There were things scribbled in the walls of the tunnel from Mu. While the others said they just looked like scribbles, Kara could make sense of them. She’d never been taught this language. In all her studies, she’d never seen anything like it. But the Incan Queen’s ring had glittered once and now Kara could read the scribbles. There were sad messages early in the tunnel. ‘The comet mocks us’ one said. ‘I am empty and yet I still cry’ another said.
On the third day in the tunnel, though, the sad messages were fewer. There were notes that these people felt numb, but they would continue the tunnel. Other notes claimed that the people of Mu would not die, nor would they have children. When they camped, Kara found a poem on the wall about how the writer knew they should feel sad without a child to carry on their family. But they felt empty and numb, barely thinking while they chipped away at the rock. The poem was a result of them trying to think, but they were only thinking this poem over and over again. Chip away, chip away, not a thought, not a care, not a joy.
Periodically, there would be a room to the side where mushrooms would grow profusely and a spring of fresh water flowed. It was the only food available; both the mushroom farms and the springs had been created by the Mu people as their only sources of energy. Thankfully, they had water pouches to refill at the side room springs. But the mushrooms were bland and uninteresting. Neil offered ideas to try making the mushrooms different; he even tried to make a mushroom soup. But it was just watery mushrooms in the end.
Kara saw another large bit of text in one of the mushroom farms and read over it as the others were getting water. To her surprise, it was a magical formula for making bread from mushrooms and water. The ring she wore sparkled again. Was that magic she could do? This ring had taught her how to make any water she found drinkable and tasty. Looking into it, she thought over the recipe on the wall and figured out a way to make it work like her tasty water spell. Take five mushrooms in her hand with the ring, pour some water over them, and wish in her heart for some bread…
A light blue glow surrounded her hands as she remembered bread: the appetizing smell of a warm fresh loaf, the softness encased in a thin crumbly crust, how bread could be eaten many different ways. The mushrooms in her hand came together with the water and transformed into a small loaf of bread. While it smelled more like mushrooms than bread, it was definitely bread. “Look, I made some bread!” Kara said, showing it to the others.
“Wow, really?!” Erik said, excited for something other than mushrooms.
“I haven’t seen that kind of magic before,” Lilly said.
“It’s just the same as my tasty water spell,” Kara said, tearing off several pieces to offer to the others. “And it’s different from what else we’ve done with mushrooms.”
“Let’s give this a try before passing judgment,” Neil said, eating the piece he was offered. “Hmm, haven’t had bread like this before.”
“It still tastes like mushrooms,” Lance said. “But it’s better than just mushrooms.”
“It’d be better with some butter and jam,” Erik said. “But it’s pretty good.”
“I like it,” Will said. “Hey, what if we roasted the mushrooms before turning them into bread? Roasting them did help the flavor some.”
Kara smiled; at least Will appreciated her effort. “That could be nice. But I want to practice this a few times as the spell is written here. I’ll make a loaf for each of us.”
She’d been doing good to keep up with the others on walking through the tunnel without getting too tired. But using magic like this took more energy than just walking. Once Kara ate her mushroom bread loaf, she lay down to sleep earlier than the others. But before she fell asleep, she spotted Will and the other boys chatting about something that amused them. Normal, but she wished she could be part of the group like that.
The next morning, she found that Will had gotten up early to gather and roast some mushrooms for her. Kara turned them into loaves so that they could snack as they continued walking down the tunnel. It was easier that time, leaving her with more energy to keep on walking. With the roasted mushrooms, the mushroom bread was good enough that she might choose to eat it after getting out of this tunnel. Although the others didn’t mention how they liked it, other than asking her to do it again for tomorrow. So they must’ve liked it? Or maybe they preferred it to just mushrooms. Kara wished they would say something about it.
But that wish did not work.
Kara continued to read the wall to occupy her mind on their hike to somewhere. ‘I want to remember what it is to be human’ showed up between two mushroom farm rooms, then became a regular note along the way. Another note said, ‘The comet evolved us beyond being human, yet we long to return to that happiness even if it means sacrificing our immortality.’ While these notes were sad, they were sad in a different way than the notes at the beginning. Evolving to become immortal, but you weren’t able to feel happiness; was it worthwhile?
She brought it up one evening, explaining what the notes said. “They spent centuries on this tunnel because they were immortal, but it was a dull life where they forgot how to feel anything. It’s like the comet cursed them.”
“Why’d you have to tell us something sad before we go to sleep?” Erik asked grumpily. “It’ll be hard to get to sleep now.”
“Well we don’t have much else to discuss,” Kara said.
“It is an awful price for immortality,” Lance said, then yawned. “Eh, let’s just go to sleep. Maybe we’ll get to the end of this tomorrow.”
Kara frowned. Couldn’t they at least be sympathetic to the people of Mu? They got chased out of their homes by the continent sinking and everyone dying of illness, madness, or turning to stone. They managed to create this incredibly long tunnel, but the dullness combined with their immortality left them with no emotions. It was a terrible fate, all because some comet decided to change them. She wished Hamlet was with her; he’d listen to her.
Will usually listened to her. “Where’s Will?” she asked, getting up and looking around.
“He’s doing some thinking a little ways back,” Neil said, unconcerned about it. “Lilly went to check on him.”
But she wasn’t around either. Why were they off alone together? Did Will love her instead? It might be; Lilly went off with Will on his adventures, while Will never took just Kara along since they’d escaped the castle. And Will hadn’t talked with just her since they’d arrived in Freejia. The others were asleep by the time Lilly and Will came back together. What did this mean? Kara thought she was special to Will; Will was special to her. He’d rescued her from being trapped in the castle. But then, she’d made no progress in finding out what happened with her parents. Will had found a couple of the mystic statues he was after. Did he not care about her?
Kara had a fitful sleep that night. Thankfully, the next day brought the end of their tunnel trek with an exit to the surface. A sign nearby claimed this was Angel Village. There were a few columns around, but no real buildings. Instead, there were holes with ladders on the ground. Were the people of Mu still around? Kara wanted to meet them.
And spend some time with Will, to make sure he still cared about her. He was a brave and powerful boy, kind too. Of course any girl would be infatuated with him. But, did he like Lilly now? Lilly asked Will to come with her, which Kara objected to. Will seemed to find it funny. Why?! He should be happy to spend time with her, not happy that he had two girls who liked him. Angered, Kara headed off to the entrance to Angel Village proper.
Down another ladder, the former people of Mu had carved out some nice tunnels for themselves, full of beautiful statues, water gardens, and lovely lighting made from holes in the ceiling and mirrored candles on the walls. It was a wonderful place despite being underground; the tunnels had been depressing, but this would be a great place to live. There were freshly grown vegetables and fruits available; the angels were generous with sharing them. However, they couldn’t leave their cave until the sun went down. After centuries digging out their tunnel, the sunlight was deadly to them.
Kara found one woman who was standing alone in room, a shaft of sunlight shining down on her. She was standing utterly still: not shifting, not blinking, not breathing. Feeling sad again, Kara tried to nudge her out of the sun. But the angel was much taller than her. Kara couldn’t do anything, not even push her over. Perhaps the hole could be blocked off. Which one was it?
She went to speak to another angel outside the room. “Can anything be done for the woman in there?”
“No, she’s at rest,” he said, not sad or anything. “Moving her will do nothing. She’s gone.”
“Can’t you give her a grave at least?” Kara asked. “That would honor her memory.”
It took a moment for him to reply. “We don’t remember her.”
“You don’t? Why? That seems cruel to forget about a friend who died.”
“We don’t remember much,” he said. “According to sayings we wrote down, we began forgetting things that weren’t written down while digging away from Mu. They were painful things at first so we could keep digging. Over time, we started losing track of why we were digging. Some headed back and found what we had written down about the comet. That brought them back. We wrote down more not to forget. But we didn’t realize how much we could forget. Now we don’t remember her. Would it help to give her a tomb?”
“It would be respectful to her,” Kara said. “Certainly better than leaving her there alone.”
“We’ll discuss it,” he said. “I remember something more now. When she perished, we first asked Ishtar to paint her portrait, to remember her I think. He had just started to paint so he struggled to get it done. Ishtar gave up on it after a while. Now he is a master painter and our people have all asked him for portraits. I don’t remember if he said why he wouldn’t paint her again.”
“I can ask him,” she offered. “Where is he?”
“His studio is quite a distance.”
“My friends and I walked down your tunnel from Mu,” Kara said. “It won’t be any trouble.”
The angel then gave her directions to Ishtar’s studio. The walk over there was rough; bats kept swooping at her head, she had to distract strange demon dragons, and there were water curtains that had perilously thin paths to tiptoe along. In one tunnel, the winds had taken out a few torches and left the pathway dark. Kara’s ring shone a light ahead, scaring off the bats and letting her walk through safely. There was a tunnel with powerful winds afterward; some strange stones emerged from the ground as she approached. With her dress whipping around her, Kara ran with all her might.
Not long after, she arrived at a hall with beautiful portraits of the Mu angels. Looking at them, she felt loved and appreciated. It caused an ache in Kara’s heart. How long had it been she felt like that? Her parents changed over the years, becoming more formal and distant. When she escaped to visit South Cape, she’d made some friends but nothing as strong as Will had with Lance and Erik. There was an intense desire to stay with the paintings. After a moment, though, she decided that she wanted to see that kind of look from Will’s eyes someday. She moved on to the studio.
Ishtar was there, preparing a new painting. Was he one of the angels? He was taller than most people, but shorter than the other angels and he had gray hair peeking out under his beret. He looked at her with a blank expression. “What’s a human girl doing here?”
“My friends and I walked here from Mu,” she said. “We’re looking for the mystic statues. But right now, I wanted to ask if you can do a portrait of that woman by herself, the one who died because a shaft of light fell on her. One of the other angels told me that you couldn’t before because you were just starting to paint.”
He nodded. “Ah Oriana. That cannot be done.”
Kara frowned and put a hand on her hip. “Why not? The others have forgotten about her, maybe even her name. But you remember. Why don’t you paint her portrait so that they remember her better?”
“It’s because I cannot paint a person who has perished,” Ishtar said. “The way I work, I need to see a person’s essence to capture their portrait. Seeing yours… why did you come all this way to ask about Oriana’s portrait? It does no benefit to you.”
“I just thought it was sad that she had been left there and forgotten,” she said. “I read the messages in the tunnels from Mu, so I understand that your people forget things to deal with the loss of everyone else, the loss of their emotions, and the dullness of chipping away at that tunnel for centuries. And it’s all so sad; I agree that the comet cursed you. But I thought you’d at least honor the ones who passed away, even if it doesn’t feel the same. Maybe I’m the only one who’s sad and that seems so wrong.”
He nodded, strangely enough. “It would be sad if we could feel anything. But once you lose your heart and lose your memories, trying to get them back can be painful and difficult. Maybe the comet changed us enough that we can’t go back to how we once were.”
“But you remember Oriana’s name. Can’t you remember her essence?”
He thought about it a moment, then shook his head. “No. It would not be her and that knowledge would stop my hand from starting. I remember her name because it was a significant failure on my part. But do you focus on correcting this unfairness because of a sadness and anger inside you?”
“Huh?” Kara clenched her fists before she realized it; her heart pounded a little faster.
“I can see the essences of people,” he reminded her. “That is what I work from when I paint. That is why my paintings are full of emotions that my subjects no longer remember. While things have been forgotten, they linger on in a person’s essence. I have trained myself to pick out fragments of color in the dullness of my fellows’ spirits. Seeing someone like you is an incredible difference, but I can read it all the same. So what troubles truly bring you to my studio?”
It was a little scary that he could see that kind of thing; people weren’t supposed to look right into your heart. But since he saw it, she felt like it’d be futile to lie to Ishtar. “Um, well… one of my friends is actually a boy I really like. I had a dream that I saw many times, of a boy with a flute who would be important to me. His name is Will and he helped me to escape the castle. Since then, we’ve been going around the world searching for the mystic statues, for something involving the Tower of Babel and his father. It’s us two and two of his friends, and his older cousin, and a girl named Lilly.
“One night, it was just me and Will under the stars out lost at sea. He had his arm around me and I felt like we should always be together; I want to always be with him. But he’s not talked with me as much since we reunited with everyone else. Will keeps going off on his own to explore dangerous ruins, and he hasn’t told me how he really feels about me. I guess I haven’t either, but he and Lilly have talked by themselves a couple of times; maybe he likes her more than me. I want to help him more so that he loves me like I love him, but I can’t help in fighting demons or exploring ruins. I know a bit of magic, but just things like making any water safe and tasty, or making bread from mushrooms. It’s nothing that’d protect him when he’s in danger.”
“That sounds like useful magic to me,” Ishtar said. “Perhaps not against demons, but to ensure another’s good health. May I paint your portrait? Your essence bears more color than I’m used to, but I would like to try.”
“Really?” she asked, startled at the offer. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d been painted; part of being a princess was sitting still for things like that. But she’d not had a portrait made by a magical artist. Besides, doing that would be a nice break from all the walking they had done and she’d get some lovely heart-touching art of herself. “If you want, I’d appreciate it.”
He nodded, picking up his paint pallet and brush. “Just sit right there on that bench, it won’t take long.”
After settling down in a comfortable sit, Kara relaxed and thought over things. Had her parents been influenced by the approaching comet? It was something she’d thought over before. The comet had appeared faintly among the stars about two years ago. Now, it glowed bright red in the sky. And about two years ago, they’d started growing colder towards everyone. The prison got remade over a year ago, with demons allowed to roam inside. The soldiers didn’t want to go down there, instead dropping food and water from the cellars above.
She kept overhearing disturbing conversations too, at least until they locked her in the tower room. Her father wanted to locate two stones that marked the Light Knight and the Dark Knight. According to old advisers, those two knights were something called biological superweapons that could bring forth an even greater superpower than themselves. Her father wanted to use them to conquer other kingdoms, even those across the great oceans. To that end, he searched for people with antique jewelry and then threatened the owners until he got the stones. Sometimes the jewelry was returned; often it wasn’t. It was all to make his kingdom great, but what was so great about being a thief and then conquering the world?
But perhaps their bad deeds went even further back. When she had been little, she had noticed that she looked different than her parents. They were both blond-haired fair-skinned people, while she had thick black hair and brown skin. If she was upset with them, she often comforted herself by saying that they couldn’t be her real parents. But if that was the case, where were her real parents? Had she been stolen from them too and made into a princess? But why? Edward and Edwina had no other children, seeming disinterested in having any but her. And if she wasn’t their real child, could she really stop them and their crazy plans?
How could she even begin to find the truth when she was on the other side of the world?
And could Will make her feel like she had a true loving family, someday?
Kara felt like crying and started to move her arm to rub at her eyes. But her arm wouldn’t move. Neither did her eyes cry. It was like she was stopped in place. When she thought to get up, her body didn’t listen. And Ishtar was no longer in front of her; neither were his easel, stool, and other painting supplies. It was just her in this room, everything still and unmoving. Where did Ishtar go?
Without warning, she was out of her body and following Ishtar along like an unwilling balloon. He was setting a new portrait up on the walls, her own. It was odd seeing herself like that; it wasn’t quite like a mirror. Like the others, it showed a powerful warmth and kindness in her expression. There was also a sadness there, reminding her of what she’d been thinking just now. It was even more like her than any other portrait. But then, why couldn’t she move now?
Ishtar got the portrait on the wall, checking for some time to make sure it was straight. Once he was satisfied, he started talking to it. “Since you’re not an angel, I want to explain something to you, Kara. You understand our position in life in some ways, but not others. We have tried to reclaim our emotions over the years. The others built a dance hall and dance every day to find joy. Another has taken to carving statues. But none of that worked.
“When I was trying to find my own way, I remembered something about myself, that I was able to see essences of a soul. I painted to make use of that, drawing out the remnants of emotion in our dull souls. When I get the painting right, I truly capture the essence of a soul on canvas. But capturing a soul also captures the person. It concerned me until I noticed that my subjects were able to feel emotions once again. All of them started off weeping, remembering sorrows and pains. I spoke with them and asked them to remember good things. After their sorrows were spent, they could remember joy and peace again. They’ve told me of wonderful things: the birth of children, great accomplishments, the simple bliss of a moment. When we experience joy again, our souls come to peace. Eventually, the portraits do not speak anymore. But the love and joy they once held centuries ago can still be seen in their portraits.
“I haven’t yet remembered how to feel myself, although I now understand them again better than the others. I keep painting others who seek to find emotions again, as well as a final restful peace. Others want to continue living and that’s fine. Maybe they’ll find another way to reawaken their souls. Once I have painted those who want to rest after all of our suffering, I’ll paint myself.
“And don’t worry for yourself; your soul is strong and the painting can be undone. I’m sure your friends will come after you shortly. I’ll speak with them and let them know how to revert you. But thank you for letting me paint you. Having done so, I think I can bring back the memory of Oriana. I hope it shall be true to her. Perhaps I can even paint something other than a portrait of essence now.” He then left the room.
Not long after, Will came into the room. He saw her portrait and immediately frowned in concern. He moved on and found Ishtar to ask him how to get her out of the portrait. Instead of explaining right away, Ishtar sent him into another tunnel to test him on his observational skills. That would be very easy for Will, Kara thought. He was psychic; anything out of place would stand out to him. Only after passing the test would Ishtar explain how to free her from the portrait: sprinkle it with magic dust and kiss the portrait. He did implore Will to take good care of her. Did he think he was helping?
Will didn’t hesitate in it. He sprinkled the portrait with the dust and kissed her cheek tenderly. For a moment, Kara felt that he did care about her. He just wasn’t sure how to talk about it, much like herself. Everything was white a moment.
Then she was physically outside the door instead of just mentally. Kara came in the door. “Will, um…”
“You’re all right,” he said, turning around. “Kara, you aren’t the only person on this trip. I’m sorry if it seemed like I was ignoring you, but I’ve been trying to encourage all of you when I can’t bring you into dangerous places like this. The path here wasn’t bad for me, but those demons could’ve killed you. I want to share my adventures with all of you, but some of it is far too risky to bring anyone else along.”
“I know now,” she said, looking down. “I’m sorry. I was trying to do something good, get Ishtar to make a portrait of the woman they’ve forgotten about and left alone. But I didn’t think he’d trap me in a painting.”
“These angels are very odd,” Will said. “I’m glad you’re okay, but don’t go off alone again, okay?”
Nodding, Kara said, “Okay, I won’t. Hey, I know we just got here, but can we move on? I don’t think Ishtar is malevolent; he thought he was helping, with both me and the other angels he paints. But they don’t have any emotions, so their help doesn’t help. I’d like to help them, but given what they think is helpful, they should probably be left to figure things out themselves.”
“It might take another century for them to solve this, even with another’s help,” he agreed. “There’s more important things to take care of now. I took care of the demons, but do what I say on the way back in case more show up.”
“All right,” she said.
There were so many problems in the world that they could do little about, she thought. The labor trading, the talk of diseases and famine, people like her father who wanted to start wars, these angels who didn’t deserve their suffering and chose death in art rather than continuing life. But a small group like them weren’t able to solve such big problems. How had the world grown this way? And could they make the world a better place in any way?
Maybe someday, after they’d traveled the world and saw what was truly so wrong with it, they would know how to save the world.