, “Makes a lot of sense. I knew about the airships, but it makes sense the original inhabitants could fly as well. Explains all the doors buildings have on, like, the sixth floor and shit.”
“You did it again,” Fleur said. “You sometimes fall into a different speech pattern. Foreign.”
Maxwell looked at her. She seemed unfazed by the exertion of climbing a thousand-step staircase that bent at odd angles in places, and was staring at him intently.
“I’m not from here, originally,” he explained. “Sometimes I fall back into riverlander-speak.”
She narrowed her eyes for a moment, but seemingly believed him.
“Let’s carry on then, the Headmaster’s Office is a far longer way still,” he said, winking at Fleur as he put in an effort to replicate the speech patterns of the Lands Lost.
The headmaster’s office was almost at the top of the Spire, right below the abandoned observatory. Right before they reached it, though, they ran into a reflection wandering through the hallways of the second-to-last floor.
A girl- no older than seventeen, Maxwell estimated- in the purple robes of the now defunct college of astrology.
“Help me,” she cried when she saw the two approach.
“Great,” Fleur said while rolling her eyes. “This one’s recent enough to be lucid. You must’ve accidentally caught her reflection in your mirror.”
“Hey,” Maxwell replied. “I haven’t seen her in my life.”
“What are you babbling about,” the girl said as she hurried towards them. “You’ve got to help me. I’ve been wandering here for days. Everyone is gone, everyone except for-” she swallowed and coughed, before managing to continue. “Everyone except for that other me. I don’t know where I am, I don’t know how to get back. You’ve gotta help me.”
Maxwell looked at Fleur.
“What?” She asked him.
“Well, is this a reflection or is it someone who got lost in your mirrorworld somehow?”
“A reflection obviously, no mortal alive knows mirror-walking is even possible. The other must be her original, visible through a mirror here somewhere.”
“What?” The girl asked. “What are you talking about? The other me is in here with me, chasing me through the hallways with a knife.”
Maxwell looked around, but there wasn’t anyone else with them in the hallway. Just crystal candles and haphazardly installed human-sized doors in giant doorways to create a semblance of offices.
“Slow down, just tell us what is going on,” Maxwell said.
“Max, it’s not our problem,” Fleur interjected. “Just leave her be.”
“My name’s Mary, I’m an astrologer here at the Spire. If this still is the Spire, at least.”
“I see,” Maxwell started, then stopped. He looked at Fleur, who, judging from her facial expression, was going through the same realization.
“What-” Fleur started, but Maxwell gestured at her to stay quiet. She complied.
“Mary, we might not be from the same world. Can you tell me what the Twin Cities are like where you’re from?”
“Not from the same world,” Mary repeated before opening her eyes. “The Thessaloniki Mirror!”
“The what,” Fleur and Maxwell said in tandem.
“It started moving a week ago. It’d been dormant for ages before then,” Mary explained.
Before Maxwell could ask, a second Mary shambled around the corner. Bleeding colour, she was only a haphazard simulacrum of the Mary they had just met. On her face she had a maniacal grin, and in her hands a rather large knife.
“Oh Maryyyy,” the apparition slurred. “Please come over here.”
The first Mary grabbed Fleur by the arm and started to sob. “She’s been chasing me for days. I’m stuck, I’m dying of thirst and hunger and she just won’t stop chasing me. You have to help me.”
“Oh,” Fleur said.
“Is it safe to throw words in here?” Maxwell asked.
“Absolutely not,” Fleur said. “This world is a fake, a reflection. You’d rip it as easily as you rip a sheet of paper.”
The apparition started to walk down the hallway, dragging her knife along the wall.
“Not great,” Maxwell said. “Terrible, even.”
“Can you run?” Fleur asked Mary.
“I’ve been borrowing energy from the future, I can go for a while longer before the debt catched up with me,” she replied.
“Let’s run,” Maxwell said as he bolted away, desperate to not end up the victim of some slasher.
“What are we going to do now?” Mary cried as the three of them ran down the hallway, around a corner and into a dead end where the mirrored hallway bled into the void.
“Fleur?” Maxwell asked.
“Maaaaryyyyy,” the apparition yelled from around the corner, slowly coming closer.
“We can just give her what she wants,” Fleur said. “She wants to replace this Mary in the real world, to escape being a mirror figment slowly reabsorbed by the void. She won’t harm us.”
“What?” Mary asked, panicking.
“Fleur,” Maxwell said. “That’s fucked up.”
The other Mary rounded the corner as well, and was now only paces away from them.
“It’s so scary in here Mary,” she wailed. “The darkness is so cold. It wants to eat me Mary, it wants to eat me. It wants to eat me,” she kept repeating as she stepped forward, still dragging her knife along the wall.
Maxwell shook his head. This wasn’t where he wanted to be. This wasn’t the kind of story, scene or tale he should be in. Planning ahead he could avoid such things, but right now the only way out was inelegant, brutish.
“Why don’t you-” he started, then realized killing the apparition outright might backfire on the original Mary. “Why don’t you break a leg?” he told the apparition, staring her in the eyes as he said it.
A sickening crunch sounded in stereo, and both Marys cried out in pain. Maxwell ran up to the mirror figment, who was busy collapsing in pain from her suddenly broken leg, and kicked her in the face. He wasn’t an adept fighter, but he wore heavy boots and had strong legs. The apparition went out cold.
As he turned round, he saw that the original Mary had also passed out, a stream of blood leaking from her nose.
“Fleur, we can heal her later. Pick her up and let’s get going.”
Fleur was deceptively strong. She carried Mary over her shoulder as if she weighed no less than a bag of groceries without so much as losing her breath.
“She mentioned a mirror. We should do what we came here for, and then use that as our way out,” Maxwell said. “I’d bet we’ll find it on the top floor, in the abandoned observatory.”
“You still want to go by the headmaster’s office? What if the apparition wakes up? What if more things go awry?” Fleur asked in a panic.
“Fleur,” Maxwell shook his head as he kicked in the door to the headmaster’s office. “You worry too much.”
The headmaster of the Spire, Alejandro Cohen, was vaguely reflected by the glass case behind his desk. It wasn’t a proper mirror, only a half reflection, leading to the office being vague, translucent, and icy cold because of its proximity to the void that had scared the Mary-figment so much. The mirrored Alejandro seemed happy, vigorously imitating the movements of the real headmaster visible through the glass like a window.
It was an opulent office, filled with the tools of his trade as well as every luxury one could acquire in the Lands Lost. Books on magic, exotic fruits, ancient magical tools and beautiful furniture filled up the room until it was almost cramped.
Maxwell put on his hood, and slipped between the empty spaces that exist between words. As he had guessed some days earlier, this state diminished him in stature enough that he was able to slip out of the mirrored world through the incomplete reflection in the glass case.
The real world was so much sharper and brighter than the mirrored one that it dazzled Maxwell for a moment, and he instinctively looked around to see if the headmaster had noticed him.
He hadn’t, of course.
“Busy writing a new thesis?” Maxwell asked. “You should get some more wine, you can hardly expect to work while dying of thirst.”
Alejandro looked up, surveying the room with his weary, old gaze.
“Hrmph,” he said. He worked for a while more, before deciding to leave- probably to get some more wine.
Maxwell waited for him to leave his office, and then ransacked it. Tearing open bookcase after bookcase, pulling open drawer after drawer, looking for the book he was after. He found it sooner rather than later, to his relief.
A pale, leather bound book with silver filigree inscription. ‘Alchemy Most Dark, by Aster Scarborough’, it read.
With a grin on his face, he slipped back into the mirrorworld, where Fleur was anxiously waiting for him, still holding the unconscious Mary. Triumphant, he removed his hood and smiled at the knife-eared girl.
In the corner of the room, sat the mirrored headmaster, now no longer connected to his material counterpart rocking himself while crying.
“It’s so cold,” he said. “So cold, so cold,” over and over again.
“You’ve got it?” Fleur asked Maxwell, ignoring the mirror figment.
“Yes,” Maxwell said, holding the book up for her.
“Good,” Fleur said. “Give it to me. That book isn’t for any mortal to read.”
“I’ll give it to you,” Maxwell said, “When I’m done reading it.” With that he shoved it into one of the myriad pockets sewn into the folds of his robe. Fleur shook her head in disapprovement, but did not otherwise object.
Still slung over Fleur’s shoulder, Mary started quietly sobbing.
“If she’s awake the reflection is awake,” Fleur said. “We’ve gotta move.”
Maxwell paused for a second to collect his thoughts- something he had always been rather quick at- and headed in the direction of the staircase to the top floor of the Spire.
“Mary said she came through the observatory, so there’s gotta be a mirror there. She couldn’t have wandered here if there wasn’t a connection to this floor either, so that’s our ticket out,” he said as he walked towards the other end of the hallway, gesturing at Fleur to follow him.
“Maxwell,” Fleur began, but did not finish her sentence.
Finding the way up was harder than Maxwell had originally anticipated. Several of the hallways ended up in dead ends, bleeding into the void. They had to circle around half the floor to finally reach a way up to the top floor of the Spire.
And right as they did, Mary’s mirror figment caught up with them. Her right leg was warped and twisted and terribly, terribly wrong. Colors seeped out of it, mixing with the surrounding and dragging the entire world after her like you’d peel a thin, organic film of a piece of rotten fruit.
“Maxwell,” Fleur said, panicking.
“Jesus,” Maxwell said. “Autumn.”
The world warped as the apparition walked towards them, sickening crunches as she put her weight on her demolished leg.
“I told you,” Fleur said, hints of anger in her voice. “I told you this world was fragile.”
“Let’s get going,” Maxwell said. He turned around and bolted up the stairs as fast he could. So did Fleur, who immediately overtook him. The thin and anemic girl was preposterously strong, he once again realized as she rushed up the stairs in front of him.
Maxwell himself had never been athletic. Sure, living in the Lands Lost meant he was reasonably fit, but it wasn’t like he went jogging every morning. And rushing up the flight of stairs was taking the wind out of him right now like nothing else. Behind him, the world buckled under the strain of whatever his words had done to the mirror figment, and he strained to keep ahead of her.
“Mary,” the figment howled. “Mary, you don’t know what it’s like. I waited so long for you to come and save me from this world.”
His legs turning sour and almost throwing up from fatigue, Maxwell made a mental note for himself to never go near a mirror again.
“In Autumn’s name,” Fleur, who had just reached the top of the stairs, cursed.
It took Maxwell almost fifteen seconds to catch up to her and say the same.
A second later, the mirror figment and the distortion she was dragging along caught up with them as well.
The top floor was a maze. A maze of mirrors. Turning, rotating, undulating mirrors. No two of them rotated in the same direction, and the overwhelming amount of vistas, sights and people reflected in them almost knocked Maxwell off his feet.
“Thessaloniki,” the Mary slung over Fleur’s shoulder muttered.
A sharp pain shot through Maxwell’s upper left arm, debilitating, incinerating pain. He turned around and looked straight into the other Mary, the apparition, her wide smile. She’d stabbed him in the arm with her oversized knife.
Behind her, the world was gone. The void was swirling behind her, tugging at her, draining her body away as if it was running paint.
It most likely was paint, Maxwell realized.
“Fleur,” he howled in pain as he stumbled backwards, away from the cold darkness seemingly intent on devouring him along with the apparition.
The world around him turned to black, everything suddenly swallowed by the darkness. Everything but him, Fleur, Mary, and an endless maze of mirrors stretching out in every mathematically conceivable direction.
“What is this place,” Fleur said, stuttering. “This isn’t supposed to be here, this is impossible.”
“It’s bigger,” Mary muttered. “Bigger in here than out there.”
“Fleur,” Maxwell cried while trying to staunch the bleeding stab wound in his arm.
He had never been injured like this. His control over situations was his pride and joy, his mastery over what happened to himself and others around him a comfortable safety net. That net had been thorn, and he didn’t know how to deal with that.
Trying to make his way over to Fleur, he lost track of the floor and stumbled into the air. Aimlessly floating, he saw Fleur let go of Mary and stretch out her arms.
“We’re going to die,” Maxwell said. It was a cold acceptance of fact. He should’ve seen it coming, too. Playing around with unholy flames, dancing with dryads, of course the only fitting end for him would be to die a pathetic death on one adventure too many. The fate of he who thought he had control over everything and could live in this fantasy world, forever, would of course be to have that control wrested away.
And not a heroic death worthy of recollection in some novel or poem or epic. A pathetic, miserable death brought about by youthful carelessness.
He smiled. It had been a good run.
“YOU ARE A MIRROR,” Fleur screamed somewhere else in the void as he was getting light headed from blood loss.
“YOU ARE A MIRROR AND I AM YOUR GOD, YOU WILL OBEY ME, ARROGANT PIECE OF ARTIFICE.”
When Maxwell came to, he was laying on a mattress in an observatory. Above him, the large dome on the top of the Spire. Around him, a room that reminded him of a school gym with parts of the old telescope, long disassembled, scattered around it. There were more mattresses in the room, and on one of them was a heavily bandaged Mary, sound asleep.
Next to Maxwell knelt a boy no older than he was, with blonde hair dressed in strange, patchwork robes.
“How are you feeling?” He asked.
“Rather good, given that my last memory is of dying,” Maxwell replied.
The boy laughed. “Even if you had died, your wounds weren’t bad enough that my panacea couldn’t have reversed that. Talking about that, any side effects? Light headed? Drowsy? Any voices in your head that don’t belong there?”
Ah, Maxwell thought. “No,” he said. “Where’s Fleur?”
“Her? Or Mirror Girl?” the boy asked while pointing towards Mary.
“Who are you?” Maxwell asked instead of answering.
“Alexis,” the boy answered. “I’m the royal alchemist. The Mirror Girl is in the room with the artifact, she said that she needed some time with it to ‘seal’ it.”
“I have to go see if she’s okay,” Maxwell said as he tried to get up. He didn’t get far though, because his head started to spin and he almost threw up.
To his horror, he also realized he wasn’t wearing his cloak.
“Carefull,” Alexis said. “The panacea will probably give you a bad fever and some nausea for a few days. The human body has trouble processing some of the components, you see.”
“Panacea,” Maxwell said. “Cure-all. Oh, right, you said you were the royal alchemist. Could you explain to me what happened? And where did you put my coat? It’s rather dear to me.”
“Your coat’s over there,” Alexis said, pointing at a pile of stuff that among a large pile of bandages and ragged sheets, seemed to contain his robes, his cloak, Mary’s purple robes and Fleur’s blue dress.
He looked at Alexis. The boy was young, no older than twenty. He had very stern mannerisms though, moving about as if he were an old man, already weary of the world. As he walked over to Mary and put his hand against her head, presumably to check her temperature, Maxwell wondered if he really was his age. You could never really know in the Lands Lost, after all.
“Could you,” Maxwell repeated. “Explain to me what happened?”
“No,” Alexis said. “Because I hold several values that prevent me from speculating idly about things that I do not understand.”
Maxwell sighed. “Alright. Can you tell me what transpired before you- or rather, before someone or something bandaged our wounds and fed us this ‘panacea’, because then I might be able to fill in the gaps for you.”
Alexis laughed. It was the kind of laugh that Maxwell would mentally associate with a chess grandmaster, which did nothing to make him feel comfortable.
“I was investigating the artifact that, after having been dormant for most of the Spire’s recorded history, sprang to life a week ago. As I was pacing around it, doing tests and formulating a hypothesis about its origin or function, a reflection appeared in it that did not seem to match the waking world. This reflection- You, Mirror Girl and the one with the broken leg, broken nose and frost wounds, then came closer and closer until you stumbled out of the mirror and onto the floor of the room next to this one. You were all heavily injured, and Mirror Girl commanded me to help you. After I had administered first aid, she told me to leave her alone as she attempted to seal the artifact, saying it was incredibly dangerous.”
Alexis stopped to take a breath for a second, and continued with maniacal glee.
“I know better than to deny her and her fellow witches aid, given that even our dear Prince Autumn- pardon me the pun, though He would laugh at it, I am sure- treats them with some modicum of respect usually reserved for Tinten, Gunthilde and yours truly, Alexis.”
He smiled at Maxwell.
The royal alchemist, Maxwell realized. This guy was Prince Autumn’s personal aide. He felt a deep, dark mire form around his soul, and realized he was in much more trouble now than he had ever been in the mirrored world.
“I see,” Maxwell said. “I thank you, then. I am sure my mistress will reward you for your efforts.”
“And you,” Alexis said. “Would you fill in the gaps in my story, then?”
Luckily, Maxwell had always been quick at thinking. “My mistress wanders the world hidden behind mirrors. We got ambushed there, by one of the local denizens. Wounded, we had to escape. The artifact you speak of was the closest exit out of this world.”
Again, Alexis laughed. Again, it was the laugh of someone certain that they had mate in three.
“Your tongue is almost as sharp as that of Tinten, strange boy. The gears in your head run almost as fast as mine. I wonder then, why Autumn has never heard of you. I wondered too, for a long time, where to Mirror Girl had disappeared. I regretted no longer seeing her here, in the Spire. She has a peculiar kind of beauty, you know.”
Maxwell could not help but feel pangs of pain in his stomach. Outplayed.
“Your cloak hides things from the senses in a way that escapes me. Perhaps then, as master of such a power, you could hide yourself and Mirror Girl from even the all-seeing eyes of the Deer God. Which makes me wonder- is it really her that is the master, and you the slave?”
Before Maxwell could re
“Did you think you were the only one that could pull tricks with words? Did you think I would not recognize that your friend over there is from another time and space? Did you really think that you were the only person in this world that held Power, real power, not merely the scraps and dregs that men often assume to be power?”
Holding his head in his hands, tears forming in his eyes, Maxwell accepted defeat. “What are you going to do to us?” He asked, hoarse.
“I’m going to lord my victory, proof of my superior mind, over you for another minute or so, and then I am going down on my knees and start begging for your help,” Alexis said. “The Lands are falling apart, and one royal alchemist is not enough to save our world from the doom about to befall it.”