The Mother's Choir
Fantel had travelled non-stop through the night, racing the storm and then the stillness of the aftermath, and trudging onward as dawn’s pale light blossomed into day. Her resolve burned bright even as her limbs grew heavy with fatigue. They had left the plains behind and walked now through arid wastes in the shadow of a mesa riddled with canyons and hollowed out warrens.
“Stop,” she told Smith who was scuttling ahead, traversing the rough and rocky terrain with arachnid grace. “I must rest a moment.” She sunk down onto a rock with a smooth cut-out section, eroded to the point where it resembled a stone throne. She pushed tendrils of hair from her cheeks, licking her dry lips. Her stomach roiled and her head throbbed. The tips of her fingers tingled unpleasantly. She felt a little short of breath. Glancing up at the sky she noted the way it seemed to glow orange above the ridge.
You feel it, don’t you, Chimera-child. Anoush purred in her mind. This is where phantasma gathers. Beyond this mesa rests the Fault valley.
“I know.” Fantel wiped the back of her trembling hand over her mouth. She fished the two fragments of scion stone from her pocket, examining them in her palm. They looked like milky coins, roughly circular disks with surprisingly smooth contours. Veins of pale pink touched the stone and Fantel did not think they had been there before. “Rashari said these fragments allowed him greater immunity to death energy. How do they work?”
Smith scuttled over, clawing his way up the rock to settle beside her. They might not work for you. He admitted. Rashari was altered by DeLunde’s experiments. He absorbs death energy naturally. You are naturally weakened by it. The fragments are pieces of my former scion stone – they still retain a residue of trace of the Void. The Void’s hunger draws in all sources of energy, but the fragments are not large enough to shield you entirely. Smith paused, seemed to hesitate before speaking again, and when he did it was with considerable doubt. Perhaps if we had Anoush’s Heart stone it might offer more protection.
It is thanks to your human that we do not. Anoush snapped her thoughts harsh with fear. He should never have let himself be captured. He should have protected my stone at all costs.
If not for my human you would already be in DeLunde’s hands, sister. Smith snapped back, his defensiveness stinging Fantel’s mind. This was only the most recent iteration of the argument between the so-called siblings.
“Enough,” she said now, with less asperity and more fatigue than she might have hoped. “We cannot achieve our goals unless we find a way for me to go on safely. We have no choice but to work together for our ends.” Even as the words left her mouth Fantel was not unaware of the irony. It seemed impossible to her that in less than three weeks her life had been transformed so completely. She who had spent twelve years a virtual recluse, an exile and a loner, shunning almost all companionship, and now she found herself expousing the virtues of fellowship to two amost-gods so that together they might stop a clandestine human conspiracy. She wondered amusedly if Rashari would be shocked or delighted by this turn of events. He was, after all, the architect of all of the changes Fantel had undergone.
You....are right, child of Aashorum. Anoush conceded and Fantel could feel the way the Seraph seemed to deflate in her mind, settling back so that her presence was less openly combative. I know little of these catalysts my brother speaks of. A Seraph’s stone is both home and anchor to keep us within the mortal sphere. Without a physical grounding in the corporeal realm we would have no means to act in this realm.
“I am aware of the ways of spirits,” Fantel pointed out, but without much rancour. Diplomacy was no more her forte than it was the Seraph’s but Fantel was willing to meet Anoush half way at least. It was not as if she had much choice, and she would rather not be forced into another battle for control of her body, even with Smith in her corner this time.
Anoush bristled slightly at the tone and the interruption but notably chose not to start a fight either. As I was saying, a Seraph’s stone is unique to each of us. It is invested with a piece of our power. If I understand my brother correctly, these human scientists have stolen almost all of the power from these fragments, leaving the shards empty -and allowing the Void an entrance into this realm.
That is correct, Smith corrected. Though these pieces have also been altered by contact with Rashari; he is a catalyst. His power has altered the fragments -just as the piece of the Void inside him has been changed.
A wave of irritated derision rose from Anoush, spreading like a cloud through Fantel’s thoughts. Are you being deliberately obtuse, brother? Or do you intend to ignore the true problem?
I am doing no such thing. Smith retorted, clearly stung. Madame Fantel asked a question, I answered it.
“What are you talking about?” Fantel asked irritably. It was exceedingly annoying that two entities conducting a conversation inside her mind could still be so vague in their meaning.
Anoush remained silent. Smith bobbed nervously on his knew joints. When he spoke it was with extreme reticence. Madame Fantel you are....damaged. Your magic is....stunted. If you had magic of your own you could use it to charge the power of the fragments, making them stronger. As it is, the fragments may not have the power to protect you much longer. Look see -the way they change colour? They are drawing the phantasma radiation away from you, but they will quickly become saturated as we reach the Adaline Fault.
Fantel frowned, not sure if she should be offended. “What do you mean I am stunted?” She asked levelly.
He means that while your lack of magic made you ideal for my purposes it also means that you are doubly weakened now. You carry a wound deep within your spirit. You have a hollow within, a place where once you were filled with the magic of your race, and now you are vulnerable. The ghosts and shades of the Fault will sense that weakness.
Fantel flinched. “There is nothing that can be done for that. I am forsaken by the Mother. My magic came from the Aldlis and she has taken it from me.”
Madame Fantel, the Mother gave you nothing save the right of your birth. Smith told her kindly. Chimeri have a bond with Aldlis, with the land and the air and the sea and the sky. It is your birthright, your nature. She felt Smith’s hesitance, his carefulness as he spoke his next words directly to her. This wound inside you – it is of your own making. You did this to yourself.
“No, I left. I broke the covenant...I...”
Yes, Anoush pushed her. You left. You broke your ties with your home. The Mother did not forsake you, Chimera-child. You forsook the Mother.
“I had to.” Fantel lurched up from the rock, nearly knocking Smith to the ground. She barely noticed. Tears stung her eyes. She paced because she could not escape. There was no escape from the spirits infesting her mind or the words she did not want to hear. “I had to,” she repeated not sure who she was trying to convince. “It was wrong, what we did. It was wrong. We listened without question; we did as the Echo demanded, but it was wrong. I...no longer believed. My sisters, the elders, they told me that the Echo was the voice of the Mother, but I...I found I could not believe that the Mother would want so much bloodshed. The Mother that is my mother, the mother to all chimeri, is she not also the mother of the humans too? How can a mother ask for so much bloodshed and hate?”
These questions had haunted Fantel for years. For want of an answer she had fled her home. The pain was the same now as it had been then. To betray, and be betrayed, by something she had loved with such complete devotion felt like limbs torn off. It was a rending that went to her soul. The severance had left her numb and deadened. She missed her Mother, but she could no longer trust her, and if she could not trust the Mother who had given her life and purpose, how could she trust any of the gifts the Mother granted? The voice of the Mother was in all things and Fantel had come to hate that voice.
Chimera, look around you. Anoush told her, a hint of impatience in her tone. Look at Aldlis. See what is there. There is life, but there is death too. Look to me and my brethren – look to the Seraphim. Do you believe that we are part of this world, part of the Mother’s design, or not? Are you so arrogant that you do not realise that the Mother has a billion children, each with a voice of their own?
“But that is different,” Fantel blurted out. “Only the Chimeri can hear the Mother’s true voice.”
What makes you so sure? Smith asked her keenly. Is it that you know this, or were you merely told, just as every Chimera is told the same?
“But the Echo,” Fantel argued weakly. She had wondered – of course she had – but what Smith and Anoush were proposing went so far beyond her scope. She had refused to obey and accepted the consequences of her rebellion as her due, but she had never once doubted that the Echo the Chimeri obeyed truly came from the Mother.
There is but one truth, Chimera. Anoush intoned gravely, her words ringing in Fantel’s mind like a heavy bell. And that is the clash of echoes; this world is cacophony. A billion voices, a billion lives all striking against each other; making sparks; making miracles; making chaos. For every living voice there are a thousand ghosts screaming to be heard. The Mother remembers her dead, her voice is their echo. She speaks not with a single tongue but a multitude. God and mortal, ghost and living, we are all her voice - her choir.
“Then you are saying...” Fantel’s voice failed her, as she was beginning to realise it always had.
You learned to stop listening to a distorted echo, Chimera-child, but you did not find your voice.
Yes Madame, Smith spoke up, his voice kinder, gentler than Anoush. He understood far more what it was to break and need help to mend. He understood that the end of one life was merely the beginning of another and that breaking and making went hand in hand. Once, long ago, we Seraphim were the Mother’s choir. We rose above the mortals; undying we were the voice of the past to guide the future. It was the purpose we set ourselves. We were teachers, guides; we bound ourselves to mortals and sought to make marvels. But we forgot that to teach you must also listen. When you stop listening, you hear only the sound of your own voice. The Seraphim stagnated; we no longer knew the answers; we did not understand the questions. We closed our ears, our song became tired, and soon we were nothing more than relics. Sadness hung from every word Smith spoke. No matter what happens, the Seraphim’s greatest lesson will be that of failure.
Silence filled the space in her head when the words faded. It was noticeable that Anoush did not object to her brother’s fatalism, but instead seemed to echo the sentiment with her silence. Fantel shivered. She did not know her own mind well enough to give it voice. She did not really understand what the two spirits had told her. The enormity of it was too much; the weight of responsibility too great. She had never imagined that she owed the Mother more than mute obedience. The thought that she had failed another duty when she fled sat heavy on her. If she had stayed in Aashorum and argued against the old ways, if she had found a way to make herself heard over the Echo, might she have changed her clan for the better? It seemed impossible. One voice set against centuries of changeless tradition would be drowned out.
The answer was that there was no answer. The question was more important than its resolution. It was more important to seek truth than to find it, because once you did, you became closed to all other possibilities. What was true today might be fallacy tomorrow, and in a world where that was so all things were possible. Fantel thought that perhaps this was the world Rashari lived in, a world where a child, horribly changed by accident and misadventure could reinvent himself day in and day out. She wondered what Rashari might have to say to Aashorum’s Echo. Her soul rang with silence and long forgotten words, repeated by rote, but his soul was alive with ideas, more perhaps than he could handle. It made Fantel sad that she could not imagine ever feeling so full of hope. She walked heedless of direction, doing her best to close her thoughts to Anoush and Smith. It was difficult to accept that so much of her misery was because of a self-inflicted wound - one she still did not know how to fix – but it felt true. She had been angry and lost for such a long time.
She wove her way through a narrow passage in the ridge. The rock hummed with the ache of phantasma and Fantel was careful not to touch the sides as she eased her way through. She breathed a sigh of relief when she came out onto a narrow ledge overlooking a deep pit. She still held the scion fragments in her palms and she could feel the buzz of cold hunger against her skin. When she opened one hand the piece of stone was a deep blush pink, bright and gently pulsing. There was noise coming from below her. She heard the sharp ringing of pickaxes striking against stone. Cautiously she approached the edge, swallowing against the churning vertigo in her stomach brought on by the presence of phantasma. A group of strange looking children wielding pickaxes and singing as they hacked at the blackened rock face of an open quarry greeted her.
The children were Djinn. Fantel recognised that instantly. There were perhaps ten of them, their skin and clothes covered in grey dust, their white hair shorn close to their scalps. Fantel estimated their ages to be between seven and thirteen. Their singing was disturbing. The children were not all singing the same hymn. They were not even singing in the same language. The strands of disparate melody tangled together, forming something of the cacophony Anoush had spoken of.
One of the children, an older male, hacked off a chunk of rock to reveal a shiny red hunk of phantasma crystal. Fantel sucked in a breath of alarm but could do nothing but stare as the child reached out boldly, grasped the crystal in his hand and absorbed the death energy from the crystal. Fantel’s view was obstructed, she could only see the child’s back and his outstretched hand, but she saw clearly how the veins burned black under his skin, and how the pulsing light within the crystal faded like a doused ember until the crystal was a dull, smoky red. The child threw his head back and released an undulating cry – almost a wail. The high keening echoed off the rock face on all sides, and seemed to bounce and echo, before being swallowed into the discordant racket of the other children’s singing. The boy dropped to the floor, legs up to his chest and skinny arms wrapped around his knees. He started rolling around on the ground, not in agony but in ecstasy. He was grinning and shaking, tears pouring out of his eyes, which burned a cold, brilliant blue. When he next opened his mouth the voice that issued forth was that of a woman, a woman singing in the human Dushkui language.
The other children had stopped work to watch. One or two picked up the boy’s tune and joined in, their voices strange and alien. Others threw back their heads and howled, or cawed like birds. One child, the smallest and probably the youngest, dropped onto all fours and started careening around the clearing like an over-enthusiastic puppy, making odd garbled barking noises. Fantel, unnoticed on her ledge, stared in open shock. An adult djinn wearing a face mask and grey uniform rushed out of one of the tunnels dug through the quarry walls and yelled at the children, snapping a long whip on the ground. The children gave up their wild chorus and picked up their axes, returning to work.
Fantel was so transfixed by the strange scene that she did not notice the approach of another djinn behind her. He came out of the passageway onto the ledge and stopped in shock, boots scuffing on the rough stone. Fantel whipped around, eyes wide, and they came face to face.
The djinn recovered first, a snarl in his native tongue escaping from behind his respirator. He whipped his staff up in an arcing sweep aimed for Fantel’s head. She dropped to her knees, awkwardly ducking the first strike. Below her the children picked up their singing as Fantel warded off another blow from the djinn’s staff only to take one backward step too many. Her heel slipped through empty air and she fell from the ledge into the phantasma quarry.