LETTER TO H. PUEGOT ANSIBAL, ESQ. FROM ANNABELLE SCHILLER.
Post marked Umiat, Alaska January 30, 1924
I followed your directions out into nowhere, a fine white and blank world. I don’t know anything about magic, or what it takes to study it, but your map led me to a world without sensation.
My wandering through bitter cold numbed all extremities. My fingers were so thickly wrapped and gloved, I would not have been able to feel anything with them, even if they had not been turned into an approximation of corpse fingers by the temperature. The air had no smell; it left no sensation other than pain as it traveled into my body. My eyes were so assailed by the unbroken white sameness of my surroundings, I might as well have been blind. All along the way, snow flakes caught in my hair like wedding rice.
At the end of the emptiness, I found a hole. My destination according to your map. Having come this far, I crawled in, entering an ice cavern.
There were book shelves made of ice, frozen into the wall, strewn with rare texts, scrolls, and parchments. A gallery of optical illusions hung upon icicles: a mushroom that transformed into a cloud when the angle of vision changed; a caduceus that transformed into a double helix. Candles, burning impossibly inside empty wine bottles, illuminated the path through the frozen gallery.
At the heart of the cavern, I found a person sitting alone, contemplating deep red runes on a glowing skin.
The glare beat upon the person’s face. The aristocratic features would have been attractive on a man or a woman. The skin was amber brown, the eyes, violet and slightly slanted. A loosely fitting silk shirt concealed the contours of the upper torso. The forearms were strong, but slender. Elegant fingers tapped out a mantra as they played over a crystal ball.
I asked, “Who are you?”
The person hushed me, and did not look up.
“My name is…” I started to reveal my name.
An amber finger pointed to the ice ceiling above, with its forest of trembling ice spears, delicately laced with fine cracks. “If you raise your voice, twenty thousand tons of ice and snow will come roaring down upon us.”
“Please, are you Xyr?” my words echoed like the sound of trembling chandeliers. Xyr, Xyr, Xyr, off into the distance.
As Xyr worked, or meditated, or studied, what ever it was that Xyr was doing, the arctic wind strummed an Aeolian song on a Moebius strip strung like a harp.
My voice sank down to a whisper. “I was told you sometimes help those in need.”
“I am not as caring about my fellow humans as I used to be.”
“They told me you were arrogant. They also told me the only reason you ever helped anyone was to bolster your claims of superiority.”
Xyr looked up from his crystal ball gazing for a moment of mock pique, then with a sly smirk replied, “I am above that now.”
I raised my voice, “My husband…” A ripple of cracks swept over the roof in the wake of my echoes.
“Quiet!” said Xyr, in a sharp, but whispered tone.
“I can’t be quiet. You are so aggravating. My husband may be hurt somewhere, lost… helpless…”
The ceiling wept bits of ice.
“I don’t care if the world collapses on us.” A tremor shook the ceiling. More ice fell. The falling chunks had increased in size, tumbling downward amid a shimmering haze of prismatic crystal dust.
I fought the emotions, which rose with my voice. “My husband is August Schiller.” A great shower of ice bits rained down, like confetti in a ticker-tape parade.
“Impressive,” said Xyr.
“How I wish I didn’t have to invoke his name to make people pay attention to me.” Me me me me sang my echoes.
A steady outpouring of ice chunks now hammered the chamber. One of them rudely struck my shoulder. Another whacked my head, driving me down to one knee.
Xyr stood up from the worktable, then paced along the walls, gently applying pressure, selecting points on the glacier like an acupuncturist at work. Slowly, the shaking of the ice eased at Xyr’s touch. The walls still trembled, but the rhythm was steady now, calmer. There was still the potential for catastrophe, but I did not feel as threatened.
The falling of ice chunks began to slow, and then, it halted. The crystal mist began to thin.
“We should talk. Not here.” The ceiling shook again. Xyr patted the walls and the trembling stopped. The cave was like a wild beast who might experience momentary fits of calm when scratched in the right places. “I have no refreshments of any kind to offer you here. I don’t eat. But there is a tavern, not far, where we can discuss your situation.”
Xyr escorted me back through the ice tunnels. Xyr didn’t bother to put on furs, facing the bitter chill in the simple, loose fitting silks. Xyr didn’t shiver, even in the sub-zero cold, but the wind forced those purple eyes to narrow.
Tediously, we crossed the white plains, vacant except for some passing polar bears, who barely disturbed the visual field.
“What are you? One of Mr. Darwin’s mutations?” I asked.
“My personal evolution is the product of directed will. Who needs random mutation? It is too inefficient.”
Then Xyr experienced a sudden loss of balance. Xyr stumbled. The purple eyes unfocussed for a moment.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
It took Xyr a full minute to recover. Hesitantly, Xyr stood up, and did not speak again until we arrived at the tavern.
Inside, I was greeted by a bottle of vodka left on the bar for strangers. A sign beside the bottle read, “A Free Drink for Any Takers.” A severed human toe floated in the offering. At once I felt alien, in the middle of a world dominated by men– trappers, most of them, crowding the tables, drinking, laughing, gambling. The few women that were there had an unnatural look about them; the wind had taken its toll on their faces. They all wore too much make-up. I felt ungainly, suddenly the center of attention, even more so than Xyr. The smell of hot, stale lard mixed with a native smog of consumed cigars.
Xyr and I took a table near the bar, the only one unoccupied. “What do you know about Valkynne?” I asked.
“The most difficult of all mystic challenges. Some say it is a myth, and others say it only seems like a myth because so few are equal to its mysteries.”
“I thought it was supposed to be paradise.”
“Yes. A paradise dimension where the object of every desire instantly materializes.” An apple appeared in Xyr’s hand.
“August was right. Magic is real.”
Xyr laughed. “The apple– that was just clever sleight of hand. Science and Magic are the same thing at the highest and lowest levels.”
“My husband has disappeared. He said he was seeking Valkynne.”
“Hey Xyr! Xyr!” yelled the bartender.
Xyr looked up.
“Just me came from far away to study with Xyr. Xyr turn Just me down. Why is so special about woman?”
“I don’t owe you any explanations, Just.”
The bartender looked vaguely familiar to me. I stared at him and he stared back. A moment of recognition passed between us. And then I realized I had lapsed into an unconscious intimacy. Despite the Eskimo cast to his features, the bar-tender resembled August. It was the prominent nose, the pattern of scars striping his cheeks. A moment of recognition passed between us, and I gasped. Briefly, I thought it was August in disguise. When the man leered back with his jet and jaundiced eyes, I knew better.
“Who is that man?” I asked Xyr.
“Do you know him?”
“I thought I did, for a moment.”
“People call him Just. Perhaps you knew him in one of his many alternate forms. He’s not really an Eskimo, you know. That’s an illusion. He’s been a corporate executive, a South American dictator, a mistress to an African mass-murderer. I think he’s from another dimension originally. Someone taught him the magic of hate. He came out here, seeking an audience, hoping to learn the magic of indifference.”
At first I accepted this account on face value, only because of Xyr’s straightforward, confident presentation, and the strange circumstances of my journey. Then I began to suspect a jest at my expense. Here was a person capable of spontaneous, flamboyant confabulations.
Hugh– I wondered why you sent me out all this way, to place me at the mercy of Xyr? Advice contrary to what a lawyer would give. Have you indeed been counseling me as a friend?
“What is the truth about Just?” I asked.
“He tried to impress me with an elaborate theory about the nature of a subatomic particle he called Nobite, supposedly the building blocks of souls. Just’s theory was poorly reasoned, with insufficient evidence. I turned him down. He stayed in the vicinity anyway. I suppose he gets some kind of satisfaction from being near-by, and harassing me every time I come here.”
“He’s disgusting, what ever he is, where ever he came from.”
“Like so many who play at magic. But he doesn’t bother me. I find human weakness fascinating.” Xyr took a bite from the apple.
At that point, I told Xyr the entire circumstances of my last encounter with August. I repeated the story, just as I told it to you– except I added one embellishment, something about possible opium addiction. I don’t know why I said that– perhaps to assign blame to some outer force, to take it away from myself.
“Did you know I studied physics under your husband? He taught me the single most humbling lesson of my career. I turned in a brilliant paper proposing a new calculation of the speed of light. It turned on the idea that speed cannot be an absolute if time is relative. The reasoning was persuasive, the evidence sound. But he turned to me and asked me if I thought it were true. Up until that point, I had been so caught up in rhetoric as an exercise, so entranced by my own cleverness, I hadn’t considered truth to be an issue. Your husband was so serious back then– not the type to chase fantasies like Valkynne.”
“I know– August was always so responsible.”
“He was a genius, but he had a lousy aura. I remember auras better than faces.” Xyr carefully chewed the apple; leaning back, striking a relaxed pose. “You know his shortcomings better than I. There is a part of you that bitterly resents him. Perhaps even enough to kill him.” The tone of Xyr’s voice was the same as when describing Just; as if the murder of August Schiller was some absurd bit of humor only Xyr could understand.
“I am in a great deal of trouble. I hope you understand the seriousness of all this for me.”
“I am not accusing you. Perhaps in another universe, a different you killed him. Out of jealousy. Or to keep him from leaving.” A wry smile crossed those thin lips. For all the outward affectation of scholarship, Xyr seemed to delight in nonsense. “But I won’t condemn you for the crimes of your counterparts. I can not mistake the intensity of your devotion to him.”
“The man who left that night was a stranger.” I said it like a confession.
“Each person has many faces. People are creatures of contingency.”
“Seeing a stranger in the man I thought I knew so well made me love him even more. Does that sound wanton?” Unconsciously, my eyes shifted back to the bar, to check if Just was still watching us. He was.
“You have many fine qualities. Intelligence… courage… willfulness. Stop looking for your husband. Find yourself.” The tone was not flattering. Xyr spoke with a hint of contempt. I sensed that I was being dismissed. I had come so far, risked so much, for nothing.
“Your sophomoric pretensions don’t fool me,” I said. “You could not find him in any event.”
“Why would I want to go looking?”
“I can’t argue with you. You’re too irritating, like a spoiled child. I love August Schiller– even if that is nothing more than human weakness.” At that point I simply lost control and broke into tears. If I had been thinking, I would not have tried so stupid and manipulative a way to try to deal with this Xyr person.
But my tears touched something in Xyr. I drew a response I had not expected. Xyr softened, looked wounded, or humiliated.
“I have been insensitive, I fear. I get very self absorbed, a by-product of my studies– a weakness I am trying to overcome. Sometimes I expend more energy watching myself think than I expend thinking.
“I truly admire your husband, in a back-handed sort of way. Perhaps because he is selfless– that quality which so eludes me has made him a great scientist as well as a great humanitarian. I wish I had his generosity of spirit.”
I said, “That was August. He could never resist an appeal from a charity– never hesitated to lend his support to anyone who asked — even those with competing causes.”
Xyr began to laugh. It surprised me. I would have thought Xyr incapable of finding humor in anything but Xyr’s own jests.
“I need something new to occupy my energy. I have fallen into an intellectual rut– explaining away the flaws in my scientific treatises by resort to mysticism, and vice versa. My old publishers have lost interest in my work. I am sinking into a kind of cerebral narcissism, watching my own ideas link up in elaborate and comical ways no one else can understand.”
I felt as if Xyr were trying to apologize.
“Do you want to hear something funny? Your husband was responsible for starting my interest in sorcery. He provoked the matter unintentionally, of course. It was his question to me back in my school days– Is it true? In trying to apprehend the nature of Truth, I was forced to explore the hidden places where Truth lies.” By now, the apple had been chewed to its core. Xyr balanced it on a single fingertip. “Perhaps something interesting can be learned from August Schiller’s mistakes… and yours. All right. I’ll find your husband.”
LESLIE BLAKE TOOK THE POSITION THAT SCHILLER WOULD HAVE USED SCIENTIFIC MEANS TO SEARCH FOR VALKYNNE. SURPRISINGLY, VERA DENADA, A MYSTIC AND ARTHUR VERTINSKY (A PHILOSOPHER?) BOTH AGREE WITH HIM. THEIR VIEWS CAN FOLLOWED BY TURNING DIRECTLY TO SEGMENT TWENTY TWO.
FRANCESCO NOOGIN, OLIVER TROLT AND CROW BOTH THINK SCHILLER WOULD HAVE USED MYSTIC MEANS. FOR THEIR VIEWS, TURN TO SEGMENT FOUR.
FAITH AURELLO TOOK THE ROMANTIC, AND UNORTHODOX VIEW THAT SEGMENT NINE FOLLOWS.