Sandy blonde locks danced across the young woman's brow as she stared out at the roaring blue expanse. No clouds, just wind. She looked over the edge of the cliff at the speck 150 feet down, shuddered at the thought of missing the ledge, hugged her black leather jerkin and murmured a prayer, then stepped off. Initial descent created momentary panic: she just knew she'd miss until she just knew she wouldn't. Her breathing steadied, her fall slowed to a stop. She hovered like a swimmer floats, relaxed, not a care in the world. Tunic and cotton breeches flapped around her battered old knapsack, which was a gift from the old woman. The watery beat on the breakers picked up as the wind whipped her against the cliff. Her desire to relax quickly oscillated to the desire to land safely.
The face of the cliff had a long fissure large enough for a bird to nest in. From the main pouch of her knapsack, she pulled out the stub of a white sage stick. With the snap of her fingers the sage sparked. She blew on the embers without purpose for the rushing wind had it under control. After deeply inhaling the smoke, she used her left hand to bathe her head in its tendrils. She chanted the ancient words the old woman had forced her to memorize, "non potest tamen poterit." Her words echoed through the opening across which she passed the sage stub three times. The hole sucked in smoke strands quite suddenly becoming a narrow opening. She continued chanting while she used the sage to mark out the size of the opening she desired. As she did so, the fissure gradually exposed the entrance to a cave. Still smoldering, the sage stub was placed on the ground in the entryway before she stepped inside. While still chanting, she drew a circle in the air with her index finger. Using both hands, she shoved the circle away. Satisfied, she quit chanting and began the descent into the mountain.
As ordered by the old woman she used no torch, nor light of any kind. She walked assertively, clicking her tongue and listening for the echoes. She was surprised by the speed in which she adjusted to moving through the pitch. Five minutes in, the tunnel made a three-way split, she took the far left branch and continued her steady descent. Another five minutes found her in an enormous cavern with 20-foot high vaulted ceilings covered in stalactites of varying girth. Hard mineral drops pounded a melancholy tune as the ceiling cried into the lake. A stale breeze whistled along sorrowfully. Without quite knowing why, she fell to her knees, sucked in a deep breath, then added her own voice to the chorus, "non potest tamen poterit." She quit singing and stood up when she realized the cold rocky floor had bit into her knees. She took the chorus as a sign that Mercury approved of her mission.
After stripping to the buff, she placed her clothes on her knapsack on top of a rock well away from the lake's edge. She walked to the water, dipped her big toe in, shivered, "eheu, frigeo sum!" Vivid memories of the desert didn't help when she dove in. Using rocks along the lake bed to keep from floating up, she navigated to an area cleared of all debris, from her underwater vantage point she could see through the translucent column. Almost out of breath, she grabbed hold of the boulder barrier, yanked herself into the waterless circle where she collapsed, gasping but thankful for the crisp air. It took a moment to adjust to the sudden change in temperature, her whole body flowed with goose bumps, as she lay in the dry dirt she stared at the fish swimming in the middle of cave’s lake. For a moment, she held her hand and face next to the water wall, then she proceeded to the center of the cylinder.
To move slowly up the waterless shaft she used the same trick she'd been taught for levitation; she thought of herself as myriad particles of air. When her head breached the surface of the lake, she awed at droplet inspired ripples that reflected off the invisible barrier, for a moment her ascent faltered. She realized her error and turned her focus back upon floating up between two stalactites. She flinched and her heart skipped as she harmlessly passed through the roof into a hidden chamber. Still levitating she turned a slow circle and saw that the room had no doors and five inscribed granite walls. Once her whole body was in the chamber, the floor appeared inches below her feet. She landed, knelt on her left knee, and rested her crossed arms on her right knee, palms up. In this pose, she faced each wall and through the biggest smile of her life, five times she declared, "non potest tamen poterit."
When she again faced the first wall she noted a short triangular walnut table flush against the wall to her left not a speck of dust covered the glass top or the items upon it. Engraved in the wall directly over the table was an eye with sprouted wings – both the eye and wings were spread wide. She'd seen versions graffitied on derelict walls across Don, usually the eye was half-closed with only one wing and they were never engraved, always hand painted. In two steps, she stood looking down at the items on the table top: an athame with an emerald-eyed dragon hilt and ruby-eyed phoenix blade; a similarly jeweled bracelet with dragon and phoenix entwined; and, a royal blue pouch with the red and gold seal of the Sage Gryphon King.
The dragon called to her. She reached out, caught her breath, and then picked the athame up off its scabbard. It felt good, solid, perfectly weighted. It slid as smoothly into its sheath as the bracelet slid onto her left wrist. Gingerly, she picked up the Sage Gryphon’s pouch, pulled the drawstring and peered at little white pieces with red markings. She reached into the bag, feeling the pieces. After a moment her fingertips grew warm. She plucked the warmest piece from the pouch, held it in her open hand. The decidedly bone piece had a carved blood red arrow pointing up. "Ah, soon enough I will be," she mumbled, "whose finger?" her words echoed. She dropped the bone back into the pouch, drew the string closed, and then placed the pouch on the athame. She glanced between the wall and the glass table top which also had an open eye with spread wings in its center.
She poked the eye on the table. It blinked. The eye on the wall blinked. She jumped. The table’s wings flapped and the eye blinked again. The winged eye on the wall followed suit. On an impulse, she covered the emblem on the table with her right hand and the one on the wall with her left at which she puzzled over the smoothness of the engraving. The table’s winged eye flapped from one edge of the glass to the next before the top went black, while the one on the wall folded its wings over the eye. When she pulled her hands away, an image slowly developed on the glass of a phoenix dancing on rosebuds. Light and sound filled the chamber, her eyes and ears ached in the sudden brilliance. Her heart pounded with the rhythm of the phoenix's song. The chamber's acoustics were so perfect that the architect of the world’s greatest amphitheatre would have bowed his head in disgrace.
The music faded, the image swirled to a small curly-headed blonde boy who stood behind a barely fluttering curtain. “Rex Gryphus. Last my ass. What were you thinking, brother?” an unseen man whispered, “did my eyes deceive? No. I saw true.” By the boy's face, he was straining to hear the whispers that reverberated loudly in Mercury’s chamber. The boy's whole body shook. The curtain moved, he cringed. She feared for him, but before she knew if he was found out the image twisted back into the winged eye which resumed flapping before settling in the middle of the table. The wings opened on the wall, the eye blinked, and stared directly at her.
Her stomach turned and her head felt heavy. She grabbed the athame and pouch off the table, took two steps back to the center of the room, and levitated while again chanting, "non potest tamen poterit." She expected to descend through the cave ceiling, but in a moment of blaring green light she appeared next to the rock holding her clothes and knapsack. Well, that's a new trick, she mused. Once clothed, she contemplated the walk back to the cave entrance. In another flash of green she manifested next to her stubby sage stick which she immediately picked up and placed into her bag. She reversed the circle, released her spells, then slipped through the cave entrance as it shrank to its original size.
A salty breeze slapped her as she stepped onto the ledge. Non potest tamen poterit, she thought while laughing, she raised her left arm into the sunset to better stare at the inlaid rubies and emeralds on the bracelet. The entwined dragon and phoenix caught the fading light and flew around the bracelet. She watched them dance before she sat down on the ledge, hung her legs off the edge, and pulled an orange out of her bag. She peeled the orange dropping the little peel pieces to their death on the breakers below. She contemplated Mercury’s Artifacts as the horizon spoke its mysteries to her. The wind tousled her hair, caressed her cheeks, and bathed her in salty kisses. The daylight winked away in that tear inducing painful yellow which was chased off by reds, oranges, and deep pinks. She watched as her favorite star fell on the horizon then sank into the sea.
"Tokus Cassius, my dear, it's time to go save a little kid."
She thought of the blonde boy. No flash. Her legs still dangled. She thought again of the boy. Nothing. She stood up and thought hard of the scene in the glass. Still nothing, which was fortunate, she had momentarily feared being taken back to Mercury’s chamber. So much for new tricks, Tokus thought. She resolved to return the way she'd come, with a bit less freefalling. She focused on the cliff edge 150-feet up, relaxed her mind, and thought of air. Suddenly the green light whisked her away. She peered off the cliff, "how the fuck?" A hapless rock committed suicide with a little help from her foot.
It took her a moment to dig through the bag to get out a map that was shredded in some places and outright missing in others. Carefully, she unfolded it and spread it on the ground. The cliff was marked with a red triangle. She was halfway to everywhere. To the west lay Poterit Don, the lands of the Gryphon Kings which everyone just knew was a tale spun to scare off chickenshits. To the north waited the entirety of the Iphigenia Mountains, home of the outcasts, runaways, deserters, and the other so-called ‘low folk’. In the eastern lands of Poterit Dan, the once grand cities all smelled of urine, though their underground economies blossomed. While still staring at the map, she dug a small silver box out of her knapsack. From out of the box she plucked a three inch crystal wand hanging off a silver chain.
The tip of the pendulum dropped onto the triangle, "where's the boy?" she asked as she slowly pulled her hand up, the pendulum twirled around the triangle. "Where's the boy?" It twirled faster, suddenly, arcing. "Where is he?" The arc grew wider still before maintaining a steady length. Accordingly, he was either in Ambrosia, the capital city of Poterit Don, or he was on a ship in the middle of the Sovereign Sea. Glancing over her shoulder, she didn't see any ships as such she wagered the boy was somewhere in Ambrosia. "Damn. That's a hike," she pounded the dirt next to the map, "maybe I can catch a ride."
She returned everything to the bag, slung it over her shoulder, and began the steady descent down to the Old Sea Road. The foot path hadn't been used in some time, Tokus stepped cautiously fearing she'd disturb a snake or scorpion, either of which she'd be forever content not meeting. Every gust tossed tall grasses at her, every step her heart beat faster. The anxiety eased upon reaching the long neglected yet open road. She turned to stare up the path she'd just traversed as a shadow moved away from the cliff, down the other side of the mountain. Deciding not to take any chances, she pulled out the ancient athame and slid it into her back pocket. With each step the athame smacked against her back, a cold reminder of what she still had to do. She stuck to the roadside, slowly creeping north until she was within sight of the only houses left on Old Sea Road. Second house on the left, she recalled the old woman’s final set of instructions. The four houses looked abandoned, though she knew well that they weren’t. She ducked into the nearest bush and waited for the sign.