Joshua Blighsurrounds themself with fledgling mathematics, fantasy in various forms, and mighty amounts of coffee. Their work has appeared in New Reader Magazine and is upcoming in Little Death Lit.
the baths of Talos
When I began my search for the Baths of Talos, my hands were adorned with twelve rings. Some fingers bore two each. Others held one. With their weight, my motions were slow, digestible. My thumbs were light, free of bands. The day I was to begin the venture, an erstwhile colleague approached me, “What’s with the rings?” Loforai asked. She stood across from my desk, an aging, decrepit thing. The desk, not Loforai, who stood frowning at my hands as I leafed through a loosely bound book. She ran a ringless set of fingers through her short, grey hair, head cocked to one side. Within one of the desk drawers lay the remains of an exquisite paintbrush, an instrument that had been a work of art itself, bristles impossibly fine and small arranged by the hand of Loforai herself. A paintbrush that I, in a moment of luxurious self-loathing, had destroyed years ago. Absentmindedly, or playing at absentmindedness, I turned the ring on one of my left fingers. Warmth rolled out of it along my fingertips, a quiet reassurance of its presence and the safety of its creation. When I developed the rings, they were met with quiet nods of approval by others at The Circle, statements that I had once again brought innovation to this isle of learning, knowledge, and creation. “Nothing,” I replied, scarcely daring to meet Loforai’s raised eyebrows. “Just something I have been working on.” Loforai took a few steps back. Folding her arms, she leaned against the doorframe. Despite being a few years my elder, she held herself as one much younger, tugging on a string of envy in my heart and coaxing my spine somewhat upright. A grin played across her face, flashing straight white teeth. She tapped her heel against her other foot in a peculiar rhythm. “They look dangerous. People might stop taking you seriously. You spend years wearing the same clothes day after day, not even a wedding ring to add some sheen. And now you are sitting there with enough gold on your hands to buy a farm. When did that start?” “It is all gilded.” “That isn’t the point,” Loforai sighed and shook her head. I closed the book and set it on my desk. Some old tract on plant life in the south country, their flora particularly useful in creating rare pigments. I had read the work so many times there was little point in reading it further, not to mention I would not put the contents to any use, if I was being honest. The images and text swirled in my mind, leaves and curling sprouts surrounded by annotations and warnings. I shook my head clear of them. “Loforai,” I began slowly. “Why are you here?” Why indeed! Our parting had occurred moments after I had committed an act that must have hurt her tremendously. She unfolded her arms, one of her hands sliding into a pocket on the waist of her linen trousers. Blue veins peeked out from tan skin around her wrist. Besides her hair, those thin lines were her only signs of aging. With her other hand, she scratched at her chin. “I miss the place,” she said, the sides of her lips turned up in a dry smirk. “The atmosphere, the air heavy with possibility. Smiling faces ready to discuss the questions that matter. Retirement has been kind to me, but it seldom proves stimulating in itself.” “Why not return to The Circle then?” “Sarcasm, except for the retirement bit. Why not return? Because it is called The Circle, for Apollo’s sake! We even have sayings about that. ‘Come full circle?’ That is the last thing I want to do, return to a place that barricades itself within a vocabulary of pure ideals and true art and other nonsense. A place that balks at the idea of true—no.” With each word her voice had grown louder, her composure sliding toward revealing what she must have been truly feeling. “No,” she continued, calm posture and tone once more. “I came here to reassure myself of my decision. That I was right to leave. It worked. And then I figured I would stop by and see how a lost old friend was doing. And…” She waved toward my hands. “I am leaving too,” I said, so quiet I couldn’t be sure she would hear me. Loforai stepped away from the doorframe and stood up straight. She again ran a hand through her hair and paused a moment. A few grey strands clumped together on the left side of her head. “For good?” she asked, eyes narrowed beneath thick eyebrows. I looked over at a tapestry on the wall to my left. From the side of my eye I saw Loforai follow my gaze. The style itself was no longer popular, but the work played a large role in granting my position at The Circle. Four decades ago. Despite the work not seeing the sun in that time, some of the color had faded. One of the edges had marks left by moths, an unfortunate by-product of my last sabbatical and the neglect of my assistant. Somehow, the damage had felt appropriate. I never brought up the damage to my assistant. At first glance, the scene I had woven was nothing special, nothing more than a depiction of a moment in the isle’s history: a burnished metal titan lies on the shore in a pool of violent ichor, a single hand grasping a bronze nail, eyes wide in fear and realization and, what many missed, relief. Tastefully composed, and beautiful to the eye. It spoke of a tragic moment, one which every inhabitant of the isle knew by heart, told with wet eyes and heart aflutter. But look at it from another angle. Approach the tapestry and crouch or sit before it, view it from the height that a child may, and the image shifts. The titan lives! It stands proud before its island, sculpted arms folded in bold defiance of any who may intrude upon the realm it has pledged to protect. Sunlight glints off its perfect form, and off the stub of a bronze nail embedded safely in its neck. It had taken me five years to complete. And earned me a lifetime of The Circle. My technique had since been improved upon. But not by me. From my seated position, the tapestry was partway through the visual transition, a muddy color of hues that was neither this nor that. “For good?” I repeated, little more than a murmur. “Yes, I think forgood.” “Sure.” I turned away from my aging work and found Loforai looking at me, eyes narrowed. “I can see I’m not going to get much from you right now,” she said. “It was good to see you, though. Even with the rings.” Without another word, Loforai turned and left. The sound of her footsteps, muted against the stone floor, soon faded. I turned back to the tapestry. From behind the top left corner, two bristling antennae moved. The body of a moth soon emerged, its heavy carapace clinging to the wall by some insectoid mystery. It flexed its wings once, and I had to note the beauty of the natural patterns. Two false eyes stared at me from a whorl of pale color upon its wings, Something told me to approach the tapestry, to crouch before it, joints popping and protesting. To look at the second perspective in full. I smiled to see the titan so alive. Still loyal to its charge, a barrier between our bright isle and the darkness of the world. Something was wrong. I moved my eyes across the scene, taking in each aspect carefully. The waters, the citizens of the isle, the ship in the distance. The ship? I squinted at a tiny smudge that was clearly a ship, its form abstract but certain. An addition. For no ships should have dared approach that proud titan, and I would not have included one. Instinctually, my eyes darted to the titan’s neck and my breath stopped. There was no gleaming nail in the titan’s neck. Only an empty space chewed away by the unforgiving mandibles of a moth.
ii. You might be curious about the rings. Why twelve? Did they have any significance? The answer, of course, is they did have meaning. From the number to the way I wore them on my hands. As a whole they meant something. Individually, they also held meaning. They meant something before they were created, and their creation itself ripe with it, near bursting with meaning. Meaning enough to leak over the brim and drip into the sand at my feet. All of that is gone now. When I lost the rings, their meaning left with them. Or rather, I did not lose them, but found a way to live without them. That much I can recall. I gave them up. In a place both near and far. With Loforai by my side. Or, with me at Loforai’s side.
iii. I tightened my sandals, smiled at the pleasant creak of the leather straps, and ran out the door. Unsure of which direction Loforai had taken once she left my room, I made a few educated guesses. Discarded most of them, and set off toward the center of The Circle. I passed by young faces of The Circle’s learners. Some bright with curiosity, others dim with knowledge. The halls were warm and cool in turns. Dark stones and light. The Circle was a place of ancient architecture, following a schema long lost. Physically navigable, but only just. Most of the doors were closed. Students in lessons, masters giving them. Most of the windows were open, but bars placed over them. Iron rods that cut the reflection of the sea into vertical portions, imposing their cold layer over what could have been a beautiful view, installed for the opaque purpose of keeping the isle’s larger fauna from entering the campus. Before long I found myself stepping over a threshold and into the day. A raven cried out as it soared over my head, its marble eyes hidden among its white plumage. But I sensed it had taken notice of me. It coursed along an invisible current, its momentum drawn to an illusion of inertia above me with wings spread the width of my own arms. It gave a ringing shriek and with a great flap rose skyward, a single feather loosed from its form drifted and whirled upon the current it had abandoned, a perfect white that spiraled, reflecting the day’s light as it moved closer and closer to the ground. I tore my eyes away from the feather to find the raven once more, barely discernible among the pale sky. The creature seemed to give another enigmatic cry before diving from its height toward the center of The Circle. Of course. If Loforai were still nearby, she would be in the center, the one place she had ever had a kind word for. I nervously twisted one of the rings. I set off toward the center. Toward Loforai. The path to The Circle’s center was labyrinthine, designed by one of the Argonauts herself and built upon the ruins of Daedalus’ masterful gaol. I snorted at the needless roundabouts and switchbacks. It held no monstrous offspring of Minos, no riddling beasts or treasures. A labyrinth for the sake of a labyrinth. Show off I thought, not for the first time. In some part of my soul, I chided myself for the thought. “Loforai,” I called tentatively at the opening, a burnished bronze archway covered in creeping vines. No response. I went further into the maze, feet following a path burned in memory moving with one hand extended to brush my fingertips along the metallic walls in places where the ivy had not overtaken it. Loforai had not been to The Circle in years. Was that time enough to forget the way? Might she be wandering these walls, lost in a forgotten corner? I slowed my pace and called out once more. “Is that you?” came her response. Muffled and distant, but clear enough. And it came from the center. Speeding up, I took a few more deft turns and exited the labyrinth toward the center of The Circle. As I entered the clearing that was the center, I blinked away tears. Coming from the shaded gloom of the maze into the brilliance of the center always brought a cleansing sting. When had I last visited it? That cathartic blinding moment had eluded me for some time. I stepped from pounded soil onto bleached stonework and tile. After giving my eyes a moment to adjust, I saw Loforai standing alone beside a crumbling pillar. With a start, I realized I had seen no other people in the labyrinth. Nor had I heard anyone. Not even a frisky couple using the winding passages for a moment of bacchanalian privacy. The center was likewise empty, nothing but crumbling ruins, a single tree, and Loforai. And the broken body of Talos. Though dead for centuries, the titan’s body held no rust. Sunlight reflected from every angle of its great corpse, bathing the center in unmatched radiance. In all directions, the labyrinth walls arched out, and all within was blinding white stone. Some of it once part of a structure, some of it unworked, some of it mere ground. All of it bleached purer than marble, not a single vein in any of it. A result of the flood of Talos’ dying ichor. It its death, it gave us the center. Or perhaps we took it, bandaged it within a labyrinth and left it to memory. My old friend glanced up as I stepped from the maze and waved me over. Her pale garb blended in with the surrounding brightness, her short gray hair took on a sheen. “It’s a fake, you know?” Loforai said as I approached. I stopped. Instinct bade me ask, rather than a true desire to know. Or perhaps it was that desire which brought me to ask, though my mind at that moment was terrified of the answer. “What is a fake?” Loforai swung a hand toward the collapsed body of Talos. “Most people know it, if they really think about it,” she said. “But The Circle goes on with the facade because no one has openly called them out about it.” I took another step toward her, knees unsteady. “But Talos was real, is real.” I gestured at the fallen titan as though it would counter Loforai’s words. “It isn’t just another story.” “No,” Loforai shook her head sadly. “No, it isn’t just another story. And you are right, Talos was real, and its body is here. Only, this form is not it.” “Why should I believe you?” I growled. “Are you trying to spread rumors to discredit The Circle now that you have left it. You are jealous, aren’t you?” My old friend’s eyes grew hard. “Jealous? To be jealous of this place, it would need to have something that I lack and want. It has neither, and I would that every part of it be stripped from me.” “Oh,” I snorted. “Nothing you want? Then why did you come back? You never could do more than make silly little brushes anyways. Are you hoping they take you back?” The moment the words left my mouth I felt like following them up with vomit; I heard them almost as though it were no longer I speaking. Nothing, for a moment. Loforai held to the silence, her lips in a straight line. Then one corner of her mouth twitched and she raised her eyebrows. “Silly little brushes?” “I—Loforai, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—“ “No,” she cut me off, her voice hard but not cold. “Part of you meant it, the part that has grown frustrated at what you are.” I had no response. A moment passed and tension seemed to leave my shoulders. Loforai’s also slumped. Tentatively, I took a step toward her. She stood still. I took another. She held out her hand, and I took it. “I thought I would find you here,” she said softly as she squeezed my hand in a vice. I raised an eyebrow. “You weren’t there, in your room,” she explained, letting go of my hand and holding her palms out. “It was like talking to a shadow of you. But, I was sure I would be able to find you here. With how bright it is, a shadow couldn’t stand it, now could it?” “I suppose not,” I replied, some warmth in my cheeks. “You are going to look for the Baths, aren’t you?” she asked. Her eyes sliding down toward my hands. I folded them together in front of me, rings clacking as they ground against each other. “I would not have pegged you as one to lend credit to such stories,” she continued. “When I heard you had started wearing rings, I had to see for myself. You’d be surprised how quickly such news travels in our circles. Goes to show how little imagination we have for conversational topics. Always comes back to gossip.” I forced a chuckle. Then frowned. “You must be wondering how I put the two together,” Loforai offered a small grin. “You aren’t the only one who is keen on fanciful stories. And I might know more than you do. And what I do know is that you will need some help. This isn’t something one does on their own.” I stepped around Loforai and into the shade of the center’s one piece of life, a pomegranate tree speckled with heavy hanging fruit, the trunk and branches spiralling around a massive bronze nail driven into the stone, the nail that had once resided in Talos’ neck. A white stone bench stood beneath the branches, marred by a reddish stain left behind by an overripe pomegranate. I scraped at the stain, confirmed it was dry, and sat down. Loforai turned around but did not join me. Despite the barrier of the labyrinth, a sea breeze wound its way into the clearing, rustling the branches and breaking around the ruined pillars. Carried on the gentle gust was the faint scent of iron. One of the rings seemed to loosen on a finger, another to tighten. “I have failed often in my life,” I finally said. “Piled my failures upon my back, holding onto them as surely as a swimmer clings to a piece of driftwood. For a long time, I thought they encouraged me to move forward, to improve. So, instead of learning from them, I simply resolved not to repeat them. Now I see that was a poor way of going about things. I am looking for a place to wash them away, to start anew. Be rid of the hoard of old mistakes and fears, and any new ones will then be easier to deal with.” From some feet away, Loforai offered only a grunt in response. I continued, “To be blunt, I don’t know fully what I mean by that. But I know I cannot stay here any longer. Not with how I am now. I need to do this.” Loforai moved to stand before me. Sunlight trickled through the pomegranate tree’s branches, casting dappled shadows across her body. As the light flitted across her hair, there were moments where the gray strands glowed bright and yellow. “Then it is fortunate that I came,” she said. “You will not need to do this thing alone.” I shook my head. “I could not trouble you with my problems.” “The problems of one person are always the problems of the rest of us. You know, the burdens you bear in your heart are revealed through interactions with the world. Doing this thing alone will only further lay weight upon your heart. Doing it alongside a friend, that will bring more good into the world.” I opened my mouth to protest and let out a squawk as Loforai jammed her heel down on my toes. Not hard enough to break anything, but with enough force to push my melancholy beneath a sudden wave of physical pain. I pinched the bridge of my nose as I swore loudly and fought back a grin. “Have it your way,” I said. “We will go on this fool’s errand together.” Loforai folded her arms and nodded. Her eyes once again moved to my hands, upon which now rested eleven rings. Somehow, that did not bother me. I did not look for the missing one. “Follow me,” she said. “And hurry.” iv. Loforai and I stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the shores of our island, the bright stone walls of the Circle rising behind us upon the rolling bluffs. Waves broke and spread along the shore, turning sand the color of char under by patches of green foam. The smell of iron grew strong, mixing with the brine on the air as Thaumata approached, the iron titan guardian of the isle. Talos’ replacement. Its improvement. I closed my eyes and let the scents flow over and through me, smiled at the warmth of the sun on my brow. A hand came to rest gently on my shoulder. “We will need to be quick,” Loforai said. “Thaumata’s wake tears through more than merely the sea. A being of that size could not help but to injure the fabric of this world with the violence of its movement, slow and measured though it be.” I raised an eyebrow. “Fabric?” “I am not going to repeat myself,” Loforai snorted. “You should know better than to echo what someone has just told you as though you were naught but a dull beast.” I lowered my eyes. Let the sudden frustration with Loforai’s demeanor pass over me like a sea-sprung gust, biting but short-lasting. Looking down, I saw a hermit crab scuttle between my feet, only recognizable by its head and claws. The creature moved without a shell, starting and stopping in frenetic intervals. I detested such creatures, their exoskeletal frames conjuring a sense of revulsion deep in my gut. But, I was moved to pity this floundering animal. So open and vulnerable, without any protection between it and the world, robbed of the geometric architecture of its shell, a carapace it did not produce itself but commandeered from the remains of a more effective creature. Where once I would have raised my foot against its queer form and naked weakness, I now scanned the shore for a stray shell. Need I be blunt and tell you the reason I held back from violence against the creature was that it reminded me of myself? Need I also say that this same reason is what instigated the disgust I harbored for the creature? “Head on your shoulders,” Loforai snapped. “Do as I say, and do not interrupt. When Thaumata passes, you need to turn so your back faces the waters. Close your eyes and hold your hands out to your sides. You cannot enter through the tear in the world’s fabric as though it were a mere door. Begin walking backwards, without so much as a single glance. You will feel three waves crash against you. Before the fourth reaches you, fall backwards through the tear. I will be right beside you. You will awaken in the realm of the Baths and we will find that inspiration or purification or whatever it is you are after. Understood?” I could hardly say that I did. But I trusted Loforai. Held to the line she had proffered me. In the decades I had known her, she had not once proved anything but capable and honest. Heaven and earth held wonders aplenty, a tear in the world from the wake of an iron titan seemed not implausible. Turning from the sea, I lifted my arms and closed my eyes tight, colors bursting behind my lids. “I am right here,” came Loforai’s voice beside me. Calm and reassuring, yet filled with a contagious energy. I nodded. So close. I would find the Baths, be cleansed of this fear, extirpate the inhibitions that kept my soul bottled within me. “Let us do this,” I said. And took the first step backward, sand whispering beneath my step. Near me, I heard Loforai do the same. A second step followed, then a third. And another. I let out a sudden gasp as the thin fingers of the first wave lapped around my ankles. The cold was a shock, but as my heart raced in reaction I felt vigor spread through me. A ring slid from one of my fingers. I let it fall to the sand with a pitiful plfft. “Do not stop now,” Loforai said. “Two more waves before you can enter the Baths.” Though I knew her eyes were closed, I nodded. Perhaps more to myself than her. Sloshing through the tide, I felt it begin to recede. In a moment my steps slapped against damp sand, moving toward the next wave. “Faster,” hissed Loforai. I obeyed and hasted down the incline as quickly as I could without risking a fall. I gritted my teeth as my arms began to grow heavy. The second wave pounded against the pits behind my knees, biting cold. But welcome. I felt a smile pull across my face and my arms once again felt light as blood pulsed through them. Movement was now difficult and I nearly lost my balance as the second wave rolled back into the sea, threatening to undermine my footing. The water stayed halfway up my shins. By the sound of it, Loforai was pulling ahead, so I picked up my pace. I let out a squawk as I stepped on a smooth stone beneath the water and nearly lost my balance. I might have fallen were it not for the third wave, which crashed into my waist with such force that I was pushed back to my feet. Brine shot up my back, turning my hair damp and plastering it to the sides of my face. “Careful there, old one,” Loforai said, her voice a sing-song chiding cadence between bouts of bright laughter. “Sounded like you almost bit it.” “I’ll show you,” I shouted back. “This—“ “Save your breath. That was the third wave and we still are not quite there. I can feel it. We need to make it a little further out before the fourth wave or we won’t be able to reach the Baths today.” I could not let myself fail in front of Loforai. The one person who seemed to still believe in me, to remember who I once was and was capable of. With a roar, I ploughed against the waters, making what felt like precious little progress. The water nipped at my thighs like icy needles, but I continued. Loforai’s sudden shout pierced through the rolling din of the sea. “Now! Fall backwards!”
v. Every part of my body ached. Most of all, my hands. I rubbed one with the other, trying to smooth away the cramping pain, and stepped back from my completed work. TheDeath of Talos was finished. By the light of the gods, it was finished. And damn near genius. I felt as though something had been torn from me and placed into this work. Every thread and blot of paint bore a sliver of my soul. But though I felt something taken from me, what remained seemed larger. Stronger. More substantial than it had before I had completed The Death of Talos.
vi. Behind me came the roar of an approaching wave, its violent tumbling grew close, nearly upon me. I obeyed Loforai and threw myself backward. After a moment of thrashing violence, the water welcomed me and I sunk below the surface. From above I could hear the muted roar of the fourth wave passing, could feel its force as it tumbled toward the shore. I remained underwater, my lungs soon strained against the held breath and a few bubbles escaped my nostrils. How would I know if it worked? In the cold calm of the sea, I let the currents buffet my body. Loforai would come get me if it didn’t work. Until then, I ought wait for a sign, an obvious hint that I had crossed over to the Baths. I waited, rocked back and forth by the shifting tides. Pulled toward the shore one moment. Then nothing but a gentle stasis. Pulled out toward the depths, feet dragging along the sandy bed. Then stillness. This cycle continued for what must have been at least a minute, until my lungs were threatening to burst. Still no sign, neither from Loforai nor that I had crossed to the Baths. I was faced with a choice. Remain below, or return to the surface.
vii. “Did something happen?” someone asked. My knuckles ached, pale and bloodless in their grip on my brush. Or, on the remains of my brush. A moment before, I had jabbed the priceless instrument bristles-first into the wall, buried it up to the ferrule. A few crumbs of plaster littered the floor around my toes, some had made their way beneath the straps of my sandals and now itched. I waved the voice away. “I am fine. Don’t pay me any mind.” The sound of fading footsteps told me that whoever it was had listened. The sound of approaching footsteps replaced them. Letting go of the brush in the wall, I turned, ready to scream at whoever it was. Veins throbbing, jaw swung wide in rage, tongue poised to lash. Nothing came out. “You look a mess,” Loforai said, grinning as she strode through the door, a pair of young men trailing behind her. Her grin faded as her eyes fell upon the brush in the wall. “You didn’t,” she gasped. Heat rose in my cheeks, shame boiled into my extremities until I had to look away. She swept across the room to inspect the brush, her followers remained in the doorway. “It isn’t like I was doing anything with it,” I snapped. “So what if it is ruined. Never did me any good anyway.” Immediately, I regretted the words and pincered my tongue between my molars until I was sure I drew blood. I forced myself to watch as Loforai lifted a trembling hand toward my brush, a work of genius in its own right, created specially for my painting technique. A singularly brilliant tool, destroyed by my own hand. Created by Loforai. Given to me as a gift. Loforai ran a finger along the handle, but she did not remove it from the wall. Her head lowered, her short hair too still. And for a moment I feared time had stopped, that she would be forever frozen in this posture of disappointment. But the seconds passed and she looked up, her eyes hard though a warmth lay beneath them. A single word left her lips. “Why?” A single word, but the weight of it brought me to a crouch. Or rather, the weight of the answer. I knew it. Why? Because I was a fraud, because my previous masterpiece, hanging so proud in my room would never be repeated. Because, try as I might, there was nothing in any of my works anymore. My skill remained, but no substance filled the works. I feared the danger of creation, and hid within myself, allowing my hand to move paint and thread, conjuring an object that might be called art. “This place is poison,” Loforai muttered. I hung my head. The straps of Loforai’s sandals creaked as she moved across the room, moved toward me. A warm hand was suddenly on my shoulder, gentle but with a weight behind it that I envied and admired at once. Only for a moment. The hand lifted and the weight and warmth went with it, leaving me alone in a room, arms wrapped around myself for fear a breeze may pass through my window and carry me away. Loforai left The Circle the following day.
viii. Restraint failed and I let out the final burst of air in my lungs, eyes opening wide. Water rushed in to replace it. Fire tore through my chest on a current of salt water, bidding me to rise from the shallows. Light ricocheted around me through the swirling waters. Lurching toward it, I broke the surface and heaved brine from my lungs. It felt like it was taking chunks of me with it, sanding away my throat with each sputtering gasp. I could not stop. I thought back to Talos’ dying moments, to the molten ichor that poured from its body, leaving it weaker each moment. Our first protector, lying helpless as life ran from it and into the sea, steam rising to meet the torrent of its life-blood. All that Talos was, dumped out in a single flow, never to be reclaimed. A younger version of myself took the fear of that moment, my own fear, and denied it in the hidden underside of a tapestry’s threads. But I had come too close, I had removed the stopper from my own essence and watched helplessly as it flowed into the work of art. Replaced the nail in my own neck, and never dared touch it again. Decades of art—no, decades of failure as I kept myself corked, pressure at all edges like a fermenting bottle. Creating without creation, reduced to safe projects, to the creation of twelve rings woven safely from unpainted threads. Unique, the first of their kind. Empty. Twelve rings. As I splashed toward the shore I held my hands before my face. They were barren, not a single ring left on a single finger. But there was no sense of loss. Why should there be? Drenched clothes clung to my body, hugged my aging skin like a lover refusing to let go. A gust from the sea pushed past me, tugging much of any remaining warmth from my body. By the time I reached dry sand I was wracked with shivering. Where was Loforai? Water dripped from my hair across my face, stinging my eyes and blurring my vision. Once wiped clear, I saw Loforai seated further up the beach, lounging with legs stretched forward and leaning back against a single elbow. She waved in my direction, her clothes quite obviously dry. Wind tugged her short hair in all directions, a stark contrast to the damp strands on my own head. “What are you playing at?” I growled as I approached her. Sand grated beneath my sandal straps, and a fair amount chafed between my clothes and skin. “It didn’t work!” Her face split into a wide grin and she barked out a laugh. “Of course it didn’t. Baths of Talos? What sort of nonsense is that? A tear in reality left in Thaumata’s wake? You completely fell for it.” “Is this all a joke to you?” Her smile dropped. “How could it not be? The Circle, this island, our creations, our research—it is all a joke.” “What we are doing is important,” I retorted. “We are the lifeblood of civilization.” “I never said it was not important,” she said, her voice suddenly hard. “But The Circle certainly takes all the fun out of it, turning wonder and creation into severity. There is no spontaneity here. Look at you, fuming because you got a little damp.” “I’m fuming because you lied to me.” “No,” she said, her voice hard as she stood to her feet. “You are godsdamned fuming because you haven’t let yourself out in years. I have seen your works, and they are patently Circlian. Beautiful, exact, soulless. Rings! Godsdamned rings! You are fuming because you have not put your soul into anything since The Death of Talos for fear of…something. You believe the lie that The Circle tells everyone it traps. It takes bright people like you and leaves you too afraid to shine. You don’t need any mystical Baths to cleanse you of that, just a normal, sharp wakeup dunk in an entirely mundane sea. You are welcome.” With each word, my mouth opened further, my lungs pulled air in to prepare for a counterargument. But none came. The only noise that made its way out was a wet, stinging groan. Loforai stomped through the sand and came within arm’s reach. She pulled something from her robes and thrust it in my face. A brush, a work of such fine craftsmanship that my breath caught in my throat. A brush exactly like the one I had ruined years before, the day Loforai had left The Circle. “This is why I came back to this place.” Loforai’s voice was nearly a whisper. “I would have come sooner, but it took a long time to make…and I had to work up the courage to face this place, if I’m being honest.” Slowly, I reached up for it, wrapped my fingers around the handle as Loforai’s fingers uncurled from around it. It was light, barely felt against the still-damp skin of my hand. But I clung to it like a ship to an anchor. “I was beginning to wonder if you would ever come up,” she said. “You were under for quite some time.” “It couldn’t have been more than a minute,” I shrugged. My tongue clumsy over the simple words. “No,” she said. “Metaphorically. You were under for decades.” I twisted the brush in my hands. Impossibly thin bristles sprouted from the tip. It was a brush that should not exist. But it felt reassuring, devoid of the anxiety and fear that accompanied its predecessor any time I picked it up to work. “Years,” I muttered. “Wasted.” Loforai shook her head. “Wasted? No. Lost, perhaps, never to return. But certainly not wasted.” She turned and strode back the way we had come. Several steps away she stopped and looked over her shoulder, eyes twinkling with mischief. “You were under the water itself for quite some time as well. The literal water.” I raised an eyebrow. She continued, “Nearly twelve days. And your colleagues at The Circle are getting worried. Better go reassure their wrinkly old asses that their favorite prodigy didn’t actually drown.” I blinked. And followed behind, stepping in Loforai’s footprints in the sand. Her brush cradled to my chest.