IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 48

Down the Thorny Path


 

Thursday, December 3, 2708, continued

We’ve got time and distance enough to begin, but carefully.  We’ll start with a little arrangement to isolate the soldiers even more.  (We try again, this time knowing what we’re up against at Montoya Manor.)

(“Let’s try this”, George says, bringing out a humidor, wiping off the dust and cobwebs.  The label says “Vanilla Rum”.    I open the jar and inhale appreciatively.  The tobacco has kept well, sealed up in the dark.)

I find myself craving Kief’s brandied tobacco like my heart would break for it.  But I’ve got enough herbal fire zinging in my veins to see me through till I can smoke again—even if it is the raw, unflavored wild tobacco that we’ve been making do with lately.

(“And...here we are.”  George digs up two pipes.  He keeps the clay one and hands me one of wood.  I supply the matches.)

(I scan ahead telepathically, supplying my fellows with intel as we go.  Gates alive!  After all the people I killed, they have just as many as before.  Guaril conveys that they lure workers in from all over, people who now only have brief flashes of thinking for themselves and no real sense of separate identity.  Even the supposed leaders only order what they receive.

“And who commands them?” I ask.  I sense something mineral in some blind-dark place, but I can’t make it out.)

In the predawn blackness I fly above the topmost leaves, as silent as a curse whispered deep in the heart where no one can know.  (Silently we slide through shadows beyond Montoya Manor’s glaring searchlights, snow whirling in wild flamencos in the beams, snow to cover our trail behind us.  Light cuts both ways.  We can’t venture right into it without consequences, but the men behind the lamps have adjusted to its shining, not to the night; they have become blinder to what lies beyond than ever before.)  Below me the ground levels out to a broad plateau, carpeted by forest.  A faint line to my right marks the road that our enemy shall march on today, when they wake.  (We scurry, bent, along the black side of a hedge, the light shooting over our heads, missing us.)  Let them sleep securely for another night, even as my own troop does (they could hear each other’s snores, if they listened carefully.)  Let them not suspect the mischief that I do to them.  (Let them put too much confidence in their illumination!)

Here we are.  (Here we are, at a spot behind a wing of the building, where the hedge leaves a narrow gap beside the wall.)  I swoop down upon a six-way crossroads, marked with pictorial signs for the illiterate traveler.  One sign shows bed and cutlery—the common symbols of an inn up ahead, on a major thoroughfare.  Chances are the soldiers want to go that way; it does connect up with a number of important routes, after all. 

(The hedge prickles, thorns catching on our clothes.  We squeeze through slowly, as quietly as possible, one by one, dislodging threads with care, inch by inch.)  I switch thr sign with the placard sporting a berry-laden bush.  That path, broad enough at this juncture, will shortly wander and narrow, following a track through brambles for ease of berry-gathering before it eventually peters out.  (Eventually we all make it through.  I scan ahead, telepathically, for guards.)  But nobody traverses such a road this time of year, nor bothers to maintain it till at least the summer solstice, some weeks away.  (Sooner or later, I know, we will have to come out into the light.)  The berry blossoms still glow faintly in the darkness here and there, their sweetness rich upon the air—no, nobody’s likely to come gathering just yet.  But you know, at the start, this track looks just as broad and plain as the road to civilization.

The first sleepy bird sends out a trill.  (We don’t have much time before the dawn frees the guards of their night-blindness.)  Like all accursed things, I’d best get back to my own lair before the sun should rise.  (But we have nowhere else to go except ahead.)

            (“All accursed things come here, Jake,” George says, sounding almost like himself.

            “Do they?” I ask, laying more wood upon the fire.

            George sips at the coffee, weak with age, that we found.  No breakfast to go with it, but I feel like fasting, anyway, and apparently so does he.  “Yes.  Assuming that ‘here’ is not a place.”

            “Ah.  I understand.”  And the sparks fly up with a jab of the poker.)

            (We have run out of shadow, and I do not like the rest of our plan.  We can see now, close enough, how sparks play up and down the bodies of Guaril and Tshura, and feel more acutely the glare of their defiance.  Guaril’s eyes catch mine; his strained lips smile.

            Telepathy stab!

            I run—no, Old Magda runs straight for her kinfolk, shrilling and yipping the whole way.  I feel her blood pumping, her arthritis grinding.  Guns shoot, I reel in confusion from the wounds, lurching against Cybil, as guards run after Magda, firing, but the woman’s hysterical strength overrides the first glancing wounds.  Cybil drags me towards the nearest neglected doorway as Maury takes the figurative lead, herding everybody else from behind.  I hear loud cracks and sputters.  I see Magda from many eyes at once, the old woman pulling out the cables even as she dies, going up in flames but maybe the bullets kill us first, and I fall from the cliff and then out of our skins and hover over and they look so spent down there, the two frail bundles of flesh that we used to occupy, falling near dear old Cousin Magda, all eyes on the three bodies and none on our companions rushing for safety ...

            “...Zanne?  Zanne?”  The hissing whisper brings me back into this flesh...this unharmed living flesh.  We hole up in an empty room.  I have picked up from somewhere that they have lots of empty rooms these days.

            “Too much magentine,”  I manage to mumble.  “Too focused.  Too unshielded.”  I grab her head, afraid that she, too, might slip from her body with the disconnection of the cord.  “I was there, Cybil.  In them.  I died.  I felt it all.”

            And then it all comes rebounding back!)

            Jake always said to take the unexpected path, that in the heart of danger lies safety.  Well then, it’s a kindness to redirect the Charadocian army!  But I don’t think they will find safety on that road.  My chuckles cause my flight to waver, so I force them down.

(Jake would have taken an unexpected path.  I remember what he told me about how he found me, when I got lost in Alroy’s tunnels.  By facing directly into his blindspot.

            So, after Don finishes chilling his fingers searching the snow at the Bad Boys corner, looking for any cigarette butt with a memory of Jake’s lips and finding none recent, I will a bit of fire to hover in front of him by which to warm his hands, as I explain my plan.  And then I close my eyes, and still my heart, wondering if this is how oracles do it.  I turn slowly in a circle, trying to sense which direction feels wrong.

            I don’t sense anything except my stomach, growling for the ham and toast that I abandoned at breakfast for this excursion, before our classes begin.

            I shouldn’t have stilled my heart. It has something to say.

            Okay one more turn, getting just a little bit dizzy.  I point.  “Thataway,” I tell Don.  “I feel least like going there.”)

            I chuckle silently.  No one will find any trail around the roadsigns to clue them in that a switch has been made.  I hovered the whole time.  All the roads will look untrod for days.

But then I shudder as I land, causing me to stumble.  I just realized what a horrible road I’ve chosen for my own as well as them.  Then I grab a tree to steady myself, and chuckle once again.  Isn’t that the way of vengeance, that it hurts both the hunter and the prey?  I heard that somewhere.  So what?  It’ll be so worth it!

            (We leave trails in the snow, but find none of his.  We’d had no chance to sneak back to the dorm for galoshes.  The damp soaks through these damnably inadequate slippers, and through the woolen stockings, and wicks up the stirrups of the leggings, and I curse this ridiculous uniform like every other schoolboy condemned to wear such gear.

            “Okay, we’re at the gate,” Don says.  Now what?”

            I swallow back repugnance and say, “Now we go through it.”

            He looks at me.  “In broad daylight?”

            “I don’t care!” I start towards it, but he stops me.

            “Wait—let me check first.”  Again he pulls off his gloves, presses together the fingers with the magentine rings, and runs their sensitive tips over the oak and iron.  “You’re half-right,” he says.  “Jake has come through here, more than on that one occasion when we burned the rug.  But not since then.  He’s not out there, at least not by this route.”

            I sag against the gate, wishing I could feel Jake’s arms pushing on it the way that Don can feel it, and I try to stifle it but a sob starts out, and once it gets going it drags a whole train of sobs with it.  Awkwardly, warmly, Don stands by.  He offers me a handkerchief as soon as I can raise my head, never mind that I have a perfectly good one in my own pocket.  I take it anyway, and dry my face before I get frostbite.

            “Don,” I say, trying not to start crying all over again.  “Do you remember what…what they said, before sending us on this mission?”

            “Z…Zora and Incense.  I remember Zora and Incense.  What did they say?”

            “That nobody can find an oracle who wants lost.  They said it about Wallace Weatherbent, but…but…oh sweet Jesus!”  And I bury my face in his handkerchief, fighting to regain my self-control and failing miserably.)

            (I fight to regain myself, but my senses reel from body to body and in and out and I can see from so many eyes that I can’t see at all.  One of my mouths shouts orders as fast as they bombard my brain, one falls slack as I feel my aged body dying around me, curled around the cables, and one feels a pill slipped in between my lips.)

            I feel my body slacken, then drop.  But I manage to slip a leaf between my lips and catch myself back into flight before the foliage can do more than tickle me.  Must’ve fallen asleep mid-air.  There...that’s better.

            (“Drink, Zanne.”  I feel a cup, cold water in one of my mouths, then I swallow and feel the coldness spreading down a chest.  “There.  You’ll feel better, soon.”)

            I spy a bare spot and I land on it.  Whether I want it or not, I need to get some fuel in me.  Shakily, I walk over to the brambles and start grabbing up fistfuls of jag-edged berry-leaves, stuffing them in, chewing them up, gulping them down.  My stomach cramps around the rough fare; I sink to my knees.  This won’t do.

            (This won’t do.  Need my wits.  But a fog settles between me and all the other people.  The voice shouting orders grows distant, not mine at all.  Slowly I realize that Cybil fed me one of the pills I’d concocted to counteract that seizure.

            “Quick,” I say.  “Draw back and leave me alone for just a few minutes.”  Tapping my palm, I trigger the memorization trance before I lose the ability to do so.  Fighting the rising waves of drowsiness, I lock down the most crucial of the glimpses into the minds that I’d shared.

            Good.  Have a map.  Whole manor and surrounding grounds, all right here.  All pieced together.  Pretty.  Neglected, now, but pretty.

            I sigh and open my eyes, blinking up at Cybil.  “Thank you,” I say.  “I needed damped down to only me.”)

            But then a trace of carbohydrate hits my system, giving me just enough to activate my hyperfast reactions again.  I grab something hiding in the foliage and snap its neck before it knows I’ve caught it.  Quickly my trembling fingers unsheathe my knife, gutting and skinning the rat, stripping off meat, gobbling it down.  My energy increases with every bite.  Country rat, much cleaner than a city rat, safer, but still raw, but I’m probably so full of parasites by now that what’s a few more?

            (“What happened out there, Zanne?”

            I find it harder and harder to talk, but I force myself.  “Guaril and Tshura.  All energy drained.  Neural system nothin’ but a bio-focus for the, the magentine inna cliff.  Without the cable energy exchange, they died.”  I take a sobbing breath.  “Shot right through me.  They were linked to everybody!”  And mercifully I pass out.)

            I wipe the blood off on grass the best I can.  Then, my drained energy restored and the greenfire singing in my veins, I leap up into the sky once more.



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