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IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VII: The Burning


Chapter 44

Crash


 

 

Friday, May 2, 2709, continued


     (Anselmo, Ozwald and I watch the snow pile up on the windshield. Soft. Almost luminously white against the night in the dim light of our dash. Lovely. Deadly. Frost flowers over the glass above the drifts and it, too, looks perilously beautiful.
     I sigh, perhaps a trifle too loudly. I know what we have to do. Climb out into the cold. Assess the damage before the snow buries it. And us, come to think of it. But as long as I sit wedged between these two tall men, I really don't have to move, do I? I've had enough of the snow-life to last me awhile.
     Tshura won't condemn me. She doesn't say a word.
     Anselmo sighs even louder than I did, pulls on his gloves and shoulders open the slightly frozen door. Ozwald doesn't sigh, he groans. I hardly blame him, once that gust bursts our bubble of heat. I scoot along the seat behind him as he exits, too.)

     How beautiful the Charadoc looks when seen from the sky--a perilous beauty, lush with the blood-fed foliage and the starlit rivers of tears. I wish for more light, but of course the new moon hardly qualifies as any moon at all. A shallow valley stretches out beneath me, or maybe a deeper one flattened by the darkness, but hills rise up to either side, one spilling a shimmering silver waterfall, and beyond them clouds pile up greater than mountains, with spaces between full of blackness jeweled with bright and quivering stars!
     But Lufti's right--the stars do spy on me, judging me and shaking with their cruel, cold laughter. I remember that I have no friends in Heaven anymore.
     CRASH! I thrash frantically against branches, tumbling into more and more as I fall, till I right myself again and soar up above it and out of its reach, slapping off the dried bits of bark and shoving my flit back into its proper shape. Lucky for me the tree had died a long time ago, its branches soft and brittle.
     But damn those stars! They distracted me on purpose! I soar higher, closer to them but out of reach of the threatening woods below. And I inhale a bit more of what I need to keep on flying.
     (It's a big tree, but dead and rotted hollow, not so hard for a storm to blow over. I turn my collar up against a renewed blast, my nose stinging with the cold a bit. Nice, furry collar on this coat--boy do I appreciate that this culture's okay with that!
     Anselmo shines a lantern onto the front of his truck, raising the crumpled hood with a loud skreeeek. "Not too bad--I wasn't driving very fast. Some damage to the radiator, but in this cold that's not as big a deal as it could be. I can make it limp along till we can get replacement parts--it's not like we lack for abandoned cars around here." He walks over to one side. "Headlights are a problem, though, as if visibility wasn't bad enough. We shouldn't even try to go anywhere till morning."
     Ozwald emerges, hugging his skinny frame and shivering. "At least we'll have the heater in the car, right?" When Anselmo only frowns thoughtfully the boy adds, "It's not like we lack for fuel."
     "The fuel doesn't worry me," Anselmo says. "The battery does."
     I see Ozwald's eyes grow wide and desperate. I'm not the only one who has spent too much time in snow.
     A sudden WHOOSH and crackle, with a flash of light, makes us stare at the fallen trunk, which has burst into flames from the inside. Ozwald's eyes grow wider right up until he falls into my arms.
     Quietly Anselmo asks, "What the hell just happened?"
     "Help me load him into the truck, and then dig up the highest calorie snacks that you can find in the supplies." I wave smoke away from both me and the limp youth in my arms.
     "Let's pull the truck back a bit, first, and turn her around, before the engine burns. But what happened?"
     "Ozwald's a combuster. He must've longed for a fire, and the tree was right there, full of dry rot inside, safe from the snow. But nobody needs food quite like a teenage combustor!"
     I must admit that the warmth feels delicious.)

     The clouds have thinned to buttermilk ripples, I must have covered more distance than I thought. They show the first hint of a blush, and the sky behind them begins to pale.
     No, I've passed those three hills twice already. I've been circling. It's the clouds that have moved on without me. Heaven abandons me. I grow heavier and heavier, hanging on the framework of my flit.
     How can my heart ache, so far above the troubles of the world? But it does, ai, how it does! The conchy doesn't feel delicious anymore. It feels shaky, insubstantial, like a lovely shimmer of paint upon thin air, veiling the brutality of the world, something that I could step right through, to fall and fall and fall. Or no, that's not it, I'm already falling; the illusion is that I fly. So yes, my aching heart twists in my breast, it feels loose, not quite the right fit, like it could fall right out from me...
     Heart, nothing! It’s my focus! It drops from my chest, hurtling down, a flash of ruby below me, abandoning me to the air. For a few incredible seconds I glide on residual telekinesis, backwards as if all will, too, had dropped from my limbs. Scenery starts to slip around wildly. Air shrills in my ears, pulse in my throat! Mountains shoot up to my left and right, as though they leap to their feet in alarm. Earth blurs below me, then sky, then earth, then sky, then...
     ...the branch ripped through my consciousness and ruptured it. Shreds come back to me, in and out. No cow broke my fall this time, yet forest litter has accumulated between these trees for centuries, leaf upon leaf, and the vines, too, they wrenched me as they slowed me, almost like shaggy garrotes prepared to break my neck. And the branch ripped...
     I didn’t feel it when my awareness bled from me, but now I do. My hand throbs. I broke my wrist, too, but more than that. The branch...
     I have trouble lifting my hand; it won’t go the way I want. I look. I see the branch that skewers through the palm between the bones and ligaments. For a moment I can only stare, then I thank God for the slipperiness of ligament-sheathing—if God still listens to thanks from me, after this blasphemy, on top of...of everything else. Or ghosts. It must have been ghosts, looking out for me.
     I next think, “What a scar I’ll have!”
     Then, “Left hand, that’s good, too. Could be worse.”
     Then I try to tug myself free, and pass out.
     (After an initial moan, Ozwald asks, "Did I pass out?" then pays attention to nothing but the pan dulce that I feed to him, not rising from where we tucked him, engulfed in an old packing-blanket in the back of the truck, with the door raised just enough to let in the heat of the blazing fire, now that Anselmo has us turned around. (It does make me a trifle uneasy to sit between the blaze and a large tank of fuel, but Anselmo assures me that the stuff has a high flash point.)
     "Yes," I say cheerfully to Ozwald, "As a matter of fact you did." Then he looks out on the fire and pales, so I give him a playful push off the elbow that he'd leaned on to lay his head back down. I explain to him what a combustor is, how he's going to need a lot of calories every time he uses his gift, how he's going to need a magentine focus and some practice to make sure that he only ignites what he wants to burn, and how very, very glad I am that he's a mellow sort of guy. In this magentine-drenched wasteland of stress, it's the only reason that he didn't set anything on fire sooner.
     "Gudy's wardrobe," he husks while reaching for another pan dulce. "When she broke up with me it burst into flames. We couldn't figure out why it happened. I finally told her it was Friggo and Frigga's punishment for oathbreaking and be glad I wasn't an Odinist. Skirnir's clothes were in there, too, by then" And then he starts giggling and so help me so do I, and then all three of us are laughing out loud.
     "You're a good man, Ozwald," I say. "You didn't really want to hurt either of them, just shame them. Otherwise this could have turned out very different." And we all stop laughing.
     "Good gods," Ozwald finally breathes.)

     When I come to, my arm cramps from falling in an awkward position demanded by my impaled hand. Very carefully I sit up, moving that arm as little as possible; each twinge reminds me to take more care than usual, which also tells me that the conchy's wearing off. I break the branch before and behind the wound. Makhliya can take it out later. No, not Makhlya; I abandoned her and everybody else, trying to fly my disease as far away from them as I could. At least that's my latest excuse.
     And then I just sit there, trying to collect my thoughts like a fluid that keeps bleeding between my fingers the more I try to staunch the flow, hold it still. I stare at the red, wet stain upon the forest floor. Somewhere, down below that, my blood seeps into the dirt. “Now I am one with the land indeed,” I find myself murmuring, hoarse with the thirst of bloodloss. “Part of me will never leave.”
     I use what’s left of the branch for a cane with my good hand, so that I can stand. But then I drop it again, because my good hand's got a bad shoulder. Could be worse, though. Could be better, too. Dizzy, cold, hungry. The shivering jars the wood in my wound, so I clench my teeth and try not to, but it doesn’t much work.
     I can't afford to crash in the snow. I must push myself on to...wait a minute. What snow? This is the bloody tropics! But I still can't afford to crash, because...I don't know why.
     I assess the rest of my body. The bad shoulder’s out, as expected, but heaven knows it’ll pop back in, no problem. My spine would make a chiropracter swear, but I haven’t broken my back—it only felt that way at first. In fact, nothing but my wrist has broken; I must’ve landed on it. Most important, I have two sound legs and feet.
     Well then, an injured hand. It won’t keep me from marching, which I suspect I’m going to do a lot of, from now on.
     And one more thing. I fumble one-handed for the little packet in my pocket, then empty its contents out onto the morning breeze, fluttering away from me like a sparkling dust of snow. Then I find myself laughing, hoarsely, a little hysterically. Thank you, Sanzio D'Arco, for helping me hit rock-bottom!
     And then I take four steps forward, try to take four more without staggering quite so much, and watch the forest floor hurtle straight up towards my f...

                  

 




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