I adopt the mien of the deferential daughter, just to be on the safe side. ― Lady Mother, thank you for your help, but ―
I hear it coming from inside my own mind, not that dissimilar to my own inner voices, except for how it fades in and out. I tilt my head in a gesture of listening. It is not difficult to understand that it is the voice of the Prophet, Bungisngis the Mad, whispering in his shadow realm. Screaming, rather, except as if it comes from a great distance away.
I feel ill to my stomach, but of course that does not show as I inspect my limbs for damage from the scuffle. Mother, or rather her figment, waits patiently.
I bow to mother and sit down again. ― Lady Mother, I have ingested an extraordinary manner of soul-ravaging poison. I observe it attempting to seize and shut down surface consciousness as I speak. I suggest that you wait patiently while I reflect upon the matter.
I do not really have a choice in this, as I already feel dangerously disassociated when I slump to the floor. The Speculum does, I should say, as Lucie’s primary consciousness is slowly shut down by Bungisgan’s invasive poison. The voice is growing louder, perhaps because the ash I was forced to ingest just now is assimilating to my body. I — the Speculum — have to count on mother being a predictable nightmare.
― It is not going to kill you, I hear mother say, as she so often would. The Speculum pays her no mind, however, as it turns inward to reflect on the threat. Lucie has never been possessed by a foreign spirit, or whatever it is that the Mad Poet is, but she should be able to reweave herself, retain her identity and purge the invader; it is the flamine art, the indelible pattern that perceives itself and returns from dissolution. In this world of magic there are no rules but the First Law, and this working must work for Lucie to remain herself and only herself.
The inner impression of the Mad Poet’s curse is immense. It is akin to a crystalline structure that drinks up all light, encoding patterns that resemble psychological weave, the strands of Lucie’s own cognition. Yet these strands are inflexible and hierarchical, more akin to stone than yarn. The cascades are fixed and one-way. It is inhuman, and if ever the Mad Poet was a person, they would be trapped by this weave like an insect caught in amber. A dark crystal of concision, as far from the flexibility of sand as stone can be.
The presence within Lucie’s mind does not seem conscious or thinking; it is more like a potential for consciousness, yet one that is unable to flex itself without integrating into the living weave of her mind. Parasitic. Being aware of it, Lucie’s flamine mind is well able to deny it attachment; the Speculum slowly untangles what is Lucie from what is not, and together the twain cord of her being turns against the invader.
The monotonous litany of the Mad Poet recedes as I detach it from my consciousness. Finding myself in the weaving trance again, I make particularly certain that the crystalline presence is detached from non-conscious mental cascades as well, the parts of the mind that are obscure even to the Speculum when I am in my waking mind. Without such connections this inflexible lump of cognition is helpless.
All this is quite new to me; I can only wonder if this is anything like the spirit duels that tribal shamans and competing priests are storied to engage in. What do I do with this dark crystal, the spirit of Bungisngis attempting to unravel within my mind? Could I expel it somehow? “Destroying identity strands” is one of the forbidden weavings in the creed, but does that count for foreign objects within the weave? And how does one cut something unitary and hard like this? Could it be strangled or crushed instead of cut?
I realize that there is little time for speculation here; I am in a very dangerous situation still on a more external level of reality, perhaps something akin to the Real Dream. I shelve the Bungisngis shard in my memory palace for now, double-checking that it is inert, and then reconnect to my body and return to consciousness. Real consciousness, too — I make sure to brush my cord into sharpness, out of the sleep-like trance state in which I apparently triggered the trap now. This might even cause mother to disappear, as I return to full waking consciousness.
Was that really it, the parasitization of the soul that Bungisgan has been threatening me with for the last three days? That’s what I was afraid of? Maybe it was weak and slow because of the lack of ritual, or was Bungisgan supposed to distract me while it was taking me over, to prevent me from self-reflecting properly? Or was it because this whole experience is all illusion — but then, why would my “nightmare”, presumably based on my own fears, be anything but perfectly terrible?
I finally open my eyes, uncertain of how much time has passed. I am in a featureless, cubical room a dozen paces wide, with its walls made of uniform grey marble that shines softly to illuminate without shadows. Perhaps this is the true form of the space — the Unsurpassable Chamber — into which I stepped earlier in my exploration, although I am at a loss to explain how I would have entered it without any openings.
Unfortunately it seems that Mother is still here, as is the wretched body of Bungisgan that she seems to have straightened to proper funerary form. Perhaps the realized nightmares of the chamber are truly real, whatever that word means in this mausoleum of dreams. She does not miss my return to consciousness, but I take the initiative for now.
― So, Lady Mother, I ask her as I stand up, hiding the weakness in my limbs. ― What is it that you want from me?
Another thought follows immediately. ― Also, can I have the dagger? I am unarmed.
― You can have the knife that wretched man was threatening you with, dear, she replies. Of course she makes no move to point it out or give it to me, but eventually I notice it on the floor. Disturbing how she sounds exactly like her; I am self-cognizant and it does not surprise me that mother is a “nightmare” for me in a certain sense, but I would perhaps have expected her to be less… real. More dream-like, exaggerated and strange. She is even dressed in an entirely self-typical way, with an expensive gown, understated bodice, an uncharacteristically bloody yet nevertheless impractical petticoat, and careful coiffure. I assume that this has to do with my not actually having vivid nightmare dreams of her; seeing nightmares is not in the flamine nature.
I do not see the Dreamer anywhere; perhaps I could only perceive him earlier due to my trance state.
― As for what I want, surely that much is obvious, Lucia sur Sarenom? she continues. ― I desire you to return to Tolosa and do your duty. First you must slay the Dreamer, for it is he who is trapping you here; afterwards, little will prevent you from starting a journey home.
― What of Bungisgan and his thugs, Lady Mother? I ask to gauge the phantasm. If she is everything that I believe mother to be (or even worse, what I fear her to be), then she is dangerous.
― Dead, evidently dead, she answers, glancing at the body between us. Interesting. ― Do try to keep up, dear.
― In that case, Lady Mother, I need to get out of this chamber to do your bidding.
― Certainly you have already concluded that one or more of the walls has to be illusionary, dear? I have, and it was no difficulty.
― That is remarkably keen of you, Lady Mother, I immediately answer, delivering my line with a mien of sincerity. ― I forget your flexibility in the face of the unknown.
Her eyes are cold, and she refuses me an abashed mien. ― Let us not fence, Lucie dear. You do not have the time, and I am perfectly aware of my being a figment of your imagination. It is fortunate for me that you fear my intelligence, perceptiveness and ruthlessness so; you shall not mislead or confuse me, child.
I see no need to say anything more for now. I move to touch the wall behind me, to ensure that it is solid and I could not simply walk out of here through it. Perhaps the phantasm of my mother is no more dangerous to me than Bungisgan proved to be; it is possible that the trap here is simply not very efficacious against a balanced person in control of oneself.
― You shan’t simply walk out on me, Lucie, she says as I examine the wall. ― You will not make it in time without my help. You should listen to your mother.
― Why do you wish the Dreamer dead, Lady Mother?
― Because you’re besotted with him, obviously. The man is keeping you from your duty, dear. It is hard, but we all have to make sacrifices. You have to sacrifice him, to be precise.
Interesting, the way she fails cognitively in certain matters, such as in thinking that the figment is the real Bungisgan, and now this. Perhaps I cannot quite imagine mother in this underground crypt, and thus this “nightmare” interpolates poorly. Or, maybe part of what I fear is the fact that she understands me so little.
The wall seems solid on its entire length, so I start on the next one. ― Why do you think that I have to hurry, Lady Mother?
― Why, the next nightmare, of course. I assume that there are more forthcoming. In fact, I can already tell what it is going to be: strong men keen on putting you in your place. Perhaps your uncle, or brother, or some nameless riffraff. Do you think they will not come? Do you think that they will not abuse you in the way you deserve, a wayward girl like you? Make you learn your place the hard way?
Based on my self-knowledge, that guess is… not entirely improbable. And I should know myself, at least a little bit. I do not know if there is a woman on this Earth who does not have that fear somewhere deep within. Maybe mother.
But then again, who’s to say that there are going to be more nightmares; I am awake now after all. At least I think I am.
― How can I get out then, Lady Mother? I ask her as I finish the third wall. Checking the last wall would take me uncomfortably close to her; I leave that for now, it is not likely to prove fruitful.
― I know the way, my dear, she claims with a neutral mien. ― And there is just one thing I want from you in return.
― It is some kind of guarantee that I return home when I get out, is it not? What will satisfy you, Lady Mother?
― That is the conundrum, is it not? she says with a decorously malicious mien. ― I do not know. You will have to invent a way. You are a smart girl, Lucie. But be quick, we do not know when the next nightmare starts.
This is an ominous nightmare, all things considered. My speculum can easily keep a rein on the uncomfortable familiarity and nostalgic terror, but I still do not know how to get out of here. Overpowering the mother-phantasm does not seem useful at all, and besides she has the longer blade, even if she is likely not proficient with it. Also, if I get openly hostile she may possess forbidden flamine arts; I do not know if mother can really unravel another person with a well-placed word, but this is my nightmare, so perhaps the phantasm can?
I look at her, and it is clear that she knows what I am thinking, and that I know that she knows. She also seems confident that I do not have a choice. I sit down to think, my back against the wall, while she remains standing straight and statuesque. Always so proper.
What I need is more magical thinking, I cannot limit myself to the conventional. How does the Chamber work, exactly? What I have seen of the Lunar Citadel to help me understand its magic? It is “lunar”, magic of dream and travel. The Dreamer seems helpless against his own trap, so perhaps it is something that was created communally when the Citadel was still a functioning magical school or temple. It is far from certain that there is anything to be done to directly foil this trap.
It occurs to me that I could try to reweave my non-conscious mind to manipulate the nightmare manifestation. The trap probably does not expect that. I could even try to make myself temporarily “fear” the very things I need now — such as “having to leave this room”. If the trap really gives me such abstract dangers as Bungisgan’s soul-sucking initiation and mother’s overbearing commitment to familial duty, then it evidently has no sense at all of urgent danger; it only cares about my fears, not their lethality per se.
The problem is that this is precisely the type of weaving that the flamine creed forbids as a dangerous path that leads to occlusion. It is the easiest thing in the world to break your own mind, once you unravel it; only the traditional ways lead to a stable identity construct, innovative weaving leads only to permanent unraveling and occlusion.
Which reminds me, mother dear may be wrong about my third greatest fear: I would not be surprised if the very next thing that this chamber tries is simply occluding me, if it can. For the longest time in my childhood I was terrified of the idea that aunt Marcheline’s illness was a special burden of the family line; learning since then that it is merely a side effect of wretched magical secrets passed from mother to daughter has not really helped. Experiencing the Veil last night brought that all back.
― Lady Mother, I have an idea, I finally speak aloud to attract her attention. ― Will you be satisfied if I self-reflect right now and weave myself a geas to return home? You know that I can, and it would surely be an oath of iron make, if I also ensured my own unwillingness to change it later. Such a compulsion could not be denied, for is it not written that none can deny their own true self.
Her eyes grow wide, and though I know it is merely the mien, it is so fitting that I doubt not that she truly is surprised. ― That is abomination, Lucie! she hisses at me. ― You would occlude yourself and bring shame to the family. No, think of some other way.
I look at her. Nobody can read through mother’s mien, but I know that she knows that she can read through mine. If I tell her that I have geased myself, she will believe it. The contract works.
― I can think of no other way, Lady Mother. It is this or death by nightmarish abuse. It will be your victory, or death either way.
― I will prevent you, she claims, deadly serious. ― You cannot reflect here if I will not allow it.
― I do not believe you. Mother would choose this, because if I occlude here, nobody will ever know, and she has lost nothing.
With that I start going under, and as I expected, she does not try to stop me. She takes on a conflicted mien, but it’s probably not even a hard choice for her. She believes most firmly that innovative weaving causes occlusion; to think otherwise would be to believe that her sister occluded through lack of skill and sense, and not because she deviated from the creed. It is a core belief for her, yet she lets me do it anyway.