When I stirred from my slumber, one of my arms felt like it had been trapped beneath my body for several months, and I shook it back to usefulness as the door opened. The last three heroes to visit had been males of their respective races, so a thrill ran through me as a young woman appeared on the threshold to my chamber. Her need had summoned my room, connecting it to her world through an otherwise ordinary door and calling me to action as the angel of lost relics.
The woman raised a lantern. Still groggy, I froze time before light could spill into my unkempt domain. I rose on aching legs and stretched for several eternities, enjoying the way my muscles drew tight, wrung like a washerwoman’s laundry. My feathered wings spread wide, filling all the space from floor to ceiling, and a series of deafening pops along my spine made me sigh.
As it was wont to do, the room had grown during my slumber. I counted a dozen new floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with hundreds of relics. I had slept long indeed.
I took great care dusting the older shelves, stealing an occasional glance at the open door. Seeing the outside world with my own eyes, even if it was only a glimpse, was a rare delight. I had not been outside since the genesis of all worlds, sketched into being with the dust of dead rocks. When the work was done, the Artist had set me to watch over its tools, the first relics, and had sat back to admire its masterpiece.
To my great disappointment, the door to my room had appeared in a bland hallway. The wooden walls told no tales. I ignored my instinct to approach the young woman–to feed on her story–and found nourishment elsewhere.
“Hello, my lost, precious ones,” I said, drawn to the new shelves.
Recently arrived relics required much greater care, which I was happy to give in exchange for their histories. I scraped ash from a charred wooden staff which had belonged to a true witch in a world of false ones. That power hadn’t protected her when men seized and purified her with fire. Gunpowder and oil drew me to a pair of six-shooters, splattered with blood. Their owner had been neither hero nor villain–a hard man for a hard world. Seeds had spilled from a cloth bag. I scooped them up and saw giant vines twisting toward skybound kingdoms.
“Mmm. Humph. Ah!” Various sighs, utterances, and astonishments escaped my lips as I fed upon the relics’ stories. Some might have considered my room a lonely prison, but I wanted for nothing except more stories.
Once everything was wiped, scrubbed, and polished, I moved to my next course. Not the young woman. Her story was the main course, not to be enjoyed until after the appetizers.
Cobwebs ornamented the room’s high corners, empty of any quarry save more dust. Only spiders could freely travel between worlds upon their gossamer latticeworks. They were the room’s most frequent visitors and the only living things to stay for long.
“What stories have you trapped for me?”
I worked my way around the room and laid a finger on the nearest edge of each web before pulling them apart. With the slightest vibration, the webs unwound pictures in my mind: night in a mossy wet forest echoing with crickets beneath the pale light of two chalky moons; a fly- and corpse-filled battlefield viewed from the broken timbers of a broken war machine; tanned children splashing water at each other between rows of heady vines plump with sun-swollen fruit.
With a sigh, I cleared the last cobweb. There would always be more.
When the room was presentable, I stood a moment before the young woman. She was in the height of youth, face beaming with energy and potential. Sheets of auburn hair were contained atop her head by some magic or artifice beyond my understanding. Pointed ears meant she belonged to one of the fae worlds, but as I couldn’t see any wings beneath her clothes, I could narrow the possibilities down considerably. The thick grey dress smelled of flowers and tree sap. A country girl.
As always, I was slightly frustrated by my inability to sense her need–a necessary precaution to prevent my meddling with the search. I had learned to savor the experience as each new visitor marveled over my relics, guessing what they might choose, then joining in their jubilation when they found their prize. I often imagined the Artist’s infinite gaze over my shoulder, as interested in the ritual as myself.
“Who are you,” I asked the woman, reaching tentatively into her mind for a name. Rose. As with the relics under my charge, a story unfolded from that single word.
Dew gathers on the wild roses as a beautiful young man and striking woman are married in secret beneath the sliver of a purple moon. They make love for the first time on the soft ground, gentle but determined, rushed but satisfied. Before they flee the disapproval of their families, the man picks a single rose. A thorn pricks his finger, his blood a reminder of what they hope to avoid.
Though they are poor without their families’ wealth, they are rich in love. The woman soon feels the life growing within her. Never content in one place for long, they travel from forest city to forest city, always hiding their true names. The young man offers his wife a rose every morning, folding it from paper when he cannot find one in the wild.
Before their child comes, they settle on the outskirts of their land in a place as wild as their souls. The baby screams her way into the world while her parents weep with joy.
“Mmmm,” I sighed, rolling the sound from deep in my being like a thunderous round of applause.
Time thawed at my command, dripping the sound of restless shouts through the open door. I retreated, abandoned my angelic form as I moved, melding with shadows to spread throughout the room until we were one and the same.
Rose continued forward, and priceless gems winked at her from the nearest shelves. Light slid across tools of war. She ignored those first few shelves, offering them only a cursory glance.
The flickering flame of her lantern set my shadows quivering, a mirror to my growing excitement. Too often young women of noble heart entered the room and left with a gem the size of a bird’s egg. A single ruby or emerald would save the family farm or buy treatment for an ailing parent, but such kindnesses did nothing to reshape the world. Only a true hero, a chosen one, ever reached the heart of my realm.
With the little information I had gleaned so far, I began to construct bits of Rose’s story. Her parents had fled to the wilder parts of their world, so I assumed she still lived outside any of the larger forest cities. A soft hazel tone to her skin from hours in the sun supported my hypothesis.
Perhaps she was a farmer. No, an herbalist always searching for rare petals and roots. Heroes always had such humble beginnings.
Though Rose’s search had hardly begun, a voice called from the hallway. I tensed, annoyed at the distraction, and my shadows grew thicker in response.
“Teacher Rose?” The speaker was a girl, her features set ablaze as Rose angled the lantern toward the open door. All untamed red hair and freckles, the girl capered from foot to foot, hands bunching the front of her wool dress into a ball between her legs.
“Yes, Esther? Why are you out of your seat?” Rose’s authority was palpable, her gaze narrow and unflinching.
“I need to piss like a wild goblin, Ma’am,” the girl squealed.
“Lady Lake be blessed!” Rose said, spinning three fingers in a circle before touching them to her heart. “Where did you learn to talk like that? Was it one of your brothers or your father?”
“Neither, Ma’am,” Esther said, squeezing the dress between her legs with even greater force. “Was my Nan.”
Rose laughed, a tinkling of stirred wind chimes.
“Oh dear,” she said, covering her mouth and lowering the lantern to hide her smile. “I should very much like to meet your Nan.” The lantern lifted, and Rose was calm control. “In the meantime, hurry to the chamber pot.”
Esther bobbed her head and dashed away but not before I tucked into the story of her name.
The father can hardly be called such. He is an ephemeral regret haunting the edges of the mother’s life. In a moment of weakness, she surrenders to his compliments, offering her body. He vanishes afterwards, and his betrayal stings like a splinter which can never be pulled free. Though Nan offers herbs to amend the mistake, she loves the life growing inside her.
Rose turned back to the room, her lantern pushing aside my deeper shadows. The short conversation had taught me much, and I scrutinized my new knowledge, a jeweler appraising each facet of a priceless stone. My door had never opened for a teacher. As an influencer of young minds, the relic she chose could change her world in wondrous, significant ways.
Hardly able to contain my curiosity any longer, I reached once more into Rose’s mind and nibbled upon her preoccupying thoughts.
“I can’t believe I forgot to bring supplies for my first day. Mother and Father will have a good laugh about that. The students are much rowdier than I imagined. They seem sweet, though. And yet, I’m beginning to wonder whether they didn’t send me to this storeroom as a prank.”
Never had I met a creature of such unwavering focus, and I wished more than ever to know what relic she sought. I harbored a hope in that regard.
Not every hero was destined to vanquish evil. Oftentimes, civilizations became slow and comfortable in their climb toward the next cultural revolution. A great mind with the right relic could do more good than a dozen knights armed with magic swords.
My hope was the barest spark of a flame which I didn’t dare stoke lest it gutter and fail, leading to disappointment.
Rose swept her light over powerful relics–a gorgon’s severed head, a grail lost to its world but not to its stories, and several genie lamps. The blacksmith’s hammer from a world of fire did not interest her, nor did the ashes of a phoenix waiting to be reborn. Visitors always marveled at my more exotic relics, admiring them as one would a holy artifact or hesitantly touching several to be assured of their reality. Rose seemed singularly unimpressed, only twisting her mouth and squinting at each new row of relics as if searching for something small and easily overlooked.
She disturbed relics of unimaginable power, brushing aside the whip that had scourged a god king’s back and upending a soul-well. Surely now she would be impressed. Had I been in my humanoid form, I would have shaken as if gripped by a fever. If nothing caught her eye, she would pass deep into my room where few had journeyed.
Before Rose could finally marvel at the treasures I had collected, titillating me with wide eyes and gasps, a now-familiar voice spoke once more.
My vision bifurcated in a flash. Esther had returned, the edge of one foot close to the room’s threshold. With one set of eyes, I watched Rose from the dark folds of an invisibility cloak while another set of my eyes peered down from above the door. Once more, my shadows thickened, making questions and threats of all the shelves and relics near the door.
“Did you empty the pot, Esther?” Rose asked and continued her search, undeterred by her inquisitive student. She seemed unsurprised by Esther’s return, which I attributed to her experience as a teacher. Children almost never arrived in my room, and I was torn between wanting Esther to enter, perhaps to choose a relic of her own, and fearing her presence would further hinder Rose’s rummaging.
“Yes, Ma’am.” The tip of Esther’s nose appeared in the doorway and paused. She must have been weighing her courage against the darkness which must have seemed to stretch for leagues. Rose was but a soft glow, a ghostly aura of light. The nose was quickly withdrawn.
“What are you doing?” Ester asked.
“Wondering whether I shouldn’t switch the backside of a student still out of her seat,” Rose called, half-distracted which only lent weight to her words. There might be dire consequences if her full attention were drawn to Esther. “Surely I can find a suitable switch in this mess of a storeroom. I can’t imagine why your previous teacher kept so much junk.”
To have my room called a mess…
And my priceless relics considered junk…
Before I knew what I was doing, I had nudged the grocklin queen’s scepter from its place on a low shelf. Though it didn’t have far to fall, the weight of the small rodent carved atop its length landed upon Rose’s foot with a satisfying thud.
“Blessed Lady!” Rose howled. The lantern swung in wild arcs as she hopped on her other foot.
“Are you okay, Ma’am?” Esther asked. Her entire face bobbed into the doorway, flush with panic as if my room were a deep ocean full of teeth. Like the overwhelming number of freckles on her face, Esther’s fear seemed too great to offer her teacher aid.
“Yes,” Rose called and under her breath added, “ash and rot.” Setting the lantern on the floor, she massaged her foot gingerly through thin slippers. “Thank you for your concern, Esther, but return to your seat, or I really will start searching for a switch.”
When Esther fled her teacher’s threats, I panicked, worried I had made a terrible mistake. Since the beginning of time, a guest had never regarded the wonders of a thousand worlds with such disregard. Perhaps Rose was not the hero.
It could have been Esther. Such had happened before. Why, ten heroes past, I had to scrub blood from the floor and replace dozens of relics after an assassin followed a young prince into my realm. Covered in blood, the assassin had taken Sunbringer’s daggers, the first step on his road to redemption and to delivering his world from a thousand-year darkness.
I reminded myself events would unfold as they would. If Esther was the hero, a relic would find its way to her, and when Rose finally chose her relic, it would be the sweetest of desserts, well worth the wait.
My shadows thinned, and I watched her wander into the stacks of books. Few were in any language she might understand. Still, she traced strange hieroglyphs and ancient words of power on the spines as one would caress a lover’s ruddy cheek. When it looked as if she would remove one, her fingers poised to pull it from the shelf, she shook her head and ventured deeper.
I perched restlessly upon the final moments of Rose’s search. None had ever plumbed so deep into my ever-expanding reaches before, and while she might still have turned around and found she had already passed her relic by, Rose was on a course for the oldest part of my realm. Shaking like a restless colony of bats, I spread my attention across every surface between Rose and the original relics.
With staggered steps, still light upon her aching foot, she approached the room’s only table, unremarkable except through what it held. Lantern light washed the tools arrayed there in golden yellow.
The Artists’ tools were within reach.
The paintbrush had stroked rivers with blue and swirled ochre into suns.
The clay had been crafted into countless galloping legs, twisting necks, and swishing tails.
The hammer and chisel had carved ice and broken mountains.
Rose reached for the smallest tool at the end of the line. She smiled the same smile I had seen countless times before, curved from a moment of pure satisfaction. Her quest was complete. Her search was over. Rose had found what she was looking for–a stick of chalk.
It was my wildest fantasy come true, yet it felt wrong. I had always expected an artist to come for one of the tools. Perhaps a great sorcerer. Rose should have gasped, eyes wide, frozen in place. How could she react any differently?
“Ah. Here it is.” With no concept of what she had, Rose dropped the chalk into a small pocket on the front of her dress and made her way back toward the open door. She would scribble notes on a board, teaching her students the history of the fae, how to perform simple magic, or the differences between horses and unicorns. Perhaps she would pass the chalk to a student, not knowing the power in that pale stick.
Each flick of the pale stick could draw lines between worlds like a spider’s web, each strand vibrating with possibility. It would open passageways, connecting peaceful realms with lands of roiling darkness. Primitive civilizations would encounter advanced ones. Magic would war against technology. Monstrous beasts would feed through portal after portal.
As Rose crossed the threshold between my world and hers, I resumed my angelic form. From somewhere beyond the worlds it had created, I imagined the Artist laughing. Not pleased, nor disappointed. Simply amused.
The door swung gently closed, but the metallic click of the latch falling into place seemed to echo to every corner like an ellipse…
…a deep breath before all the worlds changed. My room would fill with relics, heroes, and most importantly, stories. Yet, I stood frozen–dumbfounded that Rose and I’s story should end with a simple period instead of an exclamation point.