Over the Vay Hills and far away
The next morning dawned with a spectacular sunrise. Rashari woke to the sound of strange bird song as the first spear of sunlight sliced across the plain. He blinked more than once, brain foggy and disorientated. He lay still for several seconds trying to figure out where he was and why. The ground was hard underneath him and his balled up travelling coat was not much use as a pillow. He was lying on his back and the sky above was astounding, reflecting every colour of the spectrum and a few more besides that he had no name for. Swirling pearlescent clouds swarmed across the morning sky and the sun sent burnished ripples outward from the molten horizon. The light touched the edges of the clouds and the colours within danced like they were refracted through crystal prisms; blues and greens, reds and ambers, indigo and purest silver. They reminded him of phantasma lamps. The sky itself looked like it was on fire. He watched as those magnificent clouds stretched and contorted into fantastical shapes, ripping apart at the seams and reforming into mountainous towers.
Then the birds came. Huge blighters they were; big as turkeys but infinitely more graceful. A flock of twenty odd swooped across the glittering sky and landed with a thunder of wings about thirty yards away. Their cawing cries rent the air; loud and obnoxious like an imperial reveille. Rashari sat up to get a better look, barely noticing the stiffness of his muscles or the low complaint running through his heavily bruised body. What he did not know about ornithology could fill an entire wing of the Orleneaux Imperial Library; therefore he didn’t try and wrack his brain for the name of the birds. He already knew he didn’t know it. He would remember if he’d ever come across birds like these.
They were beautiful. Large and muscular like swans with long arching necks and delicately tiny heads. A pair of pencil thin brilliant vermillion feathers rose up from each of the birds scalps stretching outward behind their heads, almost like incredibly long eyebrows. The birds long tapered peaks were ebony black and the fine down feathers covering their heads shaded from deepest, darkest blue to a hue reminiscent of only the most flawless of summer skies as it chased down their necks. Their eyes were an almost alarming yellow in contrast, underlined with red. The birds bodies were marked with stripes and speckles of darker blue-black pigmentation in random patterns across their furled wings while their breasts and underbellies reflected the rainbow prisms trapped in the clouds. He saw breasts redder than arterial blood in the sunlight; others still burned sulphur orange or flashed proud magenta. There were black bellies and scarlet, feathers of gold and cerulean, or creamy white with hints of the same hidden colours found in the very best opals, and even a few banded breasts utterly splendid in more subtle and less ostentatious tones. By far the most impressive appendage was the birds tails; long dragging affairs, feathers sweeping the ground like opulent brooms, these tail-feathers would make a peacock weep with envy. Peacock feathers did not change colour with every shift of the light, after all. Well aware of their own grandeur the flock strutted up and down, clawed feet scrabbling at the ground, heads thrown back giving voice to more loud and taunting cries. They moved with a sort of regimented formation, weaving in and out of each other’s lines, while light and colour flowed like water down each foot long tail-feather.
“Empyrean,” Madame Chimera spoke softly from just behind him. Dragging his eyes from the flock Rashari turned toward the sound of her voice, but his cheerful good morning died unspoken on his lips.
“Bloody hell woman; did you sleep at all last night?”
The Madame had clearly been up for some time before him. She was dressed in her coat and carried in her arms more Nasri stems (presumably just harvested from the surrounding bushes). Her sharply angular face looked drawn, golden skin dragged taut and thin across her cheek bones and the razor sharp point of her chin. Her eyes looked hollow, sunken in deep bruised shadow, and her cropped white hair was limp and lack-lustre. It was quite a shock. Throughout their misadventures Madame Chimera had managed to maintain an air of unruffled tranquillity. Underneath the blood and the dirt she had remained flawless – until now.
“Yes.” She glared at him but the attempt was tepid at best. She moved arthritically dropping her bundle of stems and lowering herself down to the ground like an old woman. She even rubbed her lower back as she did so. Rashari did not even try to keep his incredulity from showing on his face.
“Are you feeling quite alright?” He asked, aiming to sound solicitous and knowing that he failed even before Madame Chimera shot him another lukewarm glower.
“I am fine.” She told him, sounding waspish and stung.
Rashari decided that retreat was the best part of valour and swiftly backed away from this particular conversational precipice. “Glad to hear it.” A little desperately he sought about for a new conversational gambit (because the gods only knew he’d never pick silence, no matter how far he ended up cramming his foot in his mouth). His gaze found the Empyrean birds once more. They had gathered in a rough semi-circle around something lying in the grass. As he watched one of the birds nipped and bit at another, squabbling for a place closer to the thing in the grass. It was then that he realised the birds had gathered around the carcass of the Yammik’a’lim (Madame had dragged it away some twenty yards or more from their camping spot once darkness fell the night before. She said that it would not be wise to keep carrion too close by where they slept).
He heaved a long sigh, “Of course they’re carrion eaters. I should have known.” One of the beautiful birds wrenched free a gobbet of decomposing flesh, threw back its head, and gobbled the morsel down with a series of undulating movements of its throat. “Is there anything out here that isn’t a blood thirsty fiend?”
“It is the way of the natural world,” Madame Chimera told him distantly, understanding what he meant without really understanding the sentiment behind his words. “Predators and prey, death and decay; all form part of the Mother’s realm.”
“Hm,” Rashari hummed noncommittally. He had a feeling this was another potentially disastrous avenue of conversation and wisely decided to abandon it in favour of some covert (or at least quiet) observation of his travelling companion.
He knew relatively little about the sum and substance of Madame Chimera’s life before they had met, and generally he was not especially interested in prodding her into talking when it was abundantly clear she did not want to. This was not to say he wasn’t curious, only that he had realised almost immediately that behind the near impregnable wall of Madame Chimera’s impassivity lay a welter of ugly secrets waiting to be exposed to the light.
Much in the way of any good theft a full frontal assault on Madame Chimera’s vaulted solitude was almost destined to fail, therefore Rashari had decided to play the long game. Madame’s secrets, and the pain she did not hide anywhere near as well as she thought she did, were not the sort of secrets meant to be kept. They were too big, their magnitude too great a burden to be carried alone. Rashari did not especially hold to the notion that a problem shared was a problem halved, and certainly he had little time for the trite belief that confession was good for the soul (he knew damn well it wasn’t good for the body -not unless one had an elastic neck). Still he did know that some secrets, the ones that left shadows in the eyes and wounds on the soul, the sort he had in droves and strongly suspected Madame Chimera did as well, were the sort that found a way of coming out all on their own. They were like priceless heirlooms or chests full of jewels. You could hide them away from the light for decades, but you couldn’t silence the rumours or erase all trace that they existed. There was always someone who remembered, or someone who possessed a piece of the story you couldn’t silence, even a sly thief with the means to dig out their location and steal them away no matter how well you thought you had hid them.
Madame tried to protect her sorrow, her secret shame, through enforced isolation. She built walls of stoic coolness and feigned indifference; walls that Rashari had had no trouble scaling. He would like to claim this was all a consequence of his blinding charisma, fantastic good looks and undeniable brilliance. He wasn’t quite that conceited however. He knew the real reason was far more prosaic. He was simply the first person to make the effort. The first person to reach out, seize her hand (literally and metaphorically speaking) and drag Madame out of her self-imposed hibernation and back into the screaming chaos of real living. It had been a gamble. The Madame was far from weak willed or easily manipulated. She could have rebuked him and walked away. He certainly hadn’t wished to coerce her (nor would he have the means to do so) but in the end, and much as he had hoped, Madame Chimera hadn’t left him. In fact he thought that in some way she had rather enjoyed their adventure so far (constant threat of a painful demise notwithstanding). Certainly she had pried into his secrets without any thought to how unfair that was, given the lengths he was prepared to go to safeguard her privacy.
But now something had changed. The nature of the game had altered. Madame Chimera was hiding something new; a secret freshly acquired. Every instinct he had for this sort of thing screamed out that this was a secret he could not allow her to hide from him. The rest of her secrets, the ones he would like to know if only in exchange for all the secrets he had shared with her, and the ones that were less secrets than they were pieces of her very nature – those could wait. Time alone would reveal them. This new secret felt more urgent and infinitely more dangerous. It felt like something that could hurt them both, severely. The problem was he didn’t know what to do about it. He’d already started playing this game one way and changing tack now would be disastrous, especially as it had become evidently clear that Madame Chimera didn’t trust him yet. He was stuck. There was nothing for it. He’d just have to keep his trap shut, wait, and hope that this particular secret wouldn’t blow up in their faces until after they’d managed to deal with the Heart of Anoush and get back to civilisation. Cynic that he was Rashari knew those were some pretty long odds.
“Y’know, hideous beasties and plant-monster contagion aside; it’s really quite lovely out here.” Rashari said (or, more accurately, panted) dropping down on a worn, flat stone looking out over a beautiful promontory half way up one of the hills beyond which the ogdegre resided (allegedly – he’d believe it when he was face to face with one of the green skinned, horned giants –and not a moment before). His vantage point gave him a fantastic view down into a secluded valley carved out of a natural basin between hills. The valley was thickly wooded, the dark green tops of the trees shining in the bright sunlight. Occasionally he caught the white flash of circling birds dipping in and out of the canopy many feet below. They’d been climbing for hours. The ascent had begun gently enough, but Rashari, who had wiled away his early childhood in the Adran province of Iona – a land with more than its fair share of hills and valleys – had remembered enough of his childhood spent clambering up great escarpments of land, to know that soon enough the real climbing would begin. And it had, with a vengeance. The air got thinner, the biting bugs nastier, and the sun impossibly hotter. All the while the ground continued to slope upward, the angle increasing in acute severity with every laboured step.
Had he not been battered, bruised and struggling to compartmentalise a battalion of inter-related worries (Was it just his imagination, or was the throbbing in his left hand getting worse? Did his fingers look greener this morning?) He might almost have enjoyed this. There was something pure and strangely satisfying about simple physical exertion, stretching his legs and breathing in clear, unpolluted air under a radiant sky on a glorious sunlit day.
“The day is fine,” Madame conceded coming to sit down beside him on the sun warmed stone. She handed him a fistful of nasri berries to chew on and for a few moments they sat side by side in silence. Smith, who still disdained using his multiple legs for walking more than a half mile in one stretch, jumped lightly off her shoulder and skittered off to investigate a batch of wild brambles growing near the edge. Silently Rashari warned Smith that if he fell down into the valley that was it, he was not climbing down to pick up all the shattered pieces. Smith, with the utmost dignity, did not deign to reply.
“There is not much Miasma here.” Madame said her quiet voice immediately hooking his attention. She was looking out over the edge, gaze opaque, following the rambunctious flight of a couple of energetic hunting birds wheeling and swooping above the valley. “The land here repels it.”
“Why?” Rashari was genuinely curious about this. Madame had told him a little about the Great Wound and the series of low mountain ranges stretching out from the canyon. He’d heard of the canyon before, of course, but he’d always heard it referred to as the Battlan Canyon, or the Phantasma Cleft. The canyon was supposed to contain a vast and untapped vein of purest phantasma ore, enough to dwarf the entirety of the stores found under the Bhuvam Isles. Both the Adran Empire and Dushkuland had sent expeditions to build mining rigs out there over the years and without fail every expedition had ended up in abject failure (not to mention horrible, bloody death for the poor buggers sent to do the mining). The native Djinn who claimed the site as their holy land took the credit for most of those failures, but the canyon itself had stolen the lives of many, or so he’d heard. Eventually even the great Imperial powers of Aldlis had been forced to give it up as a bad job and go home. It seemed fitting to him that the Chimeri believed the canyon to be a scabrous wound on the face of Aldlis and a thoroughly accursed place to boot.
“My – the Chimeri,” Madame Chimera began and immediately corrected herself – Rashari had noted that she seemed to do that often when she spoke of her native people – “believe that these hills are part of the original injury to Mother Aldlis, and until she heals the land will produce no anima –no raw magic – and without anima there can be no miasma.”
“I take it from your tone that you are not completely at one with this view?”
A frown touched Madame’s features, not upset, but more thoughtful. He sensed that she was considering his question and her answer carefully. Irrespective of his private promises to patiently abstain from conjecturing about her secrets, it was clear to him that many of Madame Chimera’s private fears and ill-concealed sorrow had its origin in whatever set of circumstances had led her to leave her home. There was always conflict in her when she thought or spoke about the Chimeri. This was one area where he was completely sincere in his promise not to pry. He understood only too well the pain that came from running away from one’s home and loved ones. He’d been a prisoner in his old life and his decision to leave had been a matter of survival – he would always believe that – but that did not mean he didn’t look back and wonder about the road not taken. He doubted Madame Chimera had run away for the same reasons he had (obviously) and she seemed to have much more anger and self-recrimination in her about her so-called ‘exile’ than he did about his escape, but all the same, the sense of loss was one he knew all too well. Leaving behind an entire way of life, even one that was in every way untenable was still a feeling akin to tearing oneself in half. The bleeding continued long after the scars had set in.
“I used to believe completely,” Madame Chimera said now, contemplatively, “there was much that was said that I believed without question. Chimera do not question that which is known. The Great Wound is full of poison, that poison you humans call Phantasma. Phantasma dispels miasma which is full of anima. These hills also contain veins of phantasma deep within, ergo the miasma is thin here.” She turned to meet his eyes, her gaze oddly challenging. “You humans use science to explain things, stripping away all poetry and beauty from the world, yet in the end the Chimeri and the scientists say the same things, do they not? Anima and phantasma do not mix.”
“Well, not without a catalyst,” He smiled a little wanly. He’d been raised by a great scientist and Madame Chimera’s veiled contempt could have been meant precisely for his father, except that in his own way, Matthias Trelawn had always had a romantic imagination. A purely logical mind could not, would not, justify the things he had done in the grandiose and self-aggrandising manner his father had. Perhaps if Matthias had been less a visionary and more staid in his passions a lot of things would have been better all round. “Whatever the reason,” He said stoutly, “I, for one, am pleased that the ground under my feet shows no sign of shifting.”
“Indeed,” the Madame agreed, although she still sounded only half present. Shaking her head a little as if to clear it she stood from the rock. “We should keep moving. The day grows long and we have yet to reach the other side. I do not relish the thought of making camp up here.”