Continuum – Episode Thirty: Flight

Continuum – Episode Thirty:      Flight

In the previous episode:

Alanee has completed Hasuga’s task, bringing the stolen book, which has revealed itself to be called ‘The Bible’, to place in his hands.   When she does so, the integrity of The City is destroyed and the Continuum moves in.  Hasuga is taken, images, places, people are stirred up and scattered like leaves.

Alanee strives desperately to find her way back through the ruptured dimensions to Sala, her friend, but Mother, Hasuga’s previous carer attacks her and in the fight Alanee is badly wounded…

Now read on.

Exhausted amidst the chaos of the collapsing City, Alanee is alone.  Hasuga has gone, taken by the demon that her predecessor, the old Seer, gave a name.  Celeris is gone in just the same way, stripped from her mind by Hasuga’s destruction and unable to fulfil a promise both had made.

‘I will never leave you’

So if it is help she seeks, it will not come.   If it is strength she needs, that, too is gone.  But Hasuga gave her his legacy and his faith that she can fulfil whatever purpose this monster, The Continuum, has.

“I have made you powerful haven’t I.”

Power that lies in the great vault of knowledge he has etched into her brain, which must offer the solution that will lead her back to Sala:  if she can only find it. Her head aches, her eyes hurt, yet she can still think.  She can still see.  Her injured limbs cry out their protest.  She was in the Palace Yard – is she now?

She should feel something outside herself – the stones of the pavement, the heat of the sun on her face, perhaps – but no.  Despite the great structures that fold into ruins all about her, no toppling statue seeks to crush her, no mighty boulder of construction does so much as scrape her flesh as it passes by.  Where is the dust?  The bookseller side by side with Ellar – she sees falling people and their fragmented homes, businesses, lives; people who are all familiar to her.  She sees them because she knows them.  If that is true then why does she not see Sala?

She focuses entirely upon Cassix’s chambers, that one location.  It is still intact!  The old stones, marked mysteriously by Cassix, are a spell she must break.  Cassix’s enchantment; his final defence!  She centres upon Sala in her mind, straining every brain-cell,  and instantly she is on the flags of the chamber with Sala standing over her, pale and scared.  “Alanee!  Oh, Habbach, Alanee?”

“My magic…stronger than Cassix…”

“Oh, ba.  What in the seven hells have you done?”

The old stone room is steady at the moment, although Alanee knows that will change.  In her joy at reuniting with Sala, she lets her thoughts shift away for an instant, and the floor begins to move away with them.  The noise, that insane roar, is close behind her.

 “We have to leave here, now, ba.”  She clambers to unwilling feet:  she must discover some means of escape, “We have to – to stay here is to die.”  It is all she can do to raise her voice above the demon’s clamour.

Sala steadies her arm.  The chambers are collapsing around them.  The great ball Alanee moved with such ease vanishes, the mirrors are melting into candle-wax cascades.  Only that metal disc remains, and it spins now beneath several searching lazer light needles.  In vain she tries to pin her thoughts to the elevator that leads down to the gardens, knowing even if they find their way to it, it will not work.

Frantic because she can feel her concentration fading, Alanee stares about her, seeking answers.  In all the turbulence, the heaving floor, the melting walls, that ancient wooden cabin remains as impenetrable as ever.  There is a door, she has seen it, but where is it now? 

“Look for a panel, or a handle – something!” She gathers her resources once more.

There is no response.

“Come on!”

She focuses again, makes a fresh demand of the wood, but no – the opening she saw in the mirrors, the place where the old one sat will not appear.

Cursing, Alanee musters one last mighty effort; all the suffering of her life, all her belief poured into a single vision of an open door, a way outside.  But still there is nothing; no movement, no sign that the door she has seen just once was ever there.  Once more the heavy cloud of defeat wraps about her; once more she drops to her knees, this time in certainty.  Her strength is gone, no answers have been found, she has lost.

Sala curls herself about Alanee’s hunched body, kisses her goodnight as she would a child, preparing them both for death.  Alanee can do no more than take her dear friend’s hand, to press it weakly in her own, to feel her flesh, the ring with the emerald stone she has always worn…

The stone!  The stones!

“What stones, darling?”  Sala asks. 

“The stones!  Find the leather chair!”

Sala’s reply is soothing and kind:  “The chair’s gone, Alanee-ba – everything’s gone!”

But hope, however unjustifiable, is returning.  “No.  No it hasn’t!  It’s still there, I know it is.  Fix your thoughts upon it:  fix all your thoughts on two stones – one on each arm of the chair.”

Sala shakes her head:  Alanee, don’t make me leave you, ba…”

“No.  You can do this.  You must do this.  Remember the chair, how it looked!  Use that memory!  Go to the stones.”

“For you.”  Sala sighs, dredging up a last strength of her own.  She will do as Alanee asks.

“Concentrate!   It was right there, remember?  It stood there!”

Unbelieving, the Mansuvene woman stares hard into a space that has no levels, references or form of any kind.  Her world, her whole world and every memory in it is whirling before her.

Alanee’s voice is suddenly powerful:  “The stones.  Bring them to me!”

Out of nowhere the old chair appears: standing solidly in the eye of the hurricane, and the stones, one upon each arm, waiting for her.  Wordlessly, Sala rises to her feet, strikes out; a few terrifying steps. 

Bring them!  The command is not spoken, for the dervish yell of the Continuum drowns all sounds but those inside her head.  Determined now, Sala turns to find Alanee on her feet, buoyed up by strength beyond her own.  She lifts the stones, passing them into Alanee’s extended hands.  An instant flash of raw power nearly throws her over, its blue plume of light bathing her friend in garish relief as she slams the stones against that obdurate wooden wall.  They explode – shatter into a thousand pieces that fly off, glittering, into infinity. Overawed, Sala is witness as, apparently from no visible place, a door springs open.

He is there.  Karkus sits within, just as Alanee saw in her mirrors, at the self-same desk.  With a grey-as-time smile across his thin dry lips he raises a hand, gesturing towards the interior of the cabin, and with Sala supporting her arm Alanee staggers inside.  Behind them, the door to The City closes and they find themselves standing together in the gardens, facing the path that leads down to the Balna river.

Sala is stupefied.  Her Mansuvenian superstition speaks to her of witchcraft, insists that this cannot be real: her body may have accomplished a descent of several hundred feet in less than a couple of steps, but her mind will not accept it.  “What deception is this?”

“It was a doorway, ba, a portal.  Cassix knew what would come and he provided himself with a means of escape.  He brought it from another place, an ancient place.  Or maybe it was here first.”

“The old man…”

“His job is done.  He can rest now.  Come, we must hurry”

Muttering prayers for their protection, Sala supports Alanee, shutting her ears to the devastating shout of destruction which rises once more behind them as they struggle down the pathway to the banks of the River Balna.  It is a painful journey and only when they have reached the river will Sala look back.  What she sees is beyond comprehension:  her city has gone.

There are no cries:  there are no escapees but themselves.  There is only the wall towering into the sky like a white fog – and now it seems to be gathering heat, moving so quickly it leaves no room for question, no margin for doubt.  Nothing will be left.

Unspeaking, the pair pause in homage to those they have known; Ellar, Trebec, Rabba, Delfio, the Domo – so many others.  Alanee urges Sala on:  “We must keep moving.  It will not rest there.  It will spread.”

She sees the emptiness in her friend’s face:  “Come on, ba.  There will be an answer somewhere, you’ll see!”

Alanee makes to move again, sending pain shooting through her leg and hip:  her head is beginning to spin, making each new step an unsteady agony.  By crippled stages, she and Sala make their way along the path beside the great river, but her blood loss is taking its toll.  By the time they reach the bridge, Alanee knows she can go no further.  “I’m finished.  You’ll have to leave me here.  I’m sorry, Ba.  I’m so sorry.”

Sala says:  “What about that?”

Clarity is fading.  Alanee mutters stupidly:  “What?”

Ignoring her cries of pain, Sala hoists her friend bodily to the rail, pointing down at the river.  “That!”

Moored by its painter, an old wooden skiff Alanee once saw braving the jostling ice-floes of the spring thaw, is still there.

Alanee’s impressions of what follows are patchy and confused.  Sala almost carrying her across that wide bridge, each move striking shudders through her quaking bones: half-stepping, half falling into the rocking boat, lying in the prow while Sala arranges some green-stuff from the bank behind her head and all the while the closing thunder of the Continuum:  these before darkness comes in merciful release; after that, only night.

Sala does not fear impending danger, nor does she particularly want to run from it:  For someone whose whole life is invested in The City the prospect of life without it seems more formidable than the quick death the Continuum offers; if she feels a compulsion to go on, it is only for Alanee.  Alanee is her lover after all, and now her only friend.  Nevertheless she has to prompt herself to loosen the mooring and commit them both to the mercies of the Balna.  The skiff lurches free of the mud, the river snatches, the river takes:  stern first, then wheeling around so swiftly Sala clings to the gunwales for her life as she is launched into the turbulent narrows downstream of the bridge.

For some hours the little craft faithfully follows the current, throughout which time the heat is intense; the water hot, almost boiling, the wall of the Continuum never far behind.  There are paddles, but these are rarely needed.  The skiff seems to know its way, and bustles about the weeds and tangles of the bank without ever becoming snagged or grounded.  Sala blocks her ears to the noise and her mind to the heat – busies herself by tying Alanee’s tourniquet more severely, using a hem of her own robe as bandaging for the wounds to both leg and arm.  Alanee drifts in and out of consciousness, though even when her eyes are open she barely recognises where she is.  Sala can see her friend is ailing, watches life seep from her in slow, unremitting drops. 

There comes a time – a bend in the river perhaps – when the furious pursuit of the Continuum fades, the steam from the water rises less freely; almost as though the monster has given up their chase and, its mission complete, drifted back into the sky.

Day drifts into night, thunder into silence.

In the darkness, a new distant rumbling from a fresh adversary: white water.  At first Sala believes the Continuum has returned; as the sound grows with each passing minute.  The boat gains speed, rocks perilously.  Then she is amidst cold spray and black rocks, unable to see and unable to steer if she could.  Is there a waterfall?  Cowering over Alanee’s inert form as the helter-skelter descends, Sala can only trust the boat to find its way, which it does.

It is midnight before they reach calmer waters.  The boat has taken on water she has no means to remove.  She knows Alanee’s body is lying in it and that cannot be good, but nameless terrors haunt her, the night-cries of beasts, strange rustling noises, the plunge and ripple of alligators sap her courage.  Sne will not go ashore in darkness.  

By fits and starts she learns to use the paddles.  Colder, wetter and hungrier than she can ever remember, Sala greets the dawn.  As soon as she has confidence enough she finds a place to land.

Child of The City that she is, Sala can remember nothing less certain than pavement beneath her feet.  She is not so naïve she does not know the boat must be hauled up, away from the current, its keel firmly grounded, yet when she clambers gingerly over the side mud lurking in the shallows clings about her legs to make her fall.  She rises to her feet with a city woman’s pettish anger, laments the ruin of her clothes, weeps for her hair, her nails.

Although the boat seems secure, she is nervous of leaving Alanee helpless inside it, fearful lest it should release itself to the river, leaving her stranded ashore.  It is heavy with water, yet she struggles and sweats and screams with it until she has the painter within length of a stunted bush where she may tie it off.  In the prow, at least Alanee now lies upon drier wood, though her clothing is sodden and her flesh cold.  The leg wound is weeping again, refusing to heal.

After this exertion Sala takes stock of her surroundings.  She settles on a ridge higher up the slope, close enough to run back to the water should that untrustworthy vessel take its leave.  Now she is ashore the deep cover of the forest seems closer than it did, and if the night creatures that serenaded her are asleep, they are still very active in her mind.  It is nevertheless an ideal place for her purpose.  A sward of green meadow-grass leads into the forest like a wide path.  Taking a deep breath, she follows it towards the woodland margins, starting like a hind at each unexplained noise, but hungry enough to overcome her fears.

The woods are full of berries, absolutely none of which she recognises.  Enticed by swarthy verdant scents and venturing ever deeper into forest, Sala picks experimentally, tasting as she goes, until she has found a small quantity of some she does not think too sour.  These she collects in the front of her robe, nearly dropping them when she is confronted by a squirrel-like creature the size of a cat clinging to a branch not three feet away.  Her squeal of alarm sends the animal flying for concealment in the upper branches, and serves to remind her that this may not be a friendly place.  With dignified haste she brings her gleanings back to the boat where she tries to induce Alanee to eat; but her friend is barely awake.  At length she gives up: the water in the boat must be bailed out and she has no vessel with which to achieve this.  Once again her robe suffices.  Thanking Habbach for a warm midday sun she takes it off, using it as part scoop, part mop for two long, laborious hours until the stern is emptied.  Then she dries it as best she may upon a rock until, with threat of the Continuum still in her mind, she casts off once more.  Her robe is still damp.  Thirty minutes later she throws up the contents of her stomach into the river.

So it is for the hours of this day, then another.  All the while the boat moves between steep, wooded banks with no sign of any people, anywhere.  On the third day the tree cover thins. Among marshy shallows and low, stony beaches Sala finds a place where she can haul ashore, gathering her courage for a longer expedition.  Throughout the night Alanee has been delirious, mouthing unintelligible sounds, shaking with fever:  this morning her condition is desperate, scarcely breathing, flesh clammy and cold.  Sala is certain if she does not get help today, her friend will be beyond recovery.  She decides she must climb the hills that skirt the valley, in the hope that from a vantage point she might see some sign of civilisation.  As soon as it is light she makes her friend as comfortable as possible and sets off.

Her shoes are not meant for such rigours.  Hunger has weakened her and the climb is arduous for limbs that, however fine, have never made any serious ascent.  Behind her and far below, in the green trough carved by a million years of flowing water, the little boat with its precious burden waits.  The sun beats from a cloudless sky and far away to the west she can see a rainbow low over the horizon where the white water runs.

  That is behind them now – what lies ahead? 

At noon Sala stands upon a high summit, her vision so clouded by tears she can scarcely see.  In every direction the prospect is featureless; an infinite desert of grey ash.  Only the lofty needle of Kess-Ta-Fe stands resolute, a distant marker to the ruined north.  The river valley, it seems, has escaped.  Otherwise, the Continuum has taken everything.  The world she knew has vanished.

That afternoon when she returns to the boat she tells Alanee all she has seen, while Alanee, of course, hears nothing.  Alanee has neither moved nor shown any sign of consciousness since before the dawn.

On day four Sala wakes late.  Although the boat drifts lazily she is too weak to leave it.  Constant vomiting has dogged her attempts to eat; the warmth she shares with her friend against the night-time chill has penetrated her own defences.  She checks Alanee and finds her stiff and cold.

Sala weeps bitter tears for her friend.  She watches over her, warding off those imagined demons that visit the Mansuvene dead.  When the morning is far advanced and there is nothing left to do or say, she gets to her feet.  Carefully stripping her robe from about her she waits until the boat reaches a part of the river where the water is deepest.  There, with a last smile back at her life she slips over the side.  In all her City years, Sala has never learnt to swim.

…don’t miss the final episode of this story…

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Picture Credit: Matthew Wewering from Pixabay

Continuum – Episode Twenty-Nine: Time to Choose.

In the previous episode:

Acting upon Hasuga’s demand that she remove a book from the City’s Inner Library, Alanee takes the elevator deep into the rock below the city, where she finds the sanctuary of the Book of Lore guarded by Karkus, aged progenitor of  The City itself.   In stealing the book she is discovered by the leacherous Portis, who tries to compromise her in the privacy of the elevator in return for his silence.  She tricks him by summoning Ellar to call the elevator,and escapes, leaving Portis to explain himself to the Mediant.   Now read on…

Alanee knew she had only a few minutes lead on events.  While she put as much distance as she could between herself and the elevator, Portis would, with difficulty, be persuading the Ellar the Mediant of his innocence and of hers, Alanee’s, culpability – he may not succeed on either count, but Ellar, meticulous as she was, would want to cover herself very quickly, so swift pursuit with the object of investigating any possible theft was inevitable.

Later, were she given time, Lady Ellar might review these events and wonder.  Why had Alanee’s summoner message, tapped out blindly:  “Help call lib elev”, reached her rather than any other member of the Council?

  She might wish that it had not.  She will not know that Alanee’s inexpert fingers hit her call-button purely by chance, because beneath the folds of the robe that seconds later she would shed she could neither see what she wrote, or to whom she addressed it.  It was only essential that someone should call the elevator, bring it up to the high corridor.

The Book?  Ellar never saw the book.  It was beneath Alanee’s robe when she recovered it, concealed from sight as she clasped it to her, running away through the scattering of nobles who frequented the corridor at that time.

Later, Ellar might discover these things.  Just as she might investigate Portis’s frantic claim, made while he sought to cover himself:

“It is a device Lady!  She has stolen a book!   Detain her, for Habbach’s sake!”

She might believe him.  Anyone witnessing this scene in the corridor might, if Portis’s habits were not well known, if his tastes were not public knowledge and if the physical evidence were not so compelling.  It is a balance of probabilities, as all things are, and it weighs in Alanee’s favour for just long enough.

Alanee bursts into Cassix’s chambers, where Sala awaits her. Saucer-eyed, Sala takes in her friend’s undressed state.  “Je-Habba!  What happened to you?”

“Sire Portis got a little too fresh for his own good.  I’m all right, ba, don’t worry, or I will be as soon as I get some sensible clothes.”  She senses Sala’s nervousness,  “But you’re upset, aren’t you?  Is there something the matter?”

In the bedroom, Alanee throws her robe and the book upon the bed, quickly slipping into a Hakaani-style tabard she had commissioned from the dressmaker.  She shudders:  “I wish I had time for a bath, I don’t think I’ve ever felt this soiled.”

Sala stands in the doorway.  “What’s that?”  Her eyes have rested upon the book.

“I’ve no time to explain right now.  I’ve a head start on the guards, I think: no more than that.”

Sala’s stares at the little locked volume: her eyes follow it as Alanee picks it up and slips it into her clutch bag.  Alanee reads her thoughts.  The friends both pause in shared significance.

“Is that from the…?”

“From the Inner Library?”  Alanee is tying the thongs which secure the sides of the tabard;  “Yes, it is.”

Sala’s summoner is blaring:  she stabs at it, holds it up to the light.  “It is the Lady Ellar.”

“Don’t answer it!”

“Alanee, she’s my patron!”  Sala protests; “But it doesn’t need an answer, darling.  It’s an order.”  She displays the read-out for Alanee to see.  The message says:   “KEEP HER THERE.  You stole that book, didn’t you?  Alanee, they kill you for that!”

The pair exchange looks.  Alanee says:  “So, now.  Your patron or your friend?  Time to choose, ba.” 

Sala nods solemnly.  “That’s a choice I’ve already made.  I won’t keep you, but have you seen the mirrors?” Alanee is making for the door, intent upon completing her mission by placing the book in Hasuga’s hands; “Take a minute to look at this first.  Please, ba?”

She urges Alanee around the mysterious and, to her, a doorless wooden edifice, guiding her into the leather chair before the trio of mirrors.  They are alive with reflections; reflections of carrion birds circling, people racing blindly as deer before a forest fire; dying people with terror, mortal terror in their faces, muscles taut as steel hawsers, drooling mouths and bulging, sightless eyes.  There are thousands, the running and the dying, thrown into stark relief by flashes of brilliance from a furious sky.

‘Have you seen?’  Hasuga is in Alanee’s head again.  ‘Do you understand?’  Alanee does.  Now, before these images, she understands it all.  ‘Bring me the Book.  I must have it in my hand, Alanee.’

Fighting her fear, she tells Sala.  “The book must be returned to whom it belongs.  I have to take it to him.  If you believe in me you must wait for me here, ba.  Do you see?  I will return.”

Sala calls after her:  “This.  All this.”  She waves towards the mirrors.  “It isn’t real, is it?  It’s just necromancy, witchery.”

Alanee smiles kindly.  “Is that what you want to believe, ba?   No, the mirrors speak truly.  That is the Continuum, and our time has run out  Be patient now, I won’t be gone for long.”

“The guards will come.  Ellar will come!”

“Tell them you tried to detain me, but I fought you off.  Stay here if you can, darling.”

Since her arrival, Alanee has not had opportunity to explore the links from her high station to the lower city, and she knows of just one route to the Palace.  By winding her way through back alleys, past drinking halls and night club areas that are sweeping up from the business of the night before, she hopes to evade any troop of guards Ellar or Portis may send in her pursuit.  She loses herself twice before a chance diversion delivers her onto the forecourt of the great palace building.   Taking a deep breath and concealing the book as best she can, she steps into the open.  Although she may feel a hundred eyes boring into her back, she is safer than she expects.  In the event most of the city’s elite are about their daily tasks and word of her little drama with Portis has not yet reached this level.  Any remarks she overhears refer to her status.

“I believe that is Lady Alanee, our new Seer!”

“So young!  So young!”

“Exquisite!  Quite exquisite!”

When she steps into the Great Hall of the Palace, however, the atmosphere is quite different.  Here the hustle and bustle of the day is in full swing and seemingly more frenetic than its usual pace.  She is recognised here too.  A few greet her, some ignore her, all look curiously at her disrespectful form of dress.  When she reaches the private elevator that rises to Hasuga’s high rooms, this becomes an issue.  A royal drab steps across her path.

“Lady?  What business have you here?”

“I’m appointed to meet with Sire Hasuga.  You know who I am?”

“You are the Seer, Lady.  But your clothes are inappropriate to the inner sanctum.”

“The matter is urgent.  I had no time to change.”

“Nevertheless…”

“Step aside, man.  Lady Alanee has Sire Hasuga’s full authority.”  She identifies that voice immediately, spins around in some confusion.

“Celeris?  But how…?”

His smile is as placidly beautiful as ever.  “Lady, I am always at your service, surely you know that?  You must forgive our over-zealous friend here:  the place is in turmoil.  There is a rumour that Sire Portis is under arrest, and Sire Trebec is to be brought to trial for genocide.  The High Council is in utter disarray.  It is what you might describe as a ‘bad morning’ really.”

He steps closer, so she can inhale the sweet scent of his breath, whispers to her.  “You see?  Even a hologram has its uses.  Actually, my dearest memory, this is the last time we shall meet.  Be well, Alanee.”

The elevator doors are open behind her.  Before she has time to protest or give tongue to her anger, (or would it be love?) Celeris walks away, vanishes in the hubbub of the crowd, leaving behind him an emptiness of parting.

As the doors close and the pod of the elevator raises her to Hasuga’s royal apartments she tries to confront the riddle of Celeris.  Who, or what, was he?   Substantial enough, this she knows:  no ghost, no apparition.  Then what – a part of her that she might summon in times of hopelessness or hope?  How could a life be brought to existence purely by her need, then cease until next she needed it?  How could space be created in time for such a materialisation, and what would be left each time it departed?  The process of deduction begun before the mirrors is developing and each new revelation is another shock, another open mineshaft into darkness.

He is where he always sits, upon his bed.  The room is empty.  The serpentine machine is gone, the screens are still and lifeless.

“You have the book.”  It is not a question.

Alanee takes the book from her bag, offering it to him, arm outstretched.

“No, not yet.”  Puzzled, she steps back.  How pale he looks, how thin and drawn!  The mighty complex of his brain that always seemed to pulsate with inspiration is unillumined now, as if some part of him has already left his body.

“I thought you wanted it, you said you could open it, read what’s inside.  Now you don’t?”

“I know what is inside.  As do you.  You read it when you took it in your hands, and yes, you must give it to me, but not before you know its name.”

“It doesn’t have a name – not on the spine, not on the cover – look!”  She proffers the volume, and almost at once she wishes she could retract her words, for there is a name – embossed in gold letters, where before there was nothing.  In some wonder, she reads the title aloud.

“The Holy Bible.”

Hasuga says simply:  “We are done here.”

“You make no sense to me. This makes no sense, none of it.  There is some plan, some scheme.  If I am a part of it, shouldn’t I be told?”

“Alanee my dear one, I have said to you not once but many times that I am learning.  All the knowledge I have gained is in your head too, though you may not countenance it yet.  I do not know what will happen to you next, only that if you are given the opportunity, you will also learn.”

Hasuga rises to his feet and steps closer to her, so she may see his eyes, and the conviction within them, as never before.  “It is all there in your mind – all the history, all the reality.  As you need it and if you need it you will find what you seek, dredge it out.  Think of your mind as a great library filled with books , all of which you could not possibly find time to read.

“So, what now?”  His smile is suddenly so reminiscent of Celeris.  “Well, that is the next great discovery.  When my hand closes around that book, a circle is completed.  Then we shall both discover the truth.”

Hasuga extends a thin left hand, clasps her free hand within it.  “We shall not see each other again.  Go now.”

And with his other hand, he takes the book from her grasp.

The heavens scream.

Long ago, when Alanee was very young, the earth shook itself as a dog does when it clambers from the water.  Her mother pronounced it a ‘tremor’ and dismissed it, but to Alanee it was a fearful episode; a profusion of falling plates, rocking furniture, cracking plaster from the walls.  She remembers it.  So the feeling of the palace in motion beneath her feet is familiar, and were it not for the time and place, she might dismiss it as her mother did.  But there is a greater wrongness within it that speaks to her, something that demands she run.

“Quickly, Sire!  We must get away!”

Hasuga only smiles:  he smiles, then, like Celeris in her chambers, like Saleen before Ripero’s outstretched hands, he is gone.  The room is gone.  The apartments, the entire palace is fragmenting, with no cry, with no thunder of masonry or spike of flame – without any blinding fog of dust:  just a distant whine of something coming;   something absolute …..

Filled with horror, Alanee turns towards the door:  but there is no door, there is no wall.  For a fraction of a second the great hall of the palace is in its place (how is she here, rather than three storeys above?) but then that, too, disappears:  Toccata’s tsakal house materialises with Toccata standing within it, his face a white mask of despair.  His expensive hangings are falling in a whirlwind, yet he still reaches out to her, mouth moving in a soundless greeting.  In turn the ante-room to the council chamber, then the palace courtyard fly about her head – images of places she knows, faces she remembers, shuffling like cards in a deck.

Somehow she is running, she knows that, though her feet do not seem to move; passing through the courtyard, the Grand Park, the malls, her old apartment, all with the desperate desire to find her way back:  back to Sala.  The one thing, the one person vital to her.  She must rescue Sala.

Is it her?  Is she in some kind of dream?  Only that unremitting sound, growing steadily, seems real.  The City has lost its order, its structure:  it is coming to pieces.  Nevertheless somehow she is finding her way.  Something in her psyche guides her, makes sense of the moving maze in such fashion that she finds direction when all direction has been lost.  A thread within her follows a thread through the mayhem and that should be sufficient – would be – were it not for Mother.

Mother, cheated by her beloved child and screeching out her loss in a paroxysm of fury:  Mother with hyena-teeth bared and long knife aloft comes whirling from the mists of confusion with one thing only in her contorted mind; to take the life from the one who took Hasuga from her – Alanee’s life.

Before she can defend herself Alanee is thrown to the moving ground with time to no more than twist away from the first strike – the second she cannot avoid.  It plunges deep, it strikes like an rod of fire into her thigh and instantly her blood starts pulsing through the wound.  This is death!  She takes the third strike on her arm, catching the raw blade enough to turn it on itself.  With a strength born of mortal peril she thrusts the demented woman from her, grabs the hand that has the weapon in its grip.

Now a real struggle begins.  Mother has the knife, would thrust it into Alanee’s heart, but Alanee holds her by the wrist and is forcing it back.  Mother is finding her feet, trying to rise.  Alanee feeling her strength flowing freely from the gash in her leg has too little time.  It must be now!  The woman’s hand is pushing this way, her balance is swaying that.  Going with her movement, going against her poise, one thrust.  The knife goes where the knife chooses, and it chooses Mother’s throat.  The woman who devoted her life to care of the Hasuga child ends it by her own hand, by Alanee’s guidance.  Her windpipe severed and emitting bubbles of blood, Mother sinks to the floor, thrashes there for a second or two before dying.

Alanee’s rising vomit would choke her.  With no time for ceremony, she snatches Mother’s robe, using the bloodied knife to rend a strip from it.  She binds her leg tightly, so tightly she has to suppress a cry of pain.  Aghast at the pool of her own life that has already formed upon the switchback floor, she limps forward:  still hoping, still searching.  She promised she would not be long.  She promised she would return for Sala.  Her leg is ruptured, the muscle in her arm is slashed, disabled by the same knife; but she must find Sala.

The task is insuperable, random scenes passing before her so fast she can achieve no sense of direction.  In neither light nor darkness, she does not know where she is going, she cannot find anything constant to cling to.  The noise which pursues her is incessant now, an animal, an all-devouring thing.  People are scattering everywhere:  Ellar flits by, Trebec, the Domo.  And all the while her strength ebbs.

Utterly despondent, she ceases to try.  The hopelessness of her state, the certainty she will die before she ever reaches her friend overcomes her.  Whatever is happening to the city will consume her too.  There is no redemption, no answer.  There, amidst a rolling barrel of destruction Alanee drops to her knees and submits to fate.

Behind her the Continuum roars louder, a focussed beast sensing prey.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Image credit: Kristen from Pixabay

Continuum – Episode Twenty-Eight: Caverns old and Caverns Deep

Warning:  this episode has some erotic content.

In the previous episode:

Despite the Domo’s attempt to exclude her, Alanee is summoned to a meeting of High Council, where she predicts the burning of Balkinvel and converts many of the Councillors who did not believe in her.

Triumphant, she returns to her chambers to celebrate, and spends the night there with Sala…

Alanee has risen early.  To avoid disturbing Sala, who sleeps sweetly and deeply, she has extracted her fake book from its hiding place and paged Altor the Convenor.  They meet in the corridor outside her Chambers, from where, the book concealed beneath her courtier’s robes, she is guided to that elevator which last night transported her to the High Council.  This time, however, the elevator is programmed for a different destination:  it plunges deep; deeper, Alanee feels, into the soul of The City than she has ever been.  She remembers when Dag first brought her to The City through a tunnel less deep in the rock than this.  Counting the seconds, she endures Valtor’s stream of effusive flattery as they descend.  The gardens, perhaps even the mighty Balna River, will be many feet above her now.  She is in the bowels of the mountain, confined, perhaps trapped, beyond sight or hearing of the outer world.

She need only emerge from the elevator to see how limited is her means of escape.  She steps into a small foyer with the usual couches that typify ante-rooms or waiting areas in The City.  Other than the elevator by which she has arrived there is only one door – and such a door!  She had expected grandeur, perhaps – timbers made mighty by age, ornate iron hinges, carved devils and hobgoblins in ancient oak.  Not so.

The door before her is completely circular and fashioned from steel.  Its central capstan is clamped in place by chromed stanchions thick enough to deter the most ardent assault for a month.  The wall into which it is set is also steel, undecorated but for two staves which rest in brackets to either side of the door.  These, or rather their illuminated heads, provide what little light the foyer has –imbuing it with a severe, mournful atmosphere.

Altor turns a mechanism at the locking point of the stanchions through a ritual of numbers before spinning the capstan.  With a grudging hiss, the door releases, and by the humming effort of an electric motor somewhere, yawns reluctantly open.

“Lady, I may not pass through here.  I am a poor Convenor, I lack your greatness or worth.  You must proceed alone.  I will await you.”

Alanee peers through the thickness of the steel aperture the door has left.  She can see little beyond, but a narrow stair descending into gloom.  “I’ll need time to study.  I may be here all day!”

If Altor is at all discomfited by this, he shows no sign of it.  “Then I shall wait all day.”

Alanee can be equally stubborn.  “I don’t need you to stay.  You’re the Convenor – you may be required elsewhere.  Can’t I find my own way back?”

Altor’s face is set.  He has clearly been instructed to wait.

Is there something in the demeanour of this obsequious man that should toll a bell of warning?  Has he had other instructions too?  She will learn nothing more from him, however, so with a shrug that says there is no more to be done, Alanee steps through the aperture.

The way is almost – but not quite – dark.  This flight of steps is lit by torches at intervals along the walls.  At each footfall an echo returns, speaking to her of great mass and weight.    Here, deep in the bedrock, she is sure even the thoughts of Hasuga would be hard put to reach.

‘Did you think I could not hear you?’  The words flash inside her mind, and this time she greets them warmly, because she feels lonely and afraid.

‘Yes.’  Her mind replies:  ‘I should have realised, shouldn’t I?”

‘I am always near.’

A glow spreads through her, a sense of protection and – almost – friendship.  If he were physically near she might even be moved to kiss that grotesque head in sheer gratitude.  ‘Don’t go away, then.  This was your idea.’

Steps winding downward, on and on; Alanee feeling sure she is becoming closer to something, some indefinable thing that stirs inside her: in truth a descent probably no more than thirty feet or so before it ends.  Here; another open space, another door.

This time there are no seats to regale the weary climber.  The walls are rough-hewn from the very mountain itself.  There is no colour here other than grey, yet the lighting is brighter:  several stars of pinpoint light sparkle from above her head.

He sits in the corner, the man in the hempen smock she recognises because she has seen him before, in the wooden room that squats doorless within Cassix’s chambers, the room that will only open with mirrors.  And he, hunched in the earnestness of prayer, is just as she remembers.

He speaks:  “Lady Alanee?”  His voice is of dry leaves trodden.

“Yes Sire.”  She has no thought to address him by other than a regal title, though she has no notion how he might aspire, meanly dressed as he is, to any noble birth.  His skin is as crimped as rough linen and he is of the parchment wherewith the books he guards are made.  He is Karkus, as old, and as wise, as they.

“Pass, Lady.”

“Thank you, Sire Karkus, I will pass.”  Hasuga, how do I know his name?

Because you are who you are.  Yours is the knowledge of all things.

This time a simple door of planks is all that must swing open to admit her:  beyond, an archway, and beyond the arch a hall – a hall so unexpected by comparison with its ante-room that it takes Alanee’s breath away.

A perfectly circular chamber paved in white marble, it is lit by crystal white radiance from a high ceiling.  Around the continuous white wall are arrayed books; thousands upon thousands of volumes neatly shelved ten layers high.  At the very centre of this great library, upon a plinth of black granite, a tome larger than all the others lies open – its rich vellum spread flat by the weariness of use, its illuminated script greyed by age.  Alanee recognises this though she has never seen the original until now: it is the Book of Lore.

Here she might pause; stay for a moment to read truths so very few of the chosen ones have seen: yet she does not go to the Book of Lore.  Instead she moves toward a glazed case at the far side of this splendid repository, led straight towards it by the book that cries like a secret child beneath her robe.  She passes over the myriad of titles that stand protected by the glass, some in languages she does not understand and some she does:  though still a mystery to her because she has never read a book for its sake – ‘Catcher in the Rye’, ‘To Have and Have Not’, ‘Faustus’, ‘Endymion’, ‘A Jew of Malta’, Ulysses’.

 Alanee is drawn only to a single, untitled volume.  There, central upon a central shelf, the exact facsimile, the likeness.  Its door of defensive glass should be locked – is locked – yet it yields to her as if her touch is expected; without effort, without complaint.  She takes the one, puts the other, from its concealment in her robe, in its place.  All the while behind her, in the doorway, the ancient guardian watches, but does nothing.  When she turns towards him, a volume old as time within her grasp, his parched lips crack in a smile.

And when she takes the book in her hand, what happens then?  What vision consumes her?  It is as if the mysterious lock has no meaning, as if all the text of the work she grips so tightly is in her head without so much as turning a page, every word the instigation of a dream, a new story, a separate plot.  Passing before her are peoples she has never met, tribes cast out, cruel persecutors, gentle victims.  There are women faithless and faithful, engaged in their own pursuit of dreams, men generous and devious, wise and foolish, builders and slayers, workers and idolaters, wealthy and poor.

She does not mark her own progress, or see how she mounts the stairs once more; reaches the mighty door that has kept these truths so deeply buried for all the years; passes through.  She feels the eagerness of Hasuga with her in the text and he is reading as fast as or faster than she.  She feels the words bleeding out of her, to be re-joined by the millions already in his giant mind.  She feels….

“Lady Alanee!”

The elevator door stands open.  But it is not Valtor the Convenor who awaits her. It is High Councillor Portis.  She comes to herself, finding she holds the book openly in her hand.

Portis asks:  “What do you intend doing with that?”  His suspicions are confirmed, his fears realised.  “That book should never leave its case, still less the Inner Library.  You have scarcely risen to prominence, it seems, before you choose to abuse your good fortune.  A grave mistake, my Lady.”  His summoner is in his palm, the buttons already being pressed.  “Guards?”

Ever since she accepted Hasuga’s challenge the possibility of discovery has been uppermost in Alanee’s mind.  Her script is well rehearsed. 

“Sire, the error is yours,” She speaks clearly.  “Sire Hasuga himself gave me his permission to borrow this.”

Portis colours.  “That is a palpable lie!  Sire Hasuga has no knowledge of the book.  How can he?”

“How can he?”  Alanee attempts a laugh, though it sounds more reminiscent of a bray.   “He is all-seeing, Sire.  He knows of all your precious books!  And…”  She picks out her consonants like cuts of sharp steel, “he sees you now.  He hears your every word.”

‘Hasuga!  Help me!’

“Guards.” Portis repeats quietly.  “You are required at the Council elevator.  Lady Alanee is to be placed under arrest.”

He beckons.  Where else should she go?  At least when the elevator returns to the higher levels she will be closer to Hasuga, nearer to his power.  So, heart pounding, she meekly follows the High Councillor into the chamber of the elevator.  She is inside.  The doors close.

Hasuga, oh, Hasuga!  Where are you?

Is this a trap?  Could Hasuga have deceived her?  Suddenly she feels cold, very, very cold.   

“I am curious, I admit.”  Portis murmurs, indicating the book; “What can you want with that?  I mean, to risk so much. You do know what you have done?”

She conjures a desperate reply, “I thought to take it back to my Chambers to study it, Sire.  I didn’t intend any wrong.”

“But the book is locked, woman!  It has been unopened for as long as anyone has memory.”

“I am meant to have the gift of sight.  What if this book should contain the solution to the Continuum?  What if I can unlock it?”

“Something you will never have the opportunity to discover. Theft from the sacred library is a capital offence, Lady.  A high price for your presumption, is it not?”

Fearful now, Alanee has to swallow back a rising gorge to meet Portis’s stare. “Sire, it is just a book.”

What does she read in Portis’s face?  What does that unopened book reveal?  Is there a flicker of doubt there; a hint at hesitation?

“And you should have examined it where we are each allowed to read, those of us who are honoured to have that high privilege.  There is no excuse, Lady.”

“I could not open it in there.  Hasuga…”

Sire Hasuga.  Sire Hasuga, Lady!”

“Sire Hasuga then:  he guided me to it.  I am to glean the knowledge he wants from the book, so together we can unravel the mystery of the Continuum.  But I can only open it within Cassix’s rooms.   Sire, you have been inside there?  You remember the mirrors?  The mirrors can open things that are sealed, like that big wooden thing without any doors; they can show me inside there, as I am sure they can show me inside this book.”

Together with Sire Hasuga?”  Portis’s voice does not disguise his incredulity or his own lurking doubts.  “Your arrogance, Alanee, defies belief!  To assume such a thing in your private thoughts is blasphemy; but to utter it aloud, before a High Councillor!”  He pauses then.  Alanee wonders why the elevator has not moved and Portis, whose acuity she could never question, reads her thoughts.

“Curiously, you might think, there are no cameras here.  Above us, in the city, they dog our every step. But within the library, and this elevator space, solely reserved as it is for members of the High Council, there are none.”

“Sire?”

“We are not seen, here, Alanee.”  Portis seats himself in one of the velvet upholstered chairs, leaning back into the rich cushions.  “We are not heard here.”

Alanee stares at him.  “So, you’re saying…”

“I’m saying that our conversation has been confidential.  I am suggesting it might remain so.”

“Might, Sire?”

“How have you covered the theft of the book?”

“With a facsimile; a blank that looks exactly the same.”

Portis allows himself a smile.  “Cunning!  Therefore there is every chance the volume will not be missed?”

“Every chance, Sire.  But the guards have been summoned, have they not?”

“Not.”  Rising to his feet, Portis waves his summoner:  “This is switched off.”

Alanee’s heart leaps with hope.  “Then you believe me!”

“I will not say whether I believe you or not.  But I am the only one who knows you stole that book.”

“What about the old man, the librarian?”

Portis studies her quizzically.  “There was no one else in the library, Alanee: we do not have a ‘librarian’.”

At this reply Alanee at last asks herself why she felt no disquiet when she realised the old man had witnessed her substitution of the book:  she had accepted his presence as though he existed on a different level.  She begins to see a pattern, a circle.  Karkus, a spirit from a distant past:  (how can she be so sure it was he?) is part of that circle.  He wanted her to take the book.

“Sire Karkus?”  Portis’s interjects, and she realises she was reasoning aloud.  “What do you know of Sire Karkus?”

“He was present, Sire.  I took him to be the Librarian.  Maybe in a sense that’s what he is?”

“Dead for more than two thousand years is what he is, Lady.” 

“In one frame of time, maybe.  In another?  A ghost, then, if it suits you.  He was there.”  And she adds helpfully:  “Probably still is.”

“Ghosts! Frames of time! Librarians!”  Portis snorts:  “You have a gift, young lady, I will concede that  But a gift for imagination rather than second sight, I think!”

Alanee challenges.  “I imagine, then, that a part of you does doubt, a little?”

“My thoughts are my own business.  You are a thief.  That is my view; but….”  He weighs his words:  “I believe you may not intend to be entirely dishonest.  Therefore I am to be persuaded.”

Her stomach sinks.

“You have a bargaining chip,”  Portis attempts a smile, achieves a leer.  “You are an extremely lovely woman, Alanee.”

“So?”  She says heavily. 

“You are so young.  You cannot apprehend how desperately we who are grown past our prime still want a share in such beauty.  How we watch you, need you, as you pass us by, while you ignore us, pretend we do not exist?  Our bodies may alter Alanee, but our needs do not.  Do you see where this is going?”

“Oh, I do.”  She does.  There is a price to be paid…..

“You said once – what was your wonderfully apposite choice of phrase? Ah yes; if I wanted to ‘stare at your body’ I would have to ask. Well, I’m asking now.”

She cannot prevent the colour rising in her cheeks.  She says slowly:  “And is that all you are asking?”

All?”  Portis repeats bitterly.  “No, Alanee, that is not all.”

Tears inside her; mad, affronted tears she will not shed:  not for him.  “And if I do what you ask?”

“Then no guards will be waiting.  I will merely go into the Library for study of my own.  You will keep your Book to do with it as you will.  Now;” He rises to his feet, “Come here to me.”

His eyes have a hunger she cannot avoid: yet still she hesitates, hoping against hope there is some higher sense of honour in the man.  “Do you not think, Sire, that a gift only has value if it is willingly given?”

“No, Alanee, I do not.  Come here.”

“A minute, Sire.  Allow me this one minute, I beg you?”  She turns away, gazes up to the roof of the compartment for salvation.  There is none there, no Hasuga with a thunderbolt of retribution, only Portis’s graphically buxom nude pouting seductively down at her from its place on the wall.

  Hasuga, help me? 

With her back to Portis she uses the minute he has granted her, steels herself.  Taking a deep breath, she releases the brooch at her shoulder, shuddering to hear his gasp of gratification as her robe drops away.  Now she turns so he may feast his eyes on her and with only the book to conceal her womanhood, she walks toward him.

Portis cannot stay the convulsive shaking in his hand as he reaches out for her, and Alanee has learned enough of men to know that control of the situation has passed to her at that moment.  She must be in command, or she is done.  She has arts, skills she can use.  He must be hers, in her spell for just long enough, she hopes, that he will not notice how the elevator has begun to move.

Is there some perverse pleasure in this: no pleasure of loving, or giving, but the not unpleasing sensation of power?  Portis it was, who controlled this scene; who wished it, dictated the terms:  but who controls it now?  Like a puppet, she can make him twitch or dance, hold or give forth, at the behest of a touch or a word.  Profound though her inner self-loathing is, she has never felt (do you hear this, Hasuga?) more powerful than now.

‘I hear it.’

‘Where did you go?’

‘Nowhere.  I am always with you.  Portis cannot match you – I told you that, remember?  You do not need me for this.’

Portis’s fingers would slip like fat worms, but this she will not allow.

“Not yet, Sire, not yet.”  Instead she takes his hand and guides it, counting the seconds inside her head.  “Come closer to me; let me tease you, just a little.  See?  We almost touch, yet not?  Does this excite you, Sire?”

“Yes, oh yes!”

He is breathing, sweating heavily and she is counting – still counting seconds.

“Oh, Sire!  No!”  His touch is more aggressive now, his desire expressing itself in porcine grunts.  He has her at a disadvantage.  She has let herself be cornered.  His lips are pressing roughly, biting, hurting her.  She tries to thrust him away. “No Sire!  NO!  Leave me alone, Sire!  Get your hands – off – me.  NO!  NO PLEASE!  NO!”

Before Portis has noticed his change of fortunes the elevator door is open.  Lady Ellar stands before it, open-mouthed:  “Sire Portis!”

“Keep him away from me!”  In purple fury, Alanee snatches up her robe to cover the book, and with both gathered to shield her she runs naked from the scene. 

Ellar is too shocked.  She does not try to stop her.  Alanee’s summoner, with whose urgent fingers Ellar’s pager button was activated in those thoughtful seconds before she shed her robe, lies forgotten upon the elevator floor.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo credit: Art Tower, from Pixabay