The Outlaw God


By Dolores J. Nurss

Volume 3: Skirmishes of Souls

Chapter 16
The Morning Aftermath

Monday, March 27, 2705, continued.
 

Morangela swung from limb to limb with arms that ached from the fingers to the shoulders, and sprang from legs that throbbed from toes to hips, and for that matter her back did not escape the pain, either. The morning sunlight sometimes blurred in a sting of tears, but then she'd grit her teeth and curse beneath her breath.
 
She knew her sister Zora better than the others, in some things, and she knew these hills. Zora had hid her in this very forest, many years ago, while liberating her from the old life of unworthy parents. That transition had hurt, too, but she got over it. It heartened her to remember. So Morangela scanned for landmarks as she went, made turns here and there, at the lightning-blasted eucalyptus, the twice-cleft boulder, the creek that bent around a large, white stone. Then, she recalled, she should go on south until she couldn’t hear the chuckle of the water anymore, and right there, where the hills rear up, she’d find a hidden fold of earth, choked and sheltered by the trees which, rooted in it, looked like bushes from a distance, bushes growing evenly on a level slope.
 
Tired as she felt, her heart lifted at the fruity-sweet scent of the redbark-trees, remembering the tea that Zora used to make her of that bark when it peeled in coils from the trunks. It comforted her to have the same boughs that she used to stare up at now firm beneath her hands and feet. Then she spied Zora.
 
The woman lay exhausted on the ground, her hair all tangled up with twigs, between two lifeless forms. The little one looked ivory-pale in the early light, glazed-eyed and gape-mouthed, arms stiffened in a slight curl like a plastic doll. To Zora's left lay Incense, alive and yet not, awake in a manner of speaking, staring up at the canopy of leaves and blinking occasionally.
 
Morangela felt a disquieting sense of awareness there, perhaps as much as a newborn half-asleep, perhaps none after all. It doubled when their eyes met, she in the trees, Incense on the ground, but the moment flickered; Morangela realized that she'd imagined light into that sightless gaze--she looked again and saw nothing left but smoke.
 
Then Zora woke and saw Morangela in the trees. The woman's lids skinned back from the eyes as her lips did from the teeth. Morangela stared at her terror as one thunderstruck, till at last Zora screamed, "Ghosssst! More, more, more dead t'haunt me!"
 
Then suddenly chaos pounded Morangela's body, nearly knocking her from her perch before she recognized the rocks, branches, and ripped-up sods that hurled at her from all directions--none from Zora's hands. Could she be...?
 
"Zora! I'm alive! I escaped!" she shrilled. "Stop it! I'm on your side!" The onslaught halted with a clatter of falling stones and Morangela gasped for breath. Could she be! She dropped to the ground and gasped again at the sight of all the blood half-dried on Zora's shirt; the air hardened so painfully in her chest that it took an effort to exhale again.
 
"Morangela?" Zora's voice came out a quaver.
 
"Yeah, sis. Me." She reached out a hand, winced as Zora clasped it on all its scratches, and then she let Zora grab her and hug her close, imprinting her with blood like an adoption into the outcast life.
 
"Morangela, Morangela, Morangela!" Zora babbled. "I've traveled all nigh' long with the dead, carryin' the dead, carried by the dead, I thought you, too...but oh, I hear your heart! Sister, sister, deares' sister!"
 
Morangela pushed away in shock and saw the madness in the eyes. She felt too young for this. Zora ran her fingers through her hair and said, "The dead, the dead, un-pla-ca-ted but my companions as th' dark went on and..."
 
Morangela slapped her. "Where's your pride?" she cried.
 
Zora stared a moment, then crumpled to the ground in tears. Morangela stood there over her, feeling all trembly and overwhelmed; she glanced over and saw that Incense had sat up in response to her soulmate's wakening, but the placid expression hadn't changed. Morangela shuddered; no wonder Zora lost it for awhile. She heard the tears subside; when she looked back Zora's eyes had reddened, but she seemed her old tough self once more.
 
"Congrat'lations," Zora said in a shaky but sane voice. "It looks like you're tel-e-kin-et-ic." She glanced at all the stones and branches fallen in new places. "A full-fledge' one--you can move things with enough weight to make a diff'rence."
 
"Is that...did you really steal that Gift...from me?" Morangela felt an uncontrollable grin take her over, like the first time she ever got drunk. "I'm telekinetic?" She turned to look at all the fallen missiles and stumbled with exhaustion and surprise. "Me?"
 
"You," Zora confirmed. "Very rare, t'have it full force. But that kind's a major en'rgy drain. You'll need..." She caught the girl just in time and stretched her out unconscious on the ground. "...replen'shment."

* * *
 

Silence swept the ruins, interrupted now and then by the lonely keening of a coastal bird. Awnings still snapped in the wind here and there, but in other places strands of smoke wavered over the embers of some archaeologist's work or student's encampment.
 
The sunlight, wan and harsh, hung like a hangover on the monks that stumbled in their weariness over corpses that had just begun to swell. No one said a word; they just wandered, as aimless as abandoned children. From her hiding-place Blackie wondered if they still could speak.
 
She felt the burnt-spot in her hair, crunchy, sharp-smelling, and she swallowed back her chuckles before the sound could betray her. Her eyes glittered as she smiled, crouched in an outdoor adobe oven big enough to feed a monastery. She stared out the little door, into Osca's eyes--there, where he lay in the blood-made mud, the look on his face at least as bewildered as the monks who slew him. "Thrilled you to death, didn't it?" she whispered.
 
She still wore the tatters of the gossamer-gown that she'd fancied for the evening's business; she shook out her hair over her shoulders with glee. Playing at manhood had its kick, but she much preferred to take her ventures as a woman. A knife-slash on her arm stung a bit, but it didn't go deep, nothing to worry about; she licked it now and then to keep it clean and for the taste of blood.
 
Now she waited. Alroy would provide a way for her to collect whatever relic that she must have if the demon-child eluded her. She listened for his summons, knowing that only the truly, completely mad could hear it in its entirety. She did think that she caught an echo of it; then she knew she had.
 
She emerged from the oven, confident now that no one left alive would heed her. Almost confident--there remained a chance that a brother might have kept some corner of his soul from Alroy, enough to stir in separate will, only to slip back into evil at the sight of a new victim. Her teeth chattered at the danger--oh, delectable, to walk among assassins, wearing their wound upon her arm like an ornament!
 
Now the stumbling of the monks became less random. They began to clump together, more by accident than anything, bumping into each other and then staying in proximity as though held by a sort of magnetic field. Soon the entire bunch wandered...right...around...that corner.
 
Blackie climbed like a lizard up a half-corrupted wall, flinching with delicious terror when her foot dislodged some rubble to rattle down behind her as she scrabbled to hold on. She froze and listened; no one stirred but her. So far so good. She reached the top and peered over, crouching like something prepared to pounce, her wild hair draped across her face.
 
Below her the monks sprawled all over in one ruin of a room, dead-exhausted and sleeping pillowed on each other with the sweetest faces, like they'd found true brotherhood at last. From up here the blood on them looked like mere flaws on an antique painting; they could almost still be holy.
 
The sight charmed her, but it didn't suffice. Soon she couldn't help but toss a pebble down among them. No response. She took a larger chunk of antique brick. It hit a brother square in the shoulder. He grunted, rolled over and snored more loudly than before. She pounded her fists upon the wall and glared. Nothing would wake the beasts for hours, it seemed.
 
Perhaps police would come? That would surely make them wake! She wriggled on her perch with pleasure at the thought of screaming sirens, shouts, the horror of new witnesses. She'd have to flee, herself, of course--all the better! But no, if anyone had survived the initial attack, they'd have quite a ways yet to go foot before they could communicate with anyone, police or otherwise—if they dared to even stir from whatever holes they might have found to hide themselves. The monks had smashed all consoles as if on orders from God.
 
Blackie climbed down, grumbling, and dusted herself off. Then light exploded in her head--she had to grab the wall for support as Alroy's voice reverberated in her till it made her head ache to untangle the message. When she had it it came out, "When the monks begin to die, steal some of their blood for me." Her heart flamenco-danced her thrill and fear; he'd never sounded quite so angry before, so utterly fierce. Then she opened her eyes and wondered how she wound up kneeling in the dirt.

* * *
 

The morning fog had only lifted as far as the higher roofs. Fireheart Friendclan seemed to walk in a womb of gray which continually parted a bit before them only to close behind them, as they went to an emergency work-detail. Unrepairable ruins needed torn down before Til Institute could rebuild; right now they needed muscles more than minds, so every able body got the message on the console, where to go and what tools to bring.
 
Til gave "able-bodied" a creative interpretation, in times like these. It didn't spare Merrill or Lisa for having been up all night, nor Zanne who couldn't use her hands, nor Jake whose gloves hid bandages and who still wore a compression wrap upon his knee. Til had taken too hard a beating for niceties.
 
At first Jake dawdled behind the others, lost in thought. Then, abruptly, he caught up with a few strides to keep pace beside Lisa. She felt something cool, slick, and hard slip into her hand. She brought up a clay flute in bright autumn-orange. "What's this for?" she asked.
 
"Playing," said Jake. "Making music." She stared at him and he blushed. "It's not the best; I only had play-clay--the kind that you can bake in a kitchen."
 
She tried a scale and found the tonation perfect. "Thank you, Jake."
 
He shrugged. "I didn't know what I made at the time. I thought I was playing. I don't know how it'll measure up."
 
She blew a few more notes. "It's beautiful." She looked at him as they walked side by side. "Your heart knew, Jake. It always does."
 
As they walked to work in the morning chill she played a sweet and mournful tune, wondering what had become of Don, and how might Deirdre fare, right about now.

* * *
 

Deirdre coughed in the cold morning air as she hitchhiked on a road in Alonzo Valley. The ripe odor of GEMdump competed with the redolence of a nearby dairy. She coughed again and shivered, her bare feet so cold they hurt.
 
She had this liquidy sensation, that the ground never quite felt in place when she stepped on it, that her bones had lost solidity, that somehow things rippled when she wasn't looking. She didn't dare wonder if her fever had returned, though. She had something-or-other in a back-pack, very important to dispose of or transport or something, it'd come back to her in a minute; in any case it didn't matter since she wasn't going anywhere with anything so long as the GEMs kept speeding by.
 
Something chafed under her clothes or maybe it was her clothes. She ignored it. Felt stiff; maybe something to hold her up. She could think more clearly if she could only have breakfast, she decided--yet the thought of food nauseated her.
 
Memories tumbled together--mad monks trying to kill her, ghost horns and steaming baths under stars, moonlit ruins and ancient atrocities and scraping her legs by dragging after a car. But all these faded beside her recollection of her passage through Rhallunn.
 
At first glance it had looked cleaner. Generations of rubbish had washed into the marshes. A few structures stood here and there like excavated ruins, broken teeth of brick in the silted landscape. Then the wind shifted and the smell of Rhallunn hit her, changed, heavy with the decomposition of bodies that nobody had dug from the mud.
 
She choked on the memory, but that hadn't been worst. Worst was the dazed and injured ones who limped through the devastation unhelped and who still wouldn't leave Rhallunn. Her jaw quivered as it all unreeled again before her mind. She had watched a child stumble, fall, and not get up. She had seen a worn young woman in a mud-stiffened rag of skirt, leaned against the tall stump of a long dead and rotted tree, laughing at the sky while tears streaked the grime on her face. And the bodies--all she had seen on her nightmare flight through storm had been fresh, but these...it hit her worst for some reason when the teeth showed through the cheek.
 
She shuddered and hugged herself. What other memories could compete? Again she felt stiffness, and a stinging in her knees and shins, but it didn't really register. Someone in Rhallunn still had a working console or something, because for the whole time music drifted over the wrack, as serene as madness, cloying the air like the marsh miasma.
 
Another vehicle whizzed by. She cursed herself, having forgotten to put her thumb out. She resolved to do better next time, keep her mind on business.
 
A truck came by, ill-tuned--its air-cushion spewed dust and gravel at her. She retreated, hacking and sputtering, unable to signal for a ride. But she returned in time to catch the next truck, battered-looking but in tune enough to keep its cushion to itself.
 
It actually pulled over. The door opened; when she only stood and blinked a stout man came out with thick brows and mustache of a lion-color, good ol' boy moves and sharp, intelligent eyes.
 
"Do you want a ride or not?" he asked, then said, "Say, you don't look so hot." He put a hand to her cheek that felt to her like winter brushed her. "Or too hot. You do need a ride. C'mon."
 
He eased the pack off her shoulders. His face changed when he touched it, paled and grew distant. Then he peered at her more closely. "You're damn lucky I found you instead of somebody else, Missy."
 
"Good," she said, and blinked. The music spilling from the cab seethed in her ears like bubbles in cheap wine. At a push from his hand she climbed into the cab, curled up on the leather and fell instantly asleep.
 
Will Falshill shook his head. He opened the pack, took out the bundle, put it in his own bag and hid it in a tool-locker in the back. Stealing didn't suit him, exactly, but if he didn't take the relic to Jimmy somebody else would, and kill to do it.
 
He looked in on the young thing sleeping on the seat, as frail and brown as a bird--the kind you find washed up on the shores of Rhallunn, sometimes, not quite dead yet. No, he'd just have to rob her for her own sweet good; he wouldn't have drifted into his profession if pity and pragmatism didn't move him equally.
 
He wiped his hands on his overalls. He hated to handle objects like that--any psychometrist would. But Will could handle anything he had to. He climbed back into the cab and got 'er rolling.

* * *
 

"Yes!" Alroy cried, and sneezed. He wiped tears and sweat from his eyes to see the gameboard better, but it soon sprang back again as drippy as ever.
 
No matter--all things moved his way. It seemed especially sweet that Archives couldn't come up with a better counter than to make it Will who found her, someone he'd never completely owned. So? He'd deal with him soon enough. In the meantime he didn't really want the agent dead; it better suited his purposes to linger with his victims.
 
He sneezed again and yawned, mopping his face with yet another handkerchief. So far so good; it felt only like a nasty allergy attack--like back in the days when allergies used to trouble him. And when it got worse, well, perhaps it would bring him visions.
 
Still, the anxieties...mere biochemical reaction, he told himself. He'd gone so long without anxiety he'd forgotten what it felt like. He made himself laugh at himself—his greatest fear seemed to be that the fear would grow worse. “Rot in your radioactive grave on Earth, FDR, you pompous old gimp!” he growled. “I have nothing to fear!”
 
He sneezed more loudly than ever, scattering cardboard and sticks like a bomb went off in the miniature landscape. But when he looked he had only blasted Rhallunn, which relieved him to know; he wanted no accidental curses to diffuse his energy. But in Rhallunn he changed nothing, really.
 
“Anxiety,” he sneered, new sweat beading on his face and starting to run down. “I'll show them all anxiety! Bring on the withdrawal, and all of its panic attacks—for I am the panic, I attack!”
 
Panic—the curse of Pan on those who violated his woods. Did his own curse on Pan still remain, right where he'd left centuries ago? Of course it did. Let that relic lie. Resurrect the Devil Child instead. “Oh Tilián,” he crooned over the cardboard replicas. “Have I got an Easter for you!”
 

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