Shades of Light

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Chapter 6

Alex had simply followed the lights. The city he found was awe-inspiring but fragile. The outer reaches were full of quaint brick houses with little patches of greenery around them. There was only an artistically crafted, metal fence to indicate the border of the city. The guards at the gate let him pass without any trouble. One even gave him a friendly nod, thinking him some traveler from faraway lands. As he made his way deeper into the city the buildings grew larger and even more ornate. Red bricks with white mortar, looking impossibly fresh and new, was replaced by marble, wood and some kind of colorful glass. From everywhere in the city, one could see the large spires and towers rising impossibly high from the center of the city. The sun seemed to illuminate these structures from the perfect angle at all times of the day, casting a pleasant aura over the city. Alex had to remind himself to blink from time to time, even if it meant missing a moment of this view. Even a glimpse of this beauty was infinitely more addicting than anything he had ever known. The people who lived with this every day weren't helping either. Even the men were pleasing to the eyes here and everybody he met showered him with smiles or tried to start a friendly conversation. He wasn't sure how to deal with this and just kept walking in the direction of the city center. People laughed. Children played. The birds sang. Alex was starting to feel a little bit sick.

“Howdy, traveler,” a girl said. He tried to move around her but she moved to block his way. Her hair swayed enticingly with every movement. It was as black as a raven, yet seemed to exude light. Alex averted his eyes and started to back away.

“What brings you here?” She looked up at him with bright, green eyes. Alex estimated her to be close to womanhood but found it hard to tell with these people. At one moment they were like children and the other they seemed to be very much the sexual epitome of their gender.

“I just followed the lights,” he mumbled.

“That's a funny accent you have,” she said without a trace of mockery. “That's probably the Palace you saw. It is made from glass and reflects light over all the land.”

“I see.”

“The Empress lives in it. You can visit her, if you want.”

“Maybe I will,” he said and pushed past her. She followed.

“I could introduce you. What's your name?” she asked in exactly the same happy tone she had been using.

“That's okay.”

“We get many travelers here and we love to hear their stories,” she said, before grabbing him by uncovered part of his arm and whispering: “I'd love to get to know you better.”

Alex jumped up, almost higher than the girl was tall, and shouted angrily. “Stay away from me! You're filthy.”

Finally the rejection seemed to hit and she stared at him with her beautiful eyes.

“What the hell is wrong with you? This is not how women act!” he shouted. All eyes were now on him and the pleasant city life ground to a halt around them. “You live in a dream! What possesses you to offer yourself to a stranger like that? Don't you have any sense of danger? I could...the things I could do....why can't you see that?”

“Is there a problem, traveler?” one of the passersby asked. Alex turned to him and snarled, causing everybody to flinch. An animal-like hiss escaped from deep in his throat.

“Don't any of you see that you live the same lives as your cattle?” he whirled as he addressed the other people around. “You all live the same small lives, going from one high to the other. Sex and drink. Working hard without getting tired or sore. None of you seem to have any clue how the world works or why you do the things you do. Nobody here seems to think beyond the now. Nobody realizes the wonders and the blessings of this realm.”

“We know we are blessed.”

“No, you don't! You can not conceive of the evils that you are spared from and your happiness is lesser for it. You could be so much more!”

The crowd stared at him in a stupor.

“Be angry, be scared! Only then will you know what matters to you,” he shouted into the silence but still there was no response. Eventually he just growled something that sounded like 'forget it' and moved on.

Some kind of ceremony had just started when Alex arrived at the large palace made out of glass. It was the highest structure among the many spires and towers that would've reached into the clouds if there had been any. The guards let him through as long as he promised to be quiet and not interrupt the ceremony. A young man was being awarded some kind of medal for 'valiantly' protecting somebody called 'the princess'. Alex figured that the woman standing next to the Empress was this person. It was quite obvious that the young woman was in some kind of relationship with the young man. The ceremony itself was quite boring but the audience and the participants seemed to be ecstatic. After some speeches, hugs, kisses and the handing out of the medal everybody went out to party. Alex was by now intimately familiar with the layout of the hall this had all taken place in. He leaned against a pillar as the rest of the people left, hiding in one of the few shadows in there. Even with the light coming in from all directions there was no uncomfortable glare. The architect had been very talented or there was some kind of magic at work here. The Empress was discussing something with a small circle of advisers but eventually those men and women also left. She sat down on her throne with a content sigh and closed eyes.

“Come closer,” she said, calmly addressing nobody in particular. “Don't be shy.”

Alex stepped out of the shadow and carefully approached her. It looked like they were completely alone in the enormous empty space.

“You are confused,” the woman said. She was middle-aged but had aged gracefully. She was a motherly figure with her friendly eyes and bound hair but that same figure was also one of a younger woman. The enormous purple dress she wore even showed off some cleavage. The crown in her hair sparkled in the strange light of the palace.

“Yes,” Alex said. He tore his gaze away from her breasts but it was caught again by the many jewels in the crown.

“Let me help you,” she said, smiling despite his behavior.

“Explain something to me,” he said and finally turned away. “What is your goal?”

“I live to serve my people and be worthy of their love,” she answered immediately.

“What do your people live for though?”

“Their own happiness and that of their friends and family, I imagine,” she said. “You would have to ask them though.”

“They don't seem to know,” the young visitor said. “Neither do you, apparently.”

“Is it so important that our lives have a purpose? Can't you-”

“I don't give a shit about purpose,” Alex interrupted. “I'm talking about goals. Something to strive for. Something to fight for.”

“I apologize. I did not mean to mistake you for the other outlanders.”

“You can't live life just doing what is expected, because it is expected. You have to have a goal. Why else would you perpetuate your own existence? Even my barbarian cousins understand that,” Alex said through gritted teeth. The Empress started to answer him but he continued. “There is no light at the end of this tunnel, no rainbow to show us the way, no knight in shining armor to save us or prince charming to kiss you awake. There is only a desperate struggle before inevitable defeat.”

“Where you come from, yes,” The older woman said and her expression turned sad. Alex didn't understand why.

“While I breathed only dust and ash, you had a refreshing breeze,” he said, slowly growing louder and louder. “While I ate the rotten scraps of my own brothers and sisters, you were dining on every dish you could imagine. While I suffered these indignities and dreamed of an end, you lived like a-...a god...and took it for granted.”

Alex stared at the wise Empress like he was trying to make her explode with his thoughts. She had the good grace not to laugh at this.

“You have hurt my people, outlander,” she said after a while. Her expression was all business now. Alex hated her deceitful face. “Just by being here you hurt my people. I never asked you to come here and I cannot allow you to stay.”

“Tell me why I have to suffer while you can live here in hollow ecstasy,” Alex whispered. “Then I will leave.”

“You talk as if you expected somebody to save you. Have you ever considered that you might not be worth saving?”

“Perhaps.” He bared his teeth. “Let's see if you are.”

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