Numb fingers fumbled for the New Tokyo Trump. It took too long to activate, testament to my weakness.
I risked Saif’s life. I endangered him just as I endangered New Tokyo,
(seventeen billion dead)
just as I endangered children and musicians with my unpreparedness,
(two dead, dozen wounded)
just as I endanger the Family because I’m too weak,
(a dozen soon dead, including Random and his heir)
just as I endangered my first family at Mount Pine,
(two hundred twelve dead, sixty-two maimed)
I arrived in darkness. Panic struck. I feared I’d Trumped the Void instead, but the fear passed. Time, gravity, air, solid wood — the Void has none of these things.
I was in my skyrise apartment’s den.
I slept. My dreams (as always) were bad.
I remember little for a long time. I recover. When the Family Trumps me, I answer only for Random. Only then, I say I need a break. He asks how long. I don’t know.
Contact tapers off.
I leave New Tokyo. Guilt-stink hangs all over that Shadow now. I stand at the Void’s edge instead, although I now know that the Void touches everything; this is just a Shadow where the Void is visible to any common idiot.
At Mount Pine, I learned that all things are connected. In old age (if such descriptors can stick to the functionally immortal) I know the truth: All things touch the Void, but this implies no connection. I stare off the edge at an undeniable truth I wish nonetheless to deny. The Void just sits there, stark denial to my childhood convictions, to my lifelong struggle to prove my existence, to my power, to the lives my mistakes wrecked or ended.
I want to control it. Control it and defeat it.
The Shadow shifts around me and a peach pit falls into my hand. It’s a simple matter to grow it to where it will provide me shade from the Shadow’s pink Van Gogh sun. I sit beneath the peach tree, modified by my magic to provide peaches and blooms at once, and get to work.
The Abyss slowly yields its secrets, one by one, each revelation driving joy from my mind. Still, I rob Old Man Nothing, though it provides me no joy, no solace, no solution to my guilt. The peach tree dies many times, but each time sorcery, the stuff of my childhood, brings it back. I realize my quest is pointless, but I keep sifting, filtering, accumulating data. Years pass before my first real moment of clarity since I forced Saif onto the damaged Kolvir Pattern.
I’m killing myself. Precautions or no precautions, the Void still has me. It’s still stamping its imprint onto my being. Abyssal Initiate I might not be, but if I was, it’d only be a matter of time before the Abyss reached out and took me.
Elaborate suicide. I’m not willing to die. I abandon my research. Return to New Tokyo. No robot uprisings, viral outbreaks, zombie hordes, alien invasions, or science experiments gone awry — at least, none that the natives couldn’t handle on their own. My apartment should be dusty, but robot servants kept it perfectly clean.
“Mother?” I address the apartment’s in-built computer. “How long have I been gone?” I remind myself of Mother’s limitations: “To the day.”
“Life-signs for Mizuno Amy, Hero of the Outbreak Wars, last previously detected: 72 solar years, 3 lunar months, 7 days.”
Mizuno Amy? I thought my alias was Yamano Amy on this Shadow. Wait, wait, wait. Isn’t Mizuno Amy Sailor Mercury’s real name? Is this some kind of joke? I glare at nothing in particular, sculpting and hanging a quick-trigger sorcery.
“Awaiting orders,” Mother says cheerfully.
My stomach growls. She takes that as an answer.
“Food stores depleted. Protein packs rancid. Shall I order replacements?”
“I’ll go out. I need fresh air.”
“Air circulation systems running at 100%.” Mother’s tone is reproachful.
I leave the apartment, leave the skyrise, wander streets hardly changed in 72 years of local time. I get lost on my way to the nearest convenience store and consider Shadow molding, but no, the thought of the Great Powers make me sick to my stomach. I lose my way even worse and soon I find myself in urban ruins.
“Hey imouto, hold up.”
I pause, more curious at who would call me “little sister” than out of any sense of fear or kindness. His clothes are loose — good for hiding weapons — and his eyes have a cruel shape. He’s got a blaster trained on me. I sigh heavily.
“Imouto indeed; I bet you can’t even buy your own porn yet. Point the blaster away before I hurt you.”
“@#$%^&.” The thug ceases being. I don’t know what I said, but I know that it is profane in a way that cussing can’t even imitate. I feel my stomach churn, my head ache, and behind it all, the Void, the end of all things, waiting.
I forget food. I hellride towards a destination unknown, but I recognize my home-Shadow when I reach it. I recognize the monastery standing before me. I recognize the ten-thousand wooden chimes of Mount Pine. The monks accept my return as a matter of course. I wonder, though, if this is all in my mind, if I made this Shadow anew because I needed it. Sometimes having more power and knowledge only complicates things.
The monastic life helps. Early morning meditation, breakfast, kata drills, lunch, artwork, dinner, evening meditation, sleep. Though I now live in the moment, artistic expression comes slowly.
“Just let it flow,” Abbot Hasuo admonishes me on my twentieth day of blank canvas. My stare’s as blank as that canvas. The last time I let it flow, a word of unmaking deleted another life from the world-tapestry. I tell him so, and he laughs: “Then paint that.”
I dip the sumi-e brush into the ink and smear it on the white paper. I smear the ink on until not a spot of white remains, just varying textures done in black. As I do it, I can feel that throbbing empty ache fade.
“I don’t like it,” I say as I regard the night’s work.
Abbot Hasuo shrugs. “I don’t either, Eimi, but this is in you. Accept it.”
The next day, I examine the black canvas. I hate it more than anything, but it’s not done. I smear more ink onto it, until that ink pools on the easel, drips off the edge, and stains the stones of my cell. I can’t accept it. The truth it reveals about me is ugly.
I smear ink on that one canvas for months. One day, I know I’m done and start a new one.
I blacken eighteen more canvasses. They linger in my cell. Somehow I can’t destroy them. Abbot Hasuo doesn’t force the issue, says destruction is inevitable, but can wait. I hate how his words echo the Void’s. I ask him to destroy them for me. He laughs. It’s not his place.
I paint the twentieth canvas while surrounded by the first nineteen, but even after a month when I set aside the brush, one tiny white speck in the upper left corner teases my eye. I loathe that dot. It looks despondent, rather than valiant, against that surrounding darkness.
A scream tears my throat and I slam the canvas into the stone wall. I break the brush. Smash the inkpot. Tear my hair and robes. Punch through the wall, liquefying every bone in my arm. Sister Murasaki regards me through the hole with mixed shock and awe. Other monks pour into my cell, looking as though they expect an attack. I’m tearing chunks from my own hair, skin, robes. Chewing my own tongue. Abbot Hasuo arrives after the first responders and sends them away. When I calm, he rests my head on his lap.
“Is she okay?” Sister Murasaki asks through the hole.
“No,” the Abbot replies. “But don’t fear her. Sister Eimi’s only a harm to herself.”
I cry. I want to call him a liar. A long list of names suggest the harm I do to others. Better that I disappear, I think, but though it’d be a moment’s work to call to the Void and let it take me, I don’t.
When I recover, the Abbot doesn’t scold. He just says, “Fix the hole. Make new tools. Start again. Do it all by hand.”
I finish repairs, make new tools, start again. It’s either that or be turned out of the Monastery, and I’m not ready to face another Shadow again, much less Amber or Chaos, where my daily decisions so often rape my morality.
I complete ninety-eight more bleak canvasses. Mostly black, but with one or two or a dozen white specks. I have a score more fits in that time, though none so bad that I punch through walls or liquefy arms.
The hundred and nineteenth canvas is a normal nighttime scene. A sunburst of relief blooms in my chest. The worst has passed. My subject matter brightens, and with it, my clarity of thought and my emotional range. Soon I’m tending a tiny peach tree bonsai in my art time as well.
“I think you’ve fixed yourself,” Abbot Hasuo says one day. “You may stay as long as you desire, but I sense that was never your purpose.”
“But what if I fail again?”
“Would it be better not to try?” he asks.
I return to my cell and pry up one of the mortared stones. My trumps are there, undamaged.
The next day, I’m in Castle Amber. Only twenty years have passed there.
The tests will start again soon. I pray I’ve prepared enough for them.