She walked forward, cautiously, into the next space that awaited her. And was blinded.
The enclosure was dominated by a ledge that stood over an ornate and decorated door, all resplendently carven with dragons and roses. She understood immediately that this was the last door out of this succession of weird visions, though she could no sooner explain how she knew this than explain how she had known that the dead women without jaws would be displeased by silence. Above the door stood a figure made from darkness, and pinpricked all over with the searing light of stars that were brighter than the sun. As Caewen moved closer, she realised she was mistaken. The person was actually made of sunlight, and dressed in a robe as gauzy and beautiful as the dawn. But then she saw that she had been mistaken again. No, the shape was not made out of sunlight, but rather it was formed from flames and burning embers, all of which twirled and spiralled, beat and pulsed, with every breath of the wind, and then, as she drew yet closer, she saw that the figure was actually made of soft shadows, warm, silver-tinted and enveloping, comforting to touch. She never knew or saw if there was another image behind the shadows, behind the flames, behind the sun’s corona, behind the vast spans of night sky, because, at that point she pushed through the doorway and all the strangeness, the magic, the awful weird dream fever, it all peeled away.
She was left rasping for breath, as heavily and madly as any panting dog, leaning against a dull and ordinary stone wall. Just like the walls and the carven ways she had left behind when she took the, perhaps ill-given, advise of the Faer creature, and walked into that strange place in the maze.
Oddly, as she collected her thoughts, Caewen realised that she could see again, more clearly. Why? Looking up, she saw that the sky was still the dim hard-blue and grey of evening getting into twilight. The sun was still visible, a disc of beaten old glowing silver, sinking westward. All the time that had passed while inside the weird gardens and phantom courtyards had not passed at all. Night was not yet asserted. There were no stars in the sky. Whatever had happened in that place had happened only inside that place, or maybe, she realised, inside her own thoughts, or in some other strange timeless space between things.
A sudden awful stomach clench came at her, rising upwards through her bowels. It felt like just getting out of a spinning boat in a fast river. Head pounding now, blinking at the reeling sensation, she took a long, hard breath. She suppressed an urge to retch successfully for a while, but, staggering a little, she gave up and leaned over the bring up the remnants of her midday meal. There wasn’t much left of it, and when she was done only a few sticky loops of saliva needed to be wiped away from her lips. She forced herself to walk then. A slight, damp sweat had broken out on her forehead, but it had stopped at that, and she was cooling down now in the evening air. Down the plain and rather unremarkable corridor, she went. After all, it turned out that she was still in the maze, and so she still needed to find her way out.
And then, as she scanned the walls, and the off-shoot corridors, she heard a new noise. A low, harsh wind-on-torn-flesh noise. An angry, enraged shove and rattle of breath sound: in and out, like a tide against rotting driftwood. She recognised that voice before she even looked around and saw him. Crouched above her, atop a wall and looking down with cold, distant malice in white-shot eyes, he sat–a wraithlike creature–covered in tattered rags, darkness-fleshed, and wearing a crown made of small bones, all looped together by metal thread.
It was the shade of Mannagarm.
“You can’t be here.” She stepped away from it. “No. The Wisht have you bound by their witchery. Up north,” she added, dumbly. It certainly looked real. When the wraith-thing snarled at her, she could see the rotten stumps of teeth, and she thought, it sounds real too. And it smelled real. Like coldness. And absence.
It leapt from its stone wall-top and bounded after her, trailing a broad, fluttering cloak of mouldy grey and black after it. A glance over her shoulder, and she could see that it was gaining, bounding like a beast on all-fours, shrieking, its mouth and eyes stuffed full of darkness.
As she looked into the face of darkness and withered fleshed, a shock of realisation ran through her, and Caewen, now feeling a sudden return of the sickness in her stomach, slowed to a stop, then turned, taking a step backwards so that she was pressed up into a wall. The hard grit and the cold angles dug into her ribs and thighs. Refusing to move, she looked on the oncoming mass of rags and oily, ashy skin, the depthless eyes. It was still rushing towards her. It looked so real… and yet… for the barest moment she was sure that she could see right through it. A faint tracery of the walls beyond were visible, just for a blink.
It wasn’t real. No matter how it looked, sounded or smelled.
She told herself again.
It was not real.
A hard swallow, and she found herself desperately hoping that she was right about this. It was quite the gamble… and after all, wasn’t there a possibility that somehow the shade had been conjured here by what forces of magic lived in the maze? Squaring her shoulders, nonetheless, she reached towards it, so that, fingers stretched, she held out her hand to meet the on-rush of bitter darkness and swirling rage.
“You are not real,” she murmured. Then again, louder, “You are not here. You are the last of the fears of this place. The final vision of the maze I was walking.” She took a long, cold breath of the evening air. Heady, chill sensations ran through the nerves in her head, hands and fingertips. She sought for a spell or charm; some defence against illusion lodged in her mind by the ice-demon that had been inside her. A small, wavering mote of magic trembled, just barely alive, on the tip of her tongue, and at the tips of her fingers too. There it was, her own tiny minnow-flash of memory… drawn from the witcheries and charmworks still flickering about in her mind. And she was able to recall one small spell from the hours she had spent with the ancient ice-thing inside her skull. But, having nothing to draw her magic from–possessing no artefact, no arcane bloodline, no tethered spirit, fetish or familiar–with no such uncanny source to tap, she was obliged to draw the life’s force out of her own self. A fraction of the warmth of her body fled her. Some of her blood died inside her veins. Minute twists of dead tissue, like the tiny threads of grass-root nematodes thrashed within the muscles of her arm and her hand. But she caught the magic all the same, and she held it firmly, not letting it go. It was barely magic at all. Barely a spell, and nothing like the charms she had conjured when she had been bound to the old ice creature. And yet, there it was: a small squirming glimmer, twisting between thumb and forefinger.
The ashy and cloak-heavy Mannagarm slowed to a lumber, and swayed a little, as if unsure, or afraid. The wraith was so close now. As close as a friend in conversation, so she closed her eyes, hoped again that she had guessed right, and she parted her finger and thumb and blew the magic into the ghaist with one quick puff of lung air. The silvery light made a dizzying, hard-spinning line, like an airy seed tossed on sharp winds. It struck the thing that was pretending to be the dead Mannagarm, and there was a small flutter of internal light, like a candle far out in a swamp. Then, rapidly, cracks appeared over the surface of the darkness and the rags, and the whole of the phantom split and fell apart, breaking and scattering like flakes of old glass. The pieces skittered, bouncing here and there, but lay still only a moment before gusting away in their own tiny pyres of smoke. All gone. All dissolved into the air.
“Just an illusion,” she said. “The last of them.”
So were they all illusions then, if the dead Mannagarm had been? The young Mannagarm too, and her own doppleganger, and the harp in the tree, and the figures of night-sky, daylight, fire and shadow?
Maybe, then. Maybe. She shook her head and did everything she could to not fall over, leaning her whole weight into the all behind her.