Mai gazed down the length of shining steel in her hands. Along the edge of the blade a ribbon of light gleamed, reflecting the illumination from another world’s sun. On the flat of the blade, the runes that captured the ten thousand names of creation pulsed with the heartbeat of the cosmos. The sword was perfect in every detail.
“I am not worthy of this.” Mai said.
The heart forged sword tumbled from her hands, caught in a gust that blew off the heaven’s reaching mountains to the north. From the highest balcony on her ancestral home, Mai watched the unearthly glow of the sword fade into the mists of the deep chasms that separated her people from the lands of the gods.
“There are those who disagree with that assessment.” a girl said from behind her.
Mai froze, caught in the terror of the moment. She had come to the highest level of her family’s home because no one ventured there. It was where the dream catchers were hung to keep out the nightmares and catch the stray hopes of those bound to the clan’s service.
Only the most trusted and skilled artisans in the clan worked on the highest floor. In the bright sunshine they toiled away, making the wondrous armor and weapons that were gifted to each son and daughter who was chosen to lead the clan’s forces into battle. By night, even the bravest of the artisans fled to the lower levels though.
The ethereal forces they teased and spun and hammered into tangible form were unbound in the deeps of the night. Only fools and those seeking an end to their destiny would risk catching the attention of the things that ruled the unbounded dark.
Mai had thought she was one of the latter people, but feared she’d been only a fool. She knew the effort and work that had been expended in making her a perfect sword. She knew what its loss would mean, how it would be taken as a sign from the Divines that she was not meant to lead her people into battle. She didn’t wish to be dishonored like that, she wanted the chance to prove her mettle, but in her heart of hearts, there was a voice that told her how small she was. How weak and how foolish. It told her tales of how she would be discovered, unveiled and cast out, not even fit to act as the lowest of servants when her family understood the depths of her failure.
Better to be a lesser child of the clan, still a member, still useful, she had decided. It was with faltering steps that she had crept to the highest floor in the darkest hour. Her trembling and weak heart had urged her into the blind darkness at the top of the last ladder, into the realm where creatures from beyond the world walked and played while the sun hid its face from the land.
She had found the sword, her sword, in the shrine where she had known it would be. She had been alone in the shrine when she lifted the weightless blade from its resting place. Even the demons of the lost hours hadn’t dared venture into the sacred space of the shrine.
When she walked out onto the shine’s balcony and gazed up at the star strewn sky above her, Mai hadn’t thought of letting the blade go. She hadn’t believed she would make it to the shrine at all in fact, so she had no plan what to do once she was there.
Standing on the edge of the balcony, in what should have been an empty shrine, Mai found that she couldn’t turn to face the girl who had spoken to her. Part of her wanted to run. Part of her wanted to jump after the sword. None of her could move though.
Not until the girl put a hand on her shoulder and gently turned her away from the long dark fall below her and the bright sky above.
“You’ll want to hear them out.” the girl said. She looked to be Mai’s age. Perhaps even a member of the clan, unremarkable enough that Mai might not have noticed her before. Except that Mai knew all of her cousins and close relatives. However much she might look like one of them, this girl was not a part of her family.
“Who are you?” Mai asked.
“I’m Jin.” the girl answered. “But I’m not the one you need to speak to. They are.”
Jin gestured to two women who sat beside the altar. They were both old, bent and bowed with the weight of more years than Mai had seen anyone wear. Though time had weathered them differently, Mai saw the resemblance they shared. In their eyes and in their bearing, she saw the harmony of twins, or something even closer maybe.
“Who are they?” Mai asked.
The elderly woman who sat to the left of the altar spoke first.
“I am Mai Feng of Seven Blessings Temple.” she said. “Will you hear my tale?”
Mai’s breath caught in her throat. An elder Mai who shared her name? There were no living Elders named such. Had the family ghosts come to speak to her?
“Of course, Elder.” Mai said, bowing her head and fighting back the terror she felt. The family ghosts were not known for their kindness and Mai had certainly done something worthy of their wrath when she cast away her sword.
“I am the greatest poet of my time.” the elder Mai said. “From my pen flowed words of beauty and truth all the long years of my life. Across all those years though I bore regret for a foolish choice made on the night before I came of age. I cast away my honor blade, fled from my position and hid myself and my talents behind a veil of mediocrity.”
The Elder Mai gazed at the younger Mai with searching, hopeful eyes, not the stern disapproving ones the younger Mai had expected to see when she glanced up.
“My words were keep secret, on scrolls and parchments I allowed no one to see until my grand niece stole them from their hiding place.” the elder Mai said. “I had poured my life into those works. Given them the pain and uncertainty, the joy and quiet longings, and all of the other thousand pieces that made up my life. Even so I had never believed them to be worth the ink they were written with. When they found an audience and a voice in my grand niece though, I discovered how wrong I was.”
“She shared them with her friends and with her teachers. They spread far beyond anywhere I could have imagined them reaching. Out to other clans, out to other nations. In the twilight years of my life, I was celebrated as I could never have dreamed.” the elder Mai said, her eyes bright with the memories.
“And yet.” she said, her voice softening. “With the celebrations and the joy, the was still regret too. In looking back on the long years when I had written my poetry, I saw a woman who had denied herself and her family so much. As I was lauded for my gifts and the great joy they brought to the people of the world, all I could think of was my parents and my siblings who had never gotten to read my words. I had hidden my work because I thought I was unworthy and so had cheated them out the joy they might have experienced.”
“Though I was old and could not be sure I could make the trip, I crept back up to the top floor of my ancestral home. Back to where I had cast away my destiny on that long distant night. I don’t know what I was thinking in daring the creatures of the unbounded dark again. With my tired bones and my brittle body, there is little that I have left to fear from them I suppose. And little to gain. I guess I just wanted to touch that space one last time. To dream of what might have been had I not fled from becoming who I was meant to be.” the elder Mai said. “That was when I met Jin here.”
“I don’t understand? What did you do?” Mai asked Jin.
It was the second Elder who answered her.
“She spoke to me.” the second elder said. “On the night I came to throw away my destiny, to hide under a veil of mediocrity, I found myself faced with my myself.”
“Who are you?” the younger Mai asked, knowing the answer before the words left her mouth.
“I am the greatest leader my family has ever known. I am Mai Feng of the Seven Blessings Temple and across a thousand battles I have never been defeated.” the Second Elder Mai said.
“How did this happen?” the younger Mai said, feeling overwhelmed at the impossible situation before her.
“This spot is a fluid area in your world.” Jin said. “Your family uses it to make their weapons and armor into objects that your world normally wouldn’t allow.”
“I know, it’s why we’re forbidden to come here. What does that have to do with them being here though?” Mai asked.
“You’re forbidden to come here because weapons and armor aren’t the only impossible things that can happen here.” Jin said.
“What are you going to do to me?” Mai asked. “Will I be punished?”
“Not by me.” Jin said. “I’m only here to study this area. It’s remarkably stable. More so that you are at the moment, I think.”
“What do you mean?” Mai asked.
“She says that we are you and you are us.” the Second Elder Mai said.
“How is that possible?” Mai asked.
“When I came to throw away my honor sword, I found myself waiting for me.” Second Elder Mai gestured to the First Elder Mai. “She spoke to me of her life, of what she accomplished and what she regretted. Her words filled me with the resolve I had been lacking. They taught me to believe in myself as I could not have before. Rather than throwing away my destiny, I embraced it, dove into it. I pursued it so deeply that I became the greatest warrior and the greatest leader in our history.”
Second Elder Mai paused, old fires burning in her eyes and filling her weathered frame with a strength and intensity that pushed the younger Mai back.
“It wasn’t until my youth was spent and my twilight years were upon me that I looked back on my life and thought about the legacy I would leave. In my first life, I had hidden my gifts, but once they were brought to light, they would live on for all time to come. I saw, only once I had lost them, that the words I had written with peace and longing in my heart were far greater than the orders I had barked to troops or the demands I had placed on rivals and allies alike.”
“And so, for the third and final time, I ventured back into the unbounded dark.” the Second Elder Mai said.
“Why is it the final time?” Mai asked.
“Because what you see are lives that might have been and lives that could never be.” Jin said. “You only get one life though. The one that you choose.”
“But, I want both of those lives!” Mai said. “If you are what I can be, then I want to be you. Both of you!”
“Are you sure of that?” Jin asked.
“Yes! Whatever it takes, that’s my wish.” Mai said.
“Well, it’s easily granted.” Jin said.
And then she pushed Mai off the balcony.
Mai’s scream echoed off the canyon walls for much longer than she thought it should. Well after she stopped screaming in fact. She wondered at that, and then wondered that she was alive to notice the problem in the first place.
In the weird, clouded realm, Mai felt like she was falling though in the thick mists that filled the canyon it was impossible to tell for sure. It wasn’t until she felt the ground gently press up underneath her that she understood that the winds she felt had been air sprites carrying her softly to the ground.
Beside her lay the honor sword she’d cast away. It wasn’t perfect anymore. The blade was nicked and scarred, like Second Elder Mai had been. Along its length, the ten thousand words of creation had been scraped clean, leaving only an unwritten canvas of metal, the kind that First Elder Mai would have been able to fill.
Mai looked up. It was going to be a long climb back to her family’s home but she didn’t fear it. Whatever happened, her life was hers to choose.