The Outlaw God


By Dolores J. Nurss

Volume 2: The Tempest of Alroy

Chapter 26
Harsh Goodness and Affectionate Evil

Saturday, March 18, 2705.
 

Some time after midnight Deirdre flew over the twin cities of Dougalsenne and Amsi'en with their famous amusement park in between. The wind made squeaks and howls through the roller-coaster planks and the gaunt limbs of carnival-ride machinery. Rags of bright canopies flapped in the air like barker's hands, gesticulating towards coming attractions in the freaks of nature department. Seats swayed suspended in the air, now and then tumbling forth a burden of rainwater. The ferris wheel lay on its side, imbedded in the mud.
 
The flit jerked mid-air like a broken ride, and it jerked again. Deirdre didn't remember when she'd begun to cough; she only noticed now when it threatened to topple her from the sky.
 
More important, the tornadoes had pulled back up into the clouds and left behind mere hurricanes, and even these had spread out, making spaces between; she suspected that most of them had died down into storms. Yet sometime during the night she had slowed, she couldn't see how, and one had gotten ahead of her; now she had to catch up.
 
But the cough kept jolting her; time and again she dived, only to recover just short of injury. The pain in her body zeroed in on her chest with a little left over for the neck that kept her head up, and a general cloud of achiness that she hardly even noticed anymore.
 
She desired nothing more than to curl up somewhere and freeze into a deep, cold sleep, numb to life and troubles. But images crowded her, of corpses bloating in the mud, living persons shorn of limbs in pools of red, the rags of flesh not quite veiling the jut of bone. Perhaps she'd best not sleep, after all.
 
Just then she screamed--a dry caw from a raw throat. She veered her flit from a giant, white-faced corpse that reared before her, one arm dangling from a tangle of tendons. Then she collected her wits and recognized the ride, its central pillar shaped like a clown with grin agape, one seat-holding limb half-ripped from its socket and hanging by the cables.
 
"I don't need to dream," Deirdre muttered to herself from soundless lips. "No, I surely do not need to dream."

* * *
 

The priest at the evacuation center yawned, stretching his soft young face as wide as if he could swallow up all the rest he needed. Then he looked at his watch, squinting till it stopped blurring. Way past midnight, again; he knew that he had to get some rest or he'd be useless to everyone.
 
A Roman Catholic, himself, Father Hilary wondered whether the Zen Catholics to the east would find such work easier or harder than he did, perhaps a distraction from their beloved hermitage, or just another illusion to bear with equanimity. No matter; he had enough on his hands simply trying to work out the particulars of his own faith.
 
He wondered why God just had to smite him with such trials so soon after his ordination. Then he shook his head; God had much more to deal with than the insecurities of one new-minted priest trying to find his footing.
 
Hilary stretched till his bones crackled back into place, so loudly that some of his fellow volunteers turned their heads. He wondered if one could gauge fatigue mathematically by counting the pops that his back made. He gathered up his things and moved to the door. Time to turn in.
 
A shape blocked the doorway, face hidden in the night. "A word with you, Father."
 
The priest thought some sinful words, then reproached himself and said, "Yes? May I help you?" After all, self-sacrifice wasn't supposed to come easily.
 
A meaty hand came into the light, flecked with gray hairs, extended from the cuff of a policean's uniform. It held a small, brown pouch. "Do something with this. You're the expert, not me. Do whatever you think best."
 
"And what is it, my son?" Father Hilary blushed despite himself; calling older persons "Son" never set quite right with him, and yet somehow felt necessary.
 
"Evil, Father. Evil in the form of gold." He could vaguely discern another hand, cast-encased, a paleness in the gloom.
 
"Illicit money? A bribe perhaps?" He groaned inside; direct currency meant foreign money, corruption on an international scale. "If you can't return it to the owner, then donate it to charity; that's the best way to purify money."
 
"No, Father; this buys nothing but trouble." The big fingers opened the pouch so that the priest could see the shimmer within. "See? Real gold. It needs exorcism."
 
The priest's neck-hair rose. "I-I'm not an exorcist, son." True infernal demons rarely troubled souls so directly, but the other kind, the semisentient outgrowths of psychic pollution, had increased distressingly of late. He felt out of his league with both kinds.
 
"Then take it to someone who knows what he's doing! How the hell can a man like me find an exorcist at this hour?" The cop flung the pouch at the priest's chest and fled. Father Hilary sighed, bent down, and picked it up with a shudder. Why did these things happen only when he'd already had too full a day?

* * *
 

Lisa tiptoed in on the sleeping woman. The dawn's first light glinted across the blonde hair touseled on the pillow, slanting low, lending it the blush of pink gold; it shone against the black curls nearby. When Lisa saw the arm around Zanne's nude waist she thought, Ohh Merrill, don't kill me for this!
 
Telepathy often worked better, and could reach deeper, with at least one of the subjects asleep. And dreams could cushion sensitive material in symbolism. I only need a chink, just a tiny breech in her defenses that I could squeeze into without doing any damage. Please, God!
 
Barely permitting herself to breathe, she bent to the encased hand on the blanket and slipped Zanne's magentine-sewn belt under two plaster-free fingers. They curled around the leather and the stone within, and the woman sighed. Lisa touched its edge with her own fingertips, sank down to curl up by the bed and closed her eyes.
 
Almost...almost...sense of vertigo...rising, falling...no, the sea. Limitless turquoise ocean tossed her slowly up and down with a hush, hussh, huusssh of ever-moving water, a dream about sailing? Even the sky looked no different, infinite, coldly blue alive...
 
"Wha...?" For an instant Zanne looked less than suave; she woke up puffy-eyed, her face creased with the pillowcase's edge. Then she woke the rest of the way and without a stroke of makeup resumed her glamour like a hastily shrugged-on robe--even her hair became "wild" instead of "disheveled". Liltingly she asked, "Lisa, what the hell are you doing in our bedroom?"
 
Lisa stumbled to her feet and drew herself up, but she couldn't match Zanne for dignity, who didn't bother to move from where she lay. "I'm trying to help you save Deirdre's life," she snapped.

* * *
 

"We always sleep over against that wall when we're new recruits," a woman told Don as she pointed to where he'd spent the night--too few hours of it, his body complained. A man said, "And the longer we've been here, the closer to center we can move." "Warmer." "More congenial." "More sociable." They switched voices and faces, phrase by phrase, but Don felt as though one person addressed him. "When the prophet declares a meal, we line up over there." "And we take turns doing dishes," "According to his pleasure."
 
"Art time," called The Prophet Lord Mack. People brought out paints and paper. As they uncapped jars of glue and mineral spirits the fumes made Don's head spin even more than the tail-end of concussion, but nobody did a thing to provide ventilation in the stuffy chamber. He blinked at all the bright, wet colors that waited for him to spread them out on a board shoved before him.
 
Someone at his elbow said, "Art sharpens the perceptions." "It makes nimble the fingers of a thief."
 
"What should I paint?" Don asked in a pain-mumbled voice. It didn't help his headache when laughter rang out all around him, chaotic, clashing.
 
"Holy Impulse!" several people shouted at once. He gripped his head before he could stop himself.
 
Immediately hands shoved towards his face, fists full of pills. "Forgive us." "We forgot your injuries." "Here, this will help.”
 
"What're these?" he asked. The silence showed that they didn't expect him to question it.
 
"Numbness," they then said in voices that wondered why he didn't know. "Release." "Pills."
 
"Uh huh." Don pretended to swallow them. At least he knew that he needn't feign grogginess. He doubted for some reason that Alroy could use his concussion against him the way he could confusion from unnatural causes. He hoped. Everyone smiled, once satisfied that Don had drugged himself like a good little outlaw.
 
"And after art," a high voice gushed, "we go out on heists!"
 
"Not new people," someone else corrected. "New people stay home.” “And learn the ways of Alroy." "Sunlight's bad for fresh recruits." Don listened as he slashed a line of green through magenta and orange, amid cooings of approval.

* * *
 

"You need me around," Randy said to Jake, in his lover's home. "No, don't argue; nobody'd think anything of it." He poured scalding water onto a tea-egg and watched tendrils of brown unfurl in the water. "It's perfectly natural for a man to take care of a member of his friendclan who's been ill and injured." The smell of Zanne's prescribed herbs wafted out of the kitchen. "Don't worry; this is milder than what Zanne gave Don; you haven't quite relapsed."
 
"It gets more complicated than that for an oracle," Jake growled. "I've got more at stake than nerves." Jake brooded with chin leaned on steepled fingers, elbows on knees. Then he had to shift when the bad knee gave him a pang--he couldn't even brood properly.
 
Randy brought him the cup and nestled its warmth into Jake's hand. Jake watched his own fingers curl around it like they didn't even belong to him. Nothing felt right.
 
Randy squatted beside his chair. Gently he said, "I bet you wouldn't mind a little heavy sedation, after all you've been through. But we can't do it, Jake; it isn't safe."
 
The hand not quite his hand raised the cup. The mouth not quite his mouth gulped down the hot liquid--but the pain belonged to him, all of it, as he reared back and spilled tea down his legs, two burning streaks of dark.
 
"Easy!" Randy cried. "You can't just guzzle it that hot!" He ran into the kitchen. "Ice--that's what you need, ice."
 
Something happened when the fiery liquid hit Jake's palate--something volcanic, no longer containable, erupted through the sensation straight into his brain. All the stress, stress, stress, his knee still sore at a careless move, his shoulders cramped tight and aching, wars for his mind, his soul, now his flesh attacked he couldn't take any more something snapped he just couldn't something had to give.
 
Randy noted the draft when he came in, the wind on his fingers where the ice made them wet, seconds before he saw the empty chair and the open door beyond it. He swore in a whisper. “Not again!”

* * *
 

Alroy pushed the pin up into the wax doll's mouth with a giggle that made even his own hackles rise. He didn't know quite what he did, whether it even entered the game, but he knew that he enjoyed himself.
 
"Now that I've got your attention," he chuckled, "let's cut a deal." He hadn't quite planned to wander out onto his grounds--with all the effort that he exerted to maintain his gardener-slaves, he really should spend more time outdoors--but there he found himself, poppet in hand, blinking at the sunlight when he could've sworn he'd find a black night sky. One gets so out of touch with time when one lives forever.
 
Grass. He felt it under his bare feet, a tickle. He gazed out at all the trees and topiaries, twisted and hacked into whimsical shapes. Delightful. Grotesque. His place, all right--he really should visit it more often.
 
He leaned back onto a "rustic" stone wall (appropriate tomb for a mistress who'd nagged him unceasingly about the joys of rural life--how many years had passed since then?) and stared at the thing in his hand, the wax so soft compared to the stone at his back, so breakable, delectably frail. He laughed again and sat down; the rough stones tugging at the monk's robe that he liked to wear these days. He set the tiny feet on the ground and danced the doll around like it ran, someplace, who knew where? Once more he cracked up, then sobbed for breath, leaning against the sunbaked stone.
 
Ai, too many drugs--so hard for an immortal to practice moderation when the body simply wouldn't destruct. He probably should cool it down for awhile, now that his plans finally tumbled headlong towards the triumph that he'd yearned towards for more than a century. He pushed his dark hair from his eyes and grinned at the toy in his hand. So close--he could keep a sane head for that, relatively speaking.
 
"Do you agree?" he asked the doll. "Would you like that, to avoid all altered states for awhile?" With a quieter snicker he said, "I'm sure you would. But..." he said as he struggled back to his feet, "We can't always have what we want."
 
He spied a tree with a hole like a wailing mouth in the trunk. "Or maybe we can," he speculated as he ambled over.
 
He clearly, definitely, did not know quite what he did. Holy impulse--didn't he now ride the very crest of intuition with the impairment of his rational mind?
 
He nestled the doll into the hollow, pulling out the pin. "There," he said tenderly. "I can be a good friend, too." He leaned against the bark and gazed lovingly on his poppet. "S'nice in there, isn't it? All snug and dark? A calming place. Do you like it?" He pushed away from the tree, and tottered back towards his palace. The game awaited. "I could make it yours. I work miracles for my followers. Think about it."

* * *
 

Jake stood half in and half out of the illusory tree of policia, swaying slightly, not entirely in command of himself. He couldn't remember the details of his run here, though the throb of his knee said that it happened.
 
He looked down, watched his own trunk merge with the bark and fiber of deception. He looked up to where his limbs stretched out at odd dancer's angles. Now they appeared as sinewed flesh, browned in his travels, now as twisting boughs with finger-twigs and nails of leaves. When the wind pushed him he bent, arched without the angled jerk of joints, his spine a pith (or so it felt.) His feet secured the ground like they wouldn't let go.
 
"Could I really have this?" So many people had described Jake as a "giant" that he'd imagined no other role, should fantasies come true. But Alroy had divined his heart more deeply than a telepath, to find the dream that he'd hidden even from himself.
 
"A dryad? Me?" He visualized no feminine image, but a creature of height and majesty, a tower of silence that ran with life pungent in the bright green sap, untroubled by the weathers of the world. He, deep-rooted, flexible in his own way but ultimately immoveable, unreached by quests or guilts or visions, he would exist to absorb the sun, the rain, the soil, to absorb and grow merely to beautify the world with his strength. "Could he make me thus?"
 
Slowly he lowered his arms. "It is only an illusion." He stepped out into the real vision. As he'd feared to do.
 
Immediately he toppled to his knees, crushed by incredible horror as though, rebuffed, Alroy could reach out and scour every dendrite of his nervous system. His fingers dug into his cheeks; the burn in his mouth expanded to a ground-zero as another man's rage radiated out from there to the reaches of his soul. Nothing else had ever been, could ever be, only this feeling, this dread eternally gnawing itself with teeth like jags of glass.
 
Then it passed, a general swath of telepathy that snagged for a moment on his burn like fabric on a pin, only to whip on, ignorant of whether it had even brushed its target. Jake found his face against the sodden grass.
 
But he had not yet emerged from vision...
 

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