Disillusionment has settled over the Elders of the Subcity, along with a dangerous faltering of purpose. Nicodamien has ambitions, and he intends to exploit the situation to his own end.
Nicodamien sat in the shadows of the entrance to the old tunnel to the surface, at the top of the long, broad stairs. From where he was sitting he could see the busy center where everything important went on. No one had any reason to come over to where he was. This part of the Subcity was nearly deserted. The way was blocked, impassable since the Bloody Revolution, when the bombing of the New Hall of Ozymander collapsed the passageway. There had never been any reason to reopen it. But then, Nicodamien had his own reasons for doing things.
She was late, but he was confident she’d come. The time they’d spent together had convinced him that she was just what he had been looking for. So he had decided to bring her into his plans. He had told her very little so far, just enough to let her know that she would be treading on dangerous ground. She would be joining him in activities that would take her outside of what was considered acceptable in their society. She would run the risk of becoming a renegade. But Nicodamien was quite certain she would not lose her nerve. She would come.
And he was right, of course. He could see her hurrying along the quiet street, glancing nervously behind her, as if she feared being seen and followed. She ran up the long flight of stairs. Nicodamien stepped out of the shadows to greet her.
“Oh!” Felicitanya cried, startled by him. “I’m sorry I’m late.”
“Come,” he said, taking her by the arm. “Let’s get out of sight.”
“This is the passageway that used to lead up to the City,” she said. “What are we doing here?”
“You shall see,” he said, walking briskly. Their auras lit the darkness. Felicitanya looked around herself at the smooth stone of the walls. They were not supposed to be here, she felt sure of it. And what could be the purpose? The way had been closed long before. Nicodamien led her around a sharp turn. “Down here,” he said. “There’s something I want you to see.”
She could see a faint purple-orange glow through an arched doorway. She hesitated, intensely curious, but held back by the firm conviction that she should not be doing this.
“Come on!” Nicodamien said impatiently.
Taking a deep breath, she followed. They entered a chamber whose perfectly curved ceiling and walls were lined with the same crystals that illuminated the Subcity. She could see the flickering of their internal iridescence. There was a sound, too; a faint clicking or dripping. It took her a moment to realize that it was the crystals. The sound they made was beautiful, delicate. Almost like tiny bells. The floor was a flat, mirrored surface, reflecting the light of the crystals. At the very center of the chamber was a pedestal made of the same material as the floor, colorlessly reflective, with a black marble slab on its top.
“This must be the chamber of Tristramacus!” Felicitanya exclaimed.
“Yes,” Nicodamien confirmed, adding casually, “My grandfather.”
She looked over at him. Of course. He was the grandson of Tristramacus and Brinnalamaya. It gave her a little shiver of awe. Nicodamien went over and hoisted himself up to sit on the platform. “They all had chambers like this,” he said. “The Subcity is full of them. One in every residence. Most are full of corpses now. The bodies of those who didn’t survive Oblivion. My father had one, but he never used it. He never went into oblivion.”
“Mirramarduk,” she murmured.
“It’s a pity,” Nicodamien continued. “He was a great being, a powerful ruler. He was master of the humans for centuries. I read all about it in the Book of Kel. Of course, the histories were written by humans, and thus badly prejudiced. Still, it was clear how great he was at one time. I wish I could have known him then!”
Felicitanya nodded. She remembered Mirramarduk. It was hard to reconcile that sad, embittered person with the figure of history. It must have been difficult, after knowing such greatness, to be reduced to the humble circumstances of his life in Galamander. Alexandrik had sometimes spoken of his father–
Felicitanya winced internally at the memory of Alexandrik. But then she realized that it didn’t hurt so much to think of him now. Now that she was in the company of Nicodamien. How different they were! She could see the family resemblance in his face. Yet Nicodamien carried himself with such a sense of power and mastery. Alexandrik seemed positively humble by comparison. It was Nicodamien who was of the truly royal line, the son of Mirramarduk, grandson of Tristramacus and Brinnalamaya. Felicitanya shivered with excitement to think that she was with him now, that he had chosen her to share his secrets!
Nicodamien jumped lightly off the pedestal. “Come with me. I have more to show you.”
She followed him out of the chamber, leaving its soft light and faintly tinkling crystals behind. Nicodamien again led her through the pitch darkness of the corridor to where the way was blocked by rock and gravel.
“Now what?” she asked.
“Now this,” he replied. Applying his strength to a large rock, he pushed it to one side. Then he bent and pointed. “See?”
Felicitanya knelt and looked. A draft of fresh air brushed her face. “It’s a tunnel!” she cried.
“Exactly,” he said.
She touched what seemed like loose gravel suspended in air. It was solid. The entire inside surface of the tunnel was the same, a rough but solid surface.
“It’s completely safe,” Nicodamien said in answer to her unspoken question. “I used a mining tool. It uses focused energy to melt and solidify the sand. A slow process, especially since I had only a small unit to work with. But very effective.”
“But how did you get such a device?” she asked.
He shrugged. “It was simply a matter of investigating. Asking the right questions discreetly, then seeking out opportunities. There is all sorts of equipment in storage, most of it in perfect working order.”
“But, didn’t you need to get permission to use it?”
His expression was disdainful. “What would be the point?” he replied. “I took what I needed, used it and returned it. No one is the wiser, and I saved myself having to deal with inconvenient questions.” Then he inquired mockingly, “Do you disapprove?”
“Don’t be absurd!” she retorted with a careless toss of her head. “I only wondered that it was possible to do such a thing in secret.”
“Virtually anything is possible if one is clever enough,” he replied. “Come.” He crawled through the opening. Felicitanya hesitated a moment before following him. She felt a small, cold fear at going into that hole, leaving the safety of the hallway to burrow under immense tons of rock in this primitive tunnel.
“What’s the matter?” he called to her. “Are you afraid?”
“No, of course not,” she replied, and, taking a deep breath, she crawled in.
After a few feet the tunnel grew bigger, until she could stand up in it, but it was still very narrow. She followed Nicodamien’s aura, fighting claustrophobia. Then at last they came to a wall of tumbled masonry. Enormous slabs leaned against one another. There was just enough room to squeeze through. She found herself in a small vault.
“See here?” Nicodamien gestured. “This is the original stone of the arch, the Gateway from the Hall of Ozymander down into the Subcity. This vault was built to cover it. Then the humans put a building of their own design on top of it. They wanted to bury all remnants of our people. They wanted to make the City all their own.” He went over to a heavy iron door and pushed it open. Filtered sunlight came down from above. “I had to blast this door open,” he said. “When I came through, this is what I found.” He ducked as he stepped through the door, which had been built for humans, not for those of their kind. Felicitanya followed him.
The large room was littered with blackened debris. The floor was made of squares of some material she didn’t recognize, all badly stained and warped. Above them was twisted and blasted wreckage. Clearly this building had been burned. She could distinguish the remains of metal furniture among the debris. She also saw what appeared to be a partly charred skeleton. Fascinated and horrified, she took a few steps towards it.
“You’ll see a lot of those,” Nicodamien said dismissively. “Come.” There was a cracked concrete staircase leading upwards. The rubble at the top had been cleared to make a path. The marble floor was intact, although it had been discolored by the fire that had destroyed the building. “There’s another staircase over here,” Nicodamien said, leading the way. “We can get up to street level.”
When they finally emerged from the wreckage into the street, Felicitanya could only stare, shocked and amazed. Everywhere were the remains of violent destruction. The buildings that had not been burned had been wrecked, windows smashed and furniture thrown out. Shattered glass glittered everywhere she looked. Vehicles were piled in chaotic clusters as if some colossal child had rammed them against each other and left them in heaps. Most of these, too, had been burned. And Nicodamien had been correct; she saw skeletons. Many, many skeletons. The pathetic, diminutive bones littered the streets, scattered by scavengers, gnawed on by rats. Felicitanya felt weak and faint with horror. Nicodamien regarded it all with what seemed to be satisfaction.
“This is what happens to humans, left completely to themselves,” he said. “They build enormous, ugly structures, dedicated to greedy self-interest. They erect monuments to their own egos, to glorify indulgence and petty wealth. They behave like rodents, quarreling and cheating each other over bits of rancid cheese. Their very worst characteristics assert themselves more and more boldly. And then, when they are confronted with the consequences of their selfish, egotistical stupidity, their deaths imminent, they revert to their most savage nature and destroy everything they have made.” He picked up a small skull. Regarding it with contempt, he tossed it up and down like a ball, then hurled it against a wall. It shattered.
Felicitanya gripped a metal post, trying not to be sick.
The Doctor Shaman, Alexandrik, struggles to reconcile his training as a physician under his mother’s coldly practical influence, with his new-found shaman’s wisdom. Dr. Sansaramia was a skilled and highly respected medical authority; for her, emotion did not belong in the science of medicine. She would not approve of Alexandrik’s emotional attachment to his first patient as a shaman, his father’s widow, Galamandria. Paralyzed by grief and depression, Galamandria wraps her sorrow around her like a quilt; her misery has become toxic comfort. The healing must touch them both.
On the night of the full moon, Alexandrik went out to call to it, to the ball of ice containing all the magic of the world, lit by Dracomaya’s shorn hair. He sang the words he had learned in the Arctic, calling out to Moon to release some of its imprisoned magic to fall upon the world. His eyes searched the heavens. As he was singing it through for the third time, he saw a falling star. He nearly didn’t see it, just a brief streak out of the corner of his eye. That was the sign. He went inside to begin the ceremony.
Unbidden, unwanted, an explanation came to him. There are countless chunks of rocky matter in erratic orbits in space. The gravity of the planet occasionally captures one and pulls it down into the atmosphere, where friction from acceleration causes it to burst into flame. That’s all it is. Random. Meaningless.
I reject that! he shouted to himself furiously. We create the meaning which makes up our world!
He had set up the sunning room for it, so that the Moon’s light could fall with its power onto the patient. Candles were set at the four corners, precise compass points, and other candles placed where the sun rose and set that time of year. The chockral lamp was set up at a point triangulating north from those two candles. Galamandria sat at the center. Just inside the area defined by the candles, opposite the lamp, sat Silvanius and Arabellica. Family was always included in healing ceremonies. Silvanius looked sober but somewhat bemused. Arabellica was fascinated, taking it all in with eager interest. She was already a believer. Silvanius was a skeptic, but a tolerant and curious one. He wanted more than anything to see his mother happy and healthy again. If this strange ritual accomplished that end, he was all for it.
“I have seen magic fall from the skies. We can begin.” Alexandrik went around the room lighting the candles. He kept his focus on what he was doing, ignoring the sense of pointless performance. What did it matter where the candles were? The cardinal points were an arbitrary orientation.
No, the cardinal points are significant. They mean something to us. All of this has a purpose. It speaks to the heart. The heart influences the energies which influence the body. This is where healing is enhanced.
Alexandrik finished with the chockral lamp. He paused closing his eyes, trying to appear calm and in control, inwardly terrified that he would not be able to remember the words to the chant.
What does it matter if the words aren’t right? No one here would know the difference.
The Powers would know.
The Powers are imaginary. It’s all just psychological.
Psychology did not heal Joh Zakjen.
At the center, next to Galamandria, was a low table with a fat candle and the bowls containing the elements he needed. Next to the table was a small drum.
I know what all this is for. Just walk through it, do it, pick up the drum and begin.
He began to beat a slow, steady rhythm, chanting softly. When they had been immersed in the rhythm for several minutes, he motioned to Arabellica. She came forward, nervous but excited about playing her part. Without interrupting the rhythm, he took her hand, wrapped her fingers around the stick, guided her for a minute and then let her go. She faltered only slightly, then continued the beat while Alexandrik turned to mixing the materials in the bowls. Galamandria was watching him.
I have done this a dozen times. I have watched it done many times more. I understand it all. Just because I am in a different place, it doesn’t change the ritual. It is the same.
He crushed the leaves and used the knife to shave small threads off the root, mixing it all with the oil. Then he added the flakes of dried mushroom.
Hallucinogenic, used for these kinds of cures, when the sickness is in the mind and heart, as it was for those attending Joh Zakjen. Also used to help those who are not trained for it to sense the Powers and the waters.
Perception of things unseen.
I am a doctor, I am a shaman, I am both. I’ve got to break down the Wall between so that I can merge the two into a seamless whole. It is the last step in a cure that has taken eleven years to perform.
He warmed the mixture over the candle until the bowl was nearly too hot to hold. Then he drained off the oil into a cup. He didn’t need much; just enough for two. Silvanius and Arabellica would not be going with them tonight; they would just be present in this space, to keep it safe and unbroken.
Alexandrik took a sip of the liquid in the cup, then gave it to Galamandria to finish. She was half-consciously rubbing the unhealed wound on her shoulder and stopped to take the cup. He waited for her to drink, then took it from her and set it on the table. It was getting easier, coming more naturally. The chockral lamp whistled softly as Alexandrik took up the shaker and began the chant, using the instrument to punctuate the phrases. Arabellica kept up the steady rhythm. Slowly, the space began to change.
The words, spoken in the language of the Ancients, came easily to him, welling up from memory and sliding off his tongue. It was not the language of the Tribe, which changed over time, but sounds which never changed. It was the way the People made themselves understood to the Powers. It was the affirmation of connection, of empathy. The words spoke of cycles, of truths, of the great vastness of time and place, the unity of everything which seems broken into parts. The words spoke of that which the shamans know, that energy and matter are one, that every motion affects every other motion, that the enormity of the world is beyong all comprehension and yet the smallest action ripples out into etermity.
This is the way that the Powers are attracted, that they are made to see that no ignorant beast makes these noises, but a sentient being who knows the greater truth.
Galamandria closed her eyes and listened, feeling the world melt around her. Even though her eyes were closed, she could still see the liquid expanse that surrounded her, rippling and pulsing with life and intention. Inanimate objects became indistinguishable. She sat as if within a cloud, a chill fog, everything beyond dampened and obscured.
She recognized Alexandrik’s voice. The fog thickened. “No,” she said. “Everything I have touched, I have tainted. Everything I have attempted, I have done badly.”
“That’s not true. You prepared me well for my journey to the Arctic. In fact, if not for you, I would not have gone at all.”
The fog thinned, but she darkened it. “We shared the passion. It was wrong. It was my fault.”
“It wasn’t wrong.”
“You don’t believe that. You know it was.”
But she could feel his guilt.
“I walked through the valley of my failure. All the things that turned to tragedy because of me. The canyon of skulls. The grave of my mate.”
“None of that was your fault.”
“All of it was. I could have kept it from happening, but I failed.”
“Any one of us could have kept it from happening! We all walked the path that brought us here. Did we know where it would lead? Could we have done anything different, given what we did know? Not at all! The darkness came out of the intentions of those who knew clearly what they did and did it freely.”
The fog thinned. She pulled it around herself, wrapping herself in it as if it were a cloak.
“My commitment was a failure.”
“Through no fault of your own.”
“I did not try hard enough!”
“You could not have succeeded!”
“Because I am flawed.”
“Because he was impossible!”
Galamandria rolled herself up in the cold, dark security of the fog. She had worked on it like a quilt over the years of solitude, stitching it, square by square, until it covered her completely. She had searched each and every episode of her life, picking it apart to find culpability. If she couldn’t find it, she moved on to another until she found what she was looking for. It was a thick, deeply enveloping quilt. Familiar. Comforting, because it meant she did not have to try anymore. Surrendering to failure released her from responsibility.
“No, you are better off without me.”
“That’s not true!”
“Yes, it is. Go away.”
Alexandrik put his hand on Arabellica’s arm and shook his head. She ceased the rhythmic beating of the drum. His expression was somber.
“It isn’t working, is it?” Arabellica said softly.
Alexandrik shook his head.
Silvanius tried to take his mother’s hand but she pulled away, tucking her limbs up close to her body, her eyes squeezed shut.
“The patient has to want to get better,” Alexandrik said.
“But, she must want our help,” Silvanius said. “She came all that way to get to us. I mean, she could have just laid down and died anywhere on the trail. She said she thought she would, but she pushed herself to keep going. That must mean she wants to live, doesn’t it?”
Alexandrik leaned his head back, thinking. No, that wasn’t what she told them. She did not push herself. Something pushed her. Like being swept along in a current.
Taking up the shaker again, Alexandrik chose a different chant. He could have no idea if it would work or not. He could only ask and then see what happened. He finished and set the shaker down on the table. He took several fresh sprigs from one of the bowls and crushed them in his palm, warming them with his energy until they released their fragrance. He held out his hand to Silvanius and then Arabellica, each breathing the soothing, aroma. Then he put the sprigs by Galamandria’s face, where she lay curled up tightly on the floor.
“Now,” Alexandrik said, “We wait.”
Wrapped in thick fog, Galamandria held on to her quiet, peaceful misery. The most perfect cure for dying is death. Could she smother herself in fog? She could try. That would make an end to it.
But there was something intruding. It smelled silver. How could an odor have a color? The voices had stopped, but there was a new sound. It, too, was silver. Music. Sad music, resonating with her misery. She had heard it somewhere before. The music made her cry; it knew her regret, her guilt, and that kinship thinned the fog. The music was like a ragged friend, sharing her sorrow. The music hugged her, affirmed her pain, validated her despair. Because of that she did not need to defend herself against it and she embraced it, weeping openly. The music understood.
When she had wrung out her misery, her sobs slowing into small gasps, she was exhausted. The music was a pillow and she rested on it. The pillow was cool, but her body warmed it. The music warmed. Gently. Soothingly. A light somewhere beyond the fog drew her up. The music was like a small bird singing. A small silver bird singing a simple, sweet refrain. Galamandria recognized this place. It was in the Subcity, the Museum and Archives. The bird sat at an acoustic resonator, its keyboard modified to accommodate the delicate brush of its tiny wing. The bird finished playing and smiled up at her shyly with a human face.
“I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for you.”
There was sunlight behind her. She turned to see where it was coming from and saw her son, Silvanius, pitching hay over a fence. He turned and grinned at her. “It’s a beautiful day!” he said, and pointed to something over to her right. “He’s waiting for you.”
She didn’t want to look, but Silvanius laughed. “It’s all right! Go on!”
Galamandria felt a gentle pressure against her fingers and saw Arabellica. “Mother,” her daughter said, “It’s all right.”
She looked up and saw her parents. Her mother nodded. “He is good for you,” she said. Her father was scowling, but had a twinkle in his eye. “Damn fool of a doctor,” he said. “Blind as a rock without you.”
Still pricked by anxiety, Galamandria looked around until she saw the one who really mattered. Her mate. He was walking away from her.
He ignored her, self-absorbed, indifferent. Already far away.
The sun was warm on her cheek. She turned and realized it was Alexandrik’s hand.
“I love you,” he said.
There were birds singing.