Chapter 29 – Fire

They were loaded onto one of the slim white skiffs, like the one they had used in their flight from Manindra’s estate, and Rakesh took the controls. Two guards went with them, but Korban remained aboard the Jyoti. Rachael was grateful for that much at least. She was less happy to see Justin setting himself down across from where she and Arsha sat.

The little skiff lifted off from the side of the larger vessel, and they began to descend towards the tower. She wondered if anything of the Shard remained. Far below, she could see that the tower of rusted iron seemed to have pushed the buildings aside, pushed up through the ground itself. It was like something that had grown. Whatever stood there before, it must have been completely destroyed. She wondered if this was the Seed they all talked about. Or maybe it was what grew from the seed. It was all so confusing.

Perhaps two-thirds of the way towards the top of the tower she saw vast archways that lead within. The mouth of each archway was easily large enough to accommodate their tiny vessel, but further in the passageway narrowed sharply. Rakesh set them down on the platform below and they disembarked. Manindra took the lead, as the guards flanked them on either side. Somehow Justin ended up between herself and Arsha, as Rakesh brought up the rear.

The narrow passageway ended in a round chamber, maybe twenty feet across, with no apparent exits. The only other opening was above them, the chamber stretching upwards into the distance, the ceiling so high that she couldn’t even make it out at all.

She wondered what the point of this place was. It seemed to be nothing more than a large and empty alcove. Then she noticed the tracks running up both sides of the chamber, their insides line with teeth, like gears. A moment later she felt the room shudder, and the ground shifted slightly. Then, with the sound of heavy machinery lurching into motion, they began to rise.

As the platform gained speed, she felt Justin move closer to her.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice kept low enough that only she would hear it over the clattering of the gears. “If I’d known, Rachael… I would have told you, I swear. But I’m going to get you out of this. That’s the deal I made with Manindra. We help him, he lets you go.”

“And Arsha?” she said, her voice a sharp hiss.

“She goes with him. To her mother. She’ll be safe, I promise.”

“If you gave a damn about either of us, you wouldn’t have let none of this happen,” she said.

“Rachael, there’s nothing else I can do. The Guild men… They put a binding on me. I can’t change. There’s nothing I can do to help. Look, just… Just do as he says. You’ll be OK. We’ll all be OK.”

Rachael said nothing. Moments later, the platform rattled to a halt. A corridor seemed to encircle the tower in either direction, light streaming in through tall windows that lined every inch of the outer wall. Ahead of them stood a grand archway and a darkened tunnel that she imagined lead toward the centre of the tower. Inevitably, it seemed, that was where they would be going.

Manindra lead them into the darkness, their footsteps echoing off the walls as they proceeded together. The way was only barely lit by the lantern that Rakesh carried. Finally, the tunnel came to an end. The chamber they entered was vast, an open circular space that was wide enough to hold a cathedral, and rose up into a high domed ceiling formed from curved spars of iron. Between the ribs of the dome it was filled with a smoky black glass that barely let any light in, save for where it had chipped and cracked away, allowing shafts of brilliant sunlight to punch through into the dark of the chamber. The floor was hard sheet iron. Everything was covered in a fine patina of rust.

At the centre of the room lay a vast pit that seemed to descend into the depths of the tower. In the middle of the pit stood a pillar, connected to the chamber by a single footbridge without railings or handholds. No guardrails lined the pit either. Just a sharp edge and a sheer drop. The pillar rose up in its centre to form a plinth, as if a statue might stand there. However the plinth was empty. There was only a shimmering in the air above it, like a heat haze.

“Is that it?” She said, unable to keep the question to herself.

“That’s the gateway,” Justin affirmed. “But it’s not open yet. It doesn’t have a destination.”

“So where does it go?” she said.

“I don’t know. Nowhere, I guess,” he said.

Closer to, just between themselves and the bridge, was a smaller platform, more like a lectern. Like everything else it was made of rusted iron, seeming less like something crafted and more like it had grown from the floor. The top spread out like the branches of a tree, and the base melded into the floor just like roots. At the centre was a crystal, small enough to hold inside your palm, every facet a deep black.

“Gods but isn’t it beautiful?” Manindra said, spreading his arms out to encompass the whole chamber as he strode towards the centre.

For a moment, the old man seemed content to simply revel in the magnificent decay that surrounded him. Then his eyes settled on Justin.

“Well my boy, shall we begin?” he said, smiling broadly.

Justin nodded. Rachael found herself wondering if she only imagined his apparent uneasiness.

“You’re going with her, aren’t you?” Rachael said, as Justin turned towards her. “To your Lady… To her mother.”

Again that silent nod.

Arsha looked at them both with a frightened expression.

“I don’t want to go, Rachael. Not without you.”

“It’s OK, Arsh. You’re going to be OK. He’ll look after you.” She turned to give Justin a cold glare. “He promised.”

“Children, my patience has its limits,” Manindra said.

“Sure. Whatever,” Rachael snarled. She turned back to Justin. “So what do we do?”

“The Seed,” Justin said, nodding in the direction of the lectern like shape. “It’s waiting for you.”

Slowly, she approached the lectern, looking down into the heart of the black stone as she set her hands to either side of it. He was right, she could feel something inside it. A sense of something, vivid and powerful. Like a heartbeat.

Manindra turned to look out across the narrow gap. His back was turned to her, and his hands moved in front of his chest. It took Rachael a moment to realise that he was unbuttoning his coat. Rakesh stepped forward to take the long garment. Calmly, without any sign of apprehension, Manindra continued to unbutton and then remove his shirt.

As the garment fell away, Rachael’s breath caught in her throat. The whole of Manindra’s back had been covered by a single massive scar. It was a circle, bisected by a single line. The flesh of the scar was an angry red, and she was sure that the pattern must have been burned in. She wondered how it could possibly have happened, how painful it must have been. The shape could only have been deliberate.

“Thank you, son,” Manindra said, gently patting Rakesh’s arm as the younger man stepped to one side.

Sensing that it was her cue, she tore her eyes away from Manindra’s mutilated skin and looked down at the stone again.

“Alright,” she whispered, “let’s see if you’re listening.”

Almost instantly she could feel the pulsing energy within the stone respond, seeming to reach out to her. She pictured a doorway opening. A flicker of light appeared over the platform in the centre of the pit. It was only for an instant before it vanished again. Even that tiny flicker seemed to draw something out of her. Suddenly her whole body felt numbed with cold.

“Yes. That’s it,” Manindra said, the excitement in his voice breaking through her concentration.

“I don’t know where it should go,” she gasped, her breath seizing in her throat. She could feel herself shivering, the iron lectern under her hands barely keeping her upright as her knees shook.

“You know the place,” Justin said. “Imagine it, just like I told you.”

Her hands still shaking against the lectern, she closed her eyes and pictured the place he had described to her when they had sheltered in that burned out building, what seemed like years ago. Open fields, leaves turning golden. High mountain-tops in the distance. She pictured a white horse running through the forest. She could almost hear the hoof-beats.

Her eyes flicked open as the sound suddenly became all too real. Over the platform the shimmering haze had become a swirling storm of fallen leaves that burst apart as the head and shoulders of a sleek white stallion burst through. Manindra threw himself to one side as the horse cantered across the narrow iron bridge, which shook under the creature’s hooves. It ran a circle around the chamber as everyone stared, aghast. Nearing them once more, the creature raised its head and whinnied as its body burst into a swirling cloud of dead-leaves that scattered across the chamber floor.

She looked around and saw that the light in the chamber had taken on a faintly golden hue. The black glass above them seemed to flicker with light. She saw wisps of smoke rising up from deep within the chasm.

Eyes bright with a kind of awe-struck wonder, Manindra took one hesitant step towards the bridge. She saw that the old man was trembling with excitement.

“Gods… How long have I waited for this?” he whispered. He almost seemed to forgotten that he was not alone. Rachael wondered if she only imagined the uneasiness on the faces of his guards.

“Come on Arsha. Your mother is waiting for you,” Justin said, reaching out to take the girl’s hand. When she pulled it away, he caught her by the arm instead. Rachael could see how tight his grip was as he walked her towards the portal. Suddenly Rakesh turned, drawing his sword in one smooth motion that ended with the tip of the blade hovering at Justin’s throat.

For a moment Justin just stared at the two men, aghast.

“You were going somewhere?” Rakesh said, raising an eyebrow. The old man didn’t even turn to look.

“Manindra, we had a deal,” Justin snarled, veins standing out in his neck.

For a moment the old man said nothing, as his son regarded Justin with a cold and contemptuous glare. Then Manindra spoke with an eerie calm.

“Wait until my son and I are through the gateway, then kill them all. Leave the bodies for Rishi to find when he gets here. Return to the Jyoti and inform Commander Korban that his work is done for now. He is to rejoin with the rest of his forces and wait for contact from Dayaram.”

An unearthly silence followed. Even the two guards seemed subdued as they acknowledged their orders, a grim silence settling on them both. Rachael felt as if her head was swimming. It was like someone had kicked out a stool from under her feet, and she was just waiting to hit the ground. Then Justin broke the silence.

“You crooked old bastard. You swore yourself to her service. We had a deal,” Justin roared. Arsha recoiled, but his grip on her arm didn’t falter.

Manindra whirled to face him.

“A deal? What kind of deal did you imagine that was then? What made you think that you could dictate terms to me, boy?” the old man bellowed at him, a colour rising in his face.

“What will you do? Kneel before my Lady with her daughter’s blood on your hands?” Justin spat back at the man.

“Which one, my boy? The bastard spawn, or the poor imitation you so nobly tried to protect? Which of these two broken creatures should I cast at her feet as my offering? I do not mean to return to her court a servant. I mean to be her king. And I will not walk into her castle with the child of her false lover at my side,” Manindra roared, his face crimson.

“That’s what this is?” Rachael gasped. “This… All this… It’s because you got turned down? Because she chose him instead of you?”

His eyes flashed livid fury as he turned to stalk towards her. She took a step back, only to feel a hand clamp down on her arm, as the nearest of the guards caught her in a steely grip. Then Manindra was upon her. Barely seeming aware of what he was doing, the old man snatched the pistol from the holster at the guard’s hip, gripping the weapon by the barrel as he smashed it into her face.

She reeled back, the whole room spinning end over end as red flashes of pain blurred her sight. She felt something wet on her cheek. Her arm felt numb, where the guard held her tight, not letting her fall. Through the one eye that was not covered by a stream of blood, she saw the old man raise the pistol again.

Arsha appeared from nowhere. She caught Manindra’s arm with both hands. Then he struck her across the face with his free hand and she fell to the ground. Justin barely caught her in time. He dropped to one knee, easing her weight down with him, a look of outrage on his face.

“Do you have any idea, any idea what that man has cost me? What he stole from me?” Manindra bellowed, spitting out his fury as he looked over the three of them. “Can you possibly imagine what it is, to stand before the realisation of all your dreams… To stare upon the face of a goddess, to feel her loving touch, to see her eyes as she looks upon you… And then… And then to have all of that snatched away? I watched from the shadows as she took him in, as she let my own adopted son lay his hands upon her perfect form, as she gave herself to him, utterly deceived by his liar’s tongue. I saw the boy I had raised over my own blood steal from me everything I had dreamed of. And then, when that was not enough, when even to be allowed to stand in the shadow of perfection was more than I could ask for, he tires of her love, of her perfect devotion and we are forced to flee her courts. The most divine place you can imagine, and I was torn from it by Rishi Chandra’s hands. And after all is done that man has the gall to tell me that he has ‘rescued’ me. That I should be grateful to him. Grateful for crushing everything I have struggled for. And you… You mewling infant, you wonder why I hate him?”

The sound of hard footsteps on the iron floors caught everyone’s attention. Eyes flickered towards the arched entrance-way, and in the shadows of the darkened tunnel three figures could be made out, approaching with swift strides. Though barely visible in the gloom, there was enough to make out the professor’s long step, Micah’s pony-tail flicking out, and the shape of Ilona’s cloak.

Manindra’s guards turned to raise their rifles, but before any of them could bring a weapon to bear a shot rang out and a blinding flash filled the darkened tunnel. Manindra’s cry of pain was loud and sharp as a crimson spray erupted from his leg. He fell forwards and his son barely caught his arm in time to support the old man. Rakesh looked up, furious, as Rishi stormed towards them with a smoking revolver clutched in one outstretched hand.

“You will never touch my daughter again!” Rishi roared, face twisted in fury as his voice echoed through the chamber. Already Manindra’s men had their weapons trained on him, but they were being watched in turn. Micah held the lightning ballista tight, the stock tucked into the crook of his shoulder, one eye closed as he kept the weapon levelled. Ilona had the other man covered, her gauntleted hand outstretched in what seemed like an almost contemptuous gesture. But looking closely, Rachael could see the strain on their faces. There was sweat on their brows and a nervousness in their eyes.

Gasping for breath, Manindra’s face twisted into a crooked mockery of a smile.

“My lost son returns to me.”

Rishi ignored him as he went to help his daughter up, but Arsha fixed him with a furious glare. He stopped, all his assuredness vanishing in the face of his daughter’s accusing eyes. She stood up, a little unsteady.

“He told us what you did,” Arsha said. “He told us everything. About my mother. About how you used Rachael to protect me. Is it… Is it true?”

He was silent. It took him a moment to meet her gaze, and when he did Rachael saw a sadness in his eyes that seemed as if it had been there for many years. Like an old wound, scarred over now, but still there underneath it all.

“Yes,” he said, heavily. “It’s true.”

Rachael heard the coldness in her own voice when she spoke.

“Why me?” Why did it have to be me?”

“It was chance. Just chance. I took Arsha to a Fateworker I knew… Not one of the Order, a shaman, from the Skivir tribes. I knew there was a way to take Arsha’s Fate and bind it to another. One other person, alike enough to fool the weave of Fate, but entirely unconnected to my daughter. What would you have done in my place? To know that all this misery would fall upon the one person you loved more than any other… And that you had the power to take that misery away, if only you would give it to someone you had never known in your life, and never would.”

“You ruined my life to keep her safe,” Rachael hissed through clenched teeth, climbing to her feet.

“Yes. To keep my daughter safe. How could I have chosen any differently?”

“It wasn’t right,” she said, taking a step back, bringing herself closer to the pedestal, and the bridge beyond.

“Of course it wasn’t right,” he cried, his voice somewhere between a shout and a sob. “Do you think I ever imagined, for even an instant, that it was right? I am not a good man, Rachael. I will spend my whole life bearing the weight of my sins. Why do you think I came for you? Why do you think I went through all of this, trying to keep you safe? This blood is on my hands. It’s all that I can do.”

She could see the pain there, plainly written on his face, but she didn’t care. It was his pain, his way of pretending to be righteous, and she couldn’t feel any sympathy for that.

“It’s not enough. You don’t get to just… Just buy it off. Like it’s something you can put right, like there’s some way back. My dad walking out, because he couldn’t stand that his daughter was crazy? My mum trying to care for me alone, with everything falling apart? And all of it just… Just because of what you done. You think you can fix any of that? You can think you can make that up to me?”

For a moment there was silence. She saw the looks in their eyes as they watched her with horrified expressions.

“I can’t change those things, Rachael,” he said, his voice heavy. “I can’t ever undo them. But I can try to make it better for you, if you’ll let me.”

“Because you feel bad,” she screamed. “Because this is the way you tell yourself you’re OK. It’s not about me. It’s not about what you’ve done. It’s just about telling yourself that you’re trying to make it better.”

She took another step back, brushing the edge of the pedestal. As she steadied herself with one hand, she felt the hard black crystal of the Seed. As soon as she touched it, she felt the warmth within. The pulsing heartbeat. It seemed so easy. Like she’d done it before. She felt the Seed answer, as she reached out to it. There was a warm, tingling sensation in her arm. A feeling of something moving under her skin.

She saw their expressions first, the surprise and the fear as the swirling leaves that surrounded the gateway slowly turned to dust. Only a shimmer remained in the air. The link had been broken. When she raised her hand, she saw only a thin covering of rust on her palm, but where the black crystal had nestled on the pedestal there was only an empty niche. She saw the horrified look in the professor’s eyes.

“Rachael… What have you done?” he said, his tone hushed and fearful.

“Manindra was right,” she said, scarcely bothering to look at any of them. “I’m nothing. I was just… Unlucky. The rest of you were always telling me I was special, that I had some kind of… Destiny. He was the only one who told me the truth. I never mattered to anyone. I was just… Useful.”

The edge of the chasm was barely a few feet away. Past that, the plinth and the gateway. She could feel a connection to it, beating inside of her. It was like a hole in the world, reaching out to nothing. A road with no destination.

Slowly, Arsha took a step towards her. Justin moved with her, hovering like the faithful protector that he was. It was so strange, seeing that devotion turned towards someone else. She felt it twisting inside, desperately longing to be the one person he wanted to care for. But some part of her saw now what a lie it had all been. It had never mattered who stood in that girl’s place. To Justin, it had never been about her. He just needed someone, anyone to protect.

“You’re wrong,” Arsha said, looking her in the eyes. “You do matter. You matter to me.”

Rachael shook her head.

“You think that, but it’s not true. I never gave you anything that someone else couldn’t have. I was just convenient. For both of you, that’s all it ever was.”

She took another step away, and Arsha’s eyes widened in surprise.

“Rachael… Your hand.”

The change was as sudden as it was natural. She felt the pulse of the Seed quickening inside of her. It was like something drawing breath. She no pain at all, even as the blades burst through her skin. Just a sensation of coldness as the rusted iron gauntlet formed itself around her hand, the Seed pulsing red at its heart. She held it up to the light, flexing her fingers, surprised at how easily it moved. Set in the palm was the glistening black crystal, seeming to glow from deep within. Somewhere in those inky depths, she could feel the Seed pulsing with life.

“Rachael, please. You don’t know what it is you’re playing with,” the professor said.

“Yes I do,” she said, the words coming as a surprise, even to herself. It was so easy. Almost as if she had done it before. She touched the ground lightly, the tip of one gauntleted finger brushing against the metal. Where she had touched, the rust began spreading like fire. She turned to run. The bridge was ahead of her, and then the gateway. She ran, feeling the iron grating of the bridge twist and moan as the rust consumed it. She could hear other footsteps, shouted cries as someone gave chase, but she did not look back. With a terrible sound of crumpling metal the bridge fell away behind her. The heat haze of the gate erupted around her, growing wider, opening up to take her in. She reached out a hand and felt a ripple in the air.

And then she was gone.

Copyright © 2015 by Peter Brunton.  Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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