Within his study, a man gritted his teeth and re-carved the runes on the mirror frame he held in his work-calloused hands for the seventy-eighth time that day.
He checked the mana-infused scratches, and again found no error. "It should be right," he mumbled, fiddling with his silver carving tools in a fruitless attempt to return them to the box they'd fit in when he had bought them. "All my theory agrees it ought to be right. What am I missing?"
The mirror was supposed to reflect the essence of humanity, to answer the question Vaal scholars had been asking since the dawn of their civilization.
The Architect of Reflections carefully lay down his life's work on the desk beside him, and arranged the tools for easy access later. He scratched a few notes down on parchment — perhaps distilling from a divine vessel into the thaumaturgic infusion of the runes would supply the mirror with the necessary energy to form a connection with the image created. The thought process was starting to break apart, lose coherency, he really should stop for the day — but he couldn't, he was so close, if only —
The massive gong at the center of the Temple of Atzoatl sounded, indicating the sun was rising, and the Architect half-fell, half-leapt from his seat, caught off guard.
He bumped into his work table, and the priceless mirror skidded away — he reached for it desperately, tried to catch it —
The mirror — once beautiful, now less so from the scratches of runes upon runes — hit the ground, and shattered before the panicked Architect's eyes.
For a moment, he couldn't think, couldn't move. This was his life's work, the answer to one of the most perplexing questions his mighty civilization had, as of yet, failed to answer.
And, of course, he'd managed to break it with his clumsiness.
But the next moment, magic rippled throughout the study, and the Architect of Reflections approached warily.
There could be no doubt: the thaumaturgical energy was originating from the shattered mirror. The runes were flaring with a color no being had ever seen before.
Years later, when other Vaal Architects were able to replicate the strange not-light, they would agree it resembled pure darkness, and incorporate it into a seal meant to protect one of the greatest catacombs of their civilization. The Seal would be the only one of its ilk, the only successful harnessing of the strange energy, and all but indestructible.
The Architect crouched over his splintered project, transfixed. Of course the mirror wasn't reflecting the essence of humanity, the way it was supposed to — the mirror's magic was trapped within it! He had attempted to design the object to emit its magic through its face, but that kind of passive enchantment, always active, always reflecting, would never work. There simply wasn't a way to store enough power within that it would last forever — he saw that now, it was so obvious in retrospect.
Given the intensity of the runes he was using, he would be surprised if he could enable a mirror with a passive enchantment to run for more than a few moments. An enchantment designed to activate under certain conditions would not work either — the sudden release of such power would cause one of two things. Either the power would simply dissipate, or, more likely, the mirror would explode with sufficient force to kill or severely maim anyone unlucky enough to be caught in the blast. The radius and strength of the resulting explosion would be sufficient to level the entire temple in which he now stood, if the mirror was positioned in the center of the grand building.
That kind of power "simply dissipating" could have disastrous results. According to the Architect's calculations, there was only a 3.768% chance that activating a non-passive enchantment would not have a negative impact.
But he had never considered breaking the mirror. If he could find people to look into the mirror as he smashed it, and then somehow bottle the power released, create a viewing device to inspect the shards… perhaps he could piece together an impression of what the mirror had revealed.
He should probably write this down. He blinked, realizing it was all dark in the temple, and when had that happened? He couldn't write in this darkness.
The Architect of Reflections jumped, again, before shaking his head to clear it — focus, calm down, you aren't an Architect for nothing —and going to the door of the study and poking his head out.
"Yugul, are you alright?"
"Huh?" Really, that was the best he could do? He may have been chosen as a Temple Architect only recently, but he had been chosen. He could do better than questioning noises. The man reorganized his thoughts and fought to identify the voice. "Zalatl? Zalatl. Um. Yes. I'm fine, why?"
The Architect of Thaumaturgy, one of Yugul's closest friends, turned the last corner and stared at the enchanter. "Did you not notice that every light in the temple went out?! The candles were blown out, the sacrificial altar fires snuffed into smoke. I wanted to make sure you were alright — mirrors need something to reflect, after all; I thought you'd be panicking."
"Every fire?" Yugul did a double-take. "Was Topotante experimenting with his Tempests again?"
Zalatl gave him a strange look. "Topotante always leaves just after nightfall. How distracted were you, Yugul?"
The Architect of Reflections lit up. "I'm glad you asked — I think I've had a breakthrough! You see, what I was missing was —"
Zalatl held up one hand, and Yugul stopped. "I know you're excited, but now isn't the time. We need to find out what happened. We're lucky Xipocado isn't here. After the incident last week with Zilquapa somehow managing to fill the Temple with portals and turn half the city's infrastructure into explosive jade, we can't afford another mess. Even Estazunti's hoard is starting to look shabby."
The Architect of Thaumaturgy had a point. "The lights went out," Yugul recited. "Did you see anything strange, or feel anything? You can detect magical stimuli even more accurately than Xopec can, you must have seen something."
"Xopec is a paranoid old fool," Zalatl scoffed, waving one hand dismissively. "But I did see something you could say was… dark purple, I suppose? Yet it wasn't normal magic. It didn't activate any of my sensors."
"Dark purple —" Yugul sprinted to his shattered mirror. The puzzle was coming together. "That… might have been me. Well, my mirror, I guess. It shattered, and I saw strange things. I felt… like I could do anything, learn any truth, uncover any secret."
"You did that?! Yugul, that's ridiculous! You can't reliably manipulate fire magic to save your life, let alone —"
"But it wasn't fire magic. You said yourself it wasn't any kind of magic, or at least not a kind you've seen before. It was…" the Architect of Reflections fought for an apt description, "pure darkness. Like the essence of a shadow. I didn't even think it was real until you said you saw purple. It was anti-light – of course it would put out candles. I'm not sure how it affected the entire temple, but —"
Zalatl sighed. "Yugul," he began, resigned, "this is why the twins have been telling you to get more sleep."
"A few moons ago, you were telling me I was sleeping too much!"
"You were! Half the time you walk around like you're still asleep – but then times like now, you have ingenious ideas that leave even Quipolatl wondering how you made this or that intuitive leap. You take senseless risks and you don't seem capable of comprehending the idea that things could go wrong and you never sleep!"
"But I can't! I'm almost there, if I can just figure out this one last thing then I —" Why couldn't Zalatl understand?! Yugul was close, so close, he could feel it —
"You always say that, Yugul. Then there's another thing. And another. And four days later you haven't slept and —"
"That only happened the one time!"
"Yes, and that was also the time Zilquapa managed to somehow contact someone from the future and give her precise instructions on how to reach a quarter of the rooms in the temple. In the present day," Zalatl stressed, "creating time travel."
"That wasn't my fault! I don't how time travel works! Blame Opiloti, he's the one with the monoliths," Yugul rebutted. "Besides, it was coincidence that happened at the same time."
"I'm not blaming anyone, Yugul, but you have to admit, things tend to go sideways when you don't sleep," Zalatl sternly pointed out. "In fact, quite a few of our coworkers have mentioned you helping them with some experiment or another during those all-nighters you pull."
"Well, yes," Yugul admitted, "but I can't sleep anyway, so I might as well help out. And they usually don't go wrong! Or at least not that wrong. And Zilquapa's time travel experiment I wasn't involved in. That one wasn't my fault."
"Something not being your fault should be normal, not the exception to prove the rule," Zalatl countered. "The twins think you are manipulating probabilities with magic, you know."
"What? That's ridiculous. That entire 'school' of magical practice is pure theory. And if I could manipulate outcomes I'd have worked on that three-point-seven-six-eight percent chance," Yugul pointed out. "Actually – I wonder if that's how Zilquapa did the time travel thing – utilizing a probability nexus to make something with a zero percent chance of happening possible. Wait, no, that can't be it. Zilquapa is terrified of Quipolatl."
"See, Yugul, these are the kinds of intuitive leaps we can't follow. But we're way off topic – we need to decide what to tell the others. Puhuarte's going to be furious when he arrives – his forge isn't burning. Whatever you did snuffed out the entire Crucible."
Anxiety prickled under Yugul's skin. He had to get back to work. If he did, if he could just map the enchantments for new mirrors, maybe talk to Opiloti to find a way to freeze moments, then he'd succeed. This was it. He knew what to do. If he could just get to work, then this time, it'd all go according to plan. Less than a moon, if he could just keep working, keep going, then he'd find the answer to the question he'd been asking for years –
The Architect of Reflections jumped. "Huh? What's going on?!"
Zalatl was still there, looked stressed and frustrated and disorganized, which was the opposite of how things should be – Zalatl was supposed to be calm and collected, and he could fix any mistake, and Yugul probably would have forgotten to eat and died of starvation years ago if his friend wasn't frequently reminding him that food was a necessity. "Have you been listening at all?"
Yugul thought about that – he had no idea what Zalatl had been saying while he had been chasing down his chain of thought. "No. Sorry. Can I work on my mirrors? I really think I've got it this time."
The Architect of Thaumaturgy shot Yugul a flat look. "No. You can work on your sleep."
"But what about the fires going out?" Yugul honestly didn't care much about some unlit candles, but if he wasn't allowed to work on his mirrors, helping Zalatl was preferable to lying in bed awake for hours and hours on end.
"Quatazodo is incompetent at this point. I'll blame him, and everyone will breathe a sigh of relief when Guatelitzi uses him for one of those horrific experiments. Everyone's happy," Zalatl grinned. "And he'll be gone, which can only mean good things. Xipocado might even let us have a party."
The Architect of Reflections, if he had been listening, would have argued against this, but instead he was fiddling with his tools, trying and failing to get them to fit in their case.
"Yugul, I told you to get some sleep!"
The next day, Yugul held a mirror with only one set of carved runes. Around him, runes in the floor, built to contain magic, pulsed with eerie scarlet light.
He looked into the mirror's depths, and quite deliberately smashed the thing, never moving his eyes from its reflective surface.
The runes kept the lights from going out, and for just a moment, Yugul saw visions of strange and wonderful things, and felt light and free — he had succeeded.
A servant walking past saw the wide, victorious smile that spread across the Architect of Reflections' face. She did not sleep soundly for days.
Half a moon later, give or take a few days, Zalatl made his daily rounds, as he had without fail since he was first chosen. He consistently checked up on everyone, and wasn't above admitting it was at least in part because if one of his co-workers had a temper tantrum, his more delicate experiments would have to be restarted, one particularly fussy concoction for the thirty-third time. At least Matatl was willing to buy the failed attempts — apparently, they made excellent traps. Failing that, Hayoxi was always looking for something else to blow up.
Zalatl rubbed at the bridge of his nose. His coworkers were crazy.
According to Doryani, genius and madness went hand in hand, and were oft confused. Zalatl was less than sure he believed that absolutely, but it wouldn't do to lose all funding for his projects because he didn't pay enough lip service to the queen's favorite.
Zalatl went to check on Yugul, following the familiar pathways of the Temple of Atzoatl, and wincing at Tzamoto's hysterical cackles. The Architect of Torments' twin, Zantipi, was far more reasonable. He turned the same corner he had on the night the lights had all vanished, though less panicked and thus less hastily, walked past the mural of a long-dead and well-respected Architect (Azcatazotl, Architect of Duality), and peered into the Architect of Reflections' study.
Yugul was asleep, head resting on his arms, slumped over his desk.
Zalatl felt his breath leave his lungs, and as quietly as he could, slipped inside, organized Yugul's notes chronologically, carefully fit every one of the carving tools on the desk into their case, and left, closing the door behind him, making a mental note to check back in on Yugul before dusk.
This was one of Yugul's bad days. It seemed counter-intuitive that Yugul's successes could spark these downward spirals, but Zalatl was used to it by now. He knew how to help his best friend even when the Architect of Reflection didn't want to be helped, and how to lift his coworkers' spirits when Yugul couldn't.
Because, for all the other Vaal Architects pretended to look down on their more recently chosen coworkers, Yugul was like a ray of sunshine and some of the other Architects (Tzamoto, Xopec, Guatelitzi, Quatazodo) did not deserve him. When Yugul entered the break room, arguments tended to settle; spirits tended to lift; even the grumpiest among them typically found reason to laugh.
But not on the bad days. Zalatl knew from bitter experience that Yugul's bad days rolled an oppressive fog over the temple. People would find reason to head home earlier than usual, and things remained somber without Yugul's kindness and good humor.
At least they'd stopped asking Zalatl (or worse, Yugul himself) why the Architect of Reflections was so upset. The Architect of Thaumaturgy had taken great pleasure in violently dismembering the poor fool who had last asked.
Architects murdering each other wasn't uncommon, but rarely did they do so quite as blatantly as Zalatl had.
Zalatl prided himself on refusing to stand for any idiocy. He felt it was best quality.
One moon after his success, Yugul woke up to Uromoti shaking him gently.
The exhausted Architect looked up at the Architect of Expansions, glazed eyes watering. "Huh?"
Uromoti tended to be the introverted sort, if only because no one ever really understood what he was talking about.
"Close your eyes," Uromoti said. His voice was dreamy. Then again, that was usual for Uromoti.
Yugul did as directed.
"No, not like that. Dusk falls. Despair drives you to look. Don't listen. Close your eyes and don't listen."
"I don't understand, Uromoti," Yugul mumbled.
"Do not understand. It will break the light. Don't call the dawn. It will come to you."
"What are you talking about?"
"Don't dream. Sometimes it's a lie. Close your eyes but don't sleep. Remain vigilant. You are not a reflection of yourself."
"Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Keep on searching, and you'll fall. What do you see, in the mirror? Not your darkness, spreading nearer."
So… I came back to this only to return months later with part one of a two-shot, because apparently my brain decided that this was the perfect thing to return with. I also renamed this story, and many of my original ideas were scrapped, but here's "Fairest of All." Part one. Part two hopefully coming soon.
It's also possible that not every chapter will cover every aspect of what's outlined in the description. I felt I needed to provide some backstory on Yugul, but I'm not entirely sure how I'll cover him falling asleep. I may not — it simply might not work in the context of this particular Yugul. I'd like to clarify here that, at the time this chapter occurs, Yugul is not a god, and he has no aspirations of godhood.
28 June 2020: Edited. Some things were clarified or rephrased.