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The Migrator Chronicles
By Remy Chartier
Sins of the Virtuous
In smothering blackness a consciousness stirred.
It was a casual awakening, a gradual awareness of existence, unnoticed even by the consciousness itself. For so long it had been aware of nothing save the impenetrable blackness and an immeasurable weight that pressed in from all sides. It had a vague recollection of raging against its prison before eventually burning itself out. Then there was only silence in which memory and purpose gradually ceased to have any meaning.
Words began creeping into its awareness, slowly, by inches.
Terra … Elheim … Enders… The words meant nothing at first. Only after a flurry of images – worlds burning, souls ascending, a million glorious beings following its every command– did they gradually gain any meaning. It remembered then the name reverently uttered by those followers.
The name brought with it another word. Overseer. The memory suddenly gained perfect clarity. It was Zuzambelle, the overseer of the Enders. The Enders … where were they? And what was this place in which it found itself trapped? It reached out with its sluggish mind. Its senses crawled and quested through the darkness, searching for any way out. For an instant it glimpsed a hollow place, a chamber of blue crystal that shown with an inner light. Before the darkness fell over it again, it saw its prison, a black sphere enclosed by the linked arms of four creatures whose familiar attributes were immortalized in the same blue crystal that formed the walls of the chamber.
The word was a catalyst giving light to a torrent of memories.
It stood amidst a council of beings whose beauty and grace defied all description, planning a purge. Humans, the Divyre Elheim's beloved failures, had gone too far. To harness the emotions of their brothers and sisters to produce energy necessary to fuel their reliance on technology, they tortured each other physically and psychologically until their fragile minds broke under the pressure. For Zuzambelle it was the final outrage. Never mind that Elheim stubbornly loved them.
It saw itself leading the Enders in that purge, splitting space and emerging as a swarm of righteous indignation from the dreadful outerdark into the known universe. Terra never stood a chance. Zuzambelle relived again the savage glee as its Enders sped towards the tainted blue sphere Elheim was too soft to erase. Its Enders descended upon the unredeemable sinners, their collective destructive song obliterating the humans' filthy minds and dispelling all possibility of resistance. And one by one the humans slaughtered themselves and each other in their eagerness to drive the song from their minds. Zuzambelle felt again the dirty, slithering feeling as each soul was freed from the constraints of the flesh and ascended into captivity until it could be decided what should be done with them.
In the blink of an eye the dreadful problem was nearly extinguished. But then came the Son, the beloved … the hated. He stole the remnant of humanity into the vast expanse of the multi-verse, and Zuzambelle followed.
A feeling long forgotten came over Zuzambelle. Disgust. Disgust for the humans, that frail, destructive, vial and ungrateful excuse for a species. Zuzambelle was doing the Multi-verse a favor by wiping them out. Why had Elheim's son saved them? It remembered the pursuit of the humans through the casements of universes. The rest of the Enders had been left behind on Terra, and when Zuzambelle arrived on the world that was to be humanity's refuge, it found itself alone against the combined might of Two Divyre. Hatred seethed within it as it recalled their names.
Aluron … Gharlyle.
It was they who had trapped it, they who had foolishly allowed the humans to live on their world, amidst their children.
Rage threatened to cloud its senses. It felt an overwhelming need to rend and destroy. But rage was what had landed it in this prison to begin with. It quelled the urge for mindless destruction and instead explored its prison more carefully.
The sphere in which its essence was trapped was solid and impenetrable from within. And yet, a power lay within its structure that Zuzambelle thought it might turn to its advantage. The crystalline statues posed a greater challenge. It could feel the souls of the humans within the effigies exercising their wills to keep its senses from venturing beyond the ring of their entwined arms. Struggling against their combined souls would be fruitless. To escape, subtlety would be its greatest weapon. It could wait. The humans weren't going anywhere.
The World forgotten, the World Forbidden
A Celebration of Innocence
The village of Alcatraz's Cradle swarmed with exuberant activity. It was a day for gratitude and celebration. As the sun crept closer to the gloom of the shadowy barons of the western boundary there was not one villager who didn't gather in the village square for a feast of meat the likes of which had not been seen for many years. In the center of the square in a massive pit, the harbinger flames cast a warm glow on the festivities, ushering in a new year, and the five hundredth anniversary since their salvation from the devastation of Terra, the world of their birth.
In the lengthening shadows beyond the Harbinger's warm glow, Mohandas sat alone, wishing he could disappear. The watcher had provided a beautiful and warm day, and the soft snarlcat hide felt cool against his legs. He absently picked the last scraps of venison out of the hollowed out human skull which served as a bowl. The cooks had slowly roasted bones as long as his forearm over the Harbinger all day. It was tender and full of succulent juices. It was delicious … But it was only meat. There were no vegetables … not this month.
Around the frolicking flames, the adults and older children sang and danced to the beat of large hide drums and the melodies of whittled flutes. The night was warm, and everyone wore only oiled strips of skin to conceal their nakedness. The firelight cast a warm glow on their glistening skin and reflected the light of happiness in their eyes. It was easy to miss the underlying tension etched into the faces of all but the youngest, but Mohandas had always possessed what his mother called the insight. Mohandas new the fears of his people – he even shared them. But right now he just couldn't bring himself to care. He gazed longingly at the younger children scampering through legs and darting in between dancing partners, chasing one another in their innocence. He sighed heavily. How he envied their simple lives. Not a care in the world.
Something nudged Mohandas's shoulder. He looked up to see Mia standing over him. He smiled at his betrothed, feeling his spirits lift a little. He found her lovely. Short and strong, with prominent cheek bones and a figure that was unassuming, yet desirable. Her soft blue eyes managed to be mischievous, compassionate and challenging all at once. An impish smile crinkled the corner of her mouth, transforming her brown face into that of a little girl. She plopped next to him. "Keep frowning like that and your lips will get stuck that way, Mohandas," she said. "Terrible for kissing."
"Hi Mia." He put an arm around her and drew her close, gathering a handful of the soft ebony hair that fell to the middle of her back. His hands could wander through it for hours.
"That's better," she said, taking his hand. "You've been brooding for the last few days. What's wrong?
He looked away. "I'm not brooding."
"Don't give me that. You're hiding in the dark and dwelling on what a few annoying people are saying about you."
Mohandas shrugged. Why did he have to be so transparent?
Mia squeezed his hand. "Why does it bother you so much?"
He shifted uncomfortably, feeling the loosening knot of stress draw tight once more. "It's not important."
"It's upsetting you. It's important."
"I'm just sick of being judged by everyone. 'Are you a man yet?' 'Is the Warden's granddaughter marrying a little boy?' I spent my sixth birthday alone at the Barons, fighting off scavengers just like everyone else. I survived. Now, just because I don't want to kill something minding its own business, I'm a little boy?"
Mia kissed his earlobe. "Don't let it get to you. Everyone's just scared and frustrated about the state of the world. Our plants and vegetables aren't growing like they used to. We turn to the Warden and his advisors, and they have no answers. We pray to the Migrator, and get no response. They see you and I together. They see that you have not yet proven yourself a man, and that's a problem they can understand. So they whisper among themselves and insult you to feel better. It'll all stop when you become a man. And I know you can do it."
"I don't want to go out and murder some wild beast to appease tradition."
"Why not? It'll shut everyone up. And you've been training so hard with Sudhir. Everyone already knows you can do it." She put a hand on his cheek and forced him to look at her. It was over. He knew that look. "Seriously Mohandas, you will be sixteen tomorrow, and we are to be married in just over a week."
Mohandas pressed on stubbornly, knowing he was already beaten. "Killing won't make me worthy to marry the Warden's granddaughter."
She kissed him hard, then pulled away with an exaggerated smack of lips. "I guess it's lucky you already have my heart. You don't have to prove yourself to me. This is just to make everyone believe you can protect me from danger. Like it or not, most of the village values our traditions."
"Yeah right." He laughed and smiled for the first time. "Everyone knows you're better with a sling than I'll ever be."
"It doesn't matter. We're all too afraid to give up on the old ways. You need to prove yourself a man, so as soon as you're done with Sudhir tomorrow, go out and kill something large and stupid and bring me back something sharp. I promise to be properly impressed.
Mohandas sighed heavily and lay back on the soft earth. "Fine, Mia. I'll do it. But I still don't like it."
She winked, and the impish smile returned. "You'll feel better after we're married. I promise." Mohandas shivered. He was acutely aware of Mia's warm skin under his hand. He suddenly wished he were wearing something bulkier.
The music ceased with a concluding staccato. The dancing stopped, and the villagers sat on their snarlcat skins. Parents called their young to their sides. People began pointing and chattering excitedly. Mohandas sat up.
The Warden was striding towards the fire. Tsao Tong had been the Warden of Alcatraz's Cradle since Mohandas's father was a little boy, and these days he spent much of his time in his hut, delivering his messages by way of his two advisers. No one had seen Tsao Tong in nearly three months. Now, here he came: tall, slender and ancient beyond measure. He felt his way forward with a long carved staff decorated with dozens of sharp teeth. He moved with grace, every step sure and measured. Long white hair spilled over a thin cloak of white fur that covered him from neck to ankle. As he entered the circle of light it shown on the thin film covering his eyes, making them glitter pale white. He no longer saw the world as others did, but his wisdom and boldness made up for it. His sightless gaze swept over the people gathered before him, and his lined and wrinkled mouth curved in a wide smile.
Mohandas shivered. "I wish he wouldn't act like he sees us."
Mia shrugged. "Grandfather pictures our faces in his mind, so really he does see us, in his way."
, Tsao Tong's advisors Chechni and Jerald followed at a respectful distance. Their cloaks were brown, not white. While not as old as their leader, neither man expressed the surety of the Warden., The advisors flanked a tall nubile blonde who carried herself with a studied grace that drew much of the attention away from her escorts.
"I might have known they'd choose Theresa to recite the Chronicle," Mia muttered. "It should have been me up there."
"The Warden asked you, but you said you didn't want to recite this year."
"I didn't know she'd be chosen."
"She seems to be enjoying herself. If she walked any straighter she'd fall over backwards."
"Her breasts give her great balance." Theresa grimaced down at them and rolled her eyes. Mia drew herself closer and nuzzled his neck. "She's looking right at you." Theresa tossed her hair and Mohandas was sure he saw her sneer. She was the exact opposite of Mia: Tall, full-figured, pale skinned and hair so blonde it was almost white. Mohandas would be lying if he said he wasn't attracted to her, but she was fake; always trying to please everyone. She changed her personality so much to suit those around her that Mohandas wasn't entirely sure he knew the real her. And she flirted shamelessly with any boy who would give her a second look.
Mia sniffed. "I hope she forgets it all,"
He squeezed her shoulder. "Oh don't be petty."
Tsao tong stopped near the fire, and his trio of followers sat down behind him. A hush fell over the gathered villagers until the only sound was the crackling of dry wood. His sightless eyes flashed in the firelight as his gaze flitted from one person to another. When he spoke, his calm, grandfatherly voice carried clearly.
"My beloved people," he said. "Today is a special day. Today we commemorate the five hundredth year since Terra perished, and the Celestial Migrator delivered us to this new world. Since then we, the remnant of humanity have endured many hardships, and we have persevered. Perhaps one day the blessed Migrator will restore our lost world too us, but for now, Alcatraz, this tiny world born from his loving hands continues to support and nurture us. Praise be to his compassionate and merciful heart."
"Praise be," came the collective reply. Mohandas couldn't help noticing that it was less heart-felt than usual. The Warden seemed to notice too, for his tone became momentarily somber.
"I know we're all concerned about the vegetable shortage. My advisors and I have been pouring over the documents left behind by our forbearers, and while we are sadly no closer to a solution, we believe we have discovered the source of our difficulties."
A low murmur rippled through the crowd, and Mohandas suddenly felt alert for the first time since the celebration had begun. He was old enough to have felt the subtle changes in Alcatraz that had been going on for far longer than his fifteen years. The land was slowly changing. The grass was growing wispy, and the soil was turning white and gritty. It took longer to grow vegetables. Some would no longer grow at all. Trees rarely regenerated when cut down, and when they did, they took months, or even so much as a year to grow enough to be used. Even when the Watchers set the Pillar of Life to produce days of constant rain, the grainy soil only turned to mud. Everyone was growing concerned that all of Alcatraz would end up like the baron rocky landscape that lay at the western boundary.
Tsao Tong allowed the murmurs to die out before continuing. "We believe the Sphere lying imprisoned under the Pillar of Life is gradually reverting Alcatraz to the state it was in before the blessed Migrator prepared it for us."
Nervous murmurs rippled through the gathering. The Sphere had not been talked about in many years. Of course it was mentioned in Efreum's Chronicle, but people avoided talking about the Sphere on the grounds that it made them terribly uncomfortable.
Tsao Tong raised his hand. "Please! Everyone calm down. We have not survived for five hundred years, only to have it all be in vain." The crowd fell silent. "Even if the Sphere truly is the cause, it does not necessarily mean we are on the brink of catastrophe – Oh yes, I know of your concerns and I understand. But it may mean the opposite. It may mean the time for our deliverance from this world is drawing near. Either way we must do away with our petty squabbles. We must not covet, we must not allow our hearts to become heated and full of malice. There has been increasing contention among us over the years. The Chronicle warns us of the consequences, but our natural tendency is to ignore such warnings. We are all better than that. We can and must rise above our base tendencies. I have no doubt that if we do this, the Migrator will pour his blessings upon us. He alone has the power to negate the influence of the Sphere." Tsao Tong turned and smiled at Theresa. "Dear child," he said, as much to everyone as to her. "Will you step forward now and recite Efreum's Chronicle for us. Remind us of the past, and deliver the warning of our forbearers."
Theresa padded forward to stand beside Tsao Tong who put a gentle hand on her slender shoulder. He smiled at her, and then turned that smile back to those gathered before him. "I urge you to listen to our story, my people, and to ponder its message, lest its warning come to pass."
He sat then, and Theresa stood alone, gazing nervously around. She was silent for a long moment, but when at last she began speaking, her voice rang sure and strong over the gathering before her.
"Here me, O remnant of Terra, and heed my words. For I am Efreum, the undying proclaimer, and my testament is one of sorrowful truth.
Standing in the sky, I saw our beloved world fall victim to the Enders. They came without warning, drawn by our greed and ambition, our hatreds and lusts, and our wicked hearts. Divided in our various beliefs and skepticisms, we humans were powerless. Cities burned. Societies collapsed. I heard the song of the Enders, and its harmony of dissonance drove insane all who heard it. Humanity turned upon itself, and I was powerless to stop it. The Enders tore the fragile souls from their murdered bodies and swept them into their midst.
Shadrazita, Varadnagi and I, once mortal, were spared only by the gifts granted to us by The Father so many centuries ago. I saw my brothers praying for strength, then rising against impossible odds. I saw Shadrazita's eyes cry tears of blood as the Enders enveloped him, and when he fell, he did not rise. Of Varadnagi I know nothing, having lost sight of him. I weep bitter tears when I recall the tortured thoughts and emotions of a world gone mad.
In the end, I saw the Holy son, our Celestial Migrator come to Earth again in the flesh and stand upon the ruins of the world. He stood for a time, once again as mortal as any man, his head bowed in mourning. When I at last beheld his face his wise and timeless eyes were filled with a profound sorrow. It broke my heart to see him cry for us. I tried to lend him strength, but I'll never know if he received it. He drew the remnant of humanity to the top of a high mountain with a thought, and I was among them. When he spoke to us, his gentle commanding voice rose above the Enders' discordant song. These are the words he spoke.
"Ye, my beloved, relinquish thy pain unto me. For even as ye suffereth the afflictions rot by these misguided souls, lo, I have prepared a place for ye in a world likened somewhat to thine own."
And with those words, a shadow of agony contorted his benevolent face and his arms opened wide as if in greeting. He uttered not a sound, even as milk-white Blood spurted from his skin and flew on sudden gusts of wind. His body began to glow. The world shimmered and wavered around us as above him, the very sky seemed to tare open. A rainbow maelstrom of swirling light washed over us. We were sucked into an abyss of overwhelming brilliance. I saw our redeemer floating limply beside me. I tried calling to him, but an overwhelming exhaustion stole my voice, and consciousness slipped from my fleeting grasp.
Now you, O remnant of Terra are the last of us. And the Holy One has prepared a place for you as he said. But as you have come, so along with you has come the overseer of those beings who destroyed us all. Under the earth, below that place that brings you life rests he, held in bondage by a sphere no man must glimpse. Five brave souls stand as sentinels, their wills keep him trapped. Never must you look upon them, for to do so is to be in the presence of the overseer, and you shall surely die.
Take heed my warning, O Remnant of Terra. Beware the folly of the human heart, lest this world too be torn apart."
Theresa fell silent. The roar of the harbinger was a dull ambiance as she kneeled. As one, the villagers bent their heads and closed their eyes. The collective devotional carried in a chorus around the fire.
"O, our beloved redeemer from whom all blessings flow
Please carry and keep us
Forgive and protect us
Bathe us in your everlasting light."
Mohandas spoke along with the rest, wondering if the Migrator was out there in the vast sky, watching over them. Surely he must be, but what did a divine gaze feel like?
His voice faltered. For a split second it felt like the earth had rippled under him. He felt Mia shift beside him. Just his imagination.
"O our beloved redeemer, who keeps us free and strong,
In your mercy we bask
Safe and forgiven
So long as our hearts are true."
Mohandas started again. Once more the earth seemed to ripple under him. He squinted through partially closed eyes and turned his head to look around. Everyone was still, absorbed in the prayer. Everyone except Chechni who's head was raised and whose glaring eyes were fixed on Tsao Tong. He hastily dropped his head when he saw Mohandas looking. No one else seemed to have felt the movement.
Once more Mohandas bent his head, but before he could open his mouth to speak, the ground under him gave a mighty shudder. The prayer was cut off as a child's scream tore through the silence. Mohandas's head snapped up and he felt his heart lurch. One of the children closest to the fire was tumbling through the air. A fleshy mass erupted from the ground beside his prone body, showering those nearest with dirt and fragments of rock. Clumps of dirt clung to its sinewy worm-like body. Glistening slime oozed from a hundred ruptured pustules. It twisted in mid-air. Half-formed feelers quivered around a maw full of impossibly long fangs. Mohandas felt sick.
"You see?" A man barely older than Mohandas shook his fist at the creature. "I was telling the truth! I'm not crazy! It's the ripper maw!"
Mohandas shuddered. The youthful hunter had been found way out in the barons, lost, delirious and dehydrated. He'd raved about a hideous nightmare burrowing up through the ground. No one wanted to venture to the barons to confirm his story, and so, no one had believed him.
The very real ripper maw lunged towards the child and seized her by the legs. There was a sickening crunch. She squealed. Blood spattered the ground. People began screaming and yelling. A few started running. The maw dragged her in. Its body rippled with each bite.
Chechni and Jerald drew long curved bone knives from beneath their cloaks and stepped defiantly in front of Tsao Tong. Everyone was on their feet, some gaping in horror, others retrieving their knives, spears and slings. Parents handed knives and short spears to their children and waved them towards the outside of the square.
The ripper maw threw the mangled body aside and snatched a fleeing boy half Mohandas's age by the neck. Mohandas looked away, but the squelching pop reached him anyway. Beside him, Mia screamed furiously. Her sling snapped. A rock the size of his fist arced towards the beast, struck its head and bounced away.
Mohandas leapt to his feet, clearing his mind of the momentary shock of the creature's existence. Adrenaline flooded through him. People ran towards the ripper maw. Spears flew through the air. Most struck its fleshy hide and quivered for a moment before falling harmlessly away. Mohandas turned to run for a spear. The ripper maw threw the headless body aside. It propelled itself out of the hole it had made. Theresa, Tsao Tong and his advisors turned as one and ran. The beast was faster.
Mohandas doubled back towards the fire. There was no time to hesitate, no time to even find a weapon. Knees pumping, respiration pounding in his ears, Mohandas closed the distance towards the glistening pursuer, wanting only to head it off. He heard Mia yelling at him. Some of the men were shouting. Footsteps pounded after him. His mind screamed at him to stop, to let the men behind him throw their spears. But even as he realized they'd never make it in time, the beast's giant head loomed before him. Blood clung to its quivering feelers. Its dripping maw gaped. The others shot past him, Theresa bringing up the rear. The ripper maw snapped. Mohandas crashed into her, and the creature's jaws sank into the earth. Somehow Mohandas remained on his feet. Leaving Theresa tumbling, he wheeled towards the beast. It writhed and mashed its jaws, scattering more dirt. Two fist-size gelatinous eyes glared at him through membranous slits. He glanced wildly around. Men, women and children were baring down on the ripper maw from all sides, but most were too far off to do any good.
Mohandas lunged forward. He curved his hand into a claw and thrust. His hand sank deep into its eye socket. The fragile orb collapsed and the ripper maw writhed wildly. Hot stinking blood spattered his face and flowed down his arm. He ignored it. His adversary twisted its head. Mohandas squeezed his eyes shut and held on, determined to cause this murderer as much pain as possible. Something deep behind his brain flexed. He would hurt it – burn it until it stopped squirming.
The air around Mohandas grew cold, as if someone had just put out the harbinger flames. The ripper maw's struggles intensified. The smell of its blood was joined by the noxious stench of something rotting in the blistering heat. . He opened his eyes. Tongues of flame were licking his hand and the inside of the ripper maw's eye socket. The blood coating his hand congealed and turned black, but instead of burning, his hand merely tingled pleasantly. He worked his fingers, feeling loose nerves catch fire. The creature gave a mighty heave. Mohandas was lifted off his feet. He soared through the air and crashed to the ground a few feet away. Dirt stung his eyes. He rolled away, expecting vicious fangs to sheer his head off. Nothing happened.
He blinked dirt out of his eyes and stumbled to his feet. The ripper maw thrashed frantically. Spears struck at it from every direction, but most left only minor wounds. The beast, whose body had never fully emerged from its hole was pushing its way back with such speed that many of its attacker's spears were ripped out of their hands. Flames whipped from its ruined eye. Mohandas made to race after it, but before he got more than a few feet, its head disappeared into the gaping wound in the earth. The only sign of its ever being was the shallow trench where it had crawled, the mutilated bodies near the hole, and the blood. So much blood.
Mohandas looked down at his dripping arm. The blackened blood on his hand had formed a crisp crust. Acid boiled in his throat. He fought to keep his meal from escaping. His meal won. He bent and vomited. A hand rubbed his back. He was aware of people gathering around him. Somewhere a hysteric woman sobbed as though something in her had broken. The smell of rot and blood filled his nose, filled his mouth, filled his head.
"Mohandas," Mia's frantic voice cut across his thoughts. "Mohandas! It's alright. It's gone."
His father's rumbling voice joined her. "Pull yourself together, son."
A hundred overlapping whispers closed in from all sides. "Popped its eye!" "He was telling the truth." "The ripper maw." "It came from under the village!" "Think he killed it." "No, it'll be back." "So brave!" "Lit its eye on fire. How'd he do that?" "Got cold all of a sudden."
"Here," His father held out a clump of sweet-smelling leaves and a bleached snarlcat skull full of clear water. "Wash yourself off."
Mohandas thrust his entire arm into the cool water. He rubbed it vigorously with the fuzzy leaves. The water swirled pink instantly. He scrubbed until it began to hurt. When he withdrew his arm, his skin had gone slightly red, but he felt clean. He approached the gaping hole and dumped the water out. Only when he turned did he realize the whole village was staring at him. Somewhere, women continued to sob. The rest was silence.
A furious voice broke the silence. "What have you done you filthy little demon?"
Mohandas was taken aback. He wheeled around. Chechni stood a few feet away, pointing an accusing finger at him. "What?" Mohandas asked.
Chechni took a step forward. "That flame. The way you drove away that .. that thing! No one boy should have been able to do that. You are an abomination!"
A murmur of unease rippled through the crowd. Mohandas froze, unable to speak.
Mia raised her sling. "You'd be dead if not for him. Don't you dare talk to my husband that way!"
"You're not married yet, girl. Put that down before you get hurt and mind your place!"
Mohandas's father took an angry step towards Chechni. "My son might be different, but that doesn't make him evil. He just saved your worthless hide. Call my son a demon again and I'll break your legs. I don't care if you are the Warden's adviser.
Someone gasped, and Chechni's face darkened. "So you knew about this, Daren. Nice of you to keep your son's little secret from the rest of us!"
Tsao Tong put a firm hand on Chechni's shoulder. Flame danced in his dead eyes. "That's enough!" His voice was no longer gentle. "The power to pass judgment on this child is not yours, Chechni."
"You didn't see what he did!"
"I would guess that the ripper maw suffered a nasty burn. Do you really think me unaware of such an unusual power in one of my own people?
"So you knew about this too? Why is it you never told us, Warden?"
"Because I feared precisely this reaction, Chechni."
Before Chechni could retort, Mohandas's mentor Sudhir emerged from the crowd. The old man's shadowy skin was barely visible in the firelight, hiding his emotions. His voice however was placating. "You're quite right to be concerned about this, Chechni. Daren too was quite concerned when he approached me ten years ago. Mohandas, it turned out had burned a few of the corpse -pickers to ash during his rite of survival out at the barons. It was decided I would keep an eye on him. He would have been killed if it even appeared this power would endanger us. But I assure you, he's no different than the rest of us. This power doesn't make him an abomination. Now if he started using it on those around him that might be different. But unless I'm sorely mistaken Mohandas, you were trying to protect us all from the same horrible fate suffered by those poor children.
Mohandas could only nod. On either side of him, Mia and his father gripped him tightly. Only their presence made the frightened looks in the eyes of many of the people he'd known all his life bearable.
"There now, you see Chechni? I'd say Mohandas is the hero of the day. He's certainly proven himself a man in my eyes."
There were scattered murmurs of agreement. Chechni's face went red. "He's no hero," he spat. "Just a monster. This whole situation just proves I'm right, Warden!"
Tsao Tong's hand tightened ever so slightly on his staff. Chechni drew back. "This discussion is over, Chechni."
Chechni's jaw tightened and his lip curled. "We should have left you at the barons to die, Boy." He stalked off. Gerald followed, putting a hand on his shoulder. Chechni shook it off.
Mohandas stared after them, trying to keep the tears of anger at bay. It wasn't that he cared what Chechni thought of him. He'd never liked the man. But what if Chechni was right?
"Mohandas." Tsao Tong gestured to him. "Come here."
Mia and his father let him go. Once more the village had grown silent, but he felt eyes boring into him. He approached the Warden slowly, not meeting anyone's gaze. He dared to wonder what would happen to him – dared to hope the village wouldn't cry for his blood. His secret was known now. But he'd saved the Warden and his advisors. He'd done the right thing … hadn't he?
The whole village seemed to be waiting expectantly. Their expressions were unreadable. When he met Sudhir's eyes, the old man grinned at him. At least someone was on his side.
At last he could put it off no longer. He turned to meet the dead gaze of his Warden. Tsao Tong's mouth was set, as if he had come to a decision he didn't like.
"Mohandas," the warden said. "Despite what Sudhir said, what lies within you sets you apart. I have kept what you can do from the village, and I see now that was a mistake. But I trust Sudhir's judgment, and if it were not for you, I fear things might have turned out far worse tonight." He put a hand on Mohandas's shoulder. "Mohandas. I have watched you grow from childhood. You have overcome the rite of survival. You have won the devotion of my granddaughter. Your actions tonight speak louder than Chechni's fear. This power you have been granted is surely a gift given by the Celestial Migrator. To judge you would be to insult him. And so, Mohandas, I want your word now, in front of all of us that you will use his gift to keep our world strong."
Mohandas couldn't believe it! It was going to be alright! He bowed to Tsao Tong. It felt like a heavy rock had been removed from his shoulders. He recited the response he had known for many weeks, but that he had feared he would never utter. "I swear to be loyal to my Warden, to uphold tradition and to give myself to my family and my community. I swear to work towards the greater good of Alcatraz, and to never falter in the midst of danger. I swear to be true to my oath, and to live and die by the words I speak this day. So it will be."
Tsao Tong smiled widely. "Then, Mohandas, Son of Daren, husband to be of Mia, for the bravery you have shown, and the deed you have performed, I declare your rite of passage satisfied. Tomorrow you turn sixteen. In the morning you will accompany your mentor to the pillar of life, there to begin your service as junior watcher. And," at this he winked, "in one week, you will take my dear Mia as your wife. May your emergence into manhood be prosperous and may you never waver in your duty.
The village erupted. Mohandas felt his face grow hot as a wall of people closed in on him, patting him on the back and congratulating him. Mia flew into his arms, showering kisses on him like drops of rain.
The day's celebration continued largely as if there had been no murders. Only the families of the slain children departed to morn their loss. Close friends followed, but otherwise it was as if the Ripper Maw's sudden attack had never happened. The bodies were moved, to be buried in the morning, and the gaping hole was filled. "Life moves ever forward" the people were fond of saying. And so they danced until the silver moon rose in the sky, rejoicing in the boy who was now a man.
Mohandas bore the hearty congratulations, the hugs from the women and the punches on the arm from the men. But he drifted erratically between his earlier elation and a profound gloom. Finally he couldn't take it anymore and stole silently from the village square.
He made it half way back to his father's hut before a breathy musical voice called to him. He turned. Theresa was bounding towards him on long legs. She threw her arms around him and pressed herself close to him. He could feel every tantalizing, repulsive curve of her body.
"You saved me." She breathed. Her breath smelled of wild berries. She moved her pelvis against him and moaned. She kissed him fiercely. Her teeth clicked against his, her tongue was an urgent pressure against his lips. He was so stunned he opened his mouth to her. Her tongue sought his. Her fluttering hand found him. She let out a little gasp and wriggled against him.
Then he was shoving her away. She stumbled, nearly fell. The remnants of the erotic glint in her blue eyes fell away to be replaced with icy fury. Footsteps pounded behind her. She opened her mouth.
Mia suddenly threw herself on Theresa. Her small fist struck Theresa in the mouth. There was a crunch, and blood dribbled down her chin. Her head snapped and she stumbled back, the beginnings of a scream dying into a short squeak. They stood glaring at each other. Theresa was breathing hard. A faint glint of lust still shown in her eyes. "You!" Theresa hissed. Blood sprayed from her mouth.
Mia advanced on her, bloody fist raised. "Leave."
Theresa's face seemed to sag. Her eyes sparkled wetly. "Mia, I just –"
"I don't care!" She drew back her fist. Theresa fled.
Mohandas opened his mouth to speak, then thought better of it. Mia rounded on him.
"So." She said, flicking Theresa's blood off her knuckles.
Mohandas stood stupidly looking at her. He thought he'd better say something, but every reply sounded like an excuse.
"Guess she's all wet over you now you're a man." Mia looked disgusted.
"I didn't –"
"Yeah, I know. But she did." She looked down at him. "Looks like part of you enjoyed it."
Mohandas felt his face radiating heat. "I didn't! She surprised me!"
"Yeah. I noticed. You know her scream would have brought the whole village running. Probably would have told everyone you tried to rape her. You should have fed her to that thing."
He faked a laugh. "Mia!"
"I'm just saying it might have solved a lot of boys' problems. She's going to be in real trouble if she doesn't grow up."
"Yeah." He decided to change the subject. "What were you doing here anyway?"
"I saw her giving you sex eyes all night. Then when she followed you, I followed her."
"Oh." Mohandas met her eyes. "You know I wouldn't have. I was just caught off guard."
She stepped forward and kissed him gently. "I know, Mohandas." He felt tingles serge through him, and this time, he knew they were right.
"I'm sorry that happened," He said.
"I know you are. But next time," She pushed him playfully, "keep your guard up."
"I will." He kissed her. "I'm glad you drove her off."
"You better be." Her face sobered. "Mohandas, about what Chechni said."
"It doesn't matter. I don't care."
She clasped his hand in both of hers. "That's right. It doesn't matter … But I want you to know … I don't think you're an abomination. Even if you did save Theresa from that thing.
Now Mohandas did laugh. "Thanks Mia. That means a lot."
Mohandas walked Mia home. When he kissed her goodnight, his dark eyes met hers. Somehow, despite the awkward circumstances she'd found him in, he felt closer to her than ever before. Perhaps it was his emergence into manhood and what that meant for them, or it could have been that out of the whole village, only Mia had fully assured him she didn't care about his power. Either way, Mohandas thought their marriage couldn't come soon enough.
After going to bed, he lay awake, replaying the night's events over and over in his mind. He was still awake when his father came home, and still later when his snores – as rumbly as the rest of him – drifted through the thin wall.
Today I'm a man.
The words drifted through Mohandas's head as the moonlight bathed his bronze face in silver. The realization was finally sinking in. Thin furs rustled beneath him as he wriggled and rolled, trying to get comfortable. Tonight was one of the few nights in recent memory that his stomach was pleasantly full; he should be sleeping soundly, but he found his body flooded with adrenaline.
He kicked off the thin blanket and sprang to his feet. He had to be up early to begin his Watcher's training, but he didn't care. He drew a light skin around his waist and tip-toed silently into the adjoining room, passed his sleeping father and out into the cool night. The mild breeze felt good against his skin.
Alcatraz's Cradle was still and silent, save for two huts aglow with the soft light of mourning fires. Gentle sobs still drifted on the air, born from the grief of those who's children had been murdered so suddenly. Mohandas knew there was always the chance death could come unexpectedly. The villagers were constantly on the lookout for malicious creatures from the outside world. But still each sorrowful note stung his heart. He should have acted quicker; he should have saved them.
The moon shed just enough light for Mohandas to make his way back to the square. It was deserted now. Only the pale glow of dying embers burning in the bottom of the pit remained of the harbinger flame.
Mohandas kneeled before the pit and gazed down into the remains of the fire. He concentrated. His mind tightened like a flexed muscle, then released. In the pit, the coals blazed, and a few of the remaining scraps of wood caught fire. The air around him grew cooler, and he drew his arms around himself. He shuddered, but not from the cold. How do I do things like that? Why does it get so cold after? He couldn't recall a time the power hadn't been there. He distinctly remembered playing with a handful of rocks when he was five. With just a look and a thought he could make them bounce around. He knew he was somehow different, but it hadn't occurred to him until tonight that his abilities might be a curse. The look in Chechni's eyes had been one of disgust, but also fear. Was he to be feared? Was he an abomination? A monster?
He found himself muttering the ending of Efreum's Chronicle. "Beware the folly of the human heart, lest this world too be torn apart." The verse danced in his mind. Again He heard the screams and felt the mingled disgust and triumph as his fingers slid into the murderer's soft eye. So much blood. He felt it on his hands. It trickled up his arms, over his shoulders and into his mind. The ripper maw writhed before him. Blood and flesh caked its fangs.
He sprang up and ran towards the spring which bubbled up from the ground a little ways off. He grabbed the snarlcat skull and dipped it into the water. He plunged his arms into the water, reveling in its coolness. He splashed water on his face. I'm not a killer! I'm not dangerous! I'm not a monster!
Monster. Abomination. Why not show them.
Mohandas's breath caught in his throat. He shook his head. The thought had seemed somehow removed from his mind. It felt … out of place.
He stood up and looked around. All was still. In the distance, flickering light stood in contrast against the moonlit backdrop. Something about it seemed out of place. The huts in which mourning fires were still blazing were back the way he had come.
He wandered closer. Only when he'd left the clearing did he realize the light was coming from Tsao Tong's hut. He relaxed and turned back. He was half way back to the clearing when a muffled shout reached him. He spun around, suddenly remembering Chechni's fury, and Tsao Tong's dismissal. Surely Chechni would not seek retribution for that.
Mohandas approached the Warden's hut silently. Muffled voices floated on the air. The door of the little wooden building was ajar. Careful not to make a sound, Mohandas pressed flat against the wall, putting his ear as close as he dared to the door.
Chechni's frustrated voice was a raspy whisper. Mohandas struggled to hear what he was saying, but then Tsao Tong cut Chechni off.
"You would dare go against the traditions of our forefathers?"
"It's the only way to ensure our survival, Warden. Why can't you see that?"
"We've survived five hundred years because we followed these traditions. If we reveal the truth now, how do you think everyone will react?"
Chechni's voice raised in anger. "Our land is dying, Warden. Our crops barely yield enough to feed us. The trees around the pillar wither, and many do not grow back. The blood of our people is growing thin. Soon we'll be breeding with our relatives. How long do you think we can live like this?"
"I know it looks bad Chechni," Tsao Tong said. "But I strongly believe the Migrator still watches over us."
"The Migrator is dead, Warden."
Gerald broke in. "Now we don't actually know that, Chechni."
"Efreum's Chronicle certainly hints at it. Are you both so blind you don't see that? He saved us all from the old world and he lost his life doing it. Our faith in him has given us strength, but now it's time to face reality. If we stay here, we'll eventually die out.
"And what about the Sphere, Chechni." Tsao Tong's voice had grown harsh. "Have you forgotten why our forbearers volunteered to come here? If we leave, who will ensure the Overseer's continued imprisonment?"
"I think Chechni has a point," Gerald said. "How can we be sure the Overseer is as dormant as it once was? If it's really the cause of the island's decline, what does that mean?"
"It means we better be far away from here in case it wakes up," Chechni said. "I haven't forgotten the reason for our being here. But the sentinels gave their lives to keep the Overseer imprisoned. If they fail and the Overseer escapes, all of Pantheus will suffer, not just Alcatraz. If we don't leave the island and warn everyone, they'll die and so will we."
"Our job is to keep the rest of our kind safe," Gerald said. "I think if we stay here we'll be betraying our purpose."
There was a long silence. Mohandas felt dizzy and steadied himself against the wall. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. He felt excited, incredulous, terrified and even a little betrayed.
Tsao Tong's abrupt voice made him jump. "All right, Chechni, you've made your point. Forgive an old man's stubborn love for the only home he knows."
"Of course, Warden," Chechni said. "I'm glad to see you still have some sense left in you."
"There's still the question of how best to tell everyone," Gerald said. This is the only world any of them have ever known - the only world we have too for that matter."
"We'll deal with that shortly," Tsao Tong said. "But right now, I believe we have a guest."
Mohandas froze. The ground seemed to drop from under his feet. He heard Tsao Tong's stick grate on wood as he stood up. "Mohandas," he said brightly, "I'm not sure listening at doors is the best way to get a good night's sleep."
He heard Chechni curse. The next thing he knew he was being pulled inside. Tsao Tong, Chechni and Gerald all stood gazing at him. Tsao Tong was smiling, Gerald was impassive as always and Chechni looked on the verge of drawing his knife.
"Warden I'm sorry," He managed to stammer. "I was in the clearing. I saw a light."
"And," the Warden finished, "curious to know why an old man was up so late, you came to check on me. How very nice of you. I suppose there's no point asking how much of our conversation you overheard."
Mohandas shook his head.
"I thought not," Tsao Tong said.
Chechni took a step towards Mohandas. "So you're a monster and a snoop."
"Oh give it a rest, Chechni," Tsao Tong said. "He's no more a monster than I am. And I'm sure you've never overheard a conversation you weren't supposed to in your life?"
Chechni Glowered at Mohandas. "There you go, Warden. The results of inbreeding. Nosy brats with hot hands."
Mohandas's fists clenched. He took an involuntary step forward. "Shut up! I'm not inbred! And I'm not a monster!"
Chechni took a step back, and Mohandas advanced. "I've never hurt anyone! I didn't ask for this power, I just have it! I'm not an abomination, or a monster!"
Chechni cowered. "Settle down, boy." His voice was harsher than usual, but Mohandas wasn't fooled by it.
"You're afraid of me." Mohandas backed hastily away. He didn't want this. It felt wrong. It felt like
You're a monster.
I'm not, he told himself. Chechni was looking away. "Why?" Mohandas asked.
Chechni didn't answer. Tsao Tong looked at his advisor sadly. "You want what he has, don't you Chechni? It's really that simple."
Mohandas gasped in horror as tears filled Chechni's eyes. The old man wiped them angrily away and pushed roughly passed Mohandas. "Out of my way, boy," he said through clenched teeth. A moment later he had disappeared into the night.
Mohandas watched him go, trying to come to terms with what he'd just seen. Chechni was afraid of him because he wanted his power? That didn't make sense. Who would want to live with such a secret?
"I'm sorry about that, Mohandas," Tsao Tong said.
Mohandas faced him. "I don't understand, sir."
"I do," Gerald said. He looked, Mohandas thought, like he was about to cry too. Mohandas hoped not. "When Chechni was young, he had a wife. She died shortly after their trial year was up. She was pregnant."
Mohandas still didn't understand, but Tsao Tong evidently did. "Of course," he said. I remember that day. Snarlcats sense the unborn child, and they eat them when they can. That's why we keep pregnant women confined. Nostra wandered out of her house, and as luck would have it we'd just come from a hunt. A few larger cats followed the hunters home. Nostra was ill and delirious at the time, and I'm afraid she wandered right into them. Chechni tried to save her, but he was too late."
Mohandas felt a little ill. "That's horrible!"
"Yes, it was," Tsao Tong said. "He's blamed himself for that ever since. Nothing I or anyone else said ever changed that. I suspect he thinks that if he could do what you can Mohandas, he might have saved her."
"Is that why he suddenly started treating me like this?"
"That would be my guess. When you drove that Ripper Maw off, he probably couldn't stop thinking about it. You may need to give him time, but I think he'll get over this eventually."
"I hope so," Mohandas said. "I never wanted this."
I know you didn't. At least now you don't have to hide it." He put a hand on Mohandas's shoulder. "Anyway Mohandas, I think it's time you get some rest. You'll have quite a day tomorrow."
"But sir?" Mohandas began. He'd been so focused on Chechni he'd forgotten everything he'd overheard.
Tsao Tong interrupted him. "I know you've got a lot of questions. No doubt you won't sleep a wink tonight, but I'd like you to try. Now that it's inevitable we'll be leaving soon, your questions will be answered in time."
"But sir –"
"Not now, Mohandas. Go and get some sleep."
Mohandas sighed in exasperation and turned to leave. "Mohandas, "Tsao Tong said. Mohandas looked back at him. "We would really appreciate it if you kept what you heard to yourself for now. It'll be hard enough telling everyone without a bunch of rumors circulating."
Mohandas nodded, and left. He understood, but already he was itching to discuss it with Sudhir. If anyone would understand, his mentor would.
Mohandas went home with thoughts bubbling in his head like a pot full of stew. He expected to lie awake for hours mulling it all over, but he was so overwhelmed by this new information that his brain apparently decided it couldn't cope. He fell asleep the moment his head hit the pillow.