Illusion
By Jo Taylor


"Ouch!"

His exclamation was quickly followed by a brief invective, muttered savagely under his breath. For the tenth time in as many minutes he had been caught against a suddenly appearing branch. It almost seemed the forest were aware of his passage, and disapproved of his trespass. Tree roots rose from the leaf strewn floor to trip his unwary feet, thin whip like branches made painful contact with his face and hands leaving light red marks against his skin. He cursed again.

This had seemed such an unexciting project when his instruments had picked up anomalous readings an hour ago. He had been heading for the main city port, travelling high above the surrounding wastes, keeping only a fraction of his attention on the computer's chatter. And then a glitch appeared on his sensors, had disappeared only to reappear minutes later. A structure, fairly large, with no apparent technology had suddenly shown itself in what should have been bare woodland. Curiosity piqued, he had turned the flyer around and settled as close as possible to the site, planning to spend maybe an hour, no more, investigating the phenomenon. He intended to join the Excalibur again, but they would be high in orbit for the next day whilst taking on board supplies. A quick investigation of this place then on to the port, finish his business there and he would still be on board by nightfall.

There was a strange closeness about the atmosphere within the forest: almost claustrophobic in its touch. The trunks crowded against one another lifting straight up to a dense canopy of leaves, each fighting for a share of the sun's life-giving rays. The musty smell within its confines left a vaguely unpleasant taste in his mouth. He pulled the hood closer to his face.

The edge of the tree line was a welcome sight and he hurried to its borders, anxious to breathe fresh air again. The sun was just starting to show itself over to the East, though it had yet to warm the air sufficiently for him to consider unbuttoning his heavy coat. He did let down the hood, raised earlier against the tree's attack, protecting his face from their sniping forays.

What met his gaze was as unexpected as it was bizarre. Directly ahead lay a mist covered grassy expanse leading to a wide moat surrounding what could only be described as a castle. As a young man, Galen had read voraciously; any and all subjects welcome to his insatiable curiosity. Physics and Chemistry were absorbed as easily as tales from Arthurian legend and stories of macabre hauntings. This edifice embodied all of that Gothic romanticism and more.

Though the outer defences were bleak and hardy, the inner keep, what he could see of it, had fantasy like spires and turrets. It was a mishmash of styles and materials, as though the architect had built his nightmare not his dream. The outer wall was topped with slits for archers and larger openings for heavier objects to be thrown down against any intent on entering the castle by assault. There were no windows in the wall facing him, and he guessed the same were true of the whole structure. A sturdy shield against invaders.

A cynical, half-amused smile lit his face for a moment. "What a piece of folly you are," he addressed the grey walls. "I wonder if this is Alwyn's idea of a joke." And he glanced around him, half expecting his friend's beloved gold dragon to stalk out of the surrounding trees. For this was very much in the old man's taste, though he had no sure knowledge of his having taken up residence in this monstrosity. The tree defence had been ingenious, but merely annoying to anyone serious in their intent to visit. And as he was sure the edifice had been cloaked from his scanners before allowing itself to be viewed, a welcoming committee of some sort seemed in order.

"No dragon," he mused. "Ah, well. It seems I am to make my own way." His grin more in evidence now, he strode out of the trees and into the misty cloud that hung knee high over the grass. It gave way with a stubborn reluctance, resisting his attempts to gain ground; damp tendrils of grey clung to his coat impeding his passage. Slowly climbing up his bulky frame, they latched onto his hands and, working their way up his torso tried to insinuate themselves within his outer garments. He stepped back quickly and the mist receded from him, with obvious reluctance. The smile left his face, annoyance and puzzlement taking its place.

He had felt no hint of technology in its encroachment, nor outside influence in its attack. For an attack it was, however mild in form. Without knowing what the mists were made of, he had no sure way of protecting himself against it. The memory of damp fingers reaching for his skin returned unbidden to his thoughts. He pushed them away in annoyance. Whilst he stood in contemplation the sun finally rose above the horizon, its warmth bathing the area, suffusing the air with golden light. Galen watched with interest as the mists that so short a time ago had hidden the ground in a seemingly impenetrable cloak, now writhed under the suns rays before dispersing into the sky, wraith-like. He stored the information away for further review. Perhaps the heat produced a chemical reaction within the mists, causing it to break down into its relevant components? He would return tomorrow and gather some for study; it could prove useful.

Now his path lay clear; untrammelled verdance stretched before him. He stepped back onto it with assurance and aimed his steps to the lowered drawbridge. Before setting foot on the worn planks, he scanned the structure lying so invitingly across the water. His staff vibrated slightly against his palm, transmitting data directly to his brain. In moments, he had the breakdown available. Nothing out of the ordinary: carbon, water, an iron compound etc. The drawbridge was solid wood held together with iron fastenings. "So far, so good," he murmured. He still suspected this to be Alwyn's abode, the mage possibly testing Galen's courage and knowledge. The old man had a fine sense of humour and would quite happily dunk him in the moat if possible.

Although an evil looking gargoyle leered down at him from the arched opening, the gatehouse too seemed innocuous enough, though he passed his staff around the perimeter before entering the dark passage. No sooner had he navigated the short tunnel and entered the inner yard than the clank of chains spun him around. A portcullis of enormous weight had slammed down behind him, cutting off his retreat. He ran into the guardroom housing the winch mechanism. The handle still spun against the drum, but no one attended it. There  seemed no other exit, apart from the door he had made use of bare seconds before, and none could have passed him unseen. His anger as well as his curiosity now roused he initialised a protective shield and headed back into the courtyard. If Alwyn wanted to play games he would oblige, but he would make him pay dearly for this, when he found him.

Three sides of the yard consisted of old stables and storage bays; all empty now save for an accumulation of dirt and the obvious signs of a rodent population. He checked every door; opening and exploring until the dust raised drove him outside again. "About time you had the maids in don't you think?" he announced from the centre of the yard. He received no reply, only the echo of his words bounced back to him in thread like tones.

Huge wooden doors barred his way into the keep. Iron bound with studs the size of his fist. It was imposing in manner but no deterrent to an angry technomage. His staff glowed briefly against the lock and the doors swung slowly open on noisy hinges. Their screech shattering the quiet. "And you need an oilcan. You've let the place go sadly to pieces." This comment too went unanswered.

With stone flagging under his feet and huge stone blocks making up the walls, the entrance he found himself in seemed more than a little tomb like. Cold seeped through his coat and up through the thick soles of his boots, his shield gave no protection from the inconveniences of nature. Striding swiftly forward, he lit the staff, adding its light to that streaming in from the opening behind him - clearing some of the darkness from his path. The doors swung to on now silent hinges, the sudden gloom and the dull thud of their closure the first inkling of his entrapment. He returned to them, and pulled gently on one great ring - not a hint of movement. He scanned the whole area - no sign of technology. A frown creased his brow. Any mage, even one so skilled as Alwyn, would leave some trace of his interference, no matter how well he tried to hide his involvement. These doors, like the portcullis and the drawbridge,  seemed untouched by any form of electrical or particle enhancement. Not an atom seemed wrong in its construct. So, it seemed he was dealing with an ordinary mortal with a rather warped sense of humour. Everything he had encountered so far, although inconvenient had not been harmful.

He turned his attention to the openings around him. To his left a corridor, bare save for the undisturbed dust of ages. To his right, its counterpart, deep shadows hid its passage around the building. Ahead, a flight of stairs rose with an unspoken invitation. Dim light seemed to wait at their head, beckoning him onward. Contrary as ever, he took the right hand way. Caution warred with annoyance as he made his way slowly along its bleak confines. No doors led off it and no window lit his path; only the subtle glow of his staff and the fiery red orb he sent ahead chased away the blackness.

A sharp turn at the end of the passage led him to a flight of stairs, almost a duplicate of those in the main hall. "It seems all roads…" he muttered, not bothering to finish the quotation. "So be it." Again, he checked for any sign of outside influence before ascending. There were none.

A torch held in place by iron bindings against the upper hallway's wall supplied the faint glow that awaited him. "How very civilised of you." He thanked his unseen host. "It seems I was expected after all. But, you know, this would have been much more useful downstairs." His light baritone echoed eerily around him, and still he received no reply. He recalled his globe, conserving its energy, and allowed his staff's light to fade into quiescence.

Amazement held him still in the doorway of the first room he entered. Within, furniture, pictures and wall hangings all were covered in cobwebs and dust, like a scene from a twentieth century B movie. It reminded him of a Edgar Allen Poe story he had read in his youth. Every cliché ever written seemed in evidence. His bad mood subsided and his sense of the ridiculous took over. His laughter started somewhere deep within, bubbling to the surface in waves.  "Oh no, this… is… too… much," he managed to get out through his mirth, "If you start rattling chains I am leaving." He leaned heavily against the wall, his sudden weight releasing a cloud of dust from the tapestry beside him. His laughter turned into a spasm of coughing, and he quickly removed himself to the corridor without.

No clanking chains no eerie moans or ghostly organ music followed his progress down the upper corridor. Silence, deep and all pervading had descended on the castle's interior. It worried him not at all, used to the quiet within his flyer. Something scampered away from the torches light, but he gave it no thought other than a briefly caustic remark to his host. "Time you brought the cat in, don't you think?"

Another turn in the seemingly endless passageways and he was confronted by yet another staircase. This one guarded by a suit of armour; though made for someone considerably taller than himself, and built on titanic  proportions. He opened the visor, "Anyone home?" He knocked peremptorily on the massive breastplate; it rang with a dull bell like resonance. "It would seem not."

The cold seemed to become more pervasive as he travelled up the next flight of stairs; a chill that seeped through his heavy clothing. `Temperature controls, interesting,' he guessed, though his supposition did little to remove the shiver that briefly ran through him.

The attack was sudden, unexpected and almost fatal. A scream from the darkness ahead announced the onslaught. Heading straight for him was the stuff of nightmares. A woman's face sat atop the bird-like body, talons glinted razor sharp in the torch glow. Her face, pale with a hunger that defied humanity, seemed to hold a luminosity of its own. She bore down on him with terrifying speed, claws raking at the air like a bird of prey diving for its food. Although he believed it only a hologram he stepped back, ducking instinctively out of its path. In so doing, he caught his foot on the top stair, toppling backward into the open stairwell. Dropping the burning brand in favour of survival, his hand grabbed for the rail, breaking his fall. The jolt to his shoulder pulled muscles and stretched sinew to breaking point. Pain shot through his arm into his shoulder and he quickly suppressed it. The harpy had not finished though, and came at him once again. This time, prepared for the assault, he stood his ground, expecting the image to smash against his shield and disperse. But its talons ripped through his barriers, sinking into his coat, the harpy's face inches from his own. Its breath, a foul odour that made him gag. His fingers latched themselves around its neck, and he squeezed as hard as he could. Its body writhed under his grasp. Wings batted against his face whilst its claws sank deeper into the thick material, eventually making contact with flesh. He could feel the blood pounding through its distended veins as it tried desperately to release itself from his grasp. All the while mouthing obscenities in a voice filled with despair. One final twist of his hands and he felt the fragile bones within its neck crush under his fingers lethal grip. The creature finally let go as life quit its temporary host. He flung the body from him in disgust, shuddering still from the fight. Blood trickled warmly down his torso, he could feel the fluids passage against his skin. Quickly, he opened his clothing to inspect the damage. Three gashes on either side of his chest bore testament to the harpy's fury. Thankfully, his coat had absorbed the majority of its destruction and even now, the wounds were beginning to slow their weeping.

Not for an instant did he think about leaving, for now this was personal. It seemed his host had decided to step up the game. Perhaps he did not like to be laughed at? Whatever the reason, Galen was now committed to finding, and dealing with the owner of this place.

Windows did grace this corridor, but no light shone in from their openings. He stepped cautiously to the nearest aperture; outside all was dark, and a quarter moon hung in the sky, bathing the area with a dull silver sheen. But this was ridiculous; he had seen the sun rise bare hours before, night could not be for at least another eight hours!

He continued on, wary of further attacks yet prepared to do battle if necessary. With the loss of the torch and only the faint glow of moonlight to illuminate the passage with its silvery glow, he once more lit his staff.

Music echoed softly down the hallway, a hauntingly familiar melody that caught him unawares. The intensity of the emotions it raised stopped him in his tracks. For this was no hokum clashing of organ keys, designed to scare the faint hearted. Binarian harp strings, delicately plucked emitted the soulful music that held him in place. It had been Isabelle's favourite piece, and one he had listened to entranced on many a night. Moving almost without volition, he followed the tune's calling, needing to find whoever the player might be. Each ethereal chord brought back memories of nights spent in companionable co-existence with the woman he had loved. Of her soft voice, her playful laughter and the intelligence behind her loving gaze. Abruptly the music stopped, and he found himself outside a wooden door, seemingly no different to any other he had passed.

He reached for the handle, but his arm would not obey his commands. His right hand and arm lay unresponsive to his needs. Although he had numbed the pain to that limb, it was obvious the damage inflicted was more severe than he had originally believed. The battle with the harpy, augmenting the injury already received. His body taking its own defensive measures against further harm.

The music had begun again, as though impatient of his delays, urging him toward this meeting with whatever lay beyond.

Leaning his staff against the wall, he reached again for the handle, but the door swung open unaided on silent hinges, laying the room open for his perusal. It was an exact duplicate of the first room he had entered two floors below. Cobwebs covered furniture carefully arranged around a large open fireplace. Dust smothered every surface and clung to the tapestries upon the wall. He glanced down and halted his progress, for upon the floor were footprints. His footprints. A mage's sense of direction is exact, and he knew that he had only ascended within this structure therefore what he saw now must be illusion. He inspected the tapestry beside the door and it too showed signs of recent disturbance.

The music had ceased once more, and nowhere within the room was there any sign of the harp or its player. He initialised his scanners with no result. Nothing within this building owed its construct to technology. If he were truly in conflict with the paranormal he should leave now, whilst he could. For though most of the dead were harmless, he had encountered those who were not, and gave them the respect that was their due.

At the far end of the room hung an impressive mirror, spotted with age, but elegant still. As he moved further into the room, he caught his reflection within its misty depths. His face was pale save for the livid red marks inflicted on him within the woods. His eyes were icy in their contemplation. As he moved closer, he thought he  glimpsed a hint of movement behind him and the faintest of sounds, reminiscent of silk against wood. He turned quickly, the room remained empty and yet he was sure that he was not alone. He returned his gaze to the mirror, drawn to it. Again that feeling of movement around him, this time he caught the image of someone or something behind him. In the mirror he could see its insubstantial form standing next to his own, yet he knew nothing was there - then it was gone. A shiver ran through him, he was suddenly so very cold.

He continued to explore the room, opening drawers, looking behind hangings for hidden doors. The room was bare of clues to his tormentor. Finally, he reached the fireplace. Wood lay ready for lighting and he was cold. The numbness in his arm seemed to be spreading down his right side; surely, he could not have done so much damage with that one fall? A shiver ran through him, not from the cold alone. With a muttered word, the fire sprang to life and he crowded its warmth. He should retrieve his staff, but first he had to get warm; remove this sudden ague from his body.

On the mantle lay an amulet; its every curve and line achingly familiar; a duplicate of the piece Isabelle had given to him. The symbol, designating Galen, carved deep into the jade green stone surrounded by a silver mount. She had made it for him soon after their first meeting; he had worn it within his coat, away from prying eyes. On her death, he had sent it beyond with her body, carving her rune into the back. He turned this copy over and stared in dismay at the design etched into the reverse. With shaking fingers, he slipped the talisman into the concealed pocket of his coat.

Above the mantle hung a huge tapestry, and for the first time he studied it with care. "No…" his voice barely above a whisper as the full import of its design registered within his mind. The stylised image was unmistakably that of the Universe, embedded at the heart of the picture sat his personal rune.

"Did I not say I would make this for you. My love, why did you not believe?"

He turned slowly around, his body unwilling or unable to move with its normal grace and speed. She sat curled up in the huge chair facing the fire. The flickering light graced her face with it glow. She was smiling up at him in amused exasperation. "No words, Galen? That's unlike you."

"How…I don't understand. Isabelle?" He tried to move toward her but the fever that ran through his frame hampered his movements. Numbness was slowly creeping through him, paralysing his limbs.

"You will be with me soon, Galen. The harpy's talons are venomous, deadly. I would help you if I could, but even I can not reverse this," she said sadly. "But there is so much for you to discover here, so much to learn, we can be together - always."

Her form seemed to waver as he collapsed, his breathing laboured as the poison worked within his system, shutting down vital organs, stilling his heart. His last conscious memory of her voice echoed through him - "God forgives you" she whispered.

But he could not forgive God.

****

"Breathe, damn you!"

He was aware of a sudden and painful pressure on his chest, then air being forced into his lungs before the pressure returned. His eyes flew open and his body twitched into life. Dureena's face hovered over his, her hair hanging around them like a curtain. "Don't you ever do that to me again, Galen." Anger blazed in her tawny eyes.

"Do what?" He struggled to a sitting position, feeling weak and useless, and vaguely embarrassed. She sat back on her heels and contemplated him from this distant perspective, before leaning forward to remove the mulch she had smeared on his face. He had been unaware of its existence.

"You nearly died, Galen! The trees are infested with parasites, deadly to humans."

"Died?"

"Yes, died." She grinned suddenly. "Well, finally, something you didn't know!"

But his attention was turned from her as he gazed across the grassy expanse before him. No structure graced the area, no castle with its spires and gargoyle. Had all that been a poison induced delirium?

He wiped away the last of Dureena's handiwork, a look of disgust on his face as the sticky substance clung to his fingers.  "What is this anyway?"

"Antidote. And you're welcome." She waited a heartbeat. "Well, I'm glad to see that even a near death experience hasn't changed you."

She stood and held out a hand to him. As she pulled him up, he was surprised at her strength, and the weakness that still lingered in him. Leaning on his staff, he gave himself a moment to gather some strength of his own.

"How did you find me?"

"The shuttles sensors picked up your flyer and …"

"…Matthew wanted to know what I was up to…"

"Something like that." The smile in her eyes did not reach her face, but he saw it all the same. "So, what were you doing out in the middle of nowhere?"

He answered her question with one of his own. "Do you believe in the power of dreams? That they can foretell the future?"

Her glance was perceptive but she made no comment, only answered his question. "I do. My people venerated the seers, believed in prophecy. Nothing was so strong as those held within dreams. Though they were sometimes hard to understand."

She gave him a moment, then, "Galen, what did you see?"

He shook his head slowly. "I think… maybe my own demise. A warning at least."

Realising he had maybe said too much, he quickly changed the subject. Dureena, once focused on something, was hard to shake off. "How are you getting back to the Excalibur?"

She showed him the com device. He nodded; he did not want anyone's company right now, especially someone so astute.

"Will you be alright?"

"Yes." His tone harsher than he had intended.

Turning away from him, she strode off into the trees.

"Dureena!"

She turned at his imperious tone. Their eyes locked and a softer expression suffused his face. His voice lowered to a gentle almost whisper. "Thank you."

She inclined her head in acceptance, then continued on her way.

Slipping his hand into the deep pocket, his fingers encountered cold metal. Drawing the amulet out into the light of day, he traced the design with one sensitive finger.  His rune seemed to glow within the deep green depths, alive in the palm of his hand. Beyond it, deeper still within the stone lay Isabelle's rune, the two inextricably linked.

Illusion?

He glanced again across the open space as if expecting the castle to re-appear now that Dureena had departed.

Silence surrounded him, nothing moved, no bird sang - he could no longer hear her receding footsteps.

He was alone.

The end.