IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
The Ecstasy of Sacrifice
Friday, July 10, 2708
Up...up...higher than I have ever climbed before in my life, by foot or by flit (Higher than I have ever been before, spinning down, down...) higher than the mountains of my homeland ever reached, higher even than Camelot in its steep-walled valley in the English Mountains, up to the harsh outskirts of the heavens, a steep and ruthless land so sacred that we can scarce survive its rarified air. (Down...to where the dead must go...surely...must...) Up where the unfleshed boulders scorn the cares of mortals dependent upon blood and breath. (...to follow the boy, to the very edge of...Hell?) Up where the snow never melts, now in the winter of the world we go to the very homeland of the winter, where the frosted wind swirls in dances so ancient that the youngest snowflake seems imbued with great antiquity.
(Down into the cavern of fiery ice, of crystal fangs, of sparkle and darkness, where ancient beasts and beast-men stand frozen in the stone, immobile till the end of time...or...?)
I think I can almost make out figures dancing in the snow. I know I can. (I think...I know that I see them. The sacrificial boy, and his...and the...) Laughing, cold eyed, half-glimpsed. Transparent, fluid limbs sketch out vanishing symbols on the air. A lace of ice upon each swirling skirt, each scarf of mist. I cross myself, unsure of what forbidden presence I have stumbled on. (And I long to pray! I long to run and pray, but the dark one behind them has received my worship and won’t let me. So I just stare at the children, the...husband and br....bride...the Unthinkable One...) Then I just stand there, mouth agape, watching the falling snow flicker in and out of images that I don't do don't do see...
(Sh..sh...sheeee...She! The birdlike little one, the beaked one...the sacrifice and his bride—I see them! I see them! I know them.)
"Halt!" Cyran calls out. Dimly I note darker figures moving all around me; I pay them half a mind, concentrating all my effort on trying to discern the figures of pure light. Almost...
(Figures of pure darkness, in the glowing, glittering night of this subterranean well of...of fear, of pure unholy fear. And I must name them. I must...must force my tongue to name them, I must fight back into my body enough to move my tongue. “Cor, uh, Corrrrey an’...an’...” I must!
“Come on, Changewright!” vague flickers of sentience urge all around me, chanting “You can do it! You can do it! You can do it!”
“Corey and GITA!” I scream.
But not that other. Not the char-black silhouette whose name I cannot know.
“Now bring him out of it—Now!”
Icy water shocks my face, and I laugh, I laugh so hard!)
"Bring her in here." Forces seize me and pull my body somewhere. I surrender to them in an inexpressible kind of ecstasy; I have no will left nor desire for any. Deep down into a womb of darkening warmth they draw me, to a different light, a glow of many colors, reds and oranges and yellows and maybe shots of green and blue. Exquisite pain floods me and lapses almost into pleasure as I feel my body fold into sitting while I stare at the colors and inhale the thick odor of...
...dung chip smoke?
(Smack smack smack...they keep slapping my face. It rocks back and forth, and I realize that I only laughed in my soul, that my mouth drools, that...I think I taste blood. Who’s blood? Who...mine?)
"Here. Eat." I stare at a fire. I sit inside a rough shelter of sod and stone, a man-made cave that stinks of the fire and the mule that provides the fuel. The heat of blood returning to extremities burns in me.
"Eat!" I am not in heaven because I'm not dead yet. I open my mouth to spoonfuls of steaming hot porridge. I gulp down scalding nourishment and my head begins to clear.
(How did these blankets get around me? Hands hold my hand to guide the tea to my mouth. Hot...bitter...liquid. It helps. I feel more anchored in the flesh with every swallow.
Good boys. Good pupils of what the Academy will not teach. They do exactly as I told them to. I have journeyed to Hell for them, and now they bring me back alive.)
"You've been skimping on your share of the rations, haven't you?" Cyran says as I take over the bowl and feed myself. I look around the wayfarer's shelter, crowded with warm and grimy bodies fit to compete with the mule for smell. I feel embarrassed as I realize just how badly I lost it.
(“The sacri...” I swallow, struggling to speak clearly. “The sacrifice has been...accepted. We, we, we have...enough f-for the...next stage.”)
"I wanted to make sure that all the children had enough," I say, my voice surprising me with its huskiness.
"What the children need most is a level adult head to see them through safely. Next time you feel like sacrificing for the cause, don't sacrifice your brains."
(“Nes...next batch...studens. We will draw...from farrrrraway...” and I cannot say more.”)
I cannot even acknowledge hir. I sink down into the sleeping-bag, heavy with food and heat and returning consciousness of the weight of a body upon the spirit, sink down till the voices and the firelight swirl from my grasp as the mountain spirits dance it all away.
(“Let’s get him up to the dorm before we’re missed,” Aaron says, and arms pull me to my feet.
“Far,” he said. “Maybe even from the farthest islands out.” My feet seem to tread, giantlike, upon each of those islands, so very distant from my head.
“Maybe even Lumne?” I cannot answer the speculatiion of the boys. I have no vision left to guess. But whoever we draw now to us, they will be exactly who and what we need.
“Nobody ever comes in from Lumne,” someone breathes, as I stumble up the first steps, with help. “Who knows what they do out there these days?”
Concern in his normally sarcastic voice, Aaron says, “We’ll have to come up with some excuse for the medic tomorrow...”
“Exhaustion,” I say, struggling with the stairs up out of the cellar, leaning on the help of my disciples. “Tell ‘em I’ve fainted...from exhaustion. T-too much study.” And quite rightly, quite true. Just not the study that our teachers had in mind.)
Saturday, July 11, 2708
Traveler's cote. No more light glows from the windows, shuttered tight for blizzard, only the red and sometimes bluish flaring of the hearth, by day or by night. I hope that somebody before us kept the chimney clean; we've got perfect conditions for carbon monoxide poisoning, otherwise. Wind whistles up through a crack in the rock that serves as our snow-bound latrine—two doors between it and us and the odor still seeps through. Then there's the main, round room, with the fireplace in it, and overhead a loft, stocked with hay for pack-animals, and potatoes for those who lead them.
Mule just loves the hay; he tosses it by fragrant mouthfuls and gobbles it up so fast we don't know how long we can keep him. Kids love the potatoes, but they go fast, too. Nobody ever designed this place with an army in mind.
Kiril coughs, and coughs again. Lufti thumps her on the back until the phlegm comes clear. I watch Cyran tenderly wipe her mouth with hir own prayer-cloth. Then I do a double-take. Why would Cyran carry the image of St. Dymphna, Patron of the Mad?