IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Everything Must Change
Thursday, December 24, 2708
How beautiful the morning light, the fresh mountain air, the lush vistas or the sere ones, whichever way you look! What sacrifice, then, for the generations who have grown up here, to leave. It fills me with a kind of aching beauty as I lead out our laden ass to join all the other beasts of burden.
(How beautiful the snow upon this school, smoothing out the angles, how radiant the chaos of icicles that catch the morning sun! Can Jake see it, wherever he is? I bite my lip and force myself into the warmth and stuffiness of the assembly hall, after a pointless night of searching for Jake, but I had to try, I surely had to try.)
(How beautiful the snow upon Montoya Manor, like sugar-icing on a castle-cake! But of course we can eat nothing processed like that, even though it’s almost Christmas, only whatever unadulterated ingredients we can steal from the kitchen, and only after Dalmar clears them. I tell my silly tummy to stop growling for something that it can’t have. Even the bag of sugar had magentine in it.)
(Stuffiness...did I smell something in the ritual room? Scent of tobacco and weeds and hot summer days, shadowed with an outhouse whiff and the bitterness of Changewright’s potions? But no, that must have lingered from days gone by in the windowless place, laid plain and bare in electric light.)
(I heard the door open twice last night, once for George, tending to my needs, once for Don and Randy searching the outer room for me. Light shone under the door. But the tea...he increased the dose a bit too fast this time. It left me immobile, unable to speak a word before they left again. Only now can I recognize and move my limbs and tongue once more.)
Apparently I fell asleep after only two drinks last night, so I missed most of the party, which also probably did me a world of good. (And what did I dream? I can’t recall. Something best forgotten, it feels like, miles away from the splendor of the view.) Now all that lingers is the smell of smoke upon the air, and the chastened morning-after look of the survivors.
(So these are the survivors--all of those who haven’t gotten sucked into the Changewright cult. As I add my galoshes to the neat row by the door, I look around the half-filled room, decked with the fragrant prunings of conifers; the garlands look disheveled compared to all the right angles, no matter how evenly looped, and I find relief in their dishevelment. The cold-flushed faces look innocent, uncomprehending of all the empty seats among us. The rest have gone off with George Winsall.
“I can feel a sort of rumbling,” Don murmurs to me, “through the soles of my feet.”
“The underground magentine?” I ask, and he nods. Uneasily I wriggle my toes and then stand perfectly still, trying to feel something through the slipper-leather. But of course Don didn’t mean that kind of rumble. We hang up our coats and take our seats, acutely aware of the empty one on my other side, where Jake used to sit.)
(I can see Kimba shuddering from across the room. I hurry to her side and kneel beside her. Raif says, “She won’t take her medicine.” He has fresh, bleeding scratches all over him, and her hair looks as wild as her eyes. “I tried.”
Kimba gasps, “I can feel it! The rumbling...” and twitches start all over her body.)
(The faculty enter. Wallace looks waxy-pale this morning, but his hangover isn’t the half of it, I imagine. And yet I see a certain strength in his eyes, beyond the haunting, and peace in his measured tread, for having faced his past at last, as he steps up to the podium.)
Now, surprisingly, I find myself the halest person to greet the morning in Micah’s Gap. All around me people wince at the sound of pounding nails, even those doing the pounding, as they board up every window, one by one. The army knows this inn, now, and its sympathies. Others among the Children of Micah have gone off to bury everything of value someplace known only to their clan; this town does have a long history of weathering bandit-raids, after all, and government requisitions, and all manner of commotion.
Yet its founder never built it to withstand the kind of siege that a full-sized military force could bring to bear on it, especially not with new machinery of war coming from Peshawr Industries all the time. So, instead, miners among the travelers have pooled together an impressive amount of dynamite that they’d individually stashed among their stolen gear, to leave behind within the hotel walls for when the army–inevitably–comes in our wake to burn the centuries-old building down. After all that it has weathered, you can’t expect the old estate to go down without a fight.
(“You should never have expected me to go down without a fight, Jake,” he says to me, but I can’t tell whether George or Alroy, or Crespus, or some other speaks. I eat my herb-laced breakfast in the cavern that Crespus Inglorius showed me or will show me or is showing me on my rookie mission—all the cave paintings, imported from Earth, alive in their slabs imbedded into the sparkling crystalline structures, the magentine amid the calcite glowing and illuminating the umber and the ochre, bringing the figures to a flickering life, and all of them turn to stare at me, expectantly.)
(“I can feel them, Kimba hisses, with her eyes rolled back. “Evvvveryone, all over the nation...and more, through time and space!” Then she collapses into my arms and I carry her to bed.)
(“I can feel them, Jake, whoever or whatever it is you’re seeing. Rescued by…why, by the mightiest desecration in the history of blasphemous old Earth. Did I read that right? Thousands upon thousands of years of sanctity ripped open, something charged and ancient gathered together into a single potent place, isn’t it?”
I nod, then realize that to him the room stays dark. “Yes,” I tell him.
“How appropriate! And where is this, might I ask?”
“You can ask,” I say, and nothing more, as I finish my bitter porridge sitting at the feet of the priestess. I gave the blood of my hand to her stone, last time we met. Last…a thing of the past, but how far back? Or forward in a loop? It’s hard to chew porridge in a mouth made more of vibration than of flesh, but my instincts seem to manage.
“You see it now, don’t you?” he says to me. “Weatherbent poisoned the whole nation by his war against womanhood. Nurturance went out the window. Fatherhood is strict, when left all by itself, not so much as a neighbor, not so much as the woman within. It leaves you to your consequences. No healing for mistakes. No mercy beyond the coup de grace.”
“And Motherhood will smother you, devour you back into itself, when left all by herself, rejecting even the inner man. They need each other, and inform each other.” I think of Crespus, and what we did together on his last days in flesh. I get it now. And I get Alroy’s obsessions. I get all of it.
“Do you see it now?” He sounds desperate, on the brink of tears. “We had to desecrate in order to rescue, to do whatever we could to rip free of whatever he did to us!”
My voice sounds raspy to me when I reply, “Like a baby rips her mother, pushing out for birth.” I never thought of it before, but that beaklike deformity of Gita’s had to hurt; she came equipped to chisel her way out of a shell, and instead found herself in flesh. I gesture towards the priestess. “Do you see her there?”
“Do I...almost. Maybe a little bit. But you’ve gone deeper than me, after all your time down here.”
“There’s your womanhood—raw, primordial, before the invention of soap or tampons or clothes, but also before Eve, before the knowledge of how to eat the fruit of our own labors, how to make ourselves as gods of little plots of land, how to forget that our spirits never die, how to mourn and to regret.” I struggle to control my mouth, to say each word precisely. “An animal, on the verge of understanding something huger than we can ever really grasp, even now. Who knows—maybe she was Eve. Maybe the whole experiment of sentience began with her, and she has waited all this time to make her reparations.”
“Akelarre,” he says faintly, on the verge of trance, himself. “Her name was...is...Amari Akelarre.”
I turn to him; I still can’t make out who he is because he glows like the stalagtites, laced through his being, now, with magentine. As am I, myself, I realize; his potions contain more than herbs. As...more besides us? An entire nation? More?
Yet he doesn’t see the glow; he’s blind in the dark, and I could
easily elude him. If I wanted to. “You have brought her back, George.” Ah, George, is it, then? “She couldn’t hear such a cry of distress in
her children and not respond.”
I grin, glad that he can’t see the loopiness of my smile, knowing that he’s aware of it all the same. “I never forget the ghosts, George, not even the oldest ghost of all.” I laugh, and stagger to my feet. “You did her bidding—not Alroy’s, not Satan’s, but hers: with good and evil all mixed together—no, undifferentiated—into something more primitive and more potent than anything you could concoct: the very essence of what it means to be human.”
I can see the wideness of his eyes as he clasps my shoulders, though he can’t see mine. I feel his grip as a vibration layered upon my own resonance, meshing with it—as if it had ever been separate. “I never knew a woman carnally, George, and yet I am more united to Womanhood than any other man in Novatierre who still remains a man. I know you’ll have to rip me open.”
“You will have to do it to yourself,” he says. “It has to come willingly. It will go easier on you that way.”
I nod as he lets go to pick up a leather bundle. “Same thing.”)
And now we travel from that once-homey place, down the sere side of the mountains. For some reason I feel my connection to Jake intensify. I yearn for him, oh how I yearn for something that mere contact by touch cannot even begin to fathom!
“We mustn’t forget the ghosts,” Lufti says, walking beside me.
“Never,” I say, fingering my luck-doll. All the sacrifices that brought me to this point—I hope I can live up to them.
Is Jake a ghost, now, too? No, not yet, my instincts tell me. Could be, soon. I feel it in my heartbeat, reverberating all through the heart-red rocks around me. I shake my head, then regret it, feeling dizzy. Does the fever still grip my brain? Does it matter? If Jake goes, maybe I go, too. I’ve lived with death at my side for too long, now, to refuse that call. Oh coup de grace that could amend my life! Complete it...
Then I blink and think nothing except how starkly beautiful the countryside around me looks, and how brave the plodding of my comrades. Whatever went before fades like the morning mist.
We all march together now, dyed in a common blood, the miners and the farmers, the citizens of Micah’s Gap and the veterans. And I march with them, rested up enough, letting the donkey carry the bulk of our own band’s gear. And yeah, I do still feel a bit feverish, but I can push on, even if the scene feels more surreal the longer I stay on my feet.
“Cyran brings together woman and man to heal an ancient rift,” Lufti says, his voice sounding uncharacteristically sane. “All rifts must heal, and we must do some stitching to an ancient pattern, sacred and profane. But woe to those caught in the middle when the sundered halves crush together. And woe to those caught in the pangs of the birth that must come first.” In my present state that almost makes sense.
(We take off Kimba’s clothes as her fever spikes. She starts giggling convulsively. “They all ran around stark spanking naked!” she cries. “Exposing their womanhood!”
Toni brings ice from the lab, wrapped in a towel. Kimba shrills when we apply it, and then giggles. “You can’t stop it coming,” she gasps.)
(“Take off your clothes,” George says. “You must wear this.” And I feel the chamois robe that he has sewn for me. Soft. Sensuous. Loose. Utterly freeing after the scratchy, binding wool, now grown quite ripe.)
“Freedom,” Damien sighs, walking his motorcycle nearby. “We give birth to freedom. And then I’ll have to write new songs, songs of healing, to knit the nation back together afterwards.”
“No you won’t,” Lufti says. “Nobody can stitch together a broken melon.”
Damien stares at him a moment, and then shakes his head.
(The Headmaster clears his throat. “Students, respected faculty. Toulin Academy has been broken apart by a strange and unprecedented evil. I have learned that our campus contains literally tons of accumulated magentine...”
I hear gasps. These are, after all, the non-initiates.
“... now activated to evil purposes by human sacrifice, by the naïve, the violated, and the misled.”
I hear the cusswords muttered throughout the hall, almost reverently. The old features sag, but the eyes stay determined. “And, as one of the naïve, the violated, and the misled, myself, I have unwittingly played my part.”)
(Suddenly Kimba sits up and screams. Jacques, Pauline and Apollo run to grab guns that Guaril had helped us liberate, while Jameel and Courtney take on fighting postures, to guard us if anybody heard—surely they must! Apollo slips carefully out the door to scout.
Kimba whines, “We all play a part—even if we don’t want to. Ooooooo, it’s gonna hurt!”
Apollo comes back, looking scared. “All the guards that ran to us have collapsed. They never even came close.”)
Most of the Children of Micah have never left the village before. Now they stare about them with clench-jawed wonder, as we pass the final boundary-stone.
And I cuss softly under my breath, careful that nobody might hear. For we have become an army once again. How does this keep happening? And isn’t this what the revolutionaries have wanted, for generations? I look around at some of the grimmer faces around me, gratified to see that at least a few have sobered up beyond the clearing of the bloodstream.
Damien realizes the same thing, but he doesn’t show it. He sings inspiring songs, then teaches them and lets the rest thunder the verses out in endless rounds, giving his own voice a rest. I know that he recognizes our situation, because he grins when he looks backwards at the crowd we lead, but he scowls when he looks forward. Yet the machinery of war grinds on—no holding it back now.
(Kimba howls, “They’ve turned all of Vanikke into one great big psychic MACHINE!”)
(The shocks don’t end there. “I will no longer ban women from this campus,” Weatherbent says. At a gesture, kitchen scullions, shyly blushing, old and young, venture from behind the assembly-stage curtains to stand behind him. They wear no make-up. No styling adorns the hair that strays from nets or caps. Fat ones, skinny ones, pimpled ones or wrinkled—they all might as well be Venus to the gaping boys.)
We halt; I have to keep the pace slow, for now, for myself as much as for the wounded. It does scare me, a little, that I’ve begun to see rainbows around the edges of things; not a normal symptom of exhaustion, whatever it might mean. Yet nothing worries me too much in such kindly company.
(“Ooooo, rainbows!” Kimba coos, as if she hadn’t screamed just now. She settles back against her pillow, smiling strangely.)
(Rainbows shift and ripple around me, every time I move, every time I breathe, melting into each other to create new colors altogether. Yet whatever George does to me doesn’t worry me. Maybe it should. Maybe I’m too messed up to care. But no, my instincts say go with it, fear nothing. And...when did he leave, anyway? Was he ever really here?
I feel chamois on my unwashed skin. I grab a fold and rub it on my face. This is real. He did come here, for a time. And now has ventured on.)
(Look at them—all of them!—venturing beyond the school walls without fear! They laugh like the return of childhood, gathering garlands for our private celebration. At least I, the Changewright, have accomplished this much, to give them this freedom. Ah, the rich, resinous scents of the fresh-cut boughs, the sparkle of ice, the pure bright red of blood upon the snow as they practice the manly art of hunting for our feast!
And I must do my part, gathering that with which I’ll stuff the little birds and hares, yes, some plants still hold their virtues even in the dead of winter, in leafless twig, deep-buried root, in the concentrated withering of the frostbit berry or the tight-clenched bud awaiting spring, to mingle with the tinctures and the powders long set aside. Like these tubers in my hand, pried up just now from the frozen ground by the strokes of a stolen adze, which only look and smell like parsnips.)