IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
The Ghost Road
Friday, February 12, 2709 – Saturday, February 13, 2709
(The lower castes cannot possibly understand mountain-climbing.)
Makhliya judges me fit for light duties, despite how utterly rattled I feel from yet another night of nightmares. Each sleep seems progressively worse as more greenfire clears from my system; I feel more tired now than when I laid down to rest.
(Don stocked some green tea before launching, good doctor that he is, so I brew some for our troubled oracles. The caffeine won’t hurt any of us, exhausted as we are from the night before.
Jake warms his hands on the cup, breathing in the steam, and muttering darkly, “Ohhhh I am so going to bust Zora and Incense when I get back!”
Wallace sips contemplatively. “Whatever they were up to, they’re lucky they didn’t succeed. Messing with time like that...brrrr!” His shivering shakes his jowls.
“Damned irresponsible!” Jake growls. “They’re still outlaws through and through, I don’t care what the rehab board says.”
“Holy impulse,” George murmurs, and laughs uneasily. “What’s so holy about it?”
But then Jake’s eyes get that glazed look I know too well. “Now is not the time to mess with time,” he murmurs in a changed voice. The proto-oracles turn towards him simultaneously with the same unfocused gaze. “Another rift, another chance, but we won’t be able to do it till we’re all dead, of course. Sort’ve.” Jake looks up, not quite looking, at Don. “So brave of you. Thank you.”
And then, just like that, it passes, everybody’s eyes focus, and they drink their tea as if nothing happened. Don glances at me nervously, but I can only tip my head in a shrug. Jake sets his cup down sharply, stands up and says in a hearty voice, “Come on, crew—we’ve got chores to do.”)
Yet Makhliya feels that constructive activity will do me good, and she’s probably right, damn her. Accordingly, I make my rounds of the patients, and go about a routine business that would have appalled me one year ago, dressing wounds and draining pus on patients that I once considered too young to suffer like this, amputating some frostbitten toes that once would have horrified me even to see, let alone to smell and handle. I would not have, in those days, gotten so down-pat the speech to make to someone newly, permanently maimed.
(Peasants couldn’t comprehend the level of sacrifice it takes, to climb a mountain–oh, they can brutishly endure whatever misfortunes befall them, but can they dare it on purpose? Can they risk the frostbite and the crushing avalanche, the unexpected crack of ice and rock, the tumble into nothingness–can they gamble life and limb for glory?)
Time, something about time troubles me, something to do with my dreams last night, but I can’t recall any of it. Let’s see...one year ago today I sailed on a cruise ship out of Istislan, and had never set foot in the Charadoc. Tomorrow I will observe the anniversary of my arrival. I have no idea how I feel about that. I put the thought on hold, along with any other horrors of the night before, and clean more wounds.
(No–how could they? Let them till their fields in peace, untroubled by the will to pit their endurance against anything so great as a mountain. Leave it to us to inspire them, now and then, so that they can look up with awe at the peaks that we reach, and understand why we must lead, and they in trust must follow.)
The war outside goes on, whatever the state of my health. The time has come, Damien informs me, to head on out, and several of our uninjured with him: Marduk, Betany, and Ambrette. They will reconnoiter General Aliso’s base, preparatory for the battle to come, perhaps the biggest in the war.
Damien shoulders one of the automatic weapons that we’ve liberated, and it looks too big for his adolescent frame, and yet it also doesn’t. He certainly doesn’t look like a youth these days–or a bard. I see the killer in his eyes, and in the mouth that doesn’t smile anymore, surrounded by its soft, young beard, and I can’t do a thing about it. The peaks beyond him gleam with ice but they don’t look near so cold.
I finish up with my last patient, of the lightweight share assigned to me, just in time to hug him goodbye. He feels hard, smelling of gunpowder and tobacco. “You’re a good bard,” I tell him, “one of the best. Maybe the best.”
“Yeah, well I’m a good shot, too.” He starts to turn away.
“Just don’t throw away half of who you are–we’ll need your music in the future.”
He turns back to me, swings down his gun, and weighs it in his hands. “Right now the only music I want to make is percussion.”
“Right now. Yes. But someday we will need you to sing other songs–even if you only sing sad ones.”
He pauses, then gives me a bare nod. “I could use you with me, Deirdre.” I nod back, my mind racing. Cyran, last I checked, had gone far to the other end of the cavern to inventory a shipment of weaponry–we don’t want any more surprises with toy guns! A glance shows me that Makhliya has her back turned, cleaning a rather complicated wound that will consume all of her attention for quite awhile. I shudder, knowing that as soon as she remembers me she will order me to bed.
So–nobody strictly forbade me to volunteer. I strap on my flit; it fits surprisingly comfortably, the stiffness hardly noticeable. Then, before anyone’s the wiser, I pick up another gun and follow Damien, saluting him. He gives me back a grin that for a second almost looks like his old self. When I catch up he winks and hands me a leaf, for we have a long journey ahead of us, and trouble at the end. Makhliya doesn’t have to know about that, either.
We take the tunnel that will turn into a canyon. The echo of our footsteps puts me on edge; I hadn’t remembered that part. But then I hadn’t come through here entirely conscious, either. I force myself to remember that miles of mountain insulate the sound. Still, it bothers me that I couldn’t possibly distinguish an enemy’s footfalls from our own. We all huddle close to Betany, since she carries the lantern (even Marduk does, trying to look brave about it) but the shadows teem with ghosts–we all feel it. And none of us say a word about it.
Even Marduk can’t hold back the gust of a sigh, relieved to enter the dim ravine light–moonlight, as it so happens, effulging through the canyon-mists, for we have marched the afternoon away and gone well into the night. I no longer care, now, about the vagaries of time, the way it can stretch or contract.
The waterfall spills up close with a glad, wild roar, lambent in the lunar glow, a ghostly beauty that makes me shiver. Quickly, at its basin, we rub cold mud on all bare skin and anything else that might gleam, here before the water spills into the stream that carved the canyon out; we hope, by swift travel, to reach Abojan Pass before sunrise, when such camouflage will still make a difference. Somewhere I smell dulcinas, sweetly rotting where they have fallen to the ground.
(I see the body, slumped against a boulder, through too many eyes. The puffy face, the shoes slashed to accommodate swollen feet, shows me another poor soul with kidney failure. I’ve been seeing that a lot, lately. I keep trying to remember why. I put down Tshura’s box. Something happened last night that messed me up again, juiced us all, in fact, with a final surge of psychic energy; it makes my poor head hurt trying to remember what.
The others look at me—the dead man’s brown and wears a scapular. Nobody in our band belongs to his race or his church and prejudices still linger enough to hold them back from burying him, but they know that I’m “catholic” in the original sense of the word, and have no qualms.
“Very well then,” I sigh. “Someone be a dear and bring me the shovel.”)
Soon all of our shoulders draw in anyway, amid the frog-cheeps and the deep riparian greenery that rustles softly all around. For it takes few miles before we walk among our bones–the very heart of rebel ghostdom. At first only scattered ones, bits dragged by animals from their original resting-places, but later skeletons entire. They look pale in the dark, almost luminous, even in the fog, coming in and out of view. As it grows darker still I see that they do indeed phosphoresce. My scientific mind might find any number of explanations for the phenomenon, but that mind seems far away right now, when I chew greenfire leaf in a murky canyon full of faintly glowing bones.
(I murmur the Hail Mary that Deirdre once taught me; I may not believe in it, but if the soul’s still hanging around, perhaps he will. Meanwhile, our combustor has gained enough control—with a little bolstering from the rest of us—to thaw the ground enough for me to dig; she’s okay with that so long as she doesn’t have to touch the corpse. I start in while the others give her a double handful of raisins.)
Softly I say out loud, explaining to Ambrette but really to make apologies, “We were too weak to bury them then, in the dead of winter, when we had no food. We just pushed them off the cliff with prayers. And still the danger remains too great for a major burial effort. We can only pray for them as we pass, and hope that they can find it in them to pray for us in return.” A breeze starts up, ruffling the haze, stirring the many dangling rosaries of ragged wood, clacking against the bones here and there. The hair rises on the back of my neck.
“They hear you,” a young voice says behind me. I whirl and see Lufti, with Kiril at his side. They both look terrible and lean against each other.
“You two!” I cry.
Damien barks, “Keep it down, Deirdre!”
So I run to them, hissing, “What are you doing here? You’re too weak for this business!” even as I throw my arms around them.
“So are you,” Kiril says, her face gray already. “Don’t worry; we’ll hold back. We’ll just be here for you after, to help you pick up the pieces.” And she stares up accusingly into what I realize must be my dilated eyes.
Lufti, meanwhile, gazes to the side, straight into a pair of eyesockets. “They understand,” he says. “They hungered with us, until it killed them. They know better than anybody how little we could do.” And, slowly at first, he starts to dance.
I glance to Damien, but he doesn’t command the boy to stop. Indeed, he watches with wide eyes and parted lips, as Lufti picks up speed, whirling and stamping in and out among the skeletons, his limbs jangling about like loose bones, themselves, his head lolling like no flesh upholds the neck–and yet a grotesque grace informs his movements, and we know that, however bizarrely, he pays tribute to the dead.
Abruptly he stops, wobbles for a moment, catching his breath. Then he turns to us, hair in his face, and he pants, “They...give...us...safe...passage.” Kiril puts an arm around him and helps him to join us.
Damien signals us to move on, his eyes still huge. After awhile he whispers to me, out of Lufti’s earshot, “He didn’t used to dance near so well. I remember.”
“D...do you think...”
“Do I think what?”
“That maybe...Kanarik’s spirit...in him, you know, that somehow...”
“Not really, no. This came on him before Kanarik died.”
He nods, but dubiously. “Still, she could help him now, couldn’t she?”
“I hope she helps us all.”
(I nearly have the grave finished when the other band jumps from behind the rock to wrestle us for our food! I knew I saw through too many eyes! Willing myself to narrow my focus, I mindblast them one by one. The scoundrels deserve it, baiting their trap for the kindhearted like that! None of them die, but they all hold their heads and moan—as do I, soon enough. Too much power shooting through me!
“Bury your own dead!” I hiss, before passing out. The last thing I remember is several people picking me up and moving on.)
Time passes, I guess. Now Lufti clutches my hand painfully tight on one side, and Kiril’s on the other, till he tires and I pick him up out of old habit. As he sleeps with his head upon my shoulder, I hear him murmur the names of our dead in his dreams.
“Cyran won’t like to learn that Kiril and Lufti have joined us,” I say to Damien.
He barks a laugh. “E won’t like finding out that I left, either.”
“Um...what are you telling me?”
Humor never lasts in his face anymore. “That no one can keep me from the first mission against General Aliso. Cyran just told Alysha to pick somebody to go.” He leans over and whispers in my ear on the other side from Lufti, “Marduk is so easy to play, when you know his issues. I got him to insist for both of us.”
“Even if it’s just a reconnaissance job?”
Kiril soon lags, too. Marduk picks her up and carries her as I do Lufti. But my strength soon bleeds away even with Lufti, and Kiril’s no small load even for Marduk. In any case, the medic in me kicks in, and I lay Lufti down on a soft patch of grass, as Marduk sets Kiril back on her feet. I tell her, “You two make a secure base for us, here in the canyon.”
“Cover us if we come running with fire on our tails. But it’d take some time before that happens, so get some rest unless you hear gunfire.”
Kiril nods, wearily, then curls up beside Lufti. I hope her bleeding hasn’t increased by marching this far, anemic as she is.
Mist closes behind us swiftly as we move on. Now I have nobody on my shoulder to argue my case with the ghosts.
By the time we start to climb up the one safe path, the sky has already begun to glow, just the faintest bit behind the mountains, and the mists thin all around us. We stay hidden in the bush, and reach the brink of climbing out when we halt, our faces framed in leaves, to gaze out on General Aliso’s base in Abojan Pass, settled in our old friend’s mansion. Only the kitchen window glows with light. We can see the tops of tents everywhere.
But we also stare into the barrel of a cannon pointed straight at us, with an alert gunner behind it, though he hasn’t seen us yet. The General has had time to figure out our secret ways by now.