IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
Friday, March 20, 2708
What harm can come of singing along? It gives the weary feet a measure to tread, it sings away the aches and pains. It opens up the lungs and lightens the heart. It almost feels like luck.
"We, the tall, unruly weeds,
Shall scatter even wilder seeds,
Shall land in soil where rebellion breeds,
From peak to vale to plain!"
It makes the jungle all around less threatening, to sing of being one with it. It puts the jungle on our side. And so the song loops right back to its beginning, the children beating time, with sticks that come to hand, with spoons on empty pans.
"We, the seed trod underfoot
Shall send a secret, deepening root,
Shall rise a green, unnoticed shoot
Abandoned to sun and rain..."
And you don't feel so hungry when you sing. It feeds something inside you, it strengthens the soul to float a bit above the suffering flesh. The four repeating verses, like a mantra, turn hardships into a spiritual discipline, keeps the bloodsugar-starved mind from wandering into dark territory.
"We, the wanton, wild vine,
Shall thicken, strengthen, intertwine,
Shall tangle path and sharpen spine,
Made tougher by want and pain...
I listen to the sweetly shrilling voices , harsh yet lovely like the wilderness around us, and I remember that children march beside me--only children! But shouldn't children sing? Even if they have nothing else to sing about but war?
"We, the lush, ungoverned wood,
Shall thrive where no one thought we could,
Shall strangle harm and shelter good,
And overgrow our own again!"
And so we rise through rags of cloud, towards regions even harsher than before.
Saturday, March 21, 2708
“Don't be afraid,” Alysha tells the children, over the whistle of the wind, as we slide along a ledge of cliff, slick and vague with strands of mist that hardly qualify as clouds, unscalable heights at our backs, a deep gorge before us, with a roaring torrent in its throat below.
(“Don't be afraid, Jake,” Don says, so of course I have to glare at him for even suggesting such a thing, suppressing a shudder. “She's a different person, now.”
“She raped my brain,” I growl. “I'm supposed to forget all about that? But I'm not afraid. Just mad.”)
“I'm not afraid,” Damien says, and means it. “I come from these mountains, remember?” Marduk doesn't look scared, either, nor Kanarik. Rashid just seems resigned, maybe a little scared, maybe a lot, but not as though it matters. The others look faint, though, nearly as sallow as the rock behind them, as clammy as though the spume far below could reach these arid heights. Kiril and Lufti slide along so close to each other that their shoulders might have merged, their fingers intertwined so tightly that it probably hurts. They must come from the lowlands, or the valleys, or else never got about the mountains much before they ran away.
(“How’d she even get cleared for planning missions?” I grumble.
“Yeah, talent planning heists.”
“Like I said,” Don says with a shrug. “Rehab finds the most suitable redirection for abilities once devoted to crime.”
“She has no business planning my missions.”
“We don’t know if a mission has anything to do with this.”
“She has no business having anything to do with me.”
Don shakes his head—easy for him. He’s her friend. “Don't you think Randy evened the score for you?” he asks, leading up the steps. “Rendering her permanent damage?”
“Saving my life?” But I want him here, a friend of hers on my side. “Yeah, right, like he should apologize.”
“He did apologize.” Don stops at the door, turning to me. “He never meant to hit her that hard.”
“I don't see how anything less would have stopped her.”
“She's not like that anymore.”
“So you say.”
Don sighs, exasperated. “Just give her a chance, Jake. It's not like you've never needed one.”)
“Just give yourselves a chance,” Alysha tells us. “You're all small, you're steady, and you're sharp--you can walk this path. Not like some fat, drunken high-caster, blundering through without a care as to what he stomps upon—he'd die up here.”
Branko giggles, then gulps the giggles back, blanching at how his laughter jiggled him.
(Don knocks, and the door creaks open like a bad horror story. And there she stands, at the door: Zora, balancing on her crutches, wearing her leg-braces like greaves, no shame in the magnified eyes behind the glasses that mend her lack of focus. She still wears her black hair in a flag-high ponytail above her sharp, pale features, and her arms in their crutch-cuffs still bulge with muscle, though her legs have turned frail.
“Hello, Mr. il'Dawes,” she says, softly, slowly, but with practiced distinctness. “Thank you for coming.”
I just stand and stare.
At my elbow Don says, “Come on, Jake. It's been three years.”
“Are you going to apologize?” I blurt a bit too loudly. “Because Randy did.”
She nods, a mocking smile. “I apologize, Jake. I have renounced everything of Alroy's ways—including trying to devour your mind like an exquisite licorice.”
I stop myself just short of punching her. It's no longer a fair match. “You don't sound like you mean it.”
Her eyes turn dark and she stops smiling. “You will never know how much I mean it,” she says in that singsong voice of someone who has gone through much neural repatterning to speak at all. “But to give you some idea, I've invited you over to save your life. Now come on in and take a seat.”
Nice couch, soft enough for someone who has to spend most of her time sitting, but not so soft as to give her trouble getting up. Short for me, of course, but I've had worse.)
“Nice view,” Damien remarks. I nod to him, feeling a smile form on my face. I've had lessons in this: find beauty and let it erode the fear.
“Yeah,” I say. “Reminds me of the Great Gulf Road, back where I come from. The Founders made it dangerous and beautiful to toughen us but also to sensitize us.”
“Shut up, slave!” Alysha snaps, jerking the chain and
making me stumble with my heart in my throat, correcting with levitation
ability and grasping at the cliff behind me.
(Zora makes a show of setting aside her crutches long enough to carry, very slowly, but with determined steadiness, a pre-arranged tray with tea and teacups on it. The tea has gone cold, but I don't much like hot tea, anyway. A Charadocian blend: I recognize it. Deirdre served all sorts of Charadocian fare while preparing for her posting there.)
“Nothing in song-form,” I say. “But I do have a tale of my own adven...stop that!” Alysha makes to jerk the chain again, but I grab it too fast for her. “Do you want us both to fall to our deaths?” I might manage to slow myself to a safe drift without a flit, although the distance daunts me—but taking her and the chain along lessens the odds.
“No songs or stories,” Alysha says, bending forward precariously to get around a bulge in the rock. “We need all of our concentration on right here, and right now.”
(“So what's your story?” I ask, as politely as I can force myself to be. From Don's glare it isn't much. “Let me guess. You think you're an oracle, now.”
She sips carefully at her tea, then just as carefully sets it down, as studied in each move as a drunk trying to pass for sober, though we all know that Zora can’t afford to drink. “I don't blame your doubts,” she says slowly. “Incense and I...well, it's an unprecedented case, isn't it? She, already branded as unfit to pursue oracular training years before; me, never properly trained and with my gift inverted by Alroy—and yet, with our psyches merged, we add up to the real thing.” Her eyes drill me in a way that brings up unsettling memories. “Search your own gift. You will see that I speak the truth.”)
I bend around the bulge in the rock. And on I go, shuffling sideways, scraping my back against the sandstone, listening to the far-off torrent, staring down so deep it looks like night still lingers in the furthest reach, beneath the wraiths of mist.
(Then I see her, the other, suddenly knowing right where to look, into the darkness behind the door. “Go ahead,” Incense says. “Ask me if I'm still crazy,” She steps out to the light with that mad, defiant smile of hers. “Still broken yet unbroken—and then ask yourself, il'Dawes.” And the hair on my body starts to creep up slowly to attention. “We know your secrets, poor, dear Achilles,” she says, with the name that she alone calls me. “We have more in common with you than anybody realizes.”)
We have everything in common, right this minute, these misguided children and myself. We share fear, and the determination to overcome it. We share the need to keep on pressing on, or find ourselves stuck in a terrible place. We share a hope that at least this small terror will shortly end. We share an unappreciated past, and a future defiantly the stronger for it.
We share a need to think of nothing but the here and now—I almost slipped right there! Enough of philosophy and disturbing memories!
(“I still remember,” Zora muses into her cup. “The shimmering strand of caramel woven in and out of the licorice, healing all the cracks.” She looks up at me. “Where do you think I got the idea to merge with Incense?”
“Leave her out of it!” I bark, as Don asks, “Jake, what are they talking about?”
“You will NOT leave her out of it!” Zora smashes her cup on the coffee-table, glaring at me through those thick glasses. She has aged a lot in just three years, I notice, inanely. “If you try, you will destroy both of you!”
Don asks, trying to chuckle, “What is it, Jake—do you have a girlfriend you never told us about?” At that Zora and Incense both burst out laughing—eerily simultaneously, every in and out of the breath together.
“No, Don,” Incense says, still smiling though their laughter shuts off suddenly. She reaches down for Zora's hand, and holding it, says, “More like his Siamese twin—like us.”
I fiddle with my cup, not looking at any of them. Softly I say, “It's Deirdre, Don. She and I...I still don't exactly know what happened. Some sort of psychic meld—if that's at all the word for it.” Then I look up and stare Zora in the eye. “But whatever it was, she consented.”
Zora smirks. “Not initially.”
But Incense suddenly looks seriously
down on her. “Not initially with us,
either—don't judge, Zora. He only
surprised Deirdre Keller; he didn't override her.”
“What? Why? You said you needed me. You wouldn't go without me.”
“I have changed my mind.” Too many secrets zing around this room.
“Okay, Jake. If that's what you want.” And he gets up and leaves without a fuss. Some friendclans hang together by knowing each other better than anybody. And some, like ours, maintain themselves on secrecy, or at least a pretense of discretion. We just can't afford anything else, some of us.)
I can't afford any more distractions, and I certainly can't afford to identify too much with my captors. And so, for a long time my mind seems to go nowhere, my awareness in my feet and my balance, nothing else, nowhere else.
(Incense immediately sits down beside me in Don's place, as Zora totters to her feet and leaves. Sympathetically, the former barmaid places a hand on my knee, but not in a flirtatious way, knowing something else that Don doesn't—at least not officially. “It must've been horrible, the...whatever it was that injured you,”
I nod. “You have no idea.”
“Some,” she says, “but not the thing that you’ve closed up in the dark from me. So many secrets upon secrets, layer after layer. Yet know this, Achilles. Deirdre Keller needed you, too—I get that much. She…I think she had just begun to go mad. Even partial severance from you and she will start to fall apart. Full severance would destroy you both.”
“Will, you say?” I clasp her hand. “Not would, for both counts? Not speculation?”
“Some things we cannot avoid, any of us,” she says somberly. “The best we can hope for is mitigation.”
“It's worse than that,” says Zora, wobbling back from the kitchen with cleaning supplies. Incense takes these from her and starts to clean up the spilled tea and the shards of cup. Zora carefully lowers herself down on her knees to help, saying, “If you pull your psyche completely apart from Keller, that will make the final rip to tear apart reality as we know it.”
“Huh?” I ask, realizing that Alysha just spoke to me.
“I said, watch out for one tricky spot ahead, and then we're practically through. Girl, where'd your head float off to, anyway?”
“Just minding my feet,” I say. I honestly don't know where my thoughts wandered, feeling quite present now, staring at the gulf below. Yet a minute later, and...
(A minute later and she still hasn't explained herself. Of course not. Been there. She can't. It falls to me to ask the right questions, to trigger the rest of the vision. “So how do we get through this, survive the 'will' and prevent the 'would'?”
Zora and Incense both knit brows at the same time. And then they close their eyes. Incense sits back on her heels, and says, “Things will come back when they shouldn't.”
“The baby!” Zora hisses. “How dare they!”
“A cold place,” Incense moans. “A cold place, shut in with four square walls, everything in order so perfect that the unraveling has to start there. They cannot bear perfection.”
“Rules need broken,” Zora says. “Revolution flows where nothing can contain it.”
“The rat gnaws on the threads of time and space, sharpening his teeth.”
“Just to change things up, just because he can, just because he's bored.”
“Just because the children need. The children—so many children, not just his.”
“Not just hirs.”
“Not just ours.”
“Links pull things together that never should have touched.”
“Fraying pulls apart things that never ought to split.”
They both open their eyes, dilated, and stare at me. Zora says, “Start studying the high latitudes of the Northwestern Continent. Now. You, Don, and your...your lover. The summons comes from there You'll have four or five months to learn whatever you can.”
Incense looks gently on me. “Tuck her away into your blindspot, Achilles. I have no idea why she ever slips out at all, but tuck her into your blindspot. Nestle her in with Randy. The curse might miss her, there.”)I only know that I've stepped over the great crack in the path after the fact; I seem to have done it on automatic, like it had fallen into a sort of blind spot. Not so hard for me, but the smallest ones struggle, holding onto the hands of those who went before. But now we see the path broaden just ahead, and soon leave the chasm behind, and we all sigh with relief, even Damien and Marduk and Kanarik, feeling the narrowness of our escape.