IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 18
Wake Up!


Saturday,  November 7, 2708, continued

Wake up, Deirdre!

(Something in me tells me to wake up.  I barely force my eyes open, then they  close again.  Oh Gates but I need my beauty sleep if I’m to lead this pack of misfits in the morning...did I just see twin gleams?)

Wake up!  I try, but my body doesn’t listen.  I shove a little against the dirt, almost force my eyes open enough to catch a glimmer of starlight between the lashes, and then I tumble back down into dreams...

(Don groans, “How many of these midnight meetings will George insist on, anyway?” as we follow a terrified little messenger out into the hallway, pulling on our robes and yawning.  Every bone and muscle craves a horizontal position, but no such luck.  “I’m starting to make mistakes—real mistakes, not just on purpose—in my schoolwork.”

The child glances back, startled, but Jake just growls, “You didn’t hear that,” so the kid’s wide eyes fix straight forward once more, taking us down another flight of stairs, past lancet windows full of stars.  For such a smart fellow, Don can really get stupid when he’s half-asleep on his feet.)

How can I be so stupid?  Climb to your feet, woman!

(“Anyway, it’s not midnight,” I tell Don.  “It’s three in the morning.  I checked.”
            Jake murmurs, “The hour of the wolf.”

When we reach the last flight of stairs, the way down to that room, the boy stops.  “He told me not to go further.  He just wants to be with you three.”)  Crawl if you can’t stand, Deirdre.  A little further, a little further, what’s wrong with me?  Further...and out. ( He pauses, and then, in a strained voice, the boy confesses, “We were about to do a ritual.  He wanted to take me to a, a higher level.  But something went wrong.  Maybe I’m unworthy—maybe the Rift doesn’t want me!”)

Unworthy!  Lazy, weak excuse for a leader.  Why do they even follow me?  I push up again from the dirt...and then tumble back down into it.  Can’t even close my mouth to not taste it.

(Jake lays a hand on the boy’s shoulder.  “It’s all right, lad.  It’s all right.  I understand these things.  You have an even better destiny.  And someday you will be very, very glad that the ritual went wrong.  It was meant to be.”

“He’s in there,” the boy says, and leaves.  I reach out to Jake and can feel him shudder, but he waits till we can’t hear the steps anymore before telling us, in a low voice.  “That kid would’ve been the next sacrifice.  I can feel it around him.”

Don takes the old handle.  “The door’s locked,” he said.  “But no worries.”  And I hear the faint tink of tumblers realigning to let us in.  As soon as we open the door to the stinking chamber within, we hear George’s weak voice say “I…knew it.  I knew…you could…I locked it…to keep out…oth…others.”

Jake says, “Give us a light, here, Randy,” but I’ve already started a glow.

“Good God,” says Don.

George Winsall lies on an antique carpet, its intricate design nearly obliterated by layers of old bloodstains.  About him scatter lots and lots of magentine crystals, reversed religious symbols made of wire, bundles of herbs, old texts, prisms, crystals, lenses, flasks, cups, jars of powder, and a silver platter with a dead rat on it, still bleeding out.  George still holds the knife loosely where he lies.  But none of these caused Don to take the Lord’s name in vain.  It’s the fact that George Winsall lies there with blood spreading from spots all over his face and hands, and judging from the way red dots also ooze up through his clothing, it’s coming from his skin.

“What’s happening to me?” George gasps. 

Don kneels swiftly by him, picking up a magnifying glass to study his pores.  Hematidrosis. You’re sweating blood.”

George tries to grin.  “Does…that make me…the Antichrist?”

“It makes you a damned fool,” Jake grates as he checks the flasks till he finds one that contains what he wants.  “Don, check this out—is that straight water, or did he add anything?”

Don touches the bottle.  “It’s safe,” he says.  He hands it to George.  “You’ll be dehydrated.  Drink all the water in there.”  And Jake kneels to hold George up enough to drink it, though a touch makes the boy cry out at first.  Don explains, “Hematidrosis can happen with extreme emotion.  It’s rare, but it doesn’t have to be metaphysical.  Not even in this room.”

Jake says to the teen, “You didn’t want to kill him, did you?”  And George stares up at him, with eyes as wide as the little boy’s.  “There’s been more than enough killing to go around.  Isn’t that right?”

“I don’t mean to…but sh…someone…wants it.  Needs it.  It takes whole lives full of energy to fight off…to…I need help, Jake!”  George clutches him with bloodstained fingers.  “I don’t understand…in over my head.  I need HELP!”

“And you shall have it,” Jake says earnestly.  “We won’t tell the medic where we found you, but you must come clean with us.”
            Don adds, “You’re a star pupil who slipped behind.  They will believe that the stress of your studies caused this.”

“Stress of…” and he starts to giggle.  “Oh yeah…stress of my studies…of…and why SHOULD I feel ashamed?” he roars with new strength, sitting up without Jake’s help.  “I didn’t do anything but obey Holy Impulse.”

“Oh Jesus,” Don breathes, recoiling.  “It is Alroy!”

George climbs jerkily to his feet, like a puppet, grinning horribly.  Jake grabs him but George pushes him off without effort.  “Let it all crash—into the Rift with everything and everybody!  Pirates don’t care—pirates do what they want!”

“Huh?”  I turn to Don.  “Did Alroy’s bunch talk about pirates?”

“They included pirates, but they identified as “outlaws”, usually.”

George still has the knife in his hand.  He slashes at Jake but my man arcs away in time, arms out, waiting for the right opportunity.  The boy cries, “Let’s play pirate until the end of time!”  And with that George grabs Jake by the nightshirt and kisses him.  But that gives Jake the opening to force the knife from his grip and bop him on the head with the pommel.  He catches the unconscious boy and scoops him up into his arms.

In a low voice, Don admits, “It might be metaphysical.  Alroy did sweat blood, on one occasion.  I heard it from…” and he shakes his head.  “I shouldn’t know two cases in one lifetime—it’s much too rare for that.”

“Let’s get him to the infirmary,” Jake says, shoving out the door.  “We’ll deal with metaphysics later.  Don, lock that behind you, and then join me—we need more than a nurse on this.  Randy, you go and fetch Weatherbent—we need to talk.

I run up the stairs, hoisting up my nightshirt in sweaty palms.  By the time I reach faculty quarters I gasp for air.  I burst into the Headmaster’s bedchamber without preamble, rush to the bedside, and start shaking him.

“Wake up, Wallace!  Wake up!”  But he doesn’t wake.)

* * *

(“Wake up!”  Damien jerks me halfway off the bench, scattering furs everywhere.

“But it’s still dark!” I groan. “Mostly.”  I stumble into the loo and pull the curtain between us.

“Now, Lufti, NOW!  Here.”  He throws my clothes at me as soon as I stumble out.  I’m still pulling my pants up as he manhandles me into my backpack, much heavier now than it used to be.  “Come on—Zahir’s got horses waiting for us.”

“Horses?” I whimper, my sore legs even stiffer than before.  Even in the danger Damien can’t help but chuckle at my face as he whips a serape down over me and shoves me out the door.

Outside,  the two dappled grays champ and stamp in the frost, their breath steaming around their bits.  Damien and Zahir wrestle my sorry tail into the saddle, then Damien springs lightly onto his own mount.  I have never seen this guy make one ungraceful move in his life, even when the lamps gleam ruddy on his beer-flushed face and his breath could ignite on a single fiery word.  Then Zahir smacks my horse’s rump and I hang on for dear life as the steed springs forth into the deep blue twilight, our minstrel galloping at my side.

Hooves pound behind us and a shot whizzes past!  Damien grabs my reins and drives both horses thundering down a slope fit to kill us on a stumble.  He laughs like we’re on some kind of prank.  “I should’ve known that not everyone around here’d like my choice of songs,” he says gaily.  “And there’s the not-so-small matter of the price upon my head...”  Oh great, Damien!  Just who I need beside me on a covert mission—a thrillseeking, subversive bard!  And no, Damien, you haven’t been graceful for your whole entire life—I just remembered you hobbling on beestung feet before you grew your smart-ass beard. 

He says conversationally, like we weren’t fleeing for our lives, “Zahir tells me that he taught you all you need to know about riding—‘sthat true?”

“Yes,” I groan, and he laughs again.

“Duck!” he calls barely in time as we plunge into a tunnel of boughs drooping over a hidden creek.  Stony splashes echo around us in the shadows before we shoot out and up again, to gallop between boulders taller than the trees.

“Is that the same horse that pounded your poor butt all day yesterday?”

“Maybe.  I can’t tell ‘em apart in the dark.”

“Here—catch.”  I nearly drop the flask he tosses my way, then fumble for the saddlehorn again.  “A slug or two of brandy should ease the pain...but go easy.  We wouldn’t want you falling off your horse.”

This trip has suddenly gotten a whole lot better.)

* * *

            (Wake up, Zanne!  I mean it this time.  At least open your eyes...to stare straight into the eyes of a rat with mottled fur.  He scampers away as I sit up, bleary, combing my fingers through my hair—just in time to see a gaunt man staring intently through the foliage at me, his face and shoulders twitching, before he, too runs away.)

* * *

Wake up!  Deirdre, how could you fall asleep again?  Already the pre-dawn glow brightens the way for the sun, and I can make out colors beyond black and blue.  I stretch and yawn, rubbing out the indentations of rocks and twigs in my flesh, shivering in the chill.  Not a night to sleep without a blanket, either.  Come on, you slug!  Do it without the greenfire—you’ve done it before.

I stagger to my feet.  I yank my boy-clothes back the way they ought to go, in the hopes that my wit will follow.  And I get back to work, hiding all trace of Betany’s passing, glaringly obvious in the spreading light.

I soon reach a point where other hands than mine obliterated trail.  But I can take it from here: I see the farmhouse before me.  A barking dog calls a gaunt woman to the door.  She shouts, “What do you want?” with a gun in her arms.

I spread my own arms wide and innocently.  “I hear you’ve got a sick cousin in the house.  I know a thing or two about healing, that’s all.”

“I don’t know you from around here,” she snaps back.  “What man or woman might you serve?”

I sigh.  “Neither and both.”  As soon as I get close enough to whisper, I tell her, “And find some other test—the code’s been compromised.”  Immediately I feel the rifle barrel shove into my gut.  “Ow!  Now would I tell you that if I came from the enemy?  Bring me to the patient and she’ll vouch for me, if she can talk.”

“Drop your weapons, first.”  I shed my gun and two knives and she brings me in to a bedroom where Betany lies curled up on her side.  Her breath doesn’t sound labored—no penetration of the lung, then.  So far so good.

“Build up the fire,” I say.  “I’m going to have to strip off her blankets but I want to keep her warm.”  The woman has done a good job bandaging torso and arm; it’s a shame to pull off the strips of shredded sheet.  And...thank God!  The bullet skimmed the outer ribs and inner left arm—no lasting damage.  Burnt orange stains of Akbar’s Ox Ointment marks the skin all around, so the woman can at least give Betany the same care that she’d give her own livestock.

“She need stitching?”

“Maybe on the arm,” I say while she tears the rest of the sheet for changing bandages.  “I think I’ll let the side heal by itself.  As soon as the skin closes, make her bend from the waist in a circular motion, five rotations each way, every day, till she regains...”

“Hold it right there!  I didn’t say I’d keep her for the long term.”

I sigh.  “How long can you take care of her, then?”

“As soon as she can move she’s gotta go—now don’t you dare go looking at me like that!”  Her own glare would melt steel.  “I lost my husband and three sons to the revolution—I’ve already paid my dues.”

I nod and say as gently as I can, “Then may their spirits watch over us all.”

She bangs around to fetch a pot for boiling the old bandages for reuse, and fetches the veterinary needle and gut that she keeps on hand.  “You Egalitarians never know when to let go,” she mutters.  “You demand and demand and demand on both sides of the grave.”

            Wearily I sink into a chair and wait; a few brief naps don’t nearly make up for a missed night’s sleep.  “Boy, don’t I know it, sister.”  Does Lovequest require any less?



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