Jeremiah Job Levine
The Wheel turned, and turned again, and when the Tower was fifteen hundred heads tall a child was born in a village of the Marsh People. And there were no signs to mark the coming of this child, no omens for good or for ill, and the Marsh People thought it might be best to leave this child where it was born, for the growing season had passed too quickly and there was little food. When a wandering shaman of the Singing Trees asked for the child as tribute to the old gods, there was but a short dispute over the child’s fate.
The tribe delivered the infant to the shaman, an ancient creature with the face of a child, and he carried it out of the village without a word. That night, in the heart of the marsh, a moon of joy shone down on the shaman’s little camp. The shaman lit a small fire, feeding it with bark and powders made of lizard skin and strange herbs. Inhaling the acrid smoke, he lifted the child and passed its body through the smoke. The moon glowed joyously.
“Sahar,” breathed the ancient seer. “For the moon. It is good.”
Again he lifted the child, choking slightly, into the smoke. A column of dark smoke rose up around the infant’s body, entwining in a tree-like shape above him. It was barely recognizable, but the shaman was sure.
“Birchbane,” he muttered, the shadow of a smile twitching at his lips. “Sahar Birchbane.” He lowered the infant to his lap, cradling its tiny head while he stirred the ashes of his fire and read the signs intently. The child would become a mighty seer of dreams. He would walk the mists between this world and the dream kingdom as surely as the Marsh People walked the swampy ground of their homeland. He would be wise as the elder whales of the Southern Sea, and indomitable as an eagle. The Tower would beckon to him like the cliffs at the edge of the world called to broken spirits.
Only a slim shadow hung over the omens. A soul born in the deserts, stolen by goblins before it hatched, infected with goblin malice and set loose to roam the world, a creature of darkness, with one broken eye. A man who would follow the Way of the Hawk, and be as skilled in the craft of darkness as little Sahar would be in the ways of magic. They would meet on the lower reaches of the Tower, and only one would ascend to the pinnacle. They would compete in this world and the dream realm, until one of them returned to the land and the other rose to new planes.
In the city that hid, like a dark orphan, in the shadow of the economic center of the Western world, in the middle of the coldest winter in decades, a child was born with a caul wrapped wetly around its head. The mother called her Harriet, after her grandmother, and she kept the caul in a jar, hoping that it would bring the visions the elder Harriet had always had. The doctors assured her that little Harriet had a fine, strong heart. Still, she protected the girl as well as she could, doing her best to isolate her child from the evil of the streets outside. To her great joy, the child grew to be smart and sweet, and seemed never to notice that they lived in poverty.
She had dreams from time to time that her mother could not explain. She dreamed of a golden priestess on an island in ancient times, where everybody wore gossamer robes like the Egyptians in the Bible. She dreamed of ravens, although she had never seen a raven. She dreamed of a man walking through wild lands towards a tower of unspeakable vastness, and of a shadowy, twisted sliver of evil chasing her through dark corridors.
And she grew, and the dreams continued.
The Wheel turned, and turned again, and Sahar Birchbane came to the rolling hills at the base of the Tower. It was leagues ahead of him still, but he could feel its presence looming over him, many thousands of heads high. People in small villagers now greeted him as a great dream walker, and would give him food and other gifts when he asked. In return he would lie with them at night and guide them through the dangerous terrain of the dream world. He could no more control the dreams of others than turn the sun in its tracks, but he knew how to perform the rituals that would shape a healthy vision instead of the other sort.
Like any other sorcery, these shared dreams took a toll on his health. When he undressed to bathe in the pools, his ribs could be seen through the translucent skin of his chest. His eyes were a fierce blue, looking out of a face as rough as old tree bark.
The Wheel turned once more, and Birchbane found himself in a mountainous country in the shadow of the Tower, a gray land filled with twisted trees ablaze in autumn's colours. He could feel the end of his quest approaching. At night, by the light of an argent moon, he slipped into dreams more easily than ever, and in his dreams he attained a pure state he had never before been able to grasp. He dreamed of children, playing in steel canyons, in a world where there was no need for struggle, where food was so plentiful they neglected even to feed the gods their sacrifices, where they were driven around in wagons of mystical power and no one feared the demons of night. By his dreams he knew that he was cleansing himself of evil desires, and would soon reach his goal. And after that, who knew what he could accomplish. It would literally be a new world for him.
In a castle without a shape, he met an old shaman who had not eaten for half a century, and managed to subsist on rays of sunlight brought to him by butterflies. He politely abstained from offering the shaman any of his food, and merely sat across from him. He broke his bread carefully, eating a small piece of it and washing it down with a thimble's worth of nectar. He waited for the old man to speak, knowing that the shaman's wisdom would be worth the wait.
At last the old man spoke, and his voice was broken with wisdom. "I dreamed I was a man who called himself a beetle," he informed Sahar. Sahar sat, entranced, engraving each word upon his memory, storing them to ponder at his leisure. "I sang to the multitudes of love and yellow boats," the old man continued, "and I was shot by a madman who thought I was an impostor. Which I was, although he knew it not." He eyed the bread ravenously, and Sahar politely ate another bit of bread, deciding for courtesy's sake to nibble at a little cheese as well.
At length Sahar decided the wizened shaman expected a response. "Ah, wellB" he sighed, not sure what would be appropriate, "is it not said, ‘some dreams have no meaning?’"
"There are those who say that when we end a cycle and fall into the dream world, we enter another actual world," the old man informed him. "And the people of that world come to us when they end their own cycles, and dream that they are people of our world."
This seemed like a paradox to Sahar, and he assumed the ancient one was speaking allegorically. But he would surely expect a response.
"Do you mean that the people we dream of, in a world without magic, where only humans speak, are people as real as us?" He doubted it, and had begun to think the old shaman was not quite as wise as he appeared. Butterflies had begun to swarm in the vault of the castle's courtyard, great clouds of yellow and purple creatures with luminous antennae that gathered the rays of the rising sun in little bundles under their curled probisci.
"And that when these people sleep, they dream themselves in our world?"
"Ahh." There seemed to be nothing else to say. He was beginning to think maybe he should offer the old man some food, just so that he would be thrown out of the castle. But he could not quite bring himself to be so rude.
In time, the problem solved itself. The butterflies descended in a flapping, multichromatic cloud of sunlight, covering the old man and turning him into something like a bush of golden leaves. Sahar excused himself and continued on his quest, feeling nothing but disappointment that the castle without a shape had revealed itself as a bastion of idle prattling.
Harriet grew, and the dreams continued. At age six she knew some of these dreams as well as she knew her neighborhood. Some of them seemed to be past lives, or someone else’s life from long ago. She often dreamed of the priestess in the golden island kingdom, who led her sisters and their goddess in a hopeless political battle against the priests of the God of Fire, who claimed that their island must be purified with the blood sacrifices of their ancient, dusty homeland.
And she dreamed of a dark, twisted man with one flaming red eye of evil, who wandered exotic lands looking for her. She felt that he had been searching for her since the day she was born, and that if he ever found her it would be horrible. Not just for her, but for the whole world.
The moon waned, and waxed again, this time in an auspicious shade of pink that illuminated the land in pure silver. Sahar Birchbane had crossed many shadowy realms since he left the castle without a shape. He had flown over two bottomless canyons, climbed a series of six endless staircases, found himself in a floating tower entertaining a dozen eternal virgins, and slain one chimaeric beast in a dungeon of despair. He noticed that in his dreams, he tended to assume the shape of young girls with black skin. He could not fathom the portent of this trend. But each cycle, when he woke from his dreams, he was more powerful than before. He could fly almost effortlessly. He had recurring visions of a book bound in red leather, which was almost in his reach. He could feel its closeness. He was on the Tower itself.
Once, while he was climbing an endless staircase, he saw his rival climbing another one not more than seven leagues away. His Nemesis grimaced at him threateningly, his green eye shimmering with hatred. But he was far behind Sahar in his ascent, and by the time he reached the end of the staircase, raving and cloaked in fear, Sahar was long gone.
He had not thought the Tower could be so vast. He had heard that it grew to a height of a hundred thousand heads. He had passed through major cities that occupied mere hollows at its base. He had seen its twisted shape blot out the sky, watched armies of catlike men march out of the caves on its side and war across its mighty circumference. He had climbed it until it seemed like the world had always been vertical. But he had never thought of its size until he entered the cloud worlds that shrouded its middle reaches. Then the thought entered his mind that he was already so far up that the world below could hardly be seen. It was simply a carpet of green spread below him, whole mountain ranges looking like bumps in the carpet. He found a sheltered crevice to sit in, and meditated. A trance, almost a dreaming state but actually a vision of perfect recall, came over him.
“What if I should fall?” he asked his old teacher.
“You must not. Your rival must not reach the top before you. His soul is not his own. It belongs to the goblin tribes, those who are never reborn. Should he reach the top before you, they will have unprecedented power in this world and many others.”
“Other worlds?” he asked, despite himself.
“The Tower leads to many worlds.”
He understood. But that was not what he had meant to ask.
Another moon spun through the night sky, enormous and crimson with the light of the newly vanished sun. It shone down on a lesser mountaintop at the foot of the Tower’s spinward side, where a twisted giant of a man knelt and prayed to it with both eyes closed. A gleaming, wicked sword lay in front of him, and a dagger that matched its malice with immaculate, curved steely spite.
He lifted the dagger to the moon, chanting a song of magic, and opened his eyes. Birds fell like stones from the sky when the crimson evil of his left eye struck them. Without a word, with only a slight curve on his lips to indicate his rapture, he brought the point of the dagger to his other eye and, still silent, twisted the blade. A twitch of pain crossed his face as the lesser eye popped out of its socket. He gripped the eye in one gloved hand and severed its cord. Then he threw the unseeing orb into the fire in front of him, and shivered uncontrollably. Acrid smoke billowed from the small fire, and his quaking grew stronger. Visions were flooding through his skull. With the lesser eye gone, his vision of the dream world had become proportionally stronger. He saw a towering city of glass and chrome, and a scarred land of wreckage and poverty to the west of the city, past a river of muck. He saw children selling weapons, and selling powders that would twist one’s mind... hopelessness… an emptiness where a sense of heritage should dwell, and a tiny girl child. He smiled.
His mortal enemy was, for the duration of this cycle, nothing but a defenseless little girl in the dream world. He was trapped in that body, with no knowledge of her power and no Teacher to help her.
As soon as he saw the sun rising in the west, the sky became colourless and Sahar felt himself disappearing. The omen of the sun could only mean he was completing another cycle, so he was not surprised. But it couldn't have come at a worse time.
He tried to fight the transmigration. Muttering under his breath, he tried to turn into a raven, a raven, swiftest of the intelligent birds, black of wing, bright of eye. It was no use. Now the girl was stirring, readying herself for the day. Today he would have to try and change this dream. He attempted to project into the girl-mind pictures of the real goal. The castle without a shape, the room without walls, the endless staircase: only the most obvious symbols, anything she might be able to understand. If she was his dream shape, might she not have some limited awareness of events in the real world? Every cycle he returned to this weak young body. Didn't she notice anything? But it was growing harder to think. As usual in dreams, his conscious self was fading quickly, being devoured by the girl's primitive mindset. He could hardly remember the real world now, let alone impart his knowledge to this girl. By the time the yellow vehicle stopped at the long grey building, he was nearly lost in her mind.
As he faded, one thing made him stir, a boy, a hulking brute nearly fully grown, waiting in the shadows. Those eyes - one hazel, one green - made him scream inside the girl's mind. His oldest enemy had finally found him in the dream world, where he was utterly powerless. He shrieked warnings to the girl, knowing she would die soon, knowing that the old shaman had been right and that the girl's death would have some terrible consequences in the real world. He would be devoured in the dream or be trapped in a newborn dream body again. But he was fading, and with that final scream, his consciousness was extinguished.
Harriet shivered. For a second, she had felt all cold and shivery and the world had seemed to fade away like a dream. Then it passed, and she noticed Michael, a sixth-grader with the soul of a snake, watching her with something more evil than a normal bully’s callous meanness. He had never picked on her before, but now he had definitely noticed her. For the first time, she noticed that his eyes did not match. One of them was hazel, and slightly squinty, while the other was wide open and blazed shockingly green. He reminded her of the horrible man in her dreams, cloaked in darkness and fear.
He was waiting for her when she left the school, and with a rough grasp he led her into an alleyway that led to the broken buildings they were never supposed to go into. She shivered at his touch, but for some reason she could not make a sound or resist his pull. In her dreams she had seen the high priestess of Atlantis burned on a sacrificial pyre, and wondered if the priestess had felt the same sense of immutable destiny, of being caught up in a skirmish that was only a reflection of a real war in some other world.
In the deserts near the edge of the world, where the sun hung low and bilious over a burning landscape, where the Tower itself was only a rumour, the goblins rejoiced. Their hour of triumph was close at hand. Their changeling boy - their little golden egg - was climbing the Tower. For the first time in endless history, one of their tribe would escape the Wheel, and another would be reborn.
A twisted bar of metal flashed in the sun, and blood spattered over the rubble of what had once been a busy factory. One green eye and one hazel one stared intently into a pair of brown ones, and one pair brightened and dilated while the other became dull, like sparkling gems turning slowly into dead bits of plastic.
A troop of feathered lizard men, riding through the purple plains below the Tower, watched a burning angel plummet to the ground at the foot of the Tower. The sharpest-eyed hunter said that he could see the angel’s blackened bones suspended in the air before it hit the ground and threw up a great of flame. They rode to the spot as quickly as they could, but when they got there all they could see was a great golden egg sitting in a blackened crater, still smoking slightly in the dying sunlight. The Wheel turned, and the egg cracked, and a man emerged from it, crawling weakly to the edge of the crater. His eyes were drawn irresistibly up the Tower, where it seemed he could see - thousands of heads above, between spinning layers of clouds, impossibly far away - a twisted shadow man with one red eye climbing the Tower.
Memories of his quest flooded his mind, and the essence of dreams moved through him.
He had done everything wrong.
He could see his foe’s plan clearly. He could see the mongrel-eyed boy living long, growing powerful, sowing destruction that was reflected through worlds without end, as all great patterns were reflected throughout the weave of the worlds.
He had to climb the Tower again, and find the portal. If it was not to be his salvation, it would be his damnation instead. Either way, it was a purpose.
As the lizard men watched in silenced awe, he crawled towards the great pillar.
A child was born in a hospital named after a great general. And there were no signs, no omens to mark the coming of this child, nothing but the crescent moon above and the dreams that its mother unconsciously shared with her newborn, dreams of a room without walls, a fortress without shape, a stairway rising endlessly into the sky... a veil, and a wheel.
The Wheel turned, and turned again.