As my three hundred ninety-second year drew to a close, it became clear to me that I would not see much of my three hundred ninety- third. As dignity required, I embraced my fate. I resolved that, in my remaining days, I would set out to do those things I had always wanted to do, but for which I had never before found time. I drew up a list, in order of importance, and set out to cross off as many items from it as my remaining time would allow.
Foremost on my list -- perhaps by coincidence -- was to climb the steps of the Mount of Kings, to see the Hall of the Flesh Sculptors. It was a monument very few had seen. Cast from ivory marble, it was said to shine with its own radiance, like a drop of frozen moonlight there on the granite peak. The climb was said to be long and difficult, and the gods seldom encouraged nosy visitors. But I set out anyway with the knowledge that I had very little to lose. This one thing, if nothing else, would make my life complete.
I took the long north trail, doubting my strength to forge its shorter, steeper counterpart to the south. Over the course of days, my old bones creaked and strained, plodding up the switchback path, taking one chiseled step at a time. Naturally, I made the climb in solitude ... so I was quite surprised to find someone waiting for me at the top.
A woman, with the look of a youth but the eyes of an ancient, stood on the steps of the great Hall. She stood as straight as the fluted pillars at her back. She waited, dark and serene as the sandy wind bustled around her -- never touching her; never disturbing a single hair.
"Come inside," she said with a smile. "I have something to show you."
This invitation came as quite a shock to me, for a number of reasons that began to dawn on me as I followed her through the broad oak doors. Foremost, the woman was not, by any stretch of thought, a woman in the conventional sense. I had my doubts that she even really existed at the moment my foot crossed the threshold. And yet that smile -- graceful, alluring, accented ever so subtly by the flash of pearlescent teeth arranged in the most artistic of rows -- belied something that at least remembered having once been human, long ago.
It masqueraded as a "she" right now for its own inscrutable reasons, but I have my suspicions that those may have been to advertise its real talents. For this creature -- call it a woman -- was nothing short of perfection cast in human form. Living art. Silky skin of the most exquisite mocha-bronze, hair like ebony, eyes of emerald -- sapphire flecked -- and a body like a marble statue, as though every curve and line had been carved meticulously from that vulgar meat in which the raw character of humanity finds its residence. Every movement she engaged in became a symphony of grace. I had only to look at her to know, without a doubt, that I would not leave this place the same man I had come. I might not leave at all. But as the doors closed at my back, it dawned on me that it was far too late to harbor any doubts. I could not turn back. This thing of mortal perfection had extended to me an invitation so rare and cherished that I would have been the worst of fools to turn it down.
I followed her through the gilded cavern of the foyer, through a maze of corridors and into the deepest heart of the Hall. Our path was marked by a burgundy carpet, inlaid in gold -- exuding opulence beyond any I had witnessed before. In the walls, arrayed behind panes of heavy, frosted glass, stood inert testaments to the Flesh Sculptor's artistry, preserved in exquisitely lifelike quality -- so much so that I had to shake myself out of the feral apprehension that some of them were, in fact, still alive. Their eyes seemed to follow me as I walked. Every one of them held that same, surreal quality of simultaneous life and death.
All of them appeared at once both human and inhuman, even the most monstrous of forms. A serpentine beast, as long as a sea freighter and as thick as a man is tall, coiled and curved within the confines of the passageway's northern wall. Facing it from the other were numerous specimens of similarly unholy creation: a thing like a giant squid, a yeti, something with the face of a man, but with a body wholly indescribable by any human tongue.
Standing free about the place, cast in glass cubes, stood smaller creatures. Some as large as a dog, some as small as a mouse. Each exhibited a chilling, beautiful strangeness. Each marked a place on that narrow boundary between the living and the bizarre. Only a scarce few embodied anything like the quality of beauty we humans might look for in a thing ... but all were beautiful in some sense. Even if only made beautiful by the purity of the horror their deathless stares engendered.
As had been told in stories handed down through generations, it was the wont of the Flesh Sculptors to pursue expression of their artistry in a variety of emotional mediums -- from admiration through apprehension, hatred to pity, simmering lust to stark terror, and the strange sense of preternatural unease that gripped me now. The things I saw on that short walk evoked all these emotions in me, along with others I could never hope to attach names to if I lived a thousand years longer. It struck me then how deeply vetted we meatlings are in the instincts of our progeny. For all our self-styled sophistication, we are animals still -- slaves to the prejudices of the flesh.
The Thing that led me through this gallery of my own basal misgivings shared nothing of that with me. She toyed with it, amused by its quaintness. And when she turned around at last to stop me at the doors of our destination, I was shocked to see that she had at some point become a he.
"You must promise, before we go any further, that everything you see from this point on stays with you -- a secret. For your own protection, as well as mine. I hardly fear the ill will of your brethren -- many of whom I suspect are not as accepting as you -- but there are higher things with ears to your affairs that I suspect may not be so accepting, either. Do you promise me you won't go talking this around?"
My throat had suddenly become stiff and dry as I tried to form a response. I choked out what I had hoped to be an affirmative, and nodded to reiterate the point. I knew it was unnecessary. She -- he? -- knew full well what I would do, and was only playing at drama for my benefit. As I watched him turn to cast open the doors, I marveled at how deceived I had been at his first appearance -- or perhaps he'd changed? It was the same face, the same eyes, that same ebony hair swept back into a delicate sash of braids -- the same body even -- but everything curiously re-sexed beneath my notice as we'd walked. And I had touched her hand when we'd first met outside the hall -- felt its warmth, its living pulse, the delicate structure of its bones, overlaid by flesh. I knew it to be real. This was not the evanescent avatar of Angel's Fog the Gods so often wore when they walked among their pets. This was a living creature like myself -- only somehow capable of this ghastly transformation.
We stepped through the door, out of the hallway's platinum fog of refracted sunlight and into a room that was saturated with a heavy crimson glow. The air here seemed to be its own source of light. It spread soft and diffuse through every corner, blotting the edges of shadows and hazing the finer details of my surroundings. The character of my guide shifted radically now as he stepped through the door ahead of me. Suddenly he became a Hellenistic blonde. She turned to me only a few steps out of the entryway, beaming that disarming, unsettling smile. The same that had greeted me at my arrival.
"Watch," she said, as if the things I'd seen already amounted to nothing but trifles.
And then she revealed to me a hint of the magic I had come to see.
We stood on the bottom face of a voluminous octahedron -- the door that had been behind us moments ago had vanished, swallowed by the wall. Buoyed on the moist currents of air circulating in the center of the room hung veils of a white, diaphanous material. They congealed out of thin air and swirled together, out of the corners and into the center of the room. For minutes, they entertained us with a dizzy introductory dance. And then, one by one, they began to come apart, dissolving and diffusing together, forming a knot at the chamber's heart.
Droplets of moisture condensed out of the hazy atmosphere and fell impossibly toward that central confluence. Within minutes, a quivering sphere a fluid had formed there. The twists of white material had dissolved within it. Only a few shreds remained, sheeting across its surface. At first perfectly transparent, it began to grow cloudy. I squinted to see through it -- through the rheumy fog of my own ancient vision.
My eyes played tricks on me. The hovering globule began to pulsate slowly. The red of the room bled into its bulk. Within seconds, the light around me went from crimson to hazy white, and the floating globule of fluid turned blood red. As I watched, an explosion of dark little tendrils branched out from the center of the mass, veining it with a throbbing, anfractuous structure.
I saw something I could only describe as a heart congeal at its center. It grew from a speck in moments, pumping in time with the shuddering vibration of the intricate web-work in which it nestled. I scarcely noticed that my guide had begun laughing, gleefully, manically, clapping her hands as the dance of perverse magic went on in the air above us. I had become so engrossed that I had lost all track of her shifting features. She -- he? -- it? -- was trying on new faces as quickly as the hovering globule was trying out different strategies of organizing its components, all the while growing and developing at blinding speed. It was like watching a three dimensional puzzle assemble itself -- a puzzle whose pieces were the very fundaments of life itself.
My guide began gesticulating wildly with its hands -- 'it' was at this point the only pronoun I could think to apply to it. It had taken on, in the past few seconds alone, traits both distinctly male and female ... and neither. It twisted and shuddered, laughing and crying out in what looked to be an almost orgasmic kind of bliss. I knew without a doubt then, as I watched it, that it was indeed much more than it appeared. My skin crawled with the sensation that its being extended far beyond the amorphous body I saw before me -- that its apparent identity crisis was just a reflection of a much larger, much more complete kind of being. It was not its failing that it could not make up its mind as to the appearance it wished to wear. Rather, it was my failing that I could not accept the constancy of identity behind its masks.
The thing growing in the air above us was as much a part of it as its avatar-body -- as much as the Hall. As much as, I began to suspect, the whole world. I felt suddenly outside myself -- that I was not my own person. A deep, unraveling terror began to build inside me. The thing over our heads had begun to take shape. It was a thing not unlike those I had seen on my way in -- those once- living statues encased in glass. Only this thing was still alive ... or rapidly on its way to becoming alive. In the moments of my floundering apprehension, it had grown nerves, skeleton and now the rudiments of a musculature around the framework its circulatory system had laid down.
It was a demonstration of the Flesh Sculptors' highest art, being carried out before my very eyes. Just like a puzzle, they assembled bodies one molecule -- one cell -- at a time, constructing complete creatures from scratch. And, amazingly, those creatures lived. Not at the end -- not with some flash of lightning or zap of unnatural magic to impart that vital spark -- but from the beginning, from the moment the first cells were assembled and guided nimbly by those phantom fingers into place.
The Sculptors must work fast, for at first their products are unstable. They bring each new cell into being and guide it into contact with its siblings. They lace the structure of the thing together until it takes hold of its own form-to-be. Every branching vein, every twisting sinew or quivering nerve they place with clockwork precision. Like building ships in bottles from scraps of balsa wood, they assemble beings in vats from stray molecules and proteins in solution. The awesome delicacy of the procedure took my breath away ... along with the horrifying rapidity at which they went from an empty room of air-suspended protein fragments to a fully functioning product.
In this case, a fully functioning human being.
It floated there in its amniotic bubble, fully formed, fully human. All this only a scant five or six minutes after we had entered the room. It was as perfect as my guide -- as artfully crafted, as much a testament to the skill and mastery of its creator as the body that creator wore itself. My guide had suddenly stopped laughing. Now he was watching me keenly, following my twitching, apoplectic movements and my gaping, bewildered stares with eyes that shone dark like polished onyx, pattered with flecks of jade.
"I want to offer you a gift for coming here," he said. "A thank you ... for being an audience to my work. It's been some time since I've been able to work for anyone. I would be honored if you would give me the satisfaction ... of accepting my work as your gift?"
If it was a genuine question, I had no doubt he already knew my answer. I stood in the presence of a creature so far above me as to be a god of gods ... a creature so beyond my comprehension as to regard me with little more consideration than I might a bacterium. And yet it wanted to offer me a gift? To what end, I wondered, even as I nodded my ascent, throat too clenched to give words to my robotic acceptance.
It -- she, as she has shifted once again into the female form I'd known initially and seemed, for once, to settle into a temporary kind of permanence with that shape -- smiled at me again. It was the same smile she had worn on our way here. "You understand," she said, "that what we still find some challenge in is the sculpting of a mind. I would very much like to try ... if you would be willing ... to sculpt your thoughts in this flesh?"
A million reasons for refusal escaped my thinking that day. Whatever happened next, I cannot recall with any certainty. All I know is that I left that hall a different man than I had entered. A better man, I think. A man with greater understanding of his world.
Certainly, if nothing more, a younger man with uncounted centuries of life still left to live.
As I have studied over the years -- as I have come to understand the Sculptors' talents and their methods; to comprehend the finer delicacies of their craft -- I have begun to see the appeal of the Sculptor's art. To create life, to create being ... is as intoxicating a venture as ever I could pursue. And so I have been considering, in the centuries since my rebirth, that I might like to one day try my hand at that curious art.
Perhaps then I will return to the Flesh Sculptors' Hall. Not this time to visit, but to stay.