AN EMPTY PLACE, Chapter Twelve - "Home"

The end . . . 

Chapter Twelve - Home

They fled ever upwards. The stone itself robbed them of their strength. Their fingers went numb crawling and scraping against the smooth, sharp, frigid slope. The mountain filled with echoed sobs, amplifying their weary desperation. Tad thought, all is lost . . . the root . . . Holm. She sniffed back tears only to be seized by fits of black hacking coughs. Her legs buckled and with each step she feared falling through an invisible fissure. Her left foot throbbed in agony. Every moment was like a leap onto dark ice. she heard the insistent crack that would presage the fall into water. But the next step was solid. And the next. A sharp stone cut her other leg; the blood warmed her and the pain snapped her back into focus.

Laura Darling led them through the dark with her sight half in this world and half in the other. The wound on her neck stung brutally and weighed her down. She couldn't let it stop her. She followed the cat. The athame's gleam dimmed gradually as she tired, and with every turn the spirit could've lost them in the meandering tunnels. But rounding the next curve she saw the tell-tale red trail, like dust from a storm swept up in the wind. Always just in sight . . . and then gone.

"If we could speak with it," she whispered - frightened by the sound of her own voice in the close shaft, "I don't know what to say. What to ask?"

"Maybe we could say goodbye?" Tad said from behind her. She sounded close but she was having trouble keeping up. Slowing them down, Darling knew. That couldn't be helped. They were getting out of the mountain together.

The air thinned. She had to let the athame diminish to just a glow, like an afterimage on her eyelids after a lightning flash. She didn't have the strength to maintain the light.

"Laura!" cried Tad, further away and falling fast. "I can't see you. Where are you?"

She tried to stay close but the passage had widened and she lost contact with the wall. She fell to her knees without the rock's support. But Darling came back for her. Tad saw a glint of light high above them like a star piercing through clouded night. The light was far away, maybe as much as a thousand yards, but when Darling lifted her up, it seemed as close as a candle held at arm’s length.

"Look! Do you see it?" she said. Darling murmured in affirmation.

"But you should rest a bit," she said, "That looks like some climb." The adept put her hand on the young woman's forehead. She took off her boots and examined her injuries. Her left ankle was badly swollen. Her right was better off for walking but there was a long gash on her calf that bled continuously. Tad made no complaint as she pressed her fingers into the wound, feeling its depth, though she yelped when she touched the swollen ankle.

"You'll have to go barefoot," Darling said. Tad nodded. Darling tended to her own wound. The bandage had stiffened into a black shell from coagulated blood. She pulled the cloth away and a new rivulet seeped down her back. Three blunt punctures lined the muscle above her clavicle, mirroring the three above her shoulder blade. She took off her blouse and used it to redress the wound, leaving only her sweat-ringed undershirt to warm her. Inside the mountain very little heat found its way inside and the further they had fled from the bore the colder the shaft became.

"How are you? You know . . . otherwise?" she asked Tad as she knotted the fabric tight between her neck and shoulder. Tad shivered and her teeth chattered miserably. She wasn't really sure what the adept meant: they had left him back there. He was dead. And then there was her sickness . . . it wasn't going away. Nothing had changed for her. Everything was worse.

Her chest tingled with dawning panic. Her breathing worsened. The soot dried on her lips with each exhalation. The cough itself wasn't so bad but that was because her lungs were succumbing to the plague.

They were disintegrating from the inside out, the pink and porous organs floating away with each breath. She said, "I'll live. We should keep moving." She wiped her mouth.

Darling had hoped that the sickness would die with the cyst on the Talus, but her eyes were adjusting to the limited light of the tunnel and Tad's body didn't lie: scrawny, pale, gray like a ghost. Her lips were charcoal with the soot.

The spirit hadn't waited for them. It had disappeared up the slope. She hoped it might be in sight when they broke through to the surface. Her own lungs began to tighten . . . they couldn't linger any longer.

Darling had a difficult time getting Tad to her feet. She had to half carry her as they clawed their way towards the exit. The climb was steep and the slope smooth enough that they would slip if they came up off of their hands and knees. As they neared the surface their extremities warmed and they felt their injuries more keenly. But the long slope was comforting, in a way. No surprises.

The break of light brightened. What had appeared at first as a pinprick of white in the seemingly impenetrable stone now was more like a crescent shaped scoop of impossibly bright, glittering light as the incline softened and the passage became easier to traverse. The woman smiled at each others’ disheveled appearance, the grime on their skin, lines of sweat and tears the only clean spots on their faces.

They stepped out onto the mountain face, above the flat and stripped wilderness outside the city. The air was cool. They were not so high that a descent would be impossible, though now that they were in the open Tad grew fainter. Darling guessed they were 50 stories high since the shuttle tracks that had brought them inside the mountain were a long way down. Tad closed her eyes and leaned against the mouth of the shaft.

"Oh, that feels good. And is it morning?" she said. No sun burned overhead - just a wall of gray and black clouds. A storm darkened over the city in the distance. 

"I don't know," Darling said, searching the rocks for spirit. The lower surface of the mountain was eroded and cratered with hiding places. Above them the pinnacle was smooth and unbroken. But why would the spirit hide?

Then she saw it. Tucked under a leaning slab of stone like the ruin of a pillar was a dash of red hair. It poked out from behind a rock like algae growing out of a sheer black pond. Was it resting? Was it waiting for them? Darling motioned to Tad to keep quiet and to follow her.

She picked her steps carefully. She tested protruding rocks and flat surfaces for stability and then Tad would mimic her as best she could. Sometimes she would lean directly on Darling's back and a whirl of fire would climb her neck. But she said nothing."Oh no," Tad said when she spotted the cat. It was twice her size and she marveled at how a man could grow such a thing in his body. But her wonderment was tempered by fear.

It helped that Darling was not afraid. Her anxious reverence was evidenced by her halting approach. "Will it hurt us?" Tad whispered.

"I don't think so. I think it's been helping Holm all along. Guiding him."

The cat rested with its tail wrapped under its haunches, its leaf shaped eyes groggy and blinking, head laid over its front paws. The lion's mane billowed softly like seaweed even though the air was still here.

Come closer. I cannot see very well.

The voice rang out up and down the mountain yet its terrible mouth didn't move. Blood still caked its jaws.

"Are you Telebast? Did you know Holm Aegis?"

That is what he called me. He sought me out between the barriers.

"That's where you're from?" Tad blurted before Darling could hush her.

Another place, far away. These mountains are a part of my world.

Darling scuffled forward, imploring, desire welling in her; for answers, for comfort. But she stayed silent. The lion raised his head up, groaning with effort. I can . . .not last long in your world.

The lion aged before their eyes, its red dusty hair fading to a matte pink, then gray, and then white.

"Are they from Hundun?" Tad said as she looked toward the base of the mountain. Seven acolytes came up the slope carrying blankets and food. One had a clear cooler sloshing with water. From somewhere invisible beyond the eastern slope a line of gold from the sun sprang across the empty wasteland of concrete and asphalt. It broke the line of shuttle tracks, yellow versus bleak white.

Your friends are coming, the spirit purred, his tremendous voice breaking apart, seeping into the rocks. His form began to fade like ice in the sun as the mountain began to reclaim its own. The lion pawed the ground as if it could hang on to the rock.

Take what I leave behind, it said, shoulders shaking off a death chill, it will fight the stain on your world.
Tad should have rejoiced at these words, but she pressed the spirit for more:

"Will you see Holm where you're going?" Her hands were up by her throat, rubbing her chest. The lion's eyes were mere outlines of circles and diamonds as it looked on her. It lowered its head onto its disappearing paws.

In a way. The Talus does not forget . . .

"Tell him 'thank you' for me."

But the spirit was gone. Tad thought she heard the echo of a response but she couldn't make out the words and she doubted then that it was the spirit at all. She smelled grass as a breeze came over the mountain from the east. The spirit left a residue of fine red sand, like the lion's fur, brittle to the touch when Darling rubbed it between her fingers.

"Here, eat this," she said holding her hand out to Tad.

She grabbed her hand and sucked wetly on her fingers.

"No flavor," she said.

"Do you feel anything? In your chest?"

"Maybe a little easier to breath?" Tad shrugged. It was useless to grasp at hope. She would live, or she'd die like the rest.

"We'll get the others to collect this stuff. It'll need to be tested," said Darling as she stood and brushed of her hands on her thighs. She let her unanswered questions fade, too. What use was it dwelling on the mysteries of the shales, or death, or where the spirit came from and returned? Their enemies were still out there. They were still hunted by the Paternach. The Contractors' guns would not waver from their target. The work of protecting the Talus might never end.

They continued their descent.

The shadow of the mountain continued to recede, a spear tip towards the city, an arrowhead of weary shade drawn back in the growing day, until eventually it was just a blunted nail on a gesturing finger. The acolytes awaited them. One of them raised a hand and waved vigorously.

"When did you leave Porton, Tad?" asked Darling. She held her hand out to the wheezing Agrat. She stumbled over a sharp rock as if the mountain was grasping to trip her, still uncertain of her legs. The acolytes were almost to them.

Tad smelled food now. Bread and fruit. And maybe liquor? She remembered when Holm foolishly grasped at her when they drank that first bottle.

"The end of April," she said, feet falling flat and steady with her help, "It took a long time to get here."

The adept nodded. "Then it will be winter when we return," she said. She looked over the foot of the mountain at the heaps of abandoned drills and bulldozers the morning mist, and beyond to the city spires struck by the sun in gold and white.

Even as the sun finally broke over the shoulder of the mountain, Tad shivered as she imagined snow over the expanse of the desolate continent. They would need to cross over dark country to get home. There would be little comfort on the journey, and fewer friends. But she could do without those. She took Darling's good arm. She smiled at her and closed her eyes. Tad saw the lines in her face, the gray in her hair, creases in her cream colored eyelids. She had not realized how old Darling looked. Tad sniffed back tears and cleared her throat.

"Laura," she shook Darling's arm. She'd looked like she might fall asleep standing up.

"Mm? Yes?"

"We should prepare for the cold," she said.


July 15th, 2008 – February 26th, 2009

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