Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A roll of the dice

Joah sits alone perched atop the bed in her room. Her boots and stockings are piled on the floor; her legs are tucked beneath her. She still wears the black and crimson dress she had on earlier when talking with Aunt Beast. She is weary from lack of sleep, yet rest eludes her. “There was a knight, and a lady bright, and three little babes had she,” she sings softly to herself, rocking.

Her fingers absently twine through the two chains around her neck, each bearing distinct ornaments: a small silver cross inlaid with onyx, a violently used razor from an earlier century. She gazes through the window at the bleak, early Toxian sun fighting its way through the perpetual haze that hangs over the city. “Choose, choose,” she murmurs. Blood. Heart. Soul. She sees the seal of the Book in her mind’s eye: Humanity, the Elder Ones, and the Watchers. Which is the path to Nareth? Omega says dead and lost forever. Legion says . . . just dead.

Joah traces the outline of the blade. Without thinking, she slides it along the curve of her thumb, leaving a bright sliver of red. “I roll the dice,” Aunt Beast had said. “Choose. The blade glances off mine skin. The blade flies from Artemisia's hand. The blade glows red. Choose.” Joah closes her eyes and sees Nareth’s blade, her sigil, flying through the air, lightly caught by Artemisia as she whirls and dances to the pipes only one touched by Labyrinth can hear. Without thinking, Joah begins to hum, her song conforming itself to the same tune.

She had chosen. The blade glows red. Joah runs her thumb along the edge of the blade again, feeling a thrill of bright, wet pain. “It is done,” Aunt Beast had proclaimed. “So many roads . . . undone.” She’d closed her hand as the dice vanished. “He will come to you, Joah. He came unto me. The prophecy . . . it says . . . he will slay thee . . . to aid me. The Beaumont Constantine. You will betray me. And the Sire of Nareth will slay the Final Vessel.” Joah wipes her bloody thumb on her skirt and wraps her arms around herself. She knows every decision limits the future. This decision has not yet been made, but the question has been asked. Many things seem to converge then fall apart. Aunt Beast has given her a weapon: Paradox.

Nareth’s blade grows hungry.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The dreaming

Joah wakes suddenly from her narrow bed, sitting upright in the darkened upper regions of the Library. The crescent moon streams through the window, barely illuminating the sparsely furnished room. Just by looking at her quilt, she realizes she's had another night of tossing and turning and inexplicable dreams: the covers lie heaped on the floor, the cotton sheets in a crumple. She thinks, "Maybe I should read," and as the thought crosses her mind, a small candle holder and the stub of a lit candle appear on her writing table. Still lost in the dreaming and the waking, she seems oblivious to what she's done. She rises and walks lightly to the little wooden table, bare feet graceful on the cool floor, her thin cotton chemise moving softly with each step. Her gaze wanders from the book she'd been reading earlier to a small ebony writing box banded with brass. Running her fingertips along the edge of the box and then lifting the lid, she takes out a sheet of opaque ivory vellum and a gold, eyedrop-filled pen. She settles on a small, three-legged stool as her mind wanders hours back to Abi's dream, of being with Abi in her dream in the Tainted Earth, floating above the ground, dream dancing with the Magician. The memory is otherwordly and soothing, the effects of a magical place. She closes her eyes and watches Omega floating and drifting, her skirts swirling as she rises and falls. Grr had seemed . . . free . . . dreaming on the air wtih joy. But she remembers the frown that creased his countenance only a short time before as he sat by the fire and said in a quiet, distracted voice, "I try not to dream." Joah knows about the dreaming, and about trying not to dream. She licks the nib of her pen and puts it to paper. "Brother," she begins, "Perhaps this will speak to your spirit." In her neat and old fashioned script, she writes the words of an old poem. She debates for a moment, then simply signs her name. Folding the vellum in half, she tucks it into an envelope instead of tying it. "Grr," she writes on the front, then treads silently down the stairs, placing the envelope on Omega's desk.

"Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow-
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand-
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep-while I weep!
O God! can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?"

Friday, July 4, 2008

Girl talk

I stepped into the Library hearing the sound of cheery conversation and seeing a crew sitting at the Lady’s desk. My head was pounding, and I wanted nothing more than to lie down, but I had work to do. I nodded a greeting at Athanaric Criss, Bridgette Plunkett and Blueray Darkes as I walked by, then sought a cushion by the fire, pulled out my small tablet and pencil stub and began to write. I found it hard to focus between the pain in my temples and the buzzing conversation that seemed to be flowing through a wide and puzzling variety of topics: why any woman would do what a man told her to do, the dangers of riding a bike alone, and the sociological merits of artists versus scientists. Athanaric – A – wandered off to work on his research. I turned my attention once more to my tablet and settled in.

Suddenly Brit exclaimed, "I got a new shiny bullet!" Apparently, she’d been most distressed that someone had taken her other one. I could almost see Blue blink in astonishment, and – believe me – astonishing Blue is something of a feat in itself. Brit began rummaging through her pack. "It's pretty and shiny and, look!" I looked up from my writing and peeked behind the spiral staircase to see. "It fits in my pocket with my lipstick."

Blue grinned ruefully, "Brit, shiny as it is, those things are dangerous when fired from a gun. Bloody well hurt too." Having been shot in the leg, Blue knew. She began explaining about being shot, which, of course, genuinely troubled Brit until Blue reassured her. “It’s perfectly healed up,” she said. “Even the scar is gone. That’s when I changed races."

Brit lifted her pack, putting the bullet away. "I don't have a gun,” she said with a lisp. “And they don't hurt if you don't have a gun. Guns shoot them. I could throw it, but I don't think that would really hurt anyone." I looked up again; Brit was nodding to herself, pretty sure of what she was saying. "Besides!” she perked up, “It used to be Ethan's. And that makes it extra special."

Blue giggled leaning back in her chair, "Might leave a mark if you threw it at a forehead or something.” Blue clearly found Brit, her bullet, and her love and admiration for Ethan, rather endearing.

Brit suddenly dropped her pack and let out a small, soft, “Oh.” Her entire tone and demeanor changed. Brit is often slow to process what she’s heard, and she takes the words of others quite seriously and literally. It was beginning to dawn on her what Blue had meant about changing races. Brit was remembering. "I did not know you died,” she said. “Sorry. I would have come to the funeral."

Brit was gradually becoming accustomed, as was I, to people dying and resurrecting as something else. But the sadness of the change . . . my thoughts began drifting in different directions, thinking of Larissa, wondering about Nareth, trying to feel whether she was lost to us for good. My focus was brought back to the moment when Brit perked up and laughed, telling Blue, “But your hair is way prettier now!” To say that Brit sees the silver lining in every cloud is a bit of an understatement.

Blue waved a hand in the air, “I wouldn't worry about not coming to my funeral, Brit. I died twice in a sense and didn't have a funeral for either of them." She grinned. "I do like my hair, though.”

I smiled to myself at the conversation. I love Brit and Blue, two polar opposites of innocence and experience, but each strong and loyal and perceptive to the core. I looked down at my tablet and began, once again, my attempt to write, trying to piece together what had been happening to me of late. The headaches were coming more frequently, as well as the remembrances of smoke and steel smelting, of alarms and flashing lights. I sighed wanting no more of my own contemplation but was unable to filter the images from my thoughts. I heard a third voice at the door and realized that Picket McDonnell had strolled in, greeting her sister, Blue, and introducing herself to Brit. And because Brit is in love – truly, deeply in love – the talk turned as it so often does in her presence to beloveds and marriage. Brit’s first question of Picket was her usual: "Do you have a Beloved?"

I folded my tablet, tucked it and my pencil in a pocket in my skirt and stood before the fire, stretching. Perhaps the best distraction would be simply to be with others. I picked up a cushion and wandered over to the table to see Picket flashing her wedding ring and talking about her husband, a vampire named Alzreal, whom she pronounced very sexy, although Blue muttered something under her breath about him being annoying as hell. Though she was smiling, Picket looked terrible.

Brit was beaming happily and launched into a fairy-tale description of her wedding pulling out an album of her photos and handing them to Picket. If I believed in happily ever afters, Brit and Ethan’s love would be the proof of it. But there is nothing absolute in life. No loves that last forever. I tossed the cushion on the floor and sat between Blue and Brit, waving hello to all three who smiled in return. I needed to be away from my thoughts; the cheerful banter was a light breeze to me, helping the pictures in my mind drift away.

Blue laughed, “I couldn't make it to Brit's wedding but I got photos. Picket's took so long I ended up sleeping on the church floor.” She gave a mock-serious pout, "You got any idea how bad it is to wake up in a church? I had at least two angels crowding around me until I was awake enough to move".

Picket snickered about Bruno being a windbag, then pulled out a small wedding album from her pocket and tossed it to Brit. Picket grinned as Brit began perusing the photos, but her smile contained a grimace of pain. I wondered what was troubling her. Nevertheless, we all took turns looking through photographs of Brit’s and Ethan’s wedding. Blue, my best and favorite drinking companion pulled a small flask of vodka from her pocket and passed it to me. I tipped the flask and took several fiery sips. “I love weddings,” I said, taking another sip and handing the flask back to Blue. “So much better than funerals – although the liquor at a wake. . . ."

Picket giggled, “Yeah, but you have open bars at weddings.”

I smiled as Blue’s thoughts scattered their way toward me. She was wishing she’d had a funeral for either one of her deaths, thinking it would have been nice to lay there with everyone telling her corpse how they loved or hated her. Then she’d have risen and whacked them all about their heads for being mean to a dead person. That’s just one of the reasons I love Blue. Cute . . . and evil.

"Too many weddings recently,” Blue said aloud. “I got two more to go to soon.” She handed the bottle to Picket, who promptly waved it off holding her stomach and complaining of feeling sick.

“I think someone slipped something in my drink the other day,” Picket explained. I watched as Blue’s mirthful expression turned serious with concern.

Brit looked Picket up and down then blurted out, "Are you pregnant?"

I burst out laughing. "I . . . I don't think demons can get pregnant," Picket stammered.

Blue smirked, “It’s possible.”

“Nisha got pregnant,” Brit agreed. “And Lorne . . . um. . . ." Brit paused trying to remember what she’d been told. “Lorne spawned with Larissa. Only Larissa gave birth to his baby. Or it was her baby and his spawn." She blinked. “I'm not sure how that goes.”

Picket McDonnell shook her head. "Damn it! Someone should have told me this earlier. I am not used to this because I was a vampire and there is no chance in getting preggo when you are dead," she muttered.

Brit nodded. “Ethan says vampires do not have babies without some kind of unholy act.”

Blue began laughing, “When was the last time you and Alz did anything?”

Picket blinked at Blue, “Like . . . um . . . every day.”

Brit patiently explained to Blue, "Beloveds do things all of the time."

I began to study Picket carefully, "Do you mind if I take your hand?" I asked. She shook her head “no” and proffered her hand, which I took in both of mine. Pushing gently toward her, I probed for new life, new thoughts, and a second heartbeat. There was none. I looked up and smiled at her. "It appears you aren't with spawn. Or child. I'm not sure how that works either, Brit."

Picket sighed slightly. "Good – cause I might eat my own baby like cats do,” she said morosely.

“I don’t have a beloved,” Blue mused. “I just have warm bodies who share my bed.”

Brit looked at Blue with great seriousness. “Everyone needs a Beloved, Blue,” she said.

I smiled to myself at the talk of lovers and beloveds, but turned my focus back to Picket. "You are sick, though.” I pushed a bit toward her mind with my own. In her memories, I could see a vampire, slipping something into a goblet in the Haven. "I think it was the drink."

Picket frowned grumble, "Damn KA.”

I nodded. "I can help you, if you like. It troubles you now, but if you leave it unattended it will worsen."

Picket grimaced as a fresh wave of nausea hit her. “Yes, please,” she replied.

I still held Picket’s hand in my own two, but I dropped my left hand to my lap, palm up. I breathed deeply, sending a pulse of my essence through Picket, washing over her, pulling the poison away from her. It was worse than I’d at first thought. The KA’d meant to kill Picket, not just sicken her. Oily black residue formed on the fingertips of my open hand as I took the poison within me. I crumpled a little, holding my own stomach in pain. Picket gasped slightly as the sickness moved from her body, shivering as it crawled from her like a thousand little spiders.

I could feel Brit’s eyes on me, watching. She looked from Picket to me and back again to us both. Nibbling her lower lip, she lisped, “You took that inside of you. . . .”

Picket asked quietly, “Are you gonna be ok?”

“You think it’s that stuff that Sal gave to Bruno?” Blue wondered. “He said its bad for demons.”

I nodded, “It seems to be very bad for demons,” and wrapped my arms tightly around my stomach. “I’ll be fine. It will just take a little while.” Picket was frowning and watching me closely. There was really nothing I could do to reassure her that the poison and its effects would fade.

“So,” Blue muttered, “Whatever Sally has been dishing out is a rather bad thing indeed. Think we need words with him?”

"You both should speak with him," I replied, knowing full well that Blue's method of talking would mostly likely involve some physical persuasion of the violent sort. Blue’s expression of concern morphed into a wicked grin. Picket’s mouth widened into a dark smile showing a row of very white, perfectly sharp teeth.

Abruptly, Blue stood up, handed Brit a box of plushy kitties, and then turned to Picket, “Lets head to the church. Take it easy, Joah.” Picket nodded to Blue and with military sternness, they headed out the door of the Library.

Brit was obviously distressed that I was in pain. Pulling her legs into her chair and resting her chin on her knees, she gave me a confused and worried look. I stood unsteadily, leaning on Omega's desk. "I think I'd better lie down a bit. Brit, do you mind helping me to the sofa?"

She took my arm and braced me as I walked. “I don't think you should risk yourself like this, Joah.” She tucked a pillow on the couch, helped me settle and began looking around for my teakettle, which she laid on the embers of the fire.

“I’m a shaman, Brit. This is how I heal when other methods won’t work. There is always some risk, but so far, all the injuries I have taken have faded with time.” To be honest, I’d only recently realized this fact. It alarmed me. At first, after awakening in the City, I’d thought that any injury, any poison I took within my body healed. But I’d had time to think about the Earth from the Garden. I’d taken it in quite by accident the night Omega’s Chylde had come into existence. It remained within me, burning clearly, cleanly. And the plague I had taken from Sirenpetal – the swirling blackness I had inadvertently unleashed from her – I had found that small pock scars from its effects yet remained along the base of my ribs.

Brit said nothing for a moment as she lifted the handle of the kettle with her skirt and pulled it from the embers. "And what happens when it is so great that it cannot have time to heal?" she lisped. It was a question I’d pondered deeply, knowing there is a great difference between fading and healing.

“I think that if an injury were too severe,” I began, “If I somehow misgauged it, that it might not have time to fade. I don't seem to have the ability to heal myself.” Another cramp shot through me. “I can only take the pains of another. Then wait.”

Brit began talking about two Omegan doctors whom she thought would have treated me. They were twins: River and Rain. Doctors who healed with hands and with their magicks, scholarly curanderas, I suppose. I wondered again at the number of doctors who’d once resided within the walls of the Library, all mysteriously gone. Even Dominic Salving – I hadn’t seen him in weeks. Now his return seemed temporary at best. Although Brit thought Drs. River and Rain could have helped me, I suspected not. Whatever was going on inside me, magick had not been effective against it. Not even Mirah, with her great skill, had been able to touch the headaches and the pock scars.

Pouring the hot water into a teacup, and setting the kettle to one side, Brit made the tea and brought it to me. I thanked her and began to sip, but nearly spilled the whole thing as another I felt another cramp go through me. I held the teacup out to Brit, “Perhaps I should just try to sleep." I was afraid to lean over and set it on the floor.

Brit watched me with wide eyes. Knowing Brit, I suppose she was wondering whether those I help would return the favor if they could. I didn’t know at the time that Picket would more than return the favor in a few days. Picket would save my life. Taking the teacup, Brit held it for a moment and simply said, "Okay . . . rest. . . . . "

I closed my eyes, sank deep into the pillow and tried to sleep.