“Malphas.” The plain was painfully bright with the fullness of day. The blue and black cowl covering his head and shoulders was delicately stitched with a crow motif that served to further identify him, though it was unnecessary. It framed his face well, emphasizing the intense blue of his eyes. He smiled at my recognition and raised his cup of tea in salutation. The little round table beside him was just large enough to hold a teapot and two saucers. He held one of the tea cups in his hands. The second tea cup was upside down on the saucer across from him.
“Hello, Black Jack.” I was confused to see him, but the sound of his pet name for me brought a gentle smile to my face. “Propriety says I should invite you to sit with me. There is an empty chair here after all, and a place on the table for you. But tell me, Black Jack, why would following social rules be a bad idea at the moment?”
His question made me uncomfortable. I’m not supposed to be here, I realized. Not supposed to be entertaining company nor being entertained. Not supposed to stop for tea. Not supposed to be in a bright shining field with spring flowers bursting in shouts of color and fragrance.
“Are you here, Malphas? Or am I imagining this?” I touched the unclaimed chair. It was solid enough. The tea’s fragrance complemented the wild flowers well. Such a pleasant day. And Malphas is good company. What’s wrong with this?
“I assure you, I am quite present. Why is that a problem?”
Because you don’t exist. I didn’t speak the thought but he heard it just the same. He sipped his tea to politely screen his mirth.
I was embarrassed at the rudeness of the thought until I realized he did not refute it. There are two ways to deceive. One is to lie, and the other is to omit the truth. Malphas doesn’t lie. What is he holding from me?
The chair was inviting, but a sense of wariness kept me from sitting. I had someplace to be, a task to perform. And I will not complete it doddling in a field of metaphorical poppies.
Where would Malphas not exist? He walks more worlds than I can pretend to imagine. Where there is information, there is Malphas recording it. So those places where he can not be are those places where there is no information to be had.
Might as well ask what’s inside a black hole.
He smirked and sipped his tea again as I remembered what this landscape was trying hard to make me forget.
“You can’t be here, Malphas.”
“But I am. Why can’t I be here, where ever here is?”
“Because the Path of Cheth is a solo trip. Not even Snake can accompany me this time. I asked for no escort and set foot on that path alone. You can’t be here, Malphas, because you are a manifestation. And nothing manifested can be above the Abyss.”
He set the tea cup on its paired saucer. “You failed. You fell.” No malice nor teasing was in his words. It was matter of fact. Flowers are pretty. Sunlight is warm. I fell through the Abyss.
I nodded. “Yea. If I’m here with you, yea I did. Either that, or this is how the Abyss is showing itself to me. Distracting me instead of directly challenging me.”
“You are not afraid?”
“Should I be?”
“You were before.”
“I got that beat out of me. Literally. Now I have a different problem with fear.” He cocked his head to the side, encouraging me to continue. “Before I was too afraid to continue. Now I don’t have enough fear to warn me when I’m making a mistake or taking something too far.”
“You understand the difference. Good.”
I thought about what little I know about him. Why would I wind up with him after falling through the Abyss? Did he catch me? Was he waiting for me? There was something important in plain sight but I am too ignorant to see it for what it is.
When he picked up his tea cup to politely veil his face I realized I was thinking out loud again. “Sorry. I’ve been questioning everything again. Nothing is safe, everyone is suspect. The Abyss makes me a paranoid shit because I can’t trust what I am experiencing.”
He nodded and smiled. He was waiting for something from me but I have no idea what it could be.
“So, um, Mister Information Broker, how many outside my usual readers know about this undertaking of mine and how many have bought your services to keep them updated about the exploits I don’t publish?”
He laughed. A sharp corvid barking that was burred with harsh mirth. I felt a little proud of myself for making him break decorum. When his short outburst was done his mouth smiled quite sharp and vicious teeth while his eyes remained as cold as they are blue. “My dear Black Jack, you know I don’t betray my clients.”
It wasn’t the precise answer I was hoping for, but it told me what I needed to know.
I bowed in acceptance of his answer. “No, Sir, you don’t. You’re a dangerous person, but an honorable one.” I sighed and looked up at the cloud spotted sky. “I can’t stay. I need to complete this. I need to figure out why I fell, and the only way to do so reliably is to get back on the tightrope. Though… This is a lovely place, Malphas. Quite lovely and serene. Thank you for catching me.”
He accepted my sincere gratitude with a nod. I knew I was going to fall several (dozen) times before I understood the path. I accepted that. If the Path of Vau taught me anything, it was that victory only comes by not accepting defeat as final.
I straightened my posture and immediately I was clad in the light (restored) armor that I wore on the fields of Geburah. I saluted him with strict formality.
“Go.” It wasn’t a blessing. Wasn’t an encouragement. Wasn’t an acknowledgement. It was a command. Malphas expected me to succeed. For some reason this placed me at ease.
“I go.” The sound left my mouth and the worlds blinked around me. The bright spring day became a harsh firelit night. The ever present dust choked out the scent of flowers from my senses. I heard the familiar sound of a hundred men snapping to order in a military formation. I was in Geburah.
I did not turn around to view the units welcoming me. I could feel the stare of the black armored commanders and the heavy presence of their warmounts. With them there was no need for communication. Words were a waste of time. I was here for one purpose. This was my launching point for the Path of Cheth.
I stood on the cliff of the Abyss. At my feet, two ropes were attached, one slightly below the other. The lower rope was the footpath. The upper rope was the handhold. Sounds simple, right?
The strength, size, and integrity of the ropes were inversely proportional to the fear of the walker. But they were also affected by the walker’s confidence. False confidence made for a false grip. It wasn’t enough to be without fear. I had to be sure of myself for the right reasons as well. And this is why I was falling. Bottling my fear is easy. Being sure of myself, not so much.
I had been warned that the challenges going into the Abyss would not be the same coming out. I wondered if I would see the Crowned and Throned figure again. If there would be a world within the Abyss like Asmodel’s cave and cathedral.
I slipped down and placed both sandaled feet on the thinning cord. I’ll worry about all that later. I better get going before the commanders decide to teach me another lesson. I focused on the goal of moving forward and accepted I was not likely to remember anything once Geburah was out of sight. The cord stopped thinning and I began stepping forward.