In the dream, he sees a ziggurat of dark stone, a beacon shining from its peak. A vast garden sprawls about its base, filled with a thousand heavenly blooms and dotted with small, paper-walled dwellings. A brightly-colored gemstone rests in his hand, heavy with magic, and he knows it was born in the heart of the ziggurat. This place is his home.
He sees an old man with peaceful eyes and a long white beard, dressed in flowing silks of saffron and lavender. A brilliant sunburst shines on his brow as he twirls through the enemy's ranks, his gold-and-glass swords twin whirlwinds of blood and light. The faerie legions stand motionless as he scythes through them, captivated by the beauty of his deadly dance. This man is his brother.
He sees a dark man with braided, beaded hair and beard, wearing a vest and skirt of violet and gray, his forehead marked with a golden circle. The man's hand is the only thing keeping him from falling into the howling pit below. He does not know if he will pull him up, or let him fall, and he sees in the man's eyes that he does not know, either. This man is also his brother.
He sees a woman whose hair catches the sunlight and shatters it, coruscating with a thousand rainbows. Her robes are blue trimmed with gold, and a golden disc burns on her forehead. She anoints him with oil and draws him to his feet, speaking his name and welcoming him into the Circle. This woman is his sister.
He sees a pale woman whose hair is the color of a raven's wing, indigo and violet swirling on the surface of the black. She never removes the orange-and-black scarf which hides the lower half of her face, even when they are making love. She lies sleeping next to him, and he gently kisses the half-circle which glows on her brow. This woman is also his sister.
A faerie lord surrounds the ziggurat with her army, and demands that they surrender. He puts on his circlet and torque and rings of orichalcum, and his robes of silver, and goes out to meet her under flag of truce. They play at riddles for three days, at the end of which time she has agreed that she and all her army will serve him for a year and a day.
He labors for a month in the forge beneath the ziggurat, fashioning gold into orichalcum and orichalcum into the point of a mighty lance. When it is done, he etches a word into the blade, and affixes it to the mahogany haft. The dark shaft, longer than a man is tall, is inlaid with jade and starmetal, spelling out the words of a poem he composed for his lover. Although he is working from her designs, she is bound by tradition from assisting him. This is right and proper, for this weapon will be his and his alone, symbol of his office and extension of his will. When it is finished, he raises it to the sky, and the sunlight runs down its edge like honey.
He sees these things, and he knows that he is dreaming. But he also knows they are his home, his family, his deeds. When he is in this place, surrounded by them, he knows his place in heaven and earth, and his soul resonates with the rightness of it. He is complete.
Jasper woke with the sun in his eyes, bright light slanting through the room's unshuttered window to frame his head and shoulders in a golden square. Blinking groggily, he threw up a hand to block the glare. Dust motes, thrown into the air by his sudden movement, swirled in the shaft of light. The dream still hummed in his mind. He sat up. The room was small enough that he didn't have to move any further to look out the window. Outside, the morning sunlight shone off the golden domes of the city's temples and cast deep shadows across the streets and alleys. From the top of the minaret two streets over, a man was singing ecstatic praises to Seyat the Yellow; the muted sounds of other worship ceremonies and celebrations drifted in from the east, toward the city center.
Kicking off his blanket, Jasper shuffled over to the window on his knees -- the ceiling was too low for him to actually stand up. In fact, the room he'd slept in was an attic, not designed for human habitation. The reason the window didn't have a shutter was because he'd accidentally snapped its rusty hinges while breaking in last night; fortunately for him, no one had noticed the clatter it had made falling to the street.
Shading his eyes with one hand, Jasper cast his gaze across the city of Great Forks. "Today," he said softly. "Today is the day." There was absolute confidence in his voice, despite the fact that he said the same words every morning. That none of those days had turned out to be the day did not bother him; he knew that this time, out there, it was waiting for him. He didn't know where it was, or what it looked like, but he knew it was there. Somewhere. He could feel it. All he had to do was go out and find it.
Jasper gathered up his belongings, a process which took all of thirty seconds; besides the clothes he was wearing, his belongings consisted of a pair of battered boots, a similarly worn belt hung with a sheathed knife and a number of small pouches, and a woolen blanket. He ran a hand through his short, sandy hair, carefully maneuvered himself out the window and up onto the roof, leaped across to the adjacent building, climbed down an ivy-covered trellis, and set off down the street. In short order, he encountered a group of revelers whose brightly-colored masks proclaimed that they were on their way to worship Askathad the Flickering Lord. The chandler god's Festival of Lights did not properly start until nightfall on the first day of Descending Fire, but these particular disciples evidently reasoned that it couldn't possibly offend him for them to start a bit early. Jasper pulled his bandanna up over his mouth and joined their procession.
By the time the Askathadim reached the Temple District, their numbers had swelled to almost a hundred. Jasper followed them into Askathad's temple, where he partook generously of the refreshments and then slipped out, pausing to light a candle and say a brief prayer so as not to offend the God of Waxen Lights. He detoured across the street to the temple of Hezka the Radiant Queen Bee, performed the ritual Dance of Flowing Nectar flawlessly on the front steps, accepted bread and honey from the amazed priestesses, and sauntered off toward the agora. Along the way, he encountered a green-skinned woman with hair of cornsilk, who had set up a large potted vine in the middle of the avenue. As Jasper approached, she was being accosted by one of the city guard.
"This is unlicensed solicitation," said the guardsman, gesturing at the squash plant with his pike.
"I don't understand," said the elemental, obviously distraught. "License? What is that?"
"You need a license to solicit worship in a public area," replied the burly man. "Unsanctioned evangelism is only permitted on the Avenue of Prayermongers; that's on the other side of the city. Where are you from? How did you end up here?"
"I am just giving out squash!" said the little god. "They told me that if I came to the city, I could find more worshipers. People give me donations, I give them squash. See?" She laid a six-fingered hand on the plant, causing it to magically produce a full-grown squash. Plucking it off the vine, she offered it to the guard.
The large man rolled his eyes. "That's nice. But it's also illegal. You need to either speak to the Three about obtaining a license, or else take your plant elsewhere."
"Hello," said Jasper, nonchalantly picking the squash out of the elemental's hand. "What seems to be the trouble here?"
The guard looked him up and down, obviously unimpressed by his worn boots, dusty poncho, and mussed hair. "Nothing that concerns you, citizen. Move along."
Jasper smiled a broad, friendly smile. "Come now, sir. Obviously there's no harm being done here. Aren't there better uses of your time than harassing a confused rural goddess?" His charisma expanded around him like a curtain, driven by Essence. The big man's stern expression wavered. "Why don't you just continue on your rounds, and let me handle this situation? I promise I'll have her out of here by tonight."
"Well..." the guard grimaced. "I do have more important business to look after, so I'll let it go this once. But she'd better not be here this time tomorrow." He turned on his heel and strode off down the street.
"All right, that's done with." Jasper turned to the elemental, who had a puzzled expression on her green face. "Now, let's get down to business. Hey! You!" he called to a woman walking by with a child in tow. "You look like you could use some squash!"
An hour later, the spirit's donation pot was full of silver dinars, Jasper was feeling the familiar tension radiating from the center of his forehead, and the wood elemental was looking at him with big eyes. "You are amazing," she said. "I only thought to make enough to help the farmers of my field buy new seed. With this pot of money you have conjured up for me, I can build a whole shrine! How can I possibly repay you?"
"With squash," said Jasper. "A whole lot of squash."
Shortly afterward, Jasper stepped out into the agora. Both his poncho and blanket were tied into makeshift sacks, bulging with brightly-colored gourds. Hefting his load, the young man began wending his way through the raucous market, looking for a vegetable stand. When he emerged on the other side of the square half an hour later, the squash was gone, his face was clean, he was wearing a new pair of boots, and his belt pouch was full of silver. Some distance behind him, hidden by the bustle of the crowd, a bewildered greengrocer was attempting to explain to her irate husband why she had paid twenty times normal price for the large pile of squash sitting on the table in front of her. It was not yet noon.
"Right," said Jasper, dusting off his hands. "Time to get started." He turned, and set off down the Avenue of Prayermongers, toward the city gates.
The many-pillared temple of Lamut Bronze Hands and his sister, Senmut Bronze Eyes, stood some distance outside Great Forks. Although the twin gods of memorials and graves could have attracted many more worshipers by placing their temple within the city, two reasons had compelled them to erect it where they had, upon a low hill almost a mile to the east. For one, their temple's limestone columns and arches were an elaboration on the circle of ancient megaliths which still stood at its center, crowning the hill and harnessing the Essence which welled up from the ground there. Second, because the temple was not part of the city proper, Lamut and Senmut did not have to pay taxes. Since they bought and sold a great many extraordinary things, at equally extraordinary prices, this latter consideration was almost as important to them as the former.
In the decades since the gods and their followers had constructed the temple, it had become the nucleus for a cluster of tents and small buildings. Since the Three levied harsh taxes on any artifacts brought into Great Forks, and the Verdigrised Twins were widely known to offer good prices for even those relics with little practical use, local scavenger lords had begun setting up camp outside the Temple of Memories, only entering the city to buy supplies or hire on help. Over time, the settlement had become more-or-less permanent, as various tradesmen who catered to the scavengers' needs set up shop. Scavenger's Rise was part village, part temporary encampment, and part trade fair. Few of its denizens lived there full-time, but it was almost always astir with some kind of activity.
Jasper had noticed the approaching dust cloud on his way out from the city, so he was unsurprised to see a large crowd gathered in front of the long, makeshift canvas-and-timber building which passed for stables on the Rise. Picking up his pace, he quickly reached the outskirts of the noisy mob. Seeing someone he recognized, he tapped her on the shoulder.
"Taka, who came back?" he shouted over the murmur of the crowd. "What did they bring in?"
"Dellano's crew," the red-haired woman shouted back. "Dunno what he found, but people're saying it's big. First real find of the year, not just trinkets, serious treasure. The mules were pretty heavily laden when they came in, he must have struck lucky!"
"Make way!" barked someone behind them. Jasper stepped to one side just in time to avoid being trodden under an ox's hooves. "Make way!" repeated the man driving the oxcart, cracking his whip in the air. The motley crowd parted reluctantly, rapidly closing in again behind him. Jasper managed to inveigle himself into the cart's wake, following it to the inner edge of the crowd. Four burly men with cudgels held back the mob; Jasper recognized them as local bruisers, who made their living working security for incoming crews. Taxation wasn't the only governmental function unenforced on Scavenger's Rise.
Beyond the toughs, Dellano Rift's company -- which appeared to have only consisted of two men this time out -- were beginning to shift their pack mules' burden over to the newly-arrived oxcart, while Dellano himself haggled with the driver. Much to Jasper's disappointment, and no doubt that of the other onlookers as well, the nature of the scavenger lord's find was not at all apparent from casual inspection. Most of the items being loaded into the cart were small, nondescript strongboxes, accompanied by a few larger canvas-wrapped oblongs.
Jasper cupped a hand to his mouth. "Oi! Dellano! What's in the boxes?" The tall, dreadlocked black man didn't give the slightest acknowledgment, continuing to speak to the cart's owner. "Hey," Jasper elbowed the one-eyed man standing next to him, "what do you think he found? Heard anything? Taka was saying it was big." The man said something, but Jasper wasn't really paying attention. "Looks heavy, whatever it is," he muttered to himself, watching one of the scavengers wrestle one of the canvas bundles onto the cart. "Too heavy for jade. Maybe gold. Maybe..." Dellano's assistants were down to the last package, easily the largest of the bunch; thin, but longer than a man was tall, and heavy enough that the man carrying it was having trouble maneuvering it onto the cart by himself. Grunting, he tried to heft it onto his shoulder. The bundle slipped; his partner made a grab for it as it slid back, catching a handful of canvas; twine snapped; the unbound bundle fell to the ground, unrolling as it went. Dellano's head whipped around.
The crowd went still for a moment, fifty pairs of eyes all fixed on the thing which glittered against the gray fabric. Even Dellano's hired toughs were staring.
It was a spear, its dark haft more than seven feet long and twined with jade and metal inlay.
Jasper forgot to breathe. He stood stock-still, even as the crowd took a collective step forward.
The spearhead was as long as a man's forearm, fashioned of a yellow metal which shone brighter than gold in the afternoon sun. In its base were two round sockets, of a sort which might have once held large gemstones.
Dellano was cursing the man who had dropped the bundle, but Jasper couldn't hear him. A hot, throbbing ache was building behind his brow.
A word was etched on the blade.
The crowd rushed forward, the toughs reacting too slowly to head off the sudden, spontaneous advance. Someone ran into Jasper from behind, knocking him to his knees. Then they were past him, blocking his view of the spear. The world came back. He heard rushing feet and shouting voices as the mob surged past him, clamoring for the unguarded treasure lying before them. He took a deep, gasping breath. "I knew it," he said to no one. A fierce grin split his face. "Finally, finally, this is it, right now, I knew it..."
A shockwave rippled through the ground, raising dust from the dry earth and making Jasper's teeth clack together. "Clear off," Dellano's voice boomed through the hot summer air, and people were running past Jasper again, this time in the opposite direction. In a matter of seconds, Jasper was all that was left of the crowd. He raised his head and climbed back to his feet, brushing dirt off his knees.
Dellano was standing over the unwrapped spear, fists clenched at his sides. The ground beneath his feet was cracked, and slightly cratered, as though struck by a massive fist. A white aura burned around his lanky frame; its grainy light cast harsh shadows across his features, making them seem even more rugged and angular. He cast a dark eye around the area before relaxing and stepping aside. "Jak, get out from under the damn cart and wrap the thing back up," he snapped at the man who had dropped the spear, and who had apparently dived under the oxcart at the start of the abortive riot. "Faulong, get the horses stabled, and then go find that driver." Dellano's second man gave a curt grunt of acknowledgment; with significantly more presence of mind than Jak, he'd grabbed the reins of his and Dellano's horses, and was now attempting to calm the panicked animals.
Jasper wasn't paying attention to Dellano, his men, or the onlookers who were cautiously emerging from their hiding places; his gaze was once again focused on the shining artifact. He walked slowly forward, stopping a few paces away from it.
"Nightingale Jasper," Dellano addressed him, voice neutral. "What exactly do you think you're doing?"
"Where did you find that?" Jasper replied, still staring bemused at the spear. Now that he was closer, he could see that the word on the blade was written in Old Realm script. It said "Judgment." Jasper couldn't read Old Realm. "I would really like to know."
"You and everyone else," Dellano responded drily. "I'm not going to tell you."
Jasper began to take hold of his Essence, then thought better of it; people had begun to appear from out of the woodwork now that it was clear that Dellano's display had not been the prelude to an Essence-fueled massacre, and with all the power he'd thrown around earlier in the day, he couldn't stretch much further without betraying his true nature. Even in his current abstracted state, he could surmise that revealing himself as Anathema might not be the wisest course of action. "You couldn't have gotten everything at the site with just two men. You'll be taking on more, going back to clean up, right?"
"Are you saying you want to hire on with me?" Dellano quirked an eyebrow.
Jasper managed to wrest his eyes away from the glittering orichalcum blade, and looked Dellano in the face. He put on his most ingratiating grin. "Yeah, I guess I am," he said.
"Absolutely not," said Dellano. "In case you hadn't noticed, Jasper, you're a liability to any group you are a part of. The reason people won't hire on with you anymore is that they know you're not good enough at bringing back treasure to make up for your inability to bring your partners back alive."
"Now wait just a minute..." Jasper began, no longer smiling.
"The reason that is," Dellano went on, "is that you don't really care about making money. You're obsessed, and it's not with treasure. You're looking for something else, something that only matters to you, and you don't care what you have to sacrifice to get it. No one wants to be the next sacrifice you make, chasing your crazy dream."
Jasper gaped, forgetting the angry words he had been about to say. "How... what do you know about that?" he choked out.
"It's obvious to anyone with two eyes and a thought in their head, man," said Dellano. "Calia found something three years ago, something that killed her and all of her team except for you. You never talk about what happened, and no one's ever been able to locate that site again. I don't know what you think you're going to do when you find your way back there, but it's obvious that's what drives you. Maybe you want to know why you were the one left alive. Maybe you feel like it was your fault. Maybe you just don't like the thought of Calia's ghost wandering around the middle of nowhere because she didn't get a proper burial. I don't know. But whatever it is, you feel like you've got to get back to that place to put it to rest, and until you do, you'll keep on taking stupid risks."
Jasper stared incredulously for a minute, then burst out laughing. "I guess you've got me all figured out, haven't you?"
Dellano looked at him with a mixture of disgust and pity. "Go home, Jasper. You're not doing anyone any good here, least of all yourself."
"Yeah, I guess I'm not." Jasper wiped tears of mirth from his eyes. "Thank goodness you were here to sort me out, Dellano." He turned away and started walking back toward the road from the city, giving a jaunty wave to the gawkers who'd witnessed the conversation.
It had been some time since Jasper had explored the parts of the city away from the Temple District, so it was early evening before he found the apothecary shop he was looking for. He paused for a minute under the sign of the coiled serpent, the name "Mahi-Sura" written under it, then pushed open the door and went inside.
A hundred different varieties of dried herbs hung in bundles from the low rafters, filling the small room with a melange of scent which stopped just short of overpowering. All manner of glass bottles and clay pots populated the shelves standing behind the dusky-complected woman at the counter. Hearing the jingle of the small bell attached to the doorframe, she looked up from the large ginseng root she was preparing. Her wavy black hair was cut shorter than he remembered, barely reaching her shoulders. The dim light shimmered off the small diamond of black scales, edged with silver, on her forehead.
"What can I..." her greeting trailed off as she recognized him. "Jasper? What brings you here?" Her smile was warm and genuine.
"I need your help," said Jasper, stepping up to the counter.
Dark, kohl-rimmed eyes searched his face. "What with?"
Jasper leaned forward, his eyes blue and intense. "I finally found it, Mahi, I had the feeling today was going to be it and it was. I saw it with my own eyes, out on the Rise!"
"I'm not sure I understand," Mahi-Sura replied, a guarded tone entering her voice.
"He found it, Dellano found it, just one part of it -- the spear -- but it was just like in my dream. It was close enough for me to touch. I actually saw it, I know that this time isn't just another false lead! You're the only one left who doesn't think I'm crazy, you need to help me follow Dellano and find the rest of it."
A look of disappointment wiped away the last vestiges of her smile. "Jasper, I like you, I really do. But I'm not going to go out scavenging with you anymore, and I'm definitely not going to help you claim-jump Dellano Rift."
Jasper's face fell. "But this time it's real, Mahi. Look at me, look me in the eye and tell me you think I'm lying."
Mahi-Sura sighed. "I know you're telling the truth, Jasper."
She shook her head, making her snake-rattle earrings rustle. "They're just dreams, Jasper. Nothing more."
"You know that's not true. You have them, too. You told me."
Her eyes dropped to the ginseng on the cutting board in front of her. "Yes, Jasper, I sometimes dream of other lives." She picked up her knife and started in again on the root. "I have, ever since I was chosen. Sometimes they are so beautiful or terrible that I wake up crying, but I always wake up. I don't think you ever woke up, Jasper."
Jasper cocked his head, perplexed. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means," Mahi-Sura said, carefully trimming the small roots away from the large one, "that you don't know the difference between this life, and the things you see in dreams. Those people and places are all gone now, Jasper. You'll never find them. All you will find is dust."
"You're wrong," Jasper said, quietly.
"No." Mahi-Sura looked up from the ginseng and met his gaze; there was sadness in her eyes. "No, I don't think I am. This quest of yours has only brought you ruin, Jasper. You have no money, no home, no friends."
"What about you?" he asked, flashing a winning smile.
"The reason I stayed by your side as long as I did," Mahi-Sura sighed, "is that I didn't want to believe that I saved your life for nothing, three years ago. I thought that if I stuck close, helped keep you from running straight off a cliff, you'd someday get tired of chasing rainbows. You could be someone special, Jasper, I can see it in you even now. It hurts me to watch you wasting your life like this." She looked back down at her ginseng root. "I'm not going to be a part of it."
Jasper said nothing as Mahi-Sura finished trimming the ginseng, tied a string around the large root, and hung it up to dry. She swept the trimmings into a jar, and turned to put it away.
"I've come too far to turn back," Jasper spoke softly to her back. "Not now, when I'm so close. Maybe you're right; maybe I've just been staring at the sun so long that I can't tell if my eyes are open or closed. Maybe when I get there, I won't find any answers at all, but I have to try. I have to know for sure."
Mahi-Sura folded her arms, but didn't turn to face him. "Stop it."
"I know I've been a bad friend," Jasper continued. "I owe you my life, and I've never thanked you properly for that. You've stuck out your neck for me, and stood by me when nobody else would, and I never thanked you for that, either. I've been ungrateful, selfish, and blind, and I can't really blame you for not wanting to put up with that anymore. Now I'm so close, I can feel it, and there's no reason for you to believe this is different from all the dozens of other times I've said that, but it really is, and I can't just pass this up. I need to go and see, and I want you to be there when I do. I want you to share whatever I find, because I think that's the only way I'll ever be able to make up for how I've treated you."
Mahi-Sura didn't move. Jasper nodded soberly, pushed off from the counter, and turned to go. He stopped with his hand on the door. "Word about town was, Dellano's leaving tomorrow morning. He came in along the east road, so that's where I'll be." He opened the door and stepped out into the lengthening shadows, leaving the bell jingling behind him.
Mahi-Sura stood in silence, eyes closed and arms folded. After a while, she heaved a deep breath and opened her eyes. "Dammit," she muttered.
"Dammit!" yelled Jasper. "Damn you, Dellano Rift, and all your Dragon-Blooded magic!" He spun around and kicked the nearby milestone, stubbing his toe. "Shit! Shit, shit, shit!" He dropped his spear and hopped around furiously, struggling to keep his balance while holding his injured foot in one hand and the reins of his horse in the other. Fortunately, although he'd only bought the gray mare that morning -- using up the last of his coin in the process -- she was a placid animal, and stood patiently while her master jumped about and screamed curses at all five Elemental Dragons, the Terrestrial Exalted in general, and whatever Charm or spell Dellano had used to cover the tracks of his company.
"Should have known!" he growled, gingerly setting his foot back on the ground. "Should have known that bastard would sneak out ahead of schedule! Should have set up camp outside the Rise and watched for him! Dammit!" He almost kicked the stone again, but caught himself at the last moment.
"Calm down, calm down... think." Jasper closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "He can't have just become invisible, he had pack animals and at least five men with him. Someone must have seen him go, must have seen where he left the road. I'll go back to the Rise, ask around, see what I can find out. Yeah." He scooped up his spear and swung into the saddle. A nudge of his heels, and the mare began walking back along the dusty road.
They hadn't gotten too far before the horse abruptly whinnied and came to a halt, shying away from something in the road. Jasper quickly reached out with his Essence and calmed her, then peered down at the thing that had spooked her; it turned out to be roughly four feet of diamondback rattlesnake, coiled up and buzzing.
"Scaredy cat," he chided the horse. "It's just a snake. Watch, I'll push him out of the way and we'll be fine." He dismounted and stepped toward the snake, hefting his spear. Now that he was closer to it, he could see that the diamond pattern on its back sparkled silver in the sunlight. "Ah ha," he said. "Not 'him' at all, I see. Come here to gloat?" He punctuated the accusation with a poke from the blunt end of his spear.
In the blink of an eye, the snake ballooned up from the road, expanding into the form of Mahi-Sura, dressed for travel in moccasins, sturdy trousers, and a beaded leather vest, her own spear slung across her back. Tattoos which had not been evident the previous evening zigzagged down the sides of her face and along her bare arms. With her hair tied back, the diamond on her brow was much more prominent. She caught the haft of Jasper's spear and held it, fixing him with a disapproving look. She still wore the rattlesnake earrings and dark eyeliner.
"No, actually I'm here to help you pick up Dellano's trail, since it seems you're too inept to do it yourself." She smiled, taking some of the sting out of her words. "Unless you'd rather poke me off the road and ride home with your tail between your legs, of course."
Jasper gaped speechlessly for a while, then nodded. "All right," said Mahi-Sura, releasing her hold on his spear. "Follow me." She started walking down the road, away from the city. Jasper shared an incredulous look with his horse, shrugged, and began following her.
After a while, Jasper cleared his throat. "Why are you doing this?" he asked.
"Because I'm a stupid sap," Mahi-Sura replied ruefully. "You?"
Jasper chuckled softly. "Same."
The two left the road and set off into the hills, the bright summer sun lighting their way.