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The Esper

By Travis Lambert

Adventure / Fantasy

Chapter 1. The Lady Stirs

The dreams of fever are madness. Half-formed, melting, merging figures of men and beasts, waves and trees, light and darkness, writhing and pulsing in phantasmagoric chaos—the woman's dreams were haunted by these shapes as she lay on her sickbed. In waking and sleeping, the visions that passed before her broken mind—insane, frightening things that always lingered on the edge of meaning before impishly disdaining form and slipping into shapeless fears again—kept her from drawing a clear distinction between reality and fantasy, waking and dreaming.

And yet there was one demon, one monster, which frequently appeared before her mind's eye: a feathered, clawed abomination, frozen, caged in ice, shrieking its terrible screech and burning her with its fiery eyes. The frozen monster raised her to such a pitch of terror that her consciousness drove itself back to the furthest depths of her mind and sought to annihilate itself. Anything, anything to escape the monster. And so the woman's psyche shattered itself on the rocks of imbecility.

These are the demons that haunted the dreams of the woman whose story I tell, if that Word Eternal deigns to lend flesh to thoughts, gives them words, and if that Spirit Who grants and revokes the tongues of men gives them understanding.

She writhed and muttered pitiably on her sickbed, her only attendant a wizened and tired-looking old man, who even now was emerging in her mind like a distant light from her nightmares. Gradually she awoke and found herself lying in a cold sweat. How long she had lain in her fever-bed she didn't know. She gazed up, at first blankly, but with growing awareness, at the old man dabbing her face and neck with a damp rag. After having been mad for so long, the woman let the peace of stillness wash over her. She had begun to cry.

"There there, sweetheart," said the old man. "It's okay. You've been sick for a long time now, but you're coming around." He turned aside to re-soak the rag in a basin, and the woman gasped, for part of his face was hideously scarred, as if he had been recently burned. But he didn't appear to have noticed her reaction, for when he turned towards her again he smiled with paternal affection and continued to gently dab her forehead. She didn't know if his burns still caused him pain, but they didn't seem to hinder his work, which he performed with all the kindness of a father nursing his daughter back to health or a man handling some delicate and priceless treasure. His left eye (the one on the burned side of his face), browless and nearly shut with scar tissue, was opaque, as if a white film was over it—Blind, she thought. His good eye was dark and wrinkled with crows-feet when he smiled.

And now she began to take in her surroundings. She was not in a house but a cave. There were oil lamps on a table, pots, and phials filled with various colored liquids, as well as other medical instruments. But if it was strange to her that she lived in a cave, it was stranger that it appeared to bear the marks of fire damage. Here and there were singed edges and charred holes in the furniture and black spots on the walls and ceiling. Even her blanket had scorch marks and smelled like smoke. It was as if some tiny white-hot star with a mind of its own had bounced around the cave, scarring everything it touched.

"Are you ready to try and eat something?" said the old man.

"Yes," said a woman's voice, and it took her a moment to realize that it was her own, for she did not recognize it. What is my name?—the question suddenly occurred to her. But at the same time, she realized just how hungry she was. She was famished. The old man got up and went and stirred the coals in an iron stove, then put a pot on. While the stew was cooking, the old man gave her a cup of water to slake her incredible thirst. The woman sat up with some effort, for her long sickness had sapped her strength.

"Do you remember anything?" said the old man.

The woman thought for a moment, then shook her head. She knew it should have disturbed her more than it did, but in her state, food and drink seemed more important. She did not yet have the strength for the question of her identity.

"Do you know who you are?" he said a moment later, but then, when she didn't answer, he reproached himself. "I'm sorry. I'm a fool to question you so soon. I should leave you alone for a while and let you regain your strength. You've been out for a long time."

"How long?" asked the woman.

"Oh, it must have been at least three months since we found you."

"Found me? Am I not your granddaughter, then? And who's we?"

"Not now, child. You don't have the strength yet for that long and hard tale. Get some rest. I'll tell you when you're ready."

The woman lay back down, for indeed she was exhausted from such simple exertions.

After two or three weeks (as nearly as she could reckon, since no sunlight reached into the cave), when she was strong enough to walk around the room without leaning on Arvis's shoulder (for that was the old man's name), he told her that the time had come for her to learn about herself. She knew by now that he was not her father or grandfather, though her heart had already grown to love him during her rehabilitation. She was now waiting for Arvis to return, for he left (for the first time in her memory) to deliver a message to the "others." She had asked who the others were, but, with a great sigh and a look of sadness, as if he too sensed that their simple, happy life together was drawing to a close, he said that it must wait till he returned.

The young woman was looking at herself in a mirror. She didn't recognize her own face. She had fair skin, gray eyes, and long, wavy, dark red hair. She had a pretty, heart-shaped face and a comely body, though petite. In fact, she was quite beautiful, even though she had the look of one wasted by illness. She imagined how beautiful she must have been before, but without vanity. The woman had little thought for her own beauty, and considered it as a man considers his assets when he sits down to manage his money—something good and bounteous, but at the same time something one considers with a degree of detachment.

There was some fear but also some nobility in her eyes. It did not occur to her that she might be royalty. It was not that kind of nobility; it was more rustic than civilized. It was a kind of nobility whose place was in a forest or a temple or even a battlefield, rather than in a court. There was—and this was perhaps the most difficult observation—a strange mixture of wildness and refinement, power and restraint. But all this might have been her imagination, a groping in the dark for some trace of her identity. You or I might have simply seen a woman who would have been extremely beautiful were it not for her pale and wretched sickness.

The woman thought about what her past might hold. She had a sense that, whatever it was, it was some great and ominous thing, which would soon overtake her. She saw in her face a slight tinge of regret, knowing that, when Arvis came back, the happy little world they had inhabited together for the past few weeks would be no more, expanded beyond all control into a wide world of mysterious and great matters. She could not have told you then why she felt thus, why she could not have been an ordinary farmer's daughter who had fallen ill and gotten lost. Perhaps it was Arvis's secrecy or some undefined notion left partly intact in her memory. And though she could wish she were still sick, so that her now simple life with her surrogate father would continue, she also felt (not without foreboding) that she must know the truth.

All the time the woman was recuperating, the subject of her identity managed not to come up, though it was not because they didn't talk. They laughed and cooked and read books together. For Arvis had many books, though most of them were about medicine, some of which he had written himself, for he was in fact a doctor and an alchemist (or a philosopher, as they used to be called). The woman even helped him with some of his experiments—that is, she handed him whatever phial or metal shavings he asked for.

But the books that they read to each other were stories, mostly chivalric romances and pastorals, occasionally a book of verse or a sacred text. They were illuminated with the most colorful and elaborate pictures. From these the woman surmised that Arvis was very rich, which meant that he lived in a cave not out of poverty but because they were in hiding.

Although she was no longer sick, there was still the recurring image of the monster trapped in ice which haunted her dreams, though it did not now hold the terror for her that it once did. She was trying to banish its image from her mind when she saw the glow of a torch and heard the slow step of Arvis. She fortified her heart with courage and met him as confidently as she could, though from the first moment their eyes met they both understood that the time had come for them to part. They sat down at the table and a heavy silence fell between them, which, after an uncomfortable moment, was broken by Arvis:

"I suppose it's time to tell you. But before I do I want you to know that, whatever you've done, it's in the past. All that matters is the choices you make now. Some of the others are not as forgiving as I am, but I believe you had been deceived, forced to become—"

"A prostitute?" the woman interrupted.

"No, Lord bless you," he said with a feeble laugh. "Not a prostitute. It's much worse than that, I'm afraid."

"What, then?"

"Well," said Arvis, "I suppose I should tell you, first, that your name is Terra"—the name was alien to her—"We found you in the mountains, not two miles from the city of Narsha, unconscious next to two corpses that we believe were imperial soldiers. You were found near the Esper."

"What's an Esper?" said Terra.

"A god," said Arvis. "It is perhaps the only one left in the world, the last vestige of the age of gods and magic."

"So who am I?"

Arvis sighed. "You are—or were—a soldier in the imperial army. You belonged to the Empire."

"A soldier? Me?" said Terra doubtfully. "How is that possible? And how is a soldier worse than a prostitute?"

Arvis suddenly looked very stern. "The Empire is a wicked and tyrannous thing. Its lust for power is insatiable. Its crimes against the people are so heinous you would blush to hear them, my child."

Terra grew silent. She'd never seen him so grave. "I'm sorry, Arvis; I didn't know. I just—"

Terra didn't have time to finish her sentence, for she distinctly heard voices in the tunnels, soon followed by the yellow glow of torches. Arvis heard them at the same time, for he said, "Soldiers! They must have followed me. Quick, this way!" and before she knew it, they dashed out of the room and Arvis led Terra down a passageway (which she hadn't noticed before), Arvis holding a lamp aloft and going as fast as his legs could carry him, through corridors and caverns which he must have known by heart. And as they hurried, here and there making a turn, Terra heard the echoing voices and footsteps of their pursuers, a sound which came from so many different tunnels that she couldn't tell their distance or direction. But after several minutes, Arvis seemed to have lost them.

At last, Arvis led her to the mouth of a long, narrow tunnel sloping upward, and he stopped and picked up a leather bag which had been hidden behind a rock.

"There is food, money, and a sword in here (you'll know how to use it)," said Arvis, out of breath. "Follow this tunnel all the way—there are no turns, so you won't get lost—until you reach the surface. You'll come up on the outskirts of Narsha. There will be a small cottage nearby between a boulder and a pine forest. A young man lives there by the name of Locke. He's one of us."

"But who is 'us'?" said Terra, taking the bag. Arvis lit another lamp and gave it to her.

"I'm sorry I don't have time to explain. I hope we meet again. Be safe. Don't let yourself be taken by the Empire, Terra. May the gods grant you mercy. Now fly!"

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