Arc II Chapter 12: The Broken Heart — Tpaul Homdrom (2023)

Roland and company found themselves in a huge stone cavern with a high, domed ceiling. Soft light diffused throughout the space from an unknown source, lending the rocks a gentle blue glow that gleamed off of the still waters of the reflecting pool down at the center. In the air was also a sustained resonance, a trio of harmonic tones that sounded from every surface. When Roland took his first step down towards the pool, his footstep added a fourth note to that resonance. As they all started walking together, every footstep did the same, adding to the harmony that filled the air.

Gathered at the edge of the pool, they all gazed into it. At first, they only saw their reflections, and the cavern reflected around them. But then a fifth and sixth tone joined the three, clear notes forming a higher harmony above the three. Erika and Enrique gasped, and Roland turned to see them pulling out their identical symphonic crystals, which were shaped like small golden feathers. Both of their crystals were glowing with a bright golden shine, and those two new notes were clearly coming from the crystals.

“New Elysia’s miracle…” Enrique said softly, his forehead furrowed slightly, as if he was listening to something no one else could hear.

“It’s been waiting for us,” Erika said, with a distant voice, as if she was…

“Are you translating?” Tsubasa asked.

“As much as can be translated,” Enrique said. “It’s… Aîrchal. Its song is harmonizing with our crystals’. It’s not using words, not really, but…”

“It makes sense, somehow,” Erika said. She and Enrique shared a look, full of awestruck wonder.

“Gaze into the pool,” Enrique said. He and his sister turned back to the pool, and so did everyone else.

A shine swept across the glassy surface, like a sudden, passing glare of sunlight on a mirror. When it had passed, all of them stared in astonishment.

The pool was only about fifteen feet in diameter, but its waters went deep, deeper than could be fathomed. And in those deep waters was…

A crystal. A broken crystal, shattered into three parts: one blue, one green, one red. It looked like it was frozen mid-explosion, three huge chunks suspended in space, surrounded by smaller shards and shrapnel of the same color. No one color touched a different color, but there was a tension, a quavering, as if they longed for a reunion that could not be.

“This place is old,” Tock said in a hushed voice. “It’s seen so much. More than anywhere or anything else.”

“More than anywhere or anything?” Tsubasa asked. She glanced in surprise at Tock, then thoughtfully back down at the submerged, shattered crystal. “It showed us the past. Reflections of the world before, and how it came to its Fractured state… you’ve seen everything, haven’t you? You’ve borne the weight of all the pain the world’s suffered.”

The song of Aîrchal shifted slightly, a groaning of sorrow that Roland felt as a weight on his whole body, an ache in his bones that threatened to drag him to his knees.

But in the midst of that sorrow, the twins’ crystals still shone and sang with hopeful light. It lightened the load, keeping Roland on his feet. And Aîrchal seemed to welcome that light, that hope, in the midst of its sorrow. And Roland realized the gravity of that, that this place, this unfathomable living thing that was also a place, though it had witnessed the shattering of the world, though it still keenly felt that immense pain…

It still held hope. It still had light.

A light flickered above, and they all looked up to see something like a ghostly pane of glass, a translucent mirror, reflecting a vision of an open garden atop a grand balcony. Roland immediately recognized it. “That’s in the Library’s Long Room,” he said. “Or, I suppose I should say, just outside of it.”

“The Library?” Tsubasa asked. “It existed before the Fracturing?”

“Yes,” Roland said. “We don’t know how changed it was by the Fracture, but its ability to move throughout Wonderia has led some to believe it avoided the worst of the Fracturing and sustained only minor damage and alteration.”

“Look,” Enrique said. The image moved through the garden, like they were looking through someone else’s eyes. The vision rounded a corner, and there was a man sitting at a small round table, with tea set out for two. The man was a tall, dapper individual who looked to be in his mid-thirties, with wavy, auburn hair under a sleek navy blue fedora. His inquisitive eyes crinkled with a smile as he sat writing something. It looked like a musical score.

All of a sudden, the man looked up. Into the vision ran a little girl with long blonde curls, and Roland immediately felt a shock of dread run through him. The girl ran right up to the man, her blue eyes bright and cheerful, a big smile on her face.

“Lacie…” Erika said, her voice taut.

“She appeared in a vision of Elysia, too,” Tsubasa said. “This kid… how long’s she been alive?”

The girl — presumably Lacie, though for all that she looked just like the wicked child who had sent Roland and his friends here, she wore white, didn’t have a black butterfly barrette in her hair, and her cheer and joy seemed genuine, with no hint of malice — began speaking energetically to the man at the table, but no sound could be heard. The man laughed and responded, and the girl seemed pleased with his reply. She hopped up onto the seat opposite him and poured herself a cup of tea, then deposited seven sugar cubes into the cup and stirred thoroughly before finally taking a sip.

It was a cheerful vision — and one that left Roland tense. How would things turn? What would go wrong? Aîrchal wouldn’t show them some ordinary day in the past, would it? Unless this itself was a clue. They’d seen this girl in Elysia, mournful and making a wish. They’d heard this girl just before a horrific song split the air. And now they saw her here. Lacie… or someone else? There was no denying they looked physically identical. A child who had lived through the Fracturing, and remained a child afterwards… it was a puzzle, one missing too many pieces for Roland to fit together yet.

And then, across the garden flitted numerous butterflies. Orange monarchs and painted ladies, yellow swallowtails, pastel gossamers, blue morphos, they painted a fluttering, colorful trail through the air, happily flying over the tea table between the girl and the gentleman. The girl watched with joyous delight, and then looked aside. Her eyes went wide in amazement, and she held out her hand, one finger outstretched. And in came fluttering wings, and alighted upon the girl’s outstretched finger: a black butterfly. The girl spoke, but again, no sound came from the vision.

Then they all jumped as the ghostly mirror shattered, the sound exploding into the silence. Its glittering fragments drifted lazily away, over and behind the group. Following the shards, they watched as a new mirror was formed from the first’s broken pieces. In its ghostly glass, they saw a vision of a grand manor. Its doors were inlaid with mirrors, and those doors swung open to reveal an interior full of mirrors. A looking-glass on every wall, flanking the stairs, up on the high ceilings. Even the floors were mirrored. And through these mirrored halls ran…

The blonde girl. Lacie, perhaps, though seemingly so innocent, so kind, so joyful. Not a hint of the malice Roland had seen in Lacie. The girl leapt towards a mirror, and vanished through it, its glassy surface rippling like water. And through that glass, they could see the girl dancing in a garden, talking to tall flowers that bent down as if to listen to her. She returned, leaping out of that mirror to leap through a different one, to a vast, sunny field. There was something very orderly about that field, and then the vision through that mirror pulled back, and high up, to see a much wider view of the space, and Roland gasped. A field the size of a country, with clear lines drawn throughout it, breaking up the space into equally-sized square plots of land. Eight-by-eight. And the grass and terrain of each square alternated from one to the next, dark then light, dark then light.

“It’s… a chessboard,” Roland said, staring.

“A chessboard the size of a nation,” Maxwell said. “What kinds of games unfolded there?”

The sunny sky suddenly darkened. A flash of lightning arced through the clouds. A voice spoke, lazy and lilting: “The House is in disarray.”

Another flash of lightning, a roll of thunder. And the vision of the looking-glass mansion shifted to something dark and broken. Shards of glass lay scattered across the mirrored floor, which was run through with harsh, jagged cracks. Each reflective surface was dark, clouded, revealing nothing within. Dust lay over every surface like a veil, and mold clung to the edges of mirrors in disrepair.

The vision of the mansion shattered, and the ghostly fragments scattered throughout the cavern. Each one landed in a spot on the stone floor and then sank into it, like a seed being planted in loamy soil. A moment later, one of those “seeds” sprouted, transforming into a ghostly figure standing on the stone: a ghost of the blonde girl, the Lacie lookalike.

“Where did our song go?” she asked, eyes downcast. Roland was surprised by her accent: the lilting lyricality of Central Wonderia. Lacie had used an upright Leucen Kingdom accent, like Roland’s. “How did we lose it? Did I… do something wrong?”

Another shard sprouted into an identical version of this girl. Together, the girls spoke in perfect sync, sorrow flooding their voices. “A harmony broken.” Another shard sprouted, adding a third voice to the chorus. “A dream turned to a nightmare.” More shards sprouted, all around them, filling the cavern with their voices. “A wish made in despair.” The girls shook their heads, tears falling from their eyes to water the stone floor. “To set things right… what will it take?” The girls all looked down towards the pool, towards the center of the cavern…

Towards the twins.

“A miracle,” the chorus said softly. “The miracle of New Elysia. You aren’t mockingbirds — don’t let her call you that. You, and the crystals that waited so long for you, who were born in expectation of you… you’ll find the way. For us all.”

The girls vanished. The cavern was filled with silence.

“Was that… Lacie?” Erika asked. She shook her head. “But it couldn’t be. She talked as if Lacie was someone else. But she… what did she… mean? You and me…” She looked at her brother for guidance.

“Mother also called us New Elysia’s miracle,” Enrique said. “We need to find her, and father. They must know more about this. And our crystals…” He held up his glowing, feather-shaped crystal, which still shone and sang. “They were… born in expectation of us. They waited for us?”

“That’s soul resonance,” Tsubasa said. “And your crystals were born inside a pre-Fracturing symphonic crystal vault. Crystals were still growing, so they could have been born at any time, but… they were in a place no one could have reasonably expected you to find or enter. But they knew you’d find them.” She smiled at the twins. “We have a lot to figure out. But we will. We’ll find your parents, and ask them point-blank what they know. We won’t take half-truths or evasions, no way.”

“The whole truth,” Enrique said with a resolute nod.

“But what do we do about this?” Tock asked. She stood at the very edge of the pool, gazing down to the shattered crystal in its depths. “Aîrchal brought us here. You’d think it would be to fix this.”

“But what even is it?” Erika asked.

“If this is Aîrchal’s core…” Maxwell said thoughtfully. “Then the crystal may be its heart. The heart of this place. But three parts… ah.” His eyes widened in a realization. “Aîrchal, Land of the Lost, reflects the loss the world has suffered. All three realms. It holds memories of the world before its Fracturing. Aîrchal… this may be the veritable heart of your world.”

“The heart of the world…?” Tsubasa asked, mouth agape.

“That’s why it felt like a Fracture to Kirin and me,” Roland said. “The heart of the world bore the brunt of the Fracturing. There’s no miasma here, no true danger, because it isn’t like the Fractures running through the world. This is just… a scar. A wound dealt to the world, at its epicenter.” He knelt beside the pool and placed his hands in the water. No ripples went outward from his touch, no disturbance broke the glassy surface. The water was cool, and pure, and Roland closed his eyes, singing Shureen’s song.

She stretched her awareness through the water, and Roland’s mind went with her. The water was astonishingly still; even Shureen was surprised.

“This water is full of memory — but it is frozen. Imprisoned in time, locked in stasis.”

Like the crystal itself. Can we reach that?

Roland felt them approach the crystal, and then, when the shards were so close, just barely out of reach, they came up against a potent resistance. It wasn’t a physical wall or barrier, but some kind of rejection, refusal, made manifest.

“We cannot approach. But Maxwell’s analysis was appropriate. This place is a mirror.”

It reflects the loss the world suffered. Then the crystal… oh. I see.

“Yes. Three parts, that once were one. Like the Song itself.”

The Song?

“The Composer sang the world into existence. His Song is made of three parts that make up one whole. This crystal, the heart of the world, is the same.”

And the world was once the same… three realms, interwoven into one physical space. The Fracturing destroyed what was. But… how do we mend this? Why are we here, if we can’t put it back together?

“To see.”

And Shureen opened Roland’s ears to a new song, a song contained within the depths, a song frozen with the water, with the crystal. Aîrchal’s voice, calling out to those it had brought to its heart. But in that voice was not a request to be healed, to be mended. There was only one request: to be known.

And Roland realized that Aîrchal had done to them what it asked of them for itself. It gazed into the hearts and minds of those who entered its existence, and not only revealed to them what it found.

It saw them. Now, here in its deepest part, it asked to be seen in kind.

Shureen… were you there? At the start of everything? Before the Fracture?

“I have been since the Composer Sang me into being. But when that was, and how long it has been, is an answer that awaits you at Aula Fantasia. I cannot relate it to you here, as you are now. Roland… Aîrchal’s pain is here for you to see. To see in the truest way.”

Roland felt Shureen reaching to his heart, but it was a question. She would force nothing. Roland gave his assent, and Shureen opened his heart to see fully.

It was a flood. Roland gasped, nearly losing his breath entirely, nearly collapsing under the weight of all that poured into him. Here, as close to Aîrchal’s core, the world’s heart, as Roland could possibly get, was frozen the pain of that horrible moment, the breaking of the world. A jarring discord made Roland’s head throb with a sharp, pulsing anguish. His lungs burned as if he were drowning, and he was suddenly frigid, frozen, shivering in a chill that could never be warmed. Dark, watery depths called to him, beckoned to him, dragged him under…

But Shureen held him up. She was his conduit to this pain that was not his own, to this song that rested here in the heart of the world. She would not let him drown, even in the deepest waters. She would not let him collapse, even under the pain of the entire world.

It lasted only a moment, but a moment was nearly more than Roland could take. If he were alone, if he didn’t have Shureen…

If he didn’t have all his Fantasians. Kirin comforted him, reminding him of kinder, calmer, gentler thigs. Viatos sang a spritely song, doing her very best to cheer his suddenly broken heart. Jurall did not actively help, but just watched him, waited to see his strength in this moment of crisis. But Jurall did not taunt him, nor did he turn his back. He kept his gaze fixed on his Summoner.

And Roland dimly felt his physical self, high up on the rocky shore — and hands on his shoulders. Erika, Enrique, Tsubasa, Muirrach, Tock, and Maxwell.

He was not alone. And while this held him steady, while this realization helped him survive this moment of feeling the world’s pain…

That realization also made his heart ache even more.

Because Aîrchal was alone.

Shureen let the contact end, and Roland pulled back, back to his physical self, and fell back onto the stone gasping for breath, wiping at tears that soaked his face.

“Roland!” Tsubasa said, holding one of his hands in both of hers. Her hands were so warm, a beacon guiding him back from the cold.

“I’m here,” Roland said. His own voice sounded so small to him.

“Are you all right?” Erika asked. She held his other hand in both of hers, and her hands were nearly as warm as Tsubasa’s. Warmth helped immensely right now.

“In time,” Roland said. He breathed deep, and blinked his vision back into focus. Friendly faces looked down at him, full of concern. Roland took another breath, then nodded and sat up. “I’ll be all right.” And he knew it to be true. Though the memory of Aîrchal’s anguish would live with him forever, now that the pain was only a memory, things became clear for him. “This is the heart of the world. The world is broken, grieved by the horrible loss sustained at the Fracturing. But if we can reach Elysia…”

“You think there’s a way to mend it,” Erika said. “To heal the entire world.”

“There must be,” Roland said. “There’s much more we have to uncover now. Not just what awaits me at Aula Fantasia and beyond with the Second Quartet, but also these questions about New Elysia, and what your mother meant by calling you two New Elysia’s miracle.” He tried to stand, but couldn’t quite find his feet. Tsubasa, as strong as ever, helped pull him up, and he walked with the others to the edge of the pool, gazing down at the shattered crystal. An ache lived in his own heart, now, to know the fullness of the world’s pain. But it also gave him a new hope, and a new sense of purpose.

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