IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Wreckage of the Aftermath
Monday, December 14, 2708
(By the dawn's first light we see the evidence of unholy rituals all over the campus. Splashes of blood beside old candles burnt down to puddles of wax. Animal parts in awful rearrangement. Stained knives driven into trees, with blackening red daubs around them in arcane patterns. We jog about the grounds taking mental notes, before the servants have time to clean them up. Jake needs the pattern, though we do not know, on the logic level, what they collectively add up to. And oh, I ache for sleep!)
By the day's first light I finally get the chance to check out the escaped prisoners—and good God! They fought in this shape? If Kiril hadn't prepped the men for us, we wouldn't have stood a chance. I lose any regret I felt over yesterday's battle as I clean glass from wounds and dab salve on burns. It's okay, they keep telling me—torture only made them all the more eager to slaughter every soldier they could reach.
"Dosh helped us," Nishka tells me, as I treat the burns upon her breasts. "Dosh helped us all escape." She can never nurse a child.
(The more I see, the more I fight to shove down the hatred that rises to my gorge. They did this to innocent animals! They've made the whole campus sticky and unclean with their crimes against…Oh God, remind me again that minors did this, misled, under a dark spell, and at least one of them apparently possessed outright!
Despite everything I see, my traitor stomach growls for breakfast. My path crosses Jake's. He nods that we should go to the cafeteria with the other boys, and heads off to find Don. All I want to do is bathe, and eat, and go straight to bed, and dream of anything but this. Ah well, at least I'll get one of my wishes.)
My fingers still smell like salve after I clean up and go to breakfast, but it's better than some of what I've gotten up to my elbows in lately. Kiril insists on giving me two bowls of porridge—with nuts and butter, yet—though she herself eats only a little dry toast. She still looks wretched, poor kid, but when I ask her if she can travel she nods. Then she asks if she can ride the horse for a day or two.
"What horse?" I ask.
Grinning, Hekut confesses to not taking Steddy all the way back to Zofia, instead stabling him with sympathizers near the crossroads who have kept horses for rebels before. "I brought him up last night. Didn't you notice?"
I stare at the animal for a moment. "I had other things in mind," I say, but it bothers me. I used to be observant. I went through a hideous experiment to make me observe more than normal people.
Hekut starts to make some crack about Kiril needing exercise, but Nishka smacks him before he can finish, and I let her. Kiril looks up to her with gratitude, not expecting so much.
"I'm just thinking of her," Hekut says, surprising me with tears. He wipes his nose on his sleeve and then grabs Kiril's hand, swings it a couple times with an awkward giggle, and then runs away crying. I realize that the kid has no idea of what constitutes appropriate behavior. And I'm too busy playing the officer, keeping everybody alive, to teach him.
(Immediately after breakfast Headmaster Weatherbent summons the three of us to him. Loudly, in front of the rest of the students, he asks, "Randall, Donald, did you two knowingly conceal Jacob's whereabouts during his truancy?"
"We did, sir" says Don, and I nod.
"Then you shall share his punishment. To my office!")
And suddenly a terrible thought dawns on me. Hekut doesn't usually take initiative on anything so practical as where to stable a horse. Tanjin must have whispered a change of order behind my back. Is Tanjin turning on me?
(I feel every step on the way up. I love the life of an agent, except that the occasional twenty-four really knocks the thrill out of it. I'm in no mood for thrills right now, anyway. So Jake can forgive me for groaning when we finally get to the office, only to hear him tell Wallace, "Assign us the clean-up of the burnt-down building. I need to investigate the vicinity."
"The building that George Winsall burned down. The Married Teacher's Quarters. Nobody has done a thing to clean it up."
Wallace just stares at him, the whites showing all around his irises.
I add, in a soothing voice, "It's rather a disgrace, sir. Glaringly ugly. Best to put all that out of sight, right?"
"Uh, quite right. Quite right. But, uh, wouldn't that put you even further behind in your studies?"
Don sighs. "We know all this stuff already, Wallace. We're grown men, remember? But you can call it punishment, to heap us with catch-up homework later. I promise we can flub enough answers on the test to make it convincing."
"Of course. Forgive me; I've had so much on my mind lately. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a pile of work waiting for me."
"Certainly, sir," I tell him and we leave.)
If I can't trust Tanjin, then I am utterly, completely alone.
(Outside his door I can't help but complain. "Tell me you didn't just sign us up for heavy manual labor after an all-nighter, Jake!"
"Don't worry," he murmurs back. "Nobody can see that quarter—again—to notice whether we're working or not. We can all catch a nap in the barn, first, and none'll be the wiser. But I do need to investigate the ruins.")
* * *
The power of flight entails responsibility. I can carry more farther, so I have taken five loads of rifles and bullets to a heart-shaped cave, due west from the point where three boulders frame the main trunk road. Or, in Lufti's code, wives and pullets now dwell in a heart-shaped grave, on a quest from the gleeful shoulders by the plain skunk's toad. I confess that absentmindedly, in my weariness, I did nibble one leaf before I even realized what I did, recognizing my actions by the bitterness on my tongue, but man, that has worn off so fast I wouldn't have believed it if you told me.
Buck up, Deirdre—you have a long way to go before you finish. Swoop down, gobble down the sandwich that Kiril hands you before scooping up the next load, ignore the aches with the smile that they expect, and leap back into the air again.
* * *
("Good God!" Don gasps. "They left her there, right in plain sight!"
No wonder Wallace Weatherbent can't look this way. I throw my cloak over the naked old woman lightly powdered with snow and ash, before Jake scoops her up from her smoky resting-place, to carry her to the hut by the campus graveyard that holds the freezer and the shrouds (though the night did a pretty good job of freezing her already.) Meanwhile, Don heads to the office to report her death.
As I trot to keep up with Jake's long legs (and to warm myself up) he says, "She died smiling. Happy. Whatever happened, at least she fared better than the rats and chickens." Yes, Jake. We all saw the stains upon the wizened thighs. And I almost weep, to have to find consolation in a thing like that.
At least I welcome a chance not to shove timbers around just yet. That nap in the cold straw barely lifted the edge off of my weariness.)
* * *
That last leaf barely touched my weariness at all. I ache from my scalp to the soles of my feet. I've gone way past the ability to fly, and so I trudge with the last pack of medical supplies strapped to my back like the weight of my command. I couldn't have made it this far without that little bit of greenfire, may Lucinda and Kief forgive me!
In the day's final, golden light I find the road to Zofia's home—no longer her old weed-grown ruts, but a route well-pounded by too many feet. Just one of those many details that you pray to God the army will overlook, and then you remember that you've given up on prayer, you're just going to have to take your chances.
(By the time we clear the way to the cellar twilight has begun. Jake says, "A little light here, Randy. Don, give him a candy-bar."
Munching on the sweet honey confection, I shine a beam down the stairs. "My gosh, look at all those landings! How far do you think this goes?")
By the time I reach the porch twilight has begun. Zofia must've already stashed my prior drops of bandages and drugs, from when I'd darted in and out before, a night-cloud caught in daylight. I didn't see her or her child on that run, and I don't see her now, either, though I catch a glimpse of the little girl, staring out the window at me before running away. I add my latest haul with a thump upon the old wood, then sink down to sit beside it. Zofia comes out immediately, waving Nishka from within to take my burden and hide it with the rest. Then she pulls me by the arm to help me in.
"I'm all right," I protest as she settles me into a chair. "Just a little tired, is all."
"You've been abusing the poor greenfire bushes, haven't you?" she scolds lovingly. "Nishka, bring us a bowl of the stew. Now Deirdre, I want you to eat whether you feel like it or not—you're a rack of bones. We've got plenty to spare, thanks to you and yours, so don't hold back. There...that's better, isn't it?" It does taste better than I expected—in fact I feel famished. "Now you sit a bit, then go take a bath when you've rested some. I'll go heat the water now. Folks forget to bathe when they fly on greenfire—it messes with their routines to stay awake all hours." She props my feet up for me before she goes. "That poor little bush—God never made the good green things for poisoning ourselves."
("God never made magentine to poison us," Jake says, as we descend the stairs in the eerie glow of the bobbing light that I send before us. It always startles me whenever Jake speaks of God; he's so quiet about his beliefs even (especially!)to me, that reminders of it catch me by surprise. "But they have enough here to poison everyone for miles."
"I know," Don says, cold sweat glistening on his brow. "I can feel it from here."
Soon they don't need my light. Piles of magentine heap up in the sixth cellar down, like legendary pirate treasure—and all of it glows, in a radiance of purply rose, sparkling, scintillating off each other. "That can't be good," I mutter. It's not supposed to luminesce like that.
Don swears suddenly. All of his rings have taken light.
"Get out, Don!" Jake barks. "Now!" Don doesn't hesitate to run upstairs. I can hear his panting clear to the top. Jake tucks his own hands tightly into his armpits as he says, "Randy, see if you can pick up a crystal."
See if I can? Okay. I reach down, but the thing won't budge. I try another. It's like trying to separate two really strong magnets. I almost pull it loose, but it snaps right back in place the moment I take a breath.
"Don't try anymore," Jake says. "We've learned enough—let's get out of here while we can." And we hurry up the stairs, breathing heavily.
Out in the free night air, Jake leans down, hands on his knees, taking deep breaths till he stops feeling faint. "Definitely a toxic concentration," he says at last.
"We'd better tell…no, that won't work, will it?"
"Right, Randy." Jake straightens slowly. "Wallace Weatherbent couldn't hold the information in his head for five minutes. We'll have to find some way to break the spell, ourselves." And his face softens with thought.
Don shakes his head. "How'd it all get down there?" Then he stops, suddenly, as if sniffing the information from the air—for with that much energy, a psychometrist like him doesn't even need to touch what lies below; laying his hand on the blackened stones of a chimney will suffice, conducting information from the ground.
"Confiscations," he says after a moment. "It started with confiscations, simply enough. They'd store contraband under the Married Teacher's Quarters, the building set apart, as the safest place to keep it out of the hands of students. And then they forgot all about it, except to add more."
He shakes his head. "The poor fools didn't understand what they dealt with. They expected it to just lie there, passive, like the bags of marijuana or the odd switchblade. And so it built up enough power to actively call students to sneak in and add still more on purpose, even smuggling it from outside…sleepwalking, more than half the time, especially in the last years when nobody could see the place by day. For the longest time the only message that the magentine received, to tell it of its purpose, was to accept more and more additions."
Jake says, "And then Alroy's spirit, roaming the earth, found it and gave it purpose. No wonder he could achieve so much, even when we healed the gregor in the baby-corpse."
"No, not quite," Don say, his brow crinkling in puzzlement. "He kind of got sucked in here, like everything else. Alroy didn't really have much interest in a stuffy old boy's school on the other side of the world, though he didn't mind imbibing power where he found it. Something activated it locally, some old tragedy, long hidden and rotting in the dark. Some…" and suddenly he scowled. "Weatherbent! He hates himself, and his self-hatred infects everything. But why?"
"Can't you read it?" I ask.
His brows knit in concentration, but then they suddenly relax as he shakes his head and releases the chimney-stone. "No. All I can pick up is "Don't remember! Don't remember!" over and over, coiling in upon itself into a Gordian knot."
"Well, he certainly hates women," I say. "We can start there."
"Nooo," Don says, perplexedly. "If anything, he pities them. But he doesn't want to remember. He has banished all femininity from the campus because he cannot bear to remember."
Thoughtfully Jake says, "Alroy wouldn't have been able to use that kind of energy, not for long. He obsessed on completion, in everything. He embraced evil because he saw it as the completion of good. He began by wanting to serve good."
Quietly I ask, "Could his ghost be trying to complete this campus?"
"That's it!" Jake cries, smacking me on the shoulder, sending up a puff of ash in the dark. "Some remnant latched onto this power, but only in recent years, and has been trying to complete the force he found here." He laughs, harshly. "Alroy's actually trying to heal it! His way. And so he works through the longing of the students—the young ones longing for their mothers, the older ones for lovers—which Weatherbent till now had successfully repressed, to the point of generating an anti-female gregor on the campus. But of course even Alroy's ghost soils everything he touches."
Don sits down on a fallen beam and takes his face into his hand. "Oh Lord. You do realize that every educated man in this country has graduated from Toulin Academy for generations under Weatherbent? No wonder the culture's gone so off-kilter. Remember that strangling dog at the pier? The huntsman gave him mercy, but harsh and out of balance. Even after they leave the school, men go about with the feminine blocked inside."
"Go easy on him, nevertheless." I don't have the psi perceptions of my peers, but I understand the human heart, perhaps better than any in my friendclan. "Whatever happened to Wallace, he's a victim, too. And despite everything, he has tried, very hard, to be kind.")
I wake briefly in the night, in the bed where Zofia ensconced me. I glance over and see Tanjin curled up in a chair beside me, fast asleep. What madness could ever have made me suspect that he would turn on me?