Chapter 11: Titania
When the group reappeared in another stone circle, Rowan’s head was still swimming and Sukh was holding her arm. She sensed a shared bond with Sukh. He has been through this too, she thought, he did not end up here by choice. His eyes caught hers as if he had heard her thoughts.
The standing stones here were beautiful smooth rock that looked like marble, shiny black with veins of pink and white. The ground was also smooth stone but grey with veins of black. The center of the landing floor was decorated with a double star inlaid in what appeared to be solid gold.
At least didn’t we crash land this time, Rowan thought, but I guess that has been my fault.
The group moved out of the stone circle. Rowan was glad Sukh was holding her up because the view before her would have taken her to her knees.
Two suns, locked in a fiery dance, shone in the brilliant blue sky and before them stretched an avenue of black marble that appeared to be at least a half mile long. The trees lining the broad avenue were the size of the giant Sequoias Rowan had seen as a child. Their leaves were gold, not the color gold, the leaves were gold. They fluttered in the breeze falling in golden spirals and landing on the black marble. The leaves on the trees shimmered in the sunlight and made a remarkable rustling sound.
On the ground beneath the trees jet black birds strutted through the golden leaf litter. They looked like peacocks but were three times the size. Thousands of tiny bright red birds moved in unison like schools of fish, as they flew in and out of the leaf canopy twittering like tinkling bells.
Down the center of the avenue ran a rill about six feet wide filled with sparkling water but the fish in the water were like no animal Rowan had ever even imagined. They seemed to be made of gold, just like the leaves, sparkling jewels ran down their backs reflecting the sunlight and casting prism rainbows in the water. Rowan wasn’t sure if they were alive or intricate pieces of robotic jewelry.
Never had she seen such beauty; it was as if she had stepped onto the road to heaven. In the distance at the end of the marble road loomed a tree so massive it stood out against the sky like a mountain.
Sukh leaned close to Rowan and whispered.
“We now walk in the Royal Garden along the Avenue of the Weeping Trees. The tree you see in the distance is Cali’s palace, the Universal Tree, heart of Titania.”
Rowan wondered why it was called the Avenue of the Weeping Trees and then she looked closer. She had been so distracted by the golden glimmer that she had not noticed the trunks of the trees, they looked black and knarled but as she stared at them she saw that they were made of thousands upon thousands of heads each with the look of abject agony frozen upon their leathery faces. Tears ran from their eyes forming rivulets that fed into the rill. The water that ran down the avenue was not water at all but tears from weeping trees.
As she stared at the hideous trunks she saw the giant birds plucking and eating the eyes from the frozen faces and as they did a new eye would form in its place and the tears would flow again. Rowan though she might throw up.
“Yes, Cali paints with a macabre brush,” whispered Sukh, “horror and beauty are often ill defined here in Titania.”
“Can they feel what is happening? Are they still alive?” she whispered to Sukh.
“Oh yes, for all eternity,” he answered, “Cali would have it no other way.”
They walked in silence for the remainder of the avenue. Rowan tried not to look at the trees and she realized she was clinging to Sukh not for physical support but in terror.
Brannoc glanced back a few times. He seemed to want to say something but he never did. Eventually they arrived at a wall of water, or tears, Rowan didn’t want to think about which. The water seemed to fall out of the air and disappear into a slit in the marble road. It was moving with such velocity that Rowan was certain it would take off a limb. Brannoc raised his hand, palm flat and the water vaporized in an instant.
They entered the Universal Tree, heart of Titania, home to the Divine Mother of the True Beginning, ruler of the Fadian Collective and perhaps the most powerful being to have ever existed.
It may have looked like a tree from the outside but the inside was as elegant a palace as any one could imagine. The floors were pink stone with intricate inlaid golden designs of birds and flowers. Holographic suns hung in the air illuminating the entry. The walls of the great entry hall were polished wood so shiny their reflections followed them as they walked across the stone floor.
They continued down a long hall lined with golden benches with the legs of lions, not carved legs, they were real legs and occasionally one would lift up a foot or paw at the floor. Arms from all sorts of humanoid races extended from the walls holding fantastic golden lanterns that held what seemed to be miniature stars in glass globes. The arms were alive as well, raising each lantern slightly as they passed. Rowan shuddered, Sukh patted her hand.
Rowan thought the hall would never end, and in truth she sort of hoped it wouldn’t but eventually they could see a bright light shining through an arch.
“Where is everyone? She whispered to Sukh. “Why are there no guards?”
Sukh whispered back, “Cali needs no guards.”
Brannoc slowed his walk and came up next to Rowan. He lightly touched her shoulder and whispered as they walked, “she will think nothing of killing you and wearing your skin as a living robe. Do not look into her eyes. Speak only if she addresses you directly. Do not anger her, she has no mercy.”
Sukh looked surprised as if a warning was rarely given.
The other members of the party stopped and a section of wall opened up like a mouth, they wasted no time disappearing into the opening. Brannoc motioned for Sukh to follow the others. Sukh let out a deep breath and looked relieved. He patted Rowan on the arm again, whispered, “good luck.” And then he disappeared into the yawning hole in the wall as it closed behind him.
Brannoc took Rowan by the arm as if he were escorting her onto a dance floor. Together they walked under the arch and into the light of the throne room.
Rowan looked up and saw the sky a thousand feet up; the two suns gleaming through the branches. They were in the heart of the great tree and in the very center of the room Cali sat on a throne of knarled roots that had grown up from the ground forming a massive chair. Sprigs of living branches sprouted from the throne and flocks of tiny multicolor birds fluttered around Cali lighting on the leafy twigs.
Having learned her lesson on The Avenue of Weeping Trees Rowan looked closer and realized that the throne was not made of wood but of the living heads, their agonized faces seemed worse somehow than the ones on the avenue. Then she saw why, they were not frozen but moving. Their grotesque mouths opened and closed like fish gasping for air as they tried to speak or scream or beg for death. Rowan felt her knees go weak; Brannoc held her up. In the center of this gross mass of horror sat the most perfect creature Rowan had ever laid eyes on. Cali was beauty incarnate.
As they neared the throne a very strange little creature about three feet tall emerged from a box beside the throne. He had the head of a man but his body was that of an animal like a goat or a sheep. He stomped his little golden hooves on the floor several times and Brannoc stopped. The little creature began to speak.
“Bow down before the Divine Mother, Cali the Creator, Cali the Destroyer. Mother of the Universe from whose womb was born the True Beginning.”
He stomped his little hooves again. Brannoc got to his knees and Rowan knelt down with him. The tiny little creature ran back into the box.
Cali was dressed in what looked like black shiny beads and on her head she wore a crown but not in the conventional sense. An ivory white snake encrusted with jewels just like the golden fish sat coiled upon her head. It raised its head and hissed. Cali moved one hand and tapped the fingernail of her index finger ever so slightly on the arm of the throne. The ‘beads’ of her clothing began to move as thousands of black spiders scurried off into the mouths of the gasping faces. Rowan shut her eyes and hoped that this was a horrible dream.
Cali rose from the throne and walked towards Rowan and Brannoc. Rowan could sense the power emanating from her. It came off of her in waves like heat from an oven. Rowan opened her eyes.
Cali’s hair was pure black and it flowed down her back to her knees. Her face was perfect, so symmetrical it defied reason. Rowan did not dare look into her eyes but she knew that they were the color of fine amethyst. Her cream colored skin made her lips look like blood. She wore a short tunic made of the golden leaves and it hugged her perfect form like her own skin. Her feet were bare. She reached down and touched Brannoc.
“Stand my son, let me look at you,” she said in a voice that was even more beautiful than her face. Like a siren she was irresistible. Brannoc stood with his head bowed.
“I am honored to once again be in your presence mother.”
She walked around him like a cat eyeing its prey.
“You seem to have taken a little trip in time that was not sanctioned. Perhaps you can explain yourself,” she said as Brannoc swallowed hard.
“Yes, it is true but it was an accident,” he explained. “When Sukh and I retrieved the new sender and attempted to jump home she quite unknowingly sent the two if us back in time. I called for retrieval immediately but there were some complications.”
“By complications I assume you mean Thracians,” Cali whispered very close to Brannoc’s ear.
“Yes, Thracians, we were held prisoner for two Earth days,” Brannoc replied softly.
“If you were anyone other than my beloved son I would have already had your body chopped into pieces and fed to my fish, and your head put on the body of a pig, you know that don’t you,” she said as she placed her hand around the front of his throat.
“Yes mother, thank you for your infinite mercy,” he said in a strangled voice. Cali squeezed his throat harder. Brannoc made a gasping sound.
“It was my fault,” Rowan spoke up, “I did not mean to do it, I don’t know how I did it but it was my fault.”
Cali immediately let go of Brannoc and turned to Rowan. Cali smiled like Rowan imagined a snake would smile if it could. She took Rowan by the chin and turned her face up.
“No one has dared to speak to me unbidden in five hundred years and there he is now,” Cali pointed to one of the heads grimacing near the foot of her throne. “But you seem different to me somehow, stand up sender and let me look at my new prize. Yes…there is something very different about you.”
Cali looked Rowan up and down. She pulled back Rowan’s hair and ran her nose up the side of her neck breathing in as she did.
“You are a changeling, how delightful. I have not seen a changeling in a thousand years. Did you know she was a changeling beloved son?”
Brannoc was still rubbing his throat.
“Yes mother, I tried to glamour her and it did not work. I knew she had Fadian blood.”
Cali clapped her hands and laughed.
“Oh all is forgiven my darling for bringing me a changeling.”
She kissed Brannoc on both cheeks and then turned her attention back to Rowan.
“You reek of Thracian. The smell of those beasts is unbearable. We have never had a Fadian sender my dear and even though you regrettably do not look Fadian you are still quite lovely in a human sort of way. I expect great things from you since you have already made a time jump, albeit an accidental one.” She threw a sideways glance at Brannoc. Then Cali leaned close to Rowan and kissed her cheek.
Rowan picked up a thought but it was faint, we have waited for you Eki, we have waited a long time. She wasn’t even sure she had actually heard it though maybe she imagined it. She shuddered to think of the Birilgi.
Cali stood up straight and clapped her hands. The little goat man trotted back out of his box.
“Yes Divine Mother,” he said as he pranced a bit.
“You will take our changeling sender to the Academy. See that she is cleaned up and made comfortable. Her training shall begin tomorrow. Brannoc go with them and arrange for her classes.”
With those words Cali turned and walked away past the throne into a doorway on the far side of the throne room.
They all stood still for a moment, eyes on the doorway. When he was finally sure she was gone Brannoc let out a long breath.
”Well that went better than I expected,” he said quietly. “I thought for sure she was going to kill you. You shouldn’t have tried to defend me but thank you.”
“You thought she was going to kill me? She had you by the throat.” Rowan said in a low voice.
Brannoc held his bruised throat as he glanced in the direction Cali had gone and then to the grotesque throne.
“I can assure you when she does kill me it will not be so quick and merciful.” He turned towards the little goat man.
“Rowan I would like for you to meet Dali, my mother’s chancellor. Dali this is Rowan Ross,” Brannoc gracefully waved his hand and bowed in the direction of the little creature.
“Dali is a pooka; he was created for my mother when she was only a child. Pookas are sort of like teddy bears for Fadian children. He is one of the few things Cali has… remained attached to.”
“I am sure the pleasure is all mine lovely lady,” Dali said with a smile. His stubby tail wagged quite vigorously.
Rowan couldn’t help but smile. He had a head full of curly black hair, shiny black eyes and a broad smile. He also had a very thin well groomed mustache and Rowan couldn’t help but wonder how he kept it so perfect. She leaned down and held out her hand. Dali offered her one of his tiny golden hooves.
“Nice to meet you, Dali,” Rowan said.
Dali wagged his tail so hard his whole body quivered. He took back his hoof and cleared his throat.
“Well, we had best get to the Academy. You will begin your training first thing tomorrow. You are a bit old for a new sender are you not?”
Rowan glanced at Brannoc.
“I don’t know. How old are senders usually?”
Brannoc took her by the arm again and explained as they walked.
“The Treaty of the Thousand Years War requires that all senders from the claimed planets must be turned over to the Academy by the last day of their twelfth year.”
Rowan had heard this before and she shuddered to think of young Niurgun standing before that terrifying creature, Cali.
“Usually by that time a sender has shown his or her ability in some way. We used to harvest many senders from earth, in fact that is where the ability originated as I told you earlier, but because of the strange backward religions that developed on your planet most of the senders were wiped out. For many, many years anyone who exhibited any ability outside of the norm was killed, especially during the time called the Dark Ages when over a period of about four hundred years most were sentenced to death as so called witches. The ability was effectively removed from the gene pool on earth. Now when we do find an Earthling sender they are usually older. Perhaps the ones that exhibited the abilities later in life were more successful at concealing themselves and they survived the centuries of culling.”
Rowan thought about it and she was glad she had not been tossed into this situation at twelve. Brannoc was still talking.
“Most senders now come from other worlds where humans were taken for one reason or another and were interbred into the population. Quite a few are Thracian owing to their long history of breeding with humans, unlike Fadians who have remained a pure race.”
Brannoc spoke with such an air of superiority. Rowan glanced at him and he knew exactly what she was thinking; he had done a bit of breeding himself. He quickly tried to change the subject.
“Isn’t this a lovely hall,” he said. “It was always my favorite as a child,” he said trying to sound casual.
They were walking down another long corridor. This one had a floor of blue stone inlaid with stars made of precious metals and gem stones. Birds circled in the air carrying lights in the shapes of giant blossoms and as far as Rowan could tell there were no animated body parts anywhere.
“This is one of the oldest parts of the Tree,” Brannoc added with a tinge of sadness in his voice. Rowan was not about to let him get out of the conversation so quickly though.
“Your mother said I was a changeling, what does that mean?” She asked.
Niurgun had told her Fadian blood might afford her some protection so she knew damn well what it meant but she wanted to make him say it. Dali turned his head up to Brannoc. He wanted to hear him explain it as well. Brannoc paused while they both stared at him.
“It means that a Fadian had an offspring with a human,” he sort of spat out the words.
“So a racially pure Fade and a human,” Rowan paused and made an obscene gesture with her hands, “Right?”
Dali giggled and Brannoc let out a long sigh, dropped his shoulders and quietly said, “Yes.”
“Sex with a filthy human,” Rowan said as she shook her finger at him, “I am sure it was no one we know.”
Dali kicked his heels up a bit, “you are going to be fun Miss Rowan Ross I can tell.”
Rowan heard the rush of water and soon they came to another water gate. Again Brannoc held up his hand and the waters vaporized. Beyond the gate lay the city of Titania, a city of gold.
Smaller trees like the ones on the avenue, minus the suffering heads, grew everywhere along the straight streets. The golden leaves fluttered in the gentle breeze and sounded like tiny bells. The buildings ranged from very modern sleek structures to old knarled trees and mounds of earth. Every building was surrounded by beautiful gardens, flowers were everywhere. In the distance Rowan could see much larger structures some with air craft hovering above them.
They seemed to have come out of the palace in a residential area and creatures of every kind were milling about on the streets. There were many Fades, each one as beautiful as the last but there were also other types of humanoids and quite a few little creatures similar to Dali. Small flying craft moved overhead that looked like metallic birds and shimmering giant insects. Rowan almost fell over a giant caterpillar creature as she stared up at flying machine animals.
“I beg your pardon,” said the huge caterpillar.
“Oh I am so sorry,” Rowan apologized and reached down to help right the pudgy fellow who had rolled over onto his side, his multitude of stubby legs waving helplessly in the air.”
Dali was giggling like a school girl.
“If you weren’t so fond of eating flowercakes old boy you wouldn’t always be finding yourself rolled over in a gutter too fat to get back upright.”
“No, no this was totally my fault,” Rowan said as she tried to roll the very plumb and apparently ticklish creature back over. He was laughing so hard and wiggling that they couldn’t get a good hold on him. Finally she and Brannoc got him back up right on his many legs.
“Thank you for helping me, many just walk on,” he said between gasps. The rolling over had tickled him so he had to catch his breath. “I am afraid this does happen quite often owing to my short stature and all. My name is Hammlin and you lovely lady must be new here for I would have noticed you sooner.”
He smiled, or she guessed it was a smile since his mouth had numerous feeler appendages sticking out of it and instead of teeth he had rows of ridges that seemed to go all the way to the back of his mouth. He had giant bulbous eyes and three foot long antennae.
“My name is Rowan and it is a pleasure to meet you Hammlin.”
“Rowan is a new sender,” announced Dali. “She is here straight from Earth.”
“How exciting, it has been quite a while since I met a new sender, they have become quite rare. I am actually the gardener for the academy so we will be seeing a lot of each other. I look forward to getting to know you better.”
“Yes indeed.” Rowan said as she brushed some more debris off of Hamlin’s back and patted him on the head. He gave her another bristly smile and a ripple of pleasure rolled down his fat spotted back. I wonder what kind of gardening he does, she thought, he looks more like he would eat a garden.
“Well I must be off now I have a lot of trimming to do today, delicious trimming.” And with that he waddled off down the hill.
The three of them watched Hammlin work his way down the hill.
“Come now we are headed the same way,” Dali said as he started out after the pudgy worm.
They continued down the street which came out into a large square. A magnificent fountain was at the center of the square which featured a golden statue of Cali with open hands. The water flowed from her hands and fell into a beautiful blue pool.
“There it is,” announced Dali, “there is the academy, your new home.”
Beyond the fountain was a strange white building that reminded Rowan of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch. The Academy was an odd building that looked like a giant egg lying on its side and standing on thin spiked legs. Little round bubble windows ran down the sides giving the overall effect of an insect’s compound eye. There did not seem to be a door of any kind only a large silver disk on the ground where a door would normally be.
“This is a sending disc,” Brannoc explained.” You will see them throughout the academy in various sizes but they are all used to move matter from one location to another.”
The three of them stepped onto the disc and the familiar blue light surrounded them. When the light faded they were in a large room with a round desk in the center, there was nothing else in the whole room, no furniture, nothing. They walked up to the empty desk. A holographic image of a Fadian man appeared in the center of the desk.
“Hello my name is Dorben; welcome to the Academy. Please place your right hand on the sensor,” the hologram requested in a polite cheerful tone.
Rowan saw a small silver plate inlaid into the desk. She looked at Brannoc and he nodded so she placed her hand onto the plate. She felt a slight tingle, not pain but something akin to a very mild electric shock. The collar around Rowans neck clicked and fell off. A new collar materialized on the slick white surface of the table. This collar looked exactly like a smaller version of the flat necklaces Rowan had seen depicted on Egyptian pharaohs. Rows of multicolor stones were set in gold and the center piece was a scarab beetle with golden wings spread in flight. Brannoc hesitated and then reached down and picked it up.
“You need to put this on now,” he said as he held it out towards her neck.
“Do I have a choice?” Rowan asked knowing the answer.
“No, not really, and unlike the dampening collar this one will enhance your ability to relocate matter in the visible universe but if you use it to try an escape it will remove your head from your body and deliver it directly to the feet of The Divine Mother. Then you will join the rest and become part of the Throne of Lost Souls.”
Rowan looked around the room. No doors, no windows and she had a sensation of heaviness like a great weight pressing from all sides that she guessed was some sort of containment field. She knew she could try and jump without the collar. She thought she had done it before but she wasn’t sure that it hadn’t been Sukh’s collar that she had used. The containment field would probably stop her, it might even kill her. She weighed her options and decided for now she would put on the collar. She stepped forward and let Brannoc put it around her neck.
The hologram named Dorben smiled.
“Thank you for your cooperation, Rowan Ross. You are now registered and have full access to all areas. Please proceed to you room and your schedule of classes will be available on your holoveiw. Feel free to summon me if you need assistance, simply say Dorben. Again, thank you and welcome.” And with that he disappeared.
Rowan looked around. There were no doors, no stairs only slick white walls.
“Okay I give up,” she said. “How does it work from here?”
Brannoc answered her, “You are now recognized physically…..genetically by the building. Think about it, a school for senders would not have doors. You don’t need them. The building knows where you are supposed to be at any given time so it will take you there but as you learn to do it yourself the building functions as a magnetic field booster allowing you to learn to home in on a location and jump to it. With your training collar you can move about freely within the academy.
Rowan then noticed another silver disc on the floor on the opposite side of the room. “Will that get me to my room?” she asked pointing at the disc.
“Yes indeed,” Dali squealed as if she had solved the puzzle. He pranced across the room. “Come along now my dear you must be exhausted and we have a lovely room waiting for you.”
Rowan and Brannoc followed the silly creature across the room and stood on the disc.
The three were instantly in her new room. Rowan was however beginning to feel that they were not so much disappearing and reappearing as simply changing places; they stood still while things changed around them. Before Rowan could think about that too much crazy little Dali immediately began jumping up and down on the bed and giggling like a six year old girl.
“Big bed, big bed he chanted. I wish I had a big bed in my box!”
Brannoc just shook his head and rolled his eyes.
“Ignore him, he loves jumping on things, I guess it is just the goat in him. Come over here and I will show you how to work your holoview. It has been set to your voice pattern or it will respond to touch.”
Rowan touched a small fingertip plate on the very sleek white table. A holographic image of the Universal Tree appeared turning slowly.
“Now ask it for what you want,” Brannoc instructed.
Rowan thought for a few seconds and then said, “Class schedule please.”
The image then changed to a three dimensional graphic of the building with blinking icons in certain rooms. Beside the image was a list of rooms and times.
“So according to this I have three classes tomorrow. If I tell it to wake me up it will do that to?”
“Most certainly,” said Dali who was now standing up on his hind legs and looking out one of the three bubble windows, stubby tail going a mile a minute. “Look you have a view of the fountain, how spectacular!” He then trotted off into the bathroom. Rowan hoped he wasn’t going to drink out of the toilet.
“The holoview is much more than just a schedule keeper and a chronometer.” Brannoc explained, “It is the interface with the building’s AI as well as an entertainment device much like your televisions. You can ask it to find any type of entertainment you wish to see or hear. We actually have an extensive data base of Earth literature, movies, and music if you get homesick. You can watch other planets media; you can play games, watch news, whatever you want really.”
The talk of earth music and movies struck deep in Rowan.
“Whatever I want, really? Can it take me home?” Rowan asked.
Brannoc looked down at the floor. “No it can’t do that.”
“Well thank you for the lovely prison cell but shouldn’t you be out kidnapping someone else,” Rowan snapped.
“Oh Miss Rowan is very tired…very grumpy…we should go now,” Dali said as he butted Brannoc in the thigh.
The two of them stood on the silver plate in the floor. Brannoc looked at Rowan. He seemed to want to say something but he paused and then said. “You have to send us to the entry.”
“Gladly,” Rowan snapped.
She visualized the disc they had stood on to enter the building and instantly Brannoc and Dali were gone. Rowan turned back towards the holoview.
“Dorben, can I get a cup of coffee in this place?” The image of Dorben appeared,
“Why of course Rowan, do you take cream and sugar with that?” Rowan smiled, “both Dorben, sweet and white please.”
I might just survive this yet, she thought as she lay back on the very rumpled bed
“Tell me Dorben, when exactly did the Fadians acquire coffee, it is indigenous to my home world?”
“Indeed it is,” Dorben’s holographic image nodded. “It was brought to the Fadian collective about eight hundred
Earth years ago by a Moche trader who claimed to have stolen it from onboard a Thracian Cruiser from none other than the infamous rebel Niurgun Bootur.”
Rowan smiled again, “that wouldn’t happen to have been the Cruiser Juchin would it?”
Dorben nodded, “I am thrilled that you are a student of Fadian culture. We shall have many stimulating conversations.”
“I am sure we will be great friends,” Rowan mumbled sarcastically as the image of Dorben faded. I sure hope Niurgun worked out that plan to get me out of here. I wish I was with him, not in this twisted place.
Suddenly a small tray table appeared on the silver disc. A white coffee service was on the tray and every piece of the service had Rowans name written on it in silver letters. I am surprised they don’t say Drink Me, Rowan thought as she took her first sip of coffee since leaving Pittsburgh.
“Excellent coffee Dorben, now can you play me some jazz?”
“Do you request anyone in particular Rowan?” Dorben asked.
Rowan sat down in an overstuffed, very white chair by one of the windows.
“No, surprise me Dorben, just surprise me.”