IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VI: The Rift
Tuesday, December 22, 2708, continued
(They have to build a fire to thaw the ground before they can bury the body. We watch, through the classroom windows, the flames leaping out there in the school cemetery. The teacher stands with us, forgetful of our lessons. I keep an eye on Jake, but he recovered much faster than the last time—whatever happened to him didn’t come from any virus. Though it does give me shivers to hear him murmur, “We all must burn.” Some of the smoke-smell gets in through the thin, ill-fitted windows, wherever the glass rattles in the wind. And the boys talk softly among themselves.)
I hear Damien open something metal-hinged, and a liquid-pouring sound follows, and then I hear the scratch and see the flash of a stricken match. He seems to light a shelf of stone...no, an oil-lamp carved into the living rock.
By flickering light we now see a place comfortably furnished with the cast-offs of the rich: chipped china in a mishmash of patterns, furnishings of burst-upholstery on wood with broken carvings, threadbare carpeting, patched but serviceable quilts and cushions in raddled silk and balding velvet, all of them a wealth to us.
(It’s gorgeous, the dome within the tower, tiles of blue and violet, aqua and lavender, ivory and gold, in arabesques. Oval skylights work into the design. A cherub half-kneels at the pinnacle, holding up a cookie with a triumphant smile. I admire it all, leaning on the railing around the gulf between it and the top indoor floor of this outer tower, while a distant clangor lets me know that Guaril’s spirit has done as promised and triggered a false alarm elsewhere. I quell a small shiver of fear and rename it excitement over what I’m about to do.)
I try to keep my shivering as unnoticeable as possible, while the others open jars and boxes; soon the smells of tobacco and fine wine, plus cheese and sausage toasted over lamp-flames, fill the drafty space Lamp-smoke slides along the roof till it finds its way out of several dripping cracks and outright rain-waterfalls; I notice runnels cut into the stone beneath these, to divert the run-off from anything that could take harm from getting wet. Kiril wastes no time washing her hands and fixing sandwiches for everyone.
And I can’t eat any of it. I want to, I know my body needs it, but the fever churns my stomach. “Oh my!” Nishka exclaims, “I never thought to spread apricot preserves on cheese and ham!” And I almost lose it, right there.
(I hear one of the students behind me ask, “Do you think they’ll let us out of class for the funeral?”.
“Who’ll conduct it, anyway, with the pastor dead?”
“I hear he finally drank himself to death.”
“I hear they found him with a banned statue cradled in his arms.”
“Banned? What sort of statue?”
“I dunno. Something obscene, probably.” A shiver runs through the teenagers, trying to picture the obscenity. And the teacher says nothing.)
Kiril notices my probably green face and nods. She brings me fresh, cool water to drink then disappears among the food stores. I can hear her, though, puttering around, selecting something other than sandwich fixings, and boiling water. I feel a little better, even though I shudder harder now, as though summer turned to winter; she’ll take care of me.
(“You’ll notice,” Don murmurs to Jake and me, “That he died on the Winter Solstice.”
“This isn’t the big one,” Jake replies, equally sotto voce. “Nowhere near. This is part of the set-up.”
“Like Alroy arranging for you to rescue me on Good Friday,” Don says, then replies to Jake’s dumfounded stare with, “What? You didn’t know?”
Jake shakes his head, wide-eyed.
Don shrugs. “I keep in touch. I talk with ex-Outlaws all the time. You should try it sometime—you can learn all kinds of useful things.”)
By the time I’ve change into some maid’s dry clothing Kiril has concocted a soup of jerky and such root-vegetables as she can find in the stores, and I can keep it down. How many useful things does this girl know, anyway? What Til Institute could have done with her!
(I can do this. I’m Zanne, after all. I find the gateway hidden in the rail. The madmen running this facility know that sometimes they have to look at those papers, and so they run a ramp to a certain skylight. But I cannot possibly drag anything so large, stored so far away, all the way up here unnoticed. I’m just going to have to jump for it.
I face truths. Not for me to avert my eyes from anything. I stare down the drop of seven stories, taking note of each architectural curlicue or ledge that I might grab, should I miss my intended perch. Nothing where one could stay for long, and not much hope of going anywhere from there.
Well, Zanne, are you as amazing as you like to think, or not?)
“Kiril, you’re amazing!” I say over my bowl.
She smiles, but a sad look troubles her eyes. “So I’ve been told,” she says softly.
(Alrighty, then! Amazing it is! I go back to the nearest hall behind me, but I will have to turn around a corner mid-run, which could slow down my momentum. And I take off—faster, faster, slow at the turn but not much, keep it up, and OVER THE BRINK!
I grab plaster grapes with one hand and an ornate corner with the other while desperately scrambling to get my feet onto the sill before the grapes break off, but I do it, and make sure that I set my handful of plaster down carefully, wedged in some scrollwork so that its fall won’t alert the guards around the door down below, all the while gripping with my other hand though my fingers cramp. I wipe plaster-dust off my free hand, pull a hairpin from my bun, and pick the lock on the skylight.
I hate picking locks with one hand! It always takes twice as long, when the tumblers keep slipping out of control, and a pounding heart doesn’t help. But I get it done, scoot precariously out of the way with my heart in my throat, and pry the skylight open.
I topple in, roll when I hit the dusty carpet, and rub my sore hand, savoring being alive. After a moment to catch my breath, I find the lever to close the skylight again from within. Now, about those papers…)
I savor the flavors. I feel Kiril’s fingers, soft, touching my brow–poor waif, acting like a mother to me! “I’ve got to get well!” I mutter, ashamed.
“You will, honey. Maybe even tomorrow. And you could go for months before the next bout hits.”
“Or days. I just don’t know. Oh Kiril, I keep letting everybody down!” And I find myself sobbing on her shoulder. She sets the bowl aside and holds me while I shake with weeping. After a time she gently gives the bowl back and I finish the soup.
(I lean against the sill, feeling the chill come through from the snow piled up on the other side, wiping away condensation to get a better view of the fire. “Christmas, then,” I say. “He’ll aim for Christmas. And somehow I doubt it’ll be merry.”)
Gunfire riccochets off the walls!
Damien shouts, “Everybody grab your weapons–we’ll have to fight our way out.” I reach for the pistol but he snatches it from me and wields it himself. Lufti has armed himself, and fires with deadly accuracy at the soldiers running in on us, a queer look on his face. Kiril shoots darts until one of ours drops beside her, and then she picks up the rifle from the dead girl’s arms.
“Heyyy baby, tired of your virginity yet? I’ve come to help you out!” I find myself staring at a bestial face, grinning and running right towards me, knocking Lufti aside with his rifle-butt, and something about him looks horribly familiar. Before I know what I’m doing I’ve grabbed up a silk shawl off the back of a chair, whipping it around me like nunchucks. He snickers at that, till I whirl it into the flaming lamp oil, and then just keep on spinning it, keeping the fire alive. His jaw drops in horror as I advance towards him.
“It’s the Tilián witch!” somebody cries, and then he and all the other soldiers run as I walk forward, clear to the edge of the cave, and all I do is spin the fire around me, burning silk stinking, smoke stinging my eyes. When I don’t even see their heels anymore I drop the shawl hissing onto the wet grass and then fall into Tanjin’s arms.
“They’ll be back,” I gasp, “With sharpshooters to take me from a distance...no, with darts.” I don’t know how I know this, and I don’t care. We’ve got to leave before they regroup.
(I find the folders easily enough, with Belen’s memory to guide me. I read them rapidly, then lay a hand on the magentine hidden in my belt, and send the pertinent information to Dalmar and Pauline, hoping that they can unscramble scientific data from however the symbols from my mind manifest in theirs.
But now I have a little problem. How exactly do I leave?)
“Damn that Kheshla!” Dosh cries. “This is her doing!”
“Who?” I ask.
“Kheshla Sorbo–the master’s daughter.”
Damien slaps his forehead. “Idiot! I should have seen this coming–she’s been carrying on with the butler for months. They must have held their trysts right here!”
(At least, right here, I have a pretty mauve couch, and over there an operating bathroom (Thank you, Tshura, for turning the water back on!) and enough hamster-feed biscuits in my backpack to last me for awhile. I can camp out until an opening arises to leave.)
Everyone quickly packs up to leave again, and Damien helps me onto the motorcycle once more, when Kiril suddenly asks, “How did you know about Kheshla, Dosh?”
“Why, everybody knows...”
“I didn’t. Deirdre didn’t. Nobody traveling with us knew anything about the people around here.”
“Why, I heard it from...from...the servants here.”
“We haven’t had a chance to contact any of them. Only Damien has.”
“Daia told me. She...she must be the traitor!”
Kiril grabs our strongest member by his shirt and shoves him up against the stone, throwing all her weight against him. “Right! Smear her name after she just died for us!” And his knees start to crumple under him, and he lets her do anything to him that she wants. “Daia never disappeared from camp the way that you’ve been doing lately. When you went outside to smoke, just now, did you raise your cigarette in the air? Did you wave a signal?” He just stares at her. “Tell us everything, Dosh, if you want even a chance of coming out alive.”
“I...I was tortured!” he wails
I turn to him, then, dizzy with the fever still on me, and all my bruises aching like remorse. “But you’re free now, just like me. What hold do the Mantles still have on you?”
“He...” Dosh crouches there, his back sliding down the wall, becoming small before our eyes. “He...knows things. He was right. About everything. He...” and he looks at me as though pleading with me to explain it to the others. “He knows.” And I see a kind of idiocy in his eyes, of thoughts blasted away, whole pathways of the brain shut off, places in it too sore to think with, perhaps for good.
Then I see a terrible pity in Kiril’s hardened face–terrible because she can’t obey it. She steps back from Dosh. He doesn’t run away. He simply slides the rest of the way down the wall till he sits on the ground, staring at us stupidly. Nishka sobs, and then silences herself. We all move back. Kiril takes the gun from the holster at Damien’s hip and he doesn’t stop her. Her glaring eyes redden and well up as slowly, carefully, she levels the pistol, takes aim at the unprotesting boy, and at the gun’s report a red spot blooms precisely in the center of Dosh’s forehead, and blood spatters the wall behind, and still he sits there, propped up. And then Kiril drops the gun back down, a few red speckles on her face and breast.
“If anyone asks,” she says in a shaking voice, “we’ll tell them that Dosh died valiantly for the Cause. And he did–about a week ago.”
Tonelessly Damien asks, “What shall we do with the body?”
“Leave it. Ol’ Whitesleeves’ll get the message.”
Our bard hums a few notes in a minor key, and says, “I will lay his ghost with a song. I will write it for him, but I won’t betray his name.”
Wide eyed, Nishka says to him, “He helped me escape. He helped us all escape.” Then, she looks at Dosh’s body and whispers, “I wish I’d known the price.”