The entire landscape seemed to have been carved, or cut right out of the mountain itself, with deep grooves and monstrous openings, but the further they went the roof gave way to the sky more and more and Khamet had the strange feeling of being moved unwillingly beyond his intention. “You said the Tarot wouldn’t help,” he said to the Jack.
“I have been corresponding with the Tarot for a time much longer than this war has been raging. When the Princess of Hearts was taken I enlisted their help, but was denied.” The Jack was looking around in wonder. “I have never actually been here before.”
The roof opened again to reveal several hundred yards of open sky cropped by a great chasm lined with trees.
The Jack looked up. “I have never been to the Tarot, but I will say, I have been all over this mountain range and I have never seen holes like this poking through the mountains, anywhere, ever.”
“The pillars holding this cave in place seemed to have been washed out.” Khamet said. “This was once a river. See how the rings have been washed away.”
“Yes, but there has never been a river running through this mountain that I have ever heard tell of.”
Megette was obviously on the greatest adventure of her life and she seemed to be moving more confidently than before. “Jack,” she said, like she was trying it out for the very first time. “How did those Spades become part of our group?”
“I have been thinking about that? It worries me. It could be when we camped they were taken, but it could also have been from the Weeds. I am wondering how many others are not what they seem.”
The roof enclosed them again and they made their way further into the cave. The walls could no longer be seen and the chamber stretched wide into darkness. Gradually the roof reached up and it too vanished into darkness and was then replaced by a misty cloud. Once that too disappeared they began to see vegetation. Flowers and plants had no bearing on anything normal, which is to say anything any of them had ever seen. The shrubs looked to be woven rather than grown. Trees were made of anything other than wood with intricate colors and threads spun off in what looked to be gold or silver and everything had an opalescence about it that glowed brighter the deeper they went. Sometimes there was rustling in the dark, but no creatures could be seen in the foliage.
The cloud covering became darker and Megette was the first to see light poking through it. A pin prick broke through, then another, and as the cloud cover thinned and finally dissipated completely, the sky was revealed as a bright purple night with constellations and stars of a number none had ever seen.
The party was stopped when Megette screamed. She had been walking behind them and suddenly looked down at herself. Her hearts’ were all glowing with a purplish pink hue, but the white of her card had a great illuminating brilliance that showed like a halo all around her.
“Wow.” the Jack said and she screamed again.
Khamet saw that the Jacks eyes and teeth were glowing as well and thought it funny. The grin came upon him again and the Jack took a great step back.
“Dear me Cat, I…”
Khamet stopped grinning and stared at his two companions who looked back at him almost in terror. “What is it?”
“Your teeth,” Megette said. “There are so many and so sharp.”
“They are glowing. It is truly sinister my friend.”
“It is perfect,” a voice behind them said.
They all turned and looked to where the voice had come from, but in the darkness all the plants seemed to glow in different shapes, sizes and colors with an inner incandescence.
The Jack readied his baton.
“No dear Jack. You sought us out, did you not?”
“Servant,” a voice said in acknowledgement to Megette.
“Great Cat,” another voice said and it sounded irreverent.
The word Cat was repeated then and whispered again and again by several voices. Movement could be heard as the foliage shifted around them. In the darkness they began to make out cards that were camouflaged as they were all dark colored. The scent of something pleasant slipped into the air. Ahead of them a man stepped out of the darkness with both palms up, twirling a handful of glowing orbs in each hand with one large one resting atop his head. His skin was pale yellow and he wore a long thin cloak. Each orb carried the symbol of a five pointed star that spun as if attached to a gyro. The robe consisted of numerous orbs situated as if displaying themselves in an aquarium of some sort. The man slipped a hand into his robe and disappeared the globes which then appeared on the lining of the robe itself, the other orbs making room for the new comers and adjusted like bubbles.
“Jack,” the man said. “We have been awaiting your arrival for some time.”
“You are the Tarot?” Khamet asked.
The man turned and looked down. “Cat, the certain uncertainty. We have hoped for yours, but many thought you a myth and never to arrive. It is with the greatest honor and pleasure I say welcome to the Tarot.” He bowed, and the ball on top of his head rolled backwards as he dropped low to remain on the uppermost part of his body.”
Khamet stared and waited while Megette flushed pink with the embarrassment of one who has been in the close and intimate presence of someone great and not knowing it until now.
“I am the Pentacle,” the man said.
The three bowed in return.
“Please,” the Pentacle rose up with the large ball still sitting atop his head. “The Arcana wait to address you.” With that, he took his robe and opened it wide creating an archway lined with orbs and stars that remained when he brought his arms back down. Then the Pentacle turned and walked into the archway with stars and orbs stretching out behind him.
The Jack followed first followed by Megette and Khamet. The tunnel ran several feet then opened into a large round amphitheater. When the Jack passed through the arch there was a murmur on the other side. When Khamet exited, the room dropped into silence and awe.
There was no light source and it was night, but the starlight seemed to cast everything in a perpetual glow of its own brilliance. A great half-moon face, sat merged with an orange yellow sun face with thick tendrils that looked as if it were swimming in the air. Both hung in the center of the sky above, framed by the stars. On one side of the theater a great tower reached so high the top of it could not be seen, but Khamet could feel eyes from it as well regarding him as he walked in. The center of the round theater was a bulging convex surface that gave a similar vision of what Khamet saw when he was falling from the sky, but it shown everything from an even greater distance than he had been. In this view, everything seemed to be represented.
The Pentacle moved to the center and announced, “As requested, the Jack of all Trades, Megette, the Waiting Woman for the Princess of Hearts, and finally I present the Cat from Yonderland.”
The ‘aw’ was nearly silent, but it could be felt.
“Cat?” a figure standing on one hand said.
The Fool looked similar to the Jokers in the forest they had passed, but even more fluid and graceful and he wore many colors. He righted himself and cartwheeled down the stone steps over other figures, using their heads and arms as leverage and balance. He moved close to Khamet and stood on his hands to be eye to eye, although he was upside down.
“Haven’t you got a name?” he said nearly laughing as he said it.
“Yes I do, it is Khamet.”
There was a chuckle from somewhere in the sky.
“No, no, no,” the Fool said. His body turned and rather than hair, the back of his head was another face.
“A name,” the other face of the Fool said. “A real name, given to you by the Roadscholar or,” he spun around again.
“Popularopinion,” said the Fool.
“No,” Khamet said.
“Cat will do.” Came an audible rumble from the floor as the mouth of the World opened to speak.
The Fool was thrown off balance by the movement and the boom, and he cartwheeled away, over the Red Wheelbarrow. He reached the Great Wheel of Fortune on the opposite wall of the Tower and scaled it to return to his seat.
“Jack of all Trades,” a woman called from one of the upper seats. She wore a thin spaghetti strapped black summer dress that hung on her as if it were made of cobwebs. She held a scathe that looked far too large for her to manage, but seemed quite comfortable with it. “It is a great bit of folly for you to come here,” said Death.
“I have heard this told,” the Jack said. “But I come not for me but for…”
“Not true!” a woman in another corner, blindfolded and holding a scale called out. “You come for love Jack. You come for your own comfort and hope for a lady fair.” Justice said.
“It will be your undoing,” Death said.
“Noble as it may be,” someone said.
“Yes noble it is,” another voice echoed from a dark upper corner.
Khamet could see that it was a couple. They seemed to be in love. Both were deathly pale without an ounce of hair on either of them. The two shared a long robe and held each other beneath it in an intimate embrace and might have been naked, but without pigment or hair Khamet couldn’t be certain of what the two where, one man, one woman, both.
“I came here for your help.” The Jack said.
“Apologies,” an enormous and busty black woman in a coat of numerous interchanging colors called out. The Empress Earth Mother stood in the upper rafters and lumbered down to the floor. Khamet felt from this woman a mothering kindness unlike any he had felt before. “This will all most probably get out of control eventually, but I must say to you before all that comes to pass. Son, there’s nothing that the Arcana can do for you.”
“We cannot go to war with the Theere.” The Fool said from atop the Wheel of Fortune.
Khamet started at this.
“Yes, yes Theere,” The other face of the Fool said twirling on one of the rings of the Wheel of Fortune.
“He doesn’t get it momma. He doesn’t get it.” The Fool spun.
“No he doesn’t,” his other face echoed.
“The land of Heere is Theere when one is not,” the Moon called down from above.
“One is in either one place at one time or another and the other when the other is not.” The Sun said.
“And for the moment one is not and Heere is therefore Theere, but for them that are, it is Heere. It is all very simple when you try to understand,” finished the Fool.
“Enough!” the World boomed with a rumble. “This must be settled and for this the four of us shall weigh in for all, as we agreed.”
There was a murmur of defeat and acceptance about the amphitheater.
“Fool stop your gallivanting,” the World called and the two faced marionette flipped again and several figures stared fiercely at him and he sat.
“This will not end well for any of us.” An echo that sounded like thunder came from the top of the Tower.
“Trust,” said a choir of tiny voices from the sky. Khamet realized it was the stars. “We must trust,” said the Stars.
The Jack felt his skin crawl, and in the seats he watched as a large hooded man leaned over to say something to a white haired man in a red leather coat. The white haired man fingered his black cane and never took his eyes from the Jack and smiled with a devouring hunger.
“Quiet,” the Empress Earth Mother said. “This shall be even and square and fair, and none shall be allowed to speak unless called by the floor.”
There was another murmur at this, but everything quickly fell to silence.
“Jack,” the Moon said. “There is a slim possibility that this could all come to be fine, but you must understand and release the anger you are holding.”
“It is poisoning you and will poison this quest,” the Sun finished.
The enormous black woman placed a hand down to Khamet and waited, “Come on up here honey.”
Khamet stood in her large palm and she brought him up to her face. “You don’t even know why you’re here, and you being the key to all this.”
“I am only here to help rescue the lady,” said Khamet.
The woman made a sad face. She turned to the Wheel of Fortune on the far wall, made a gesture and it spun, throwing the Fool into the bleachers. The wheel stopped on the Tower and the Empress Earth Mother looked up, but the Tower remained silent. “We are honored for you to be in our presence,” the Earth Mother said to Khamet then turned to the Jack. “The actions of the Suicide King may be the undoing of us all Jack.”
The World rumbled its earthquake, “It is all coming to pass as we all have foreseen. We cannot risk the war with this world. The Tarot is not a place in Heere, but a land unto itself and we will not go to war with any other. We seek balance.”
“Hum,” someone snorted and the enormous Earth Mother looked about irritably.
“We can only hand you the words that may aid you.” The World below them finished.
“The Princess of Hearts may already be lost. She is now already diseased and her disease will affect all of Theere,” said the Sun.
“Cat,” said the Moon. “Your brother has no understanding of the what, or the why of you or him and his frustration has consumed him. The Tulgey Woods are lost and the caterwaul are no more.”
“The war has changed everything,” The World said.
“Leave your lady to her fate. It is the only way to save the land,” the Sun said.
There was a sound of something clearing its throat and it went on and on and didn’t stop.
“Silence” the World rumbled beneath their feet.
The choking became a laugh that was even more than menacing and consuming against the sky itself.
The Jack, Megette and Khamet all looked around to see which one was doing it.
“Stop it,” Justice said holding her scales and looking up to the Tower.
The laughing went silent.
“You four are not being truthful,” Justice continued. “The fate of Theere is set and nothing can be done about it.”
The Jack was about to speak, but was silenced again by the look from the pale red coated Devil man who nudged the hooded Judgment who brought up a great two headed ax and turned it slowly in the air.
“The future ain’t never seen to be certain,” the Empress Earth Mother said.
“Not true, not true,” the Fool began to yammer and spin again. “Ask,” he ran across the seats and made a great leap. A Hanged Man strung up by one foot took his hand and helped propel him across the amphitheater. The Fool flipped and twirled and landed beside Death daring to almost touch her cobweb black dress. “Tell them, tell them! Slip into yourself and tell them the rule of change.”
Death swung her scathe and shoved the Fool away with the blunt end. When he moved again she brandished the long business part at him and both of his faces screamed like two little girls and he cart wheeled back to his seat.
Death looked down at the Empress Earth Mother to acknowledge her and the enormous Earth Mother nodded. Death raised the scathe and a wind came up. Her dress billowed out around her to become a great hooded cloak and in a voice much more terrible than any the party had ever heard thus far reverberated through them. It was as if Death was sitting on their graves and scratching runes into their tombstones. “The only chance remaining is to stay in the Tarot. But they will not. Megette has the only future which is uncertain. The Jack…”
There was a pause as the dark hood turned to the Jack and his skin went cold.
The hood then turned to the man Devil sitting in his red coat who gave her an acknowledging nod. “He is obsessed and in love.” he said in a voice of pure silk that did not math his look or his demeanor.
The Lovers wrapped in the blanket smiled and cooed.
“He will not change his path now that he has crossed over,” Death swung her scathe. The hood dropped away and again she stood in a black summer dress.
The Jack was shaking his head and stood to speak.
“No Jack.” The Tower boomed and split into a great arch. “Understand. This is the Tarot!”
Through the opening in the Tower Khamet could see below. What stretched out was a land that was just as vast and open as Heere. It was the land of the Tarot, existing in a perpetual night with mystical people and parts glowing all the way to a thick ocean of oily obsidian glass, a black sea that shimmied in the darkness reflecting the sun, the moon and the sky. It was wondrous and strange, and as it stood there, the voice of the Tower said, “We have already foreseen that this is what we will become now,” said the Tower.
Khamet saw that something changed. Some of the lights went out. There was a strange sadness he felt that made his head ache as he watched.
“But if we help you, this is what it will become.” The land made a definite shift now. The sky was still dark and perpetually night, but there were fires and screams from parts below. It seemed as if the ocean had reached out and covered a portion of the land. It was no longer a happy place. It was ravaged and torn by conflict. There had been clearly defined regions that had now been lost. They had gone to war with each other. The balance between them had been invaded.
“The war must end. If they stay, that will not happen,” the Tower’s boom echoed lastly and the arch closed.
The Earth Mother seemed about to rebut this, but stopped and nodded. Then she too stepped back and sat.
“Megette,” the World quaked below them. “You may stay as your place has not yet been decided. Jack and Cat you have no choice, but to return and you will do so now.”
“But,” the Jack began.
“No!” the World said. “The Tower is correct and every moment you remain here there is a greater possibility of more destruction for us and the regions of Wands, Pentacles, Cups and Swords. For you we have these.” The World seemed to open up and regurgitate a cup, a sword, and a wand. “These are gifted to the three of you. “Megette, if you will not stay choose.”
Megette seemed to deeply consider something and she looked from Khamet to the Jack. When her eyes settled on the Jack there were some noises in the amphitheater. The Lovers wrapped in the blanket seemed to cuddle even closer if that were possible. Then she stepped up and knowing she would do better to defend herself and her lady, took the sword.
“Your quest is becoming clear now. Your path is being chosen as you have chosen,” said the World. “The Vorpal Sword will yield to your whim and anything you desire to be cut, will be cut. Jack the next is yours.”
The Jack moved to the cup and the wand, and reached towards the wand, but took the cup instead.
“Jack,” the World said. “Your choice is also clear. Drink.” The cup suddenly filled with a liquid so clear and blue it glowed in the starlight.
The Jack drank and as he did so began to weep. He nodded his head as if he understood something and the cup disappeared.
“Understanding is now yours and your path is also set. Go well with what the cup has given you. Cat, your name and your place is still becoming realized, but you are seeing it and will embrace it soon. Step over the wand.”
Khamet did so and the wand absorbed into him. His spine glowed through his fur with a brilliant illumination, causing his spots and stripes to shift and become more apparent. He purred, and again he grinned. This time it was grandiose, and real, and ferocious, and open, and knowing all at once. His teeth glowed and again the seats murmured.
“It is time to return.” The Pentacle stepped out from the rear wall and the arch returned. The three followed, through the tunnel and the path, but not before Khamet pushed and allowed a piece of himself to step off the path and run into the glowing foliage.