The idea of a thousand steps had turned out to be much more bearable than the reality of a thousand steps, but Marcus had borne the burden nonetheless, and made it to the summit of this hidden mountain. Now he rested, staring idly out across an ocean of green, an endless forest canopy far below that was beholden only to the gaping embrace of the horizon. Down in the expanse, the highway scythed a path through the forest, but it was far away now, the distant lights a scant reminder of human civilisation. Marcus sat and rested with his back to the crumbling temple, enjoying the view whilst he waited for the balding monk who had greeted him to fetch the temple’s master.
The monk shortly returned with another man, a grave-faced elder with hair and beard like wildfire, long, grey and twisted beyond any recognisable shape. With a booming, cheerful voice quite at odds to his stoic façade, he introduced himself as the temple’s Master, emphatically pronouncing the capital. “A joke,” he beamed confidentially, but elaborated no more on whom the joke might be, or where indeed the humour hid. They crossed the courtyard and took their ease on the steps that led up to the temple door proper, where Marcus attempted to explain why he had come to this place.
“You’re looking for meaning, of course,” the old man chortled. His English was immaculate, but curiously accented. “Everyone who comes up here comes looking for that, as if I had a hidden cache of existential truths stashed on my mountain. Well, sorry to disappoint, young man, but I don’t. I’ll tell you a few choice truths and some wicked stories of things I’ve seen, but I won’t deliver you absolution unless you find it yourself. Pay the postage, as they say.”
Marcus had never heard such a phrase, but here, in this place and time, he was young and still had hope. So he nodded along, waiting to hear what the old man had to say. At length the elder man spoke, with Marcus murmuring assents when required. They spoke of the twenty or so years that had passed since the man had secreted himself on this mountain, in order to meditate on the myriad meanings of life. “To be honest,” the old man said, “I only came here for a bit of peace and quiet. This place was abandoned, but perfectly serviceable. But people found me as you have, and well, a bit of company’s nice, so I let them stick around. Perhaps that’s your meaning of life right there.”
They spoke of other ways to find meaning, starting with philosophy. “I’ve read a few of your scholars,” the old man confided, “and they have some good ideas, but.. they are all old ideas, now. The subject has become the empty echoes of the thoughts of dead men, and will never go anywhere.”
They spoke at length on the subject of faith. Marcus told of how he had spent the last two years trying to decide whether he had any inclinations towards any religion, and had come up with no answers. “And you wouldn’t have,” the old man said, and laughed. “In some lands there’s real meaning, but in this place, religion…religion is the empty sound of drums for those who fail to make their own peace with the world. Can’t count on the gods to spell it out for you, not here.”
That has a familiar ring to it, Marcus thought, then and now. In that moment, a part of his memory fell back into its rightful place, and he felt himself awakening.
Surfacing from unconsciousness was much more difficult this time around, but he made it. Constant knock-outs were a poor substitute for true sleep, but that strange sleeping recollection, and the sense of it falling into place, seemed to have done wonders for his state of mind. Though a vague fog still lurked in the recesses, he felt generally much better equipped to deal with the world than he had done for a while. And so he lay where he had woke, peaceful amidst the tangled snarls of a luxurious, oversized four-posted bed that was swathed with astonishingly garish pink curtains and bedclothes. It was all rather unexpected; lost in memory as he had been, there’d been no time to form any expectations for what might follow in the wake of his capture by the well-dressed, determined folk, but given the chance he would never have guessed that he might wake up inside a giant marshmallow. Yet here he was: wherever ‘here’ was.
Curious, Marcus made to extract himself from the bed, which proved difficult as every time he moved a blanket another three got in the way. After a few minutes of work, he rolled out of the side of the bed, staggered upright and had a look around. He appeared to be in some rather fancy quarters, with large, well-maintained wardrobes, strategically placed mirrors and other such hallmarks of an extremely exquisite suite. What he couldn’t see, however, were his clothes. They were neither on his body nor anywhere in the room. There was, however, a fluffy dressing gown hung over the back of a chair, and Marcus invited himself into it before opening a door to see where it went.
On the other side he found a living room decorated in an equally distasteful manner, and two people waiting for him. One, he recognised as the latest person to have removed him from the world of the conscious. Still in his purple robes, the bulky man somehow looked more at home here than he had in a grimy alleyway, his shaggy locks now seeming elegantly groomed. He looked to have a good few years on Marcus, and was in possession of a certain swagger that was apparent even sitting, apparently deep in thought over the board game he was playing with his companion. He looked up as Marcus approached, and Marcus thought he detected a worrying hint of disdain in this man’s quick appraisal. Marcus suddenly regretted the dressing gown.
“Marcus,” the man said gravely, his voice the guttural growl of a fishmonger leavened by years of education as to how one might speak properly, “welcome back.”
Marcus opted to respond to this by way of brooding silence.
The second man chuckled. Short, wiry and balding on top, the last few hairs carefully teased over his dome, this man mirrored his companion only in their atrocious dress sense. His gaze was one of careful appraisal, with the hint of cogs constantly turning behind his eyes. “He’s not happy with you, Musk. Perhaps you might be so good as to appease friend Marcus with an apology for the rather uncivilised way in which you and your.. muscle bought him here.”
The taller man spared a glare for his companion before turning back to Marcus. “I suppose. Sorry. Issues with the transition, you see. We’ve never really done anything like this before, it went a little awry. The Master sent me and my..” – another glare for his companion – “muscle to bring you in as soon as possible. Whatever means necessary. I judged my method to be most efficient.”
“Well you would, wouldn’t you?” the little man shot.
“Something you want to say, Helm?” the tall man growled. “I ask only as I know you suffer from such crippling shyness when it comes to articulating things you feel like making a point about.”
The short man simply sat back, steepled his fingertips and wiggled his eyebrows. His companion snorted and turned back to Marcus. “Sorry about my.. friend. He suffers from the unfortunate condition of thinking that his brain is too big to be weighed down by such fragile, everyday concerns as common courtesy. How are you doing over here?”
Marcus, who had observed their interchange with practised disinterest from within the fragile folds of his dressing gown, shrugged wearily. “I’m really not sure. I’ve spent the last day – or however long it’s been – being blown up, chased, knocked out, and then on top of all that I had my clothes stolen, and now it’s now and we’re here and I’m still none the wiser as to what the hell is happening around me. I was just happily drinking my life away, and then all this..” he flailed for the right word and failed to find it “..stuff is going on and you two are just talking about transitions and efficiency and having a petty little pink man snarkfest and I’m about to run out of words.” He sank gently down onto a horrendous purple armchair and waved his hands about whilst his brain refuelled. “I don’t know where I am or who you are or what you want from me or if I should be worried about what you might want from me. Can you tell me these things? In words I understand? Do you know anyone who can?”
The little man’s small smile had widened into a sickly grin over the course of Marcus’s rambling, but the bulky man at least had taken on a slightly abashed expression. “Peace, Marcus,” he said, raising a hand like a slab of concrete in the most threatening conciliatory gesture Marcus had ever seen, “we mean you no harm. Admittedly we haven’t done the best of jobs proving that so far, but listen. The reason Helm and I are here right now is because we were told to wait on you to awaken, so that you could be bought to the boss as soon as possible, for orientation. We don’t want to keep you in the dark. Apparently,” – and here a certain twisted emphasis in the man’s speech again invoked a dark disdain – “there may be something of some importance that you are able to help us with.”
Marcus wasn’t sure he liked the sound of that at all. “Where’s my staff?” he asked suspiciously.
The smaller man, who had been taking advantage of his companion’s distraction to sneak a few extra moves in to their board game, turned back to them. “Marcus,” he said, “I know you don’t trust us and have no reason to, so I’m going to have to ask you to take a leap of faith. We’ve bought you somewhere nice and supplied you with a dressing gown which, incidentally, looks very good on you, and we’ve got the remnants of what you were bought in with in the next room over, although to be honest the only thing worth keeping hold of is that odd walking staff of yours. There are plenty of clothes in the wardrobe. Put some on, I’ll send my good buddy here to fetch the staff, then we’ll take you to where you can find out what you want to know. Sound fair?”
Such was the story of how Marcus found himself sitting in a dusty waiting room before some large, solid wooden doors, dressed in the darkest and least horrific clothes he had been able to dig out of the wardrobe and waiting for the severely dressed and severely bored-looking receptionist who was his only companion to let him know when he could go in. Death’s staff had been retrieved for him whilst he’d been changing, and now that he had a quiet moment to himself, his escorts having excused themselves upon arrival in the waiting room, he was having a proper look at it.
It was a well-maintained piece of kit, made of solid wood that was thicker at the top, slightly curved and smooth to the touch. The only standout feature was a small knobbly bit about a third of the way along its length. Strangely, the staff seemed smaller than it had before; Marcus might almost have thought that it had shrunk down to be a more appropriate size for him to wield, if he hadn’t been totally sure that staffs didn’t do that. It was a curious development, but not as curious as the little knobbly bit, which appeared slightly loose. Holding the staff over his knees, he surreptitiously wobbled it around, to see what might happen. After a few seconds he realised that he needed to twist it, did so, and almost lost his nose as a curved blade sprung from some infinitesimal hiding place within the wood. With a soft boing sound and a whispering sharpness that seemed to cut the air, it briefly reflected his surprised expression as it shot past his face, and came to rest at a right angle to the staff’s summit side.
Marcus sat in shocked silence as a wisp of his fringe floated down past his eyes, pondering the twisted, dirty inevitability of this development. Back on the rooftop, when he’d discovered that he’d accidentally stolen Death’s staff, it hadn’t seemed so bad. Sure, there was the whole ‘aura of unseemly menace’ business, but Marcus had sort of assumed that that came with the territory; his vague memory of his meeting with Death was underlined by a strong sensation of helpless fear. But now it wasn’t a staff, it was a scythe, and that seemed more like something the grim reaper would have a strong interest in recovering. Marcus had been busily attempting to ignore the consequences of his actions, but now they had sprung up and got his attention by almost decapitating him, and he could almost feel the storm clouds gathering.
Thankfully, at that moment the wooden doors swung open. “The Master will see you now,” the receptionist declared, pointing her pen in the vague direction of the doorway without looking up. Marcus was more than happy to oblige, leaving his dark thoughts swirling in the dust.
The room on the far side appeared to be a large study, high-ceilinged and walled on three sides with bookcases that were so overstuffed with books that they’d begun to tumble out across the floor. The fourth wall, however, was dominated by a huge window that opened up onto a rather impressive view of the city beyond. In front of it, there was a wide desk that had an identical twin on the room’s far side, amidst the bookcases. Both desks shared a haggard look borne of age, great love and constant use. The desk by the wall was piled high with books and cushions, whilst the desk by the window had its fair share of paperwork, a pile of strange metallic devices that Marcus didn’t recognise, and also, briefly, the head of its occupant, who lay face down, apparently asleep and obscured in wraiths of their own hair. The head sprung up in surprise as Marcus walked over, sat down in an armchair on the far side, and, after nothing happened for a few seconds, cleared his throat quietly.
The Master, as Marcus supposed this must be, was actually more of a Mistress. Though the key features of the face he was looking at were drowned in a manifestation of great fatigue and the innocently lost expression of a person who had just woken up, it was still an observably female one. It was also possibly quite attractive, but beyond the large bags obscuring the eyes, the huge tumble of hair and the continuing pink-themed dress sense, Marcus found it hard to judge.
“Are you Marcus?” the apparition asked, yawning. “Marcus Chiallion?”
Marcus decided it was best just to nod. This prompted a raised eyebrow.
“Can you speak? Seriously. I mean it. I ask people to write memos for this sort of thing so I know in advance and don’t make an idiot of myself. They never do it. You see, aside from, y’know, diseases and defects and stuff, the trick we used to bring you in was massively risky and you could quite possibly have been robbed of your faculties, or worse-“
“Yes,” Marcus said, clearly and loudly, in an attempt to dam the sudden torrent of words, “I can speak. And my name is Marcus, which you know. Which means..” he paused, staring at the Master, who stared right back. “I don’t know what that means. I don’t think I want to know. To be honest, I’ve got no idea what’s happening anymore. They told me you’d be able to help. Do I want your help?”
The Master shook her head slightly, dislodging a bobble which had been feebly attempting to hold some of her hair in place. As she tugged it out her dark locks cascaded around her face in what Marcus considered an incredibly off-putting manner. The motion ended with her head titled to one side, observing Marcus curiously from her side of the desk. “Don’t you feel any different?” she asked.
“You know, like, internally, or something? In your mind?”
Marcus weighed up his possible responses to this, and decided that since grumpy honesty had worked out alright before, he might as well stick with it. “I’m not entirely sure what’s happening in my mind right now. I was recently blown up, you see, and since then my memory’s been doing some strange sorts of somersaults, so I’m pretty certain there’s a correlation. It was either that or the drinking. Either way, things up here definitely aren’t functioning properly.”
He could have sworn he saw a wicked grin flash across the Master’s face before her gaze settled on abject solemnity. “Yes, sorry about the whole exploding thing, that was partly our fault. Well, completely our fault. You see, we needed you to get here, Marcus, as quickly as possible, because you may be able to help us with something important. You, yourself, are so incredibly important that we had to resort to using an almost entirely untested new method of instantaneous transportation to bring you in.”
“And what was that?” Marcus asked, eyeing the door.
“We ripped you out of the fabric of space and time, and spliced you back in somewhere else.”
Marcus stared straight into the Master’s eyes, but as far as he could tell, she had indeed just said what he thought she’d just said.
“The fabric of space..?”
“And time, yes,” she said, nodding her head imperiously. “Ripped.” And then she grinned, definitely this time, and began scouting around the mess of her desk for something, whilst Marcus sat there digesting this new information.
“Wh-“ he began, but was interrupted as the Master gave a cry of joy and grabbed hold of a nearby plastic cup. She held it up to her cheek, and sighed happily.
“What’s that?” Marcus asked, “some sort of space-and-time-rending material?”
“That’s exactly what it is,” the Master agreed. “But on this world, we call it coffee. And it’s still warm! I must have only been asleep a few minutes after all. Huzzah.” She took a deep gulp from the cup whilst Marcus sat wondering what he should say or do next.
After a moment, the Master stood up and began to stretch. “I expect you’re wondering, Marcus, exactly what you should be saying or doing right now. Unfortunately, before we get to that there’s a lot still to explain, and I have certificates demonstrating how awful I am at explaining things. Luckily, we’ve got some clever stuff that can do it for me, saving on embarrassment all round. What I will tell you is.. what my people and I did was not as simple as picking you out of one place and dropping you somewhere else. Obviously you’ve probably figured out that this isn’t the same geographical location you were in last night, or this morning, or whenever it was. But that’s not all. This isn’t just a different place, Marcus. This is a different world.”
While talking, the Master had walked over to the window, swaying slightly, and as she finished, she attempted a sort of dramatic flourish at the city lurking outside. Thanks to the ridiculously baggy sleeves of her blouse, however, she succeeded only in getting herself into a worse tangle, and had to spend a few moments sorting out hair from cloth.
“Now come with me,” she said, reattaching her bobble, which made little difference, “and we’ll show you the Mirrorworld.”