The Dragon's Dollhouse

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Part II, Chapter 4: The Dark Undercurrent of Faith

When failing vision and a tremulous writing hand put Menelas the scribe’s signature in the hand of his chief assistant Luxornu, the elder monk’s familiar M, underscored by a feathery flourish resembling a quill, was often embellished with sparks radiating from the ink plume. Though none questioned the uncharacteristic adornment, for it would have meant disputing the fiction of Menelas’s authority, in this case they should have done so, for when the M twinkled, it was a sign for the brethren to roost in the Dark Harbor. When night fell, a hundred swans clothed in monks’ flesh rose from their pallets, sang spells of somnolence, donned their robes and hoods, and creeped through the sleeping cloister.

Through disuse the Dark Harbor’s ancient entrance had become a haven of spiders and rats, but there were always two or three that braved it, hoping to find a remnant of a refined vintage though Cantara ordered the wine cellar moved twenty years ago, claiming that the nearness of the casks to the library was rotting the scrolls and books. The rest of the Dark Djaltoujimin used the open routes hidden in the kitchen, the sacristy, the chancel, the vestries, the vaults of the saints, and the library.

***

Since Eleita was as wont to work late as she was to rise early, she was at a reading table when the thick oaken door trembled. Though the library closed at midnight and opened at dawn, Eleita was instructed to accommodate monks for study at any hour, so unless she feigned sleep, she must answer the knock. Something about the unusually quiescent evening gave her a moment’s pause before she opened the cold lock. Her face twisted when she recognized him. “We had an agreement,” she said with some heat.

“We still do,” said Khlarn, closing and locking the door, then sung a few notes that shimmied a shelf several feet to tip, then lean against the door, without spilling a single book.

“What are you doing?”

“They’re coming. It’s time.”

“Time for what?”

“I don’t know. But they’re gathering.”

“Who?”

“That’s an excellent question. Though I think of them as my godchildren, they know neither me nor their true nature.”

“You mean the swans you said live among us.” When the door shook against the shelf that barred entry, she added, “what do they want? And why stop them? Won’t that make them suspicious?”

“I wanted a few moments to talk. When you let them in, don’t call attention to me—I’m following them.”

“With only one door in and out, what could be their destination?

“Though I am loth to raise my spirits, I hope they will lead me to the sacred scrolls of the Djaltoujimin. Where are Czebek and Janyn?”

“My best guess? Stretching an errand into a holiday.”

When the door-jostling and shelf-rattling stopped, sharp raps echoed in the library..

“Hello?” If the monastery was not so still, the hiss would have been smothered by the heavy oak. “We need to use the library.”

Khlarn whispered, “Help them as if nothing is amiss.” After Khlarn whistled another subtle string of low notes, and the shelf jumped back, he dropped to all fours and became a lithe brown mouse.

“I’ll treat them like any other scholars,” she avowed.

As she approached, the door buckled inward.

The three monks were so nondescript that they seemed printed on the same blank paper, and their black covers were embroidered with silver glyphs that Eleita had never seen—a series of wide and narrow ovoids and spirals, looking like tiny eggs and tornadoes. All looked much too young to be century-old magical swans.

“I’m sorry,” she said with a forced smile, “The door sticks. Can I help you?”

At their mellow, unintelligible song, Eleita swooned forward.

She awoke when her hand was shaken. The unrolled scroll was moist with drool, and her head was hot from using her elbows as a pillow. At the movement of the shadow, she looked up to see Khlarn standing over her. Why was she still at her desk? Had she fallen asleep over her reading?

“They passed through a hidden door,” he said. “I can’t find the latch.”

“Who passed?” she asked.

Khlarn warbled a cryptic tune, and Eleita remembered. “How long was I asleep,” she asked.

“No more than an hour.”

“If you woke me, I might have helped.”

“Since they placed you at your desk, you must be there when they return,” Khlarn said.

“You must stay where they seated you,” Khlarn said, “until they return, or until morning.”

“We’ll hurry,”

Eleita moved with haste to the old wine cellar, where the door hung open, seeping the sour scent of the dank space, and the still-stirring dust and cobwebs billowing from the tomb-like depths.

Khlarn came up behind her, and said, “if you hear them, run. They would kill us both to keep their secret.”

“You’d turn into a bat and leave me on my own? There?” The chilly interior of the closed-off monastery section reeked of flat wine and stale dust, a combination that smelled like cold fear.

“You’re tougher than me,” said the wizard.

“You have more tricks.”

“Besides, I wouldn’t turn into a bat. Bats are disgusting. The aftertaste of flies, a constant ringing in your ears, and blind vertigo instead of vision.”

“And mice are so clean?”

“They’re almost human.”

“Is that an insult?”

“Maybe to the mouse. In all my travels, no animal has had a more varied collection of nauseous habits, nor a more vulturous appetite.”

“More vulturous than a vulture?”

“There are things vultures won’t eat. Human odiousness knows no limits. You’ll eat mold, rot, bugs, infants...”

“We do not!”

“What I meant was what you call veal. Which isn’t to say that I haven’t known humans to eat each other.”

“Are we stalling?”

“We’re stalling.”

When they opened the cellar, Khlarn created a light with a soft, singsong lullaby. The light bobbed ahead of them as they descended into the dark, tubular tunnel, that widened as it bent over a steep slope into an unusually smooth grotto.

At the sight of the staggeringly high cavern ceiling, Eleita knew the monastery sat on a crumb’s width of crumbling stone, and the faithful would one day crack the earth to fall into the abyss. The tunnel continued through the capacious hollow, which then narrowed on the other side to a smaller passage, where rivulets streamed down the walls and dripped from stalactites, and the hems of their robes were soaked from condensation along the cave floor. The moisture pooled in cracks and fissures, then overflowed into a trickle which broadened into a stream, flooding the tunnel with a quarter inch of water. The library was at least a half-mile distant and fifty feet overhead. “Are we going the right way?”

Though she was thankful for the light, which sent rats and spiders melting into the dark, she feared the magical brilliance marked a trail for braver creatures. She tried to recall an edifying verse and all that came to her was better ignorance than uncertainty, for the ignorant are free from fear. If the philosopher Deneibe had not written or dictated that while comfortably entrenched at his desk, he would know ignorance is the prerequisite of all fear. She was tired, irritated, and even a little furious, at not knowing what lay in the darkness.

Before Khlarn could answer, they spied the dark robed backs of two monks, trudging and sloshing through a few inches of water. It seemed likely these were the ones that passed through the library.

When Eleita whispered, “they’re too close,” Khlarn nodded, then trilled a short, sweet, song.

While the Djaltoujim wizard could only change his own skin, and had not the knowledge of transforming others, he could bewitch appearances. As he voiced the final note, Eleita’s height and depth altered. She seemed younger, but harder, and with thicker muscles strewn with coarse black hair. Why change her into a man, and not opt for a subtler change? Already tall, she now loomed over Khlarn, whose appearance was much the same, though he now had wrinkles and a white beard.

Eleita said, her voice a profound bass, “you had better be able to turn me back.”

“Shh.” They continued their advance, noticing the higher stream only when biting cold seeped into their shoes, then lapped their ankles.

Khlarn drew his breath sharply, but Eleita was accustomed to the library’s cold halls, and her face was tranquil.

As they waded the chilly waters, the others turned. One wore a wide woolen cloak that was sopping wet at the hem and moved the water in a low wave. When he said, “the sun rises over the dark harbor,” she recognized him as the one who ensorceled her to sleep.

“The sun rises over the dark harbor,” Khlarn repeated, then walked past the others, who followed. As they waded in silence for another quarter mile, the underground stream welled knee high. Khlarn fell back during this watery march, giving the lead to the other two monks.

When they came to a four foot high ledge, a chiseled oddity in the water-polished grotto, they clambered onto it and the water drizzled from their woolen robes into rivulets that echoed off the cave walls. At the back of the ledge, the monks entered a corridor, which was also carved and hammered flat for hundreds of feet. The pouring from their vestments slowed to a drip as they walked down the tunnel.

At the end of the passageway, dozens of monks gathered on a cold embankment lapped darkly by a black lake. The cavern’s vaulted ceiling of volcanic glass mirrored the eddies of the current, wispy shadows that rippled with the fluorescent strata of green blue, and vermillion embedded in the obsidian, as if arcane blood pulsed in the cave’s aged veins.

Several skiffs flitted across the black waters, and three more ashore were being boarded by the monks. As Eleita and Khlarn shuffled into the line, the dark sand crunched under their boots.Khlarn’s magical light glittered on what were surely obsidian fragments. They were not challenged, and they embarked silently, then made their way to their seats.

Eleita wanted to whisper to Khlarn, and Khlarn wished to whisper to Eleita, but both only glanced at each other as they waited on the skiff’s bench. When a short but muscular monk poled the boat into the dark waters, the craft migrated with the current toward their unknown destination, accompanied by Khlarn’s magical light, and that cast by several other monks, so that the boat now seemed a sea monster escorted by fireflies.

While made uneasy by her skiff-mates, Eleita was relaxed by the serene journey from the dark harbor over the black sea. Though the eddies might have tugged them to their goal, the skiffs were helped along by the monks, whose long poles scraped the bottom of the shallow waters.

When the poles no longer struck bottom, one of the monks stood over the prow, holding his pole down to probe the way ahead.

As the hour became hours, anxiety returned to Eleita. How far away was Cjantosk? Five miles? Ten? Twenty or more? Unless the swans planned to abandon their human lives that very night, they must reach their destination soon, and make the round trip immediately thereafter, for their disappearance not to be noticed. Though she knew this to be reasonable, she could scarcely master her fear. While she was unafraid of darkness, the depths, a crowd of strangers, and even the possibility of death, all at once was a different matter. Only those who have been ten miles underground with the devil they didn’t know might have a glimmer of the frenzy of hysteria barely controlled by Eleita.

While in this agitated state of mind, she felt the eyes of the one that ensorceled her in the library. By inclining her head the slightest degree, she saw his smug gaze in the corner of her eye. Surely he did not recognize her under Khlarn’s glamour? His knowing sneer was so disconcerting that she elbowed Khlarn harder than intended.

Though the wizard winced and gave her a reproachful look, he stifled his groan. When he glanced over her shoulder, he nodded his head.

A glowing, aqua green light shone like a beacon. It seemed to bob with the water until they neared the source of the shining, stretched reflection undulating on the gentle waves: an iridescent tower, which seemed all one piece, as if molded by a giant hand from the fluorescent cave.

The tower was the forefront of a hulking temple, but its vanguard was a star-crowned statue of Coruna, with planets clutched in her hands and in eggshell fragments under her feet.

When the monks braced their poles on the lake floor, then braced again, the skiff lurched to a stop at the temple’s stone wharf, which transitioned into the palatial steps of the temple.

Though Eleita was still slightly damp from wading the cave stream, she felt the heat that wafted from the ground. She slowed down, hoping to fall to the rear and exchange whispers with Khlarn, when she heard them speaking.

“Though a thousand voyages to the Dark Harbor have not taught me a hundred false faces, I know the masks of infidels and atheists.”

Though Eleita was taken aback to hear their bluff called in such a plainspoken tone, Khlarn was used to the even-temperedness of the Djaltoujimin, and slithered away as a silver feathered snake when they seized Eleita. She was marched under the marble legs of world-crushing Coruna through the black glass doors of the opalescent temple.

When they entered a tapestry covered foyer, and she recognized the style,

When the imagery of the tapestry-covered foyer celebrated heinous acts, she shuddered. The least offensive of the wall hangings depicted Coruna as a sun whose rays coupled with twenty-one worshipers, though they bent in submission away from their rising goddess to better receive her benediction. Since the remainder of the depraved tapestries rendered Eleita not only mute but dumbstruck, we can treat the rest of the gallery as in the main unthinkable, and certainly unspeakable, horrors of the religious imagination. When her power of thought returned to her, Eleita wondered what abominations lurked in the Dark Harbor’s sanctum of mysteries. More uncomfortable was the feeling of unwanted recognition, for she saw the style daily.

When harsh syllables were incanted, quite unlike Djaltoujimin song-spells, she could almost understand them. ′No Masks Before Her Sacred Face,′ she surmised, filling in the blanks from her scroll study, though she wasn’t certain about ‘sacred,’ and the words mask and face in Gracoric, the ancient liturgical language, were separated only by nuance.

Since causality was skewed in this old tongue, ‘before’ could also be ‘because of.’ The Corunan dogma of fate, which unified cause and effect into one scripted ur-action, was a difficult concept, and Eleita accepted it as is, fearing that the ancient invocations she hungered for might depend on, as a prerequisite, her belief in this abolition of causality, and her acceptance that fate was the dark undercurrent of faith. If all iterations of the divine ideas stemmed from the same cause and flowed to the same effect, happening at once throughout eternity, then these spells were ultimately unlearnable, and could only be memorized and echoed.

After these ideas roiled in her brain, and she waited in the clutches of two false-skinned monks, she recalled a line of script buried in a box of scrap sheets in the library. Though she only glanced at it once, she could not forget it, and by unbidden impulse it came to the tip of her tongue, as if by roosting in her brain it now hatched from her own voice.

When she recognized the voice, and saw that her invocation had stripped her of Khlarn’s illusion, she postponed those words. “Vania?” she asked. For it was the weaver, though she seemed many years younger—her age lines were erased, her spine was unbowed, her paunch had flattened, and her hair was a bright straw blonde. In the weaver’s eyes, Eleita saw the glimmer of disdain she knew better, and now seemed to see the shadow of the Djaltoujim’s great age.

She was struck hard, between the shoulder blades. “She is the Mother of the Abyss to you, heretic.”

Eleita bit her lip from the force of the blow. As she was speechless already, and her numb lip and the taste of blood now made speech awkward, she waited.

“I once had plans for you, long before the advent of The Butcher. Though you were not only intelligent, but willfully misguided in your attentions to the poor and sick, I thought to use you as a figurehead. Instead, you became the cause of my consigning tapestries to the flames, their prophetic threads proven lies or unwoven by your actions.”

“I did nothing,” said Eleita.

“You did nothing to stop the Butcher.”

“Do you mean Alyana? How am I to blame? How can I, by circumstance alone, unwrite prophecy?”

“You also saved a magic sword, and a mother and her child. Do you think saving the doomed has no consequence?”

“The mother was only a playwright, and of what account is a baby?”

“Only a playwright? You’re naive. Only a baby? Kings and murderers were once babies. If the playwright starts a rebellion, or the baby becomes a cutthroat that kills a hundred innocents, the blood is on your hands. I should laugh at the irony that one who believes herself good at heart should be so anarchic at base.”

“I’m no anarchist, nor a heretic.”

“You do good willfully, though evil serves a purpose as well.”

“What of the sword? Surely no harm can come of that.”

“We both know that it already has, and you are arrogant to think that Urgu serves no

purpose.”

“Kill me if you wish, but do not call one arrogant who spends her days in service to Coruna.”

“You don’t know what you are,” she snapped. “For the better part of a hundred years, I’ve buried the old faith in tapestries that animize the goddess of your imagination. While Coruna approved the dark truths that lurk in countless scrolls and innumerable verses, it was I that put the divine face on these blasphemies and abominations. I not only wove who you worship, I clothed you in your absurd habits; I fabricated your religion.”

“You presume my naivete and assume I’m not studied. Your images mean nothing to a devotee that wrestles with scripture. Though you clothe the monks in the shell of faith, the monks are her thread, and your ideas are but the darker needles in her satchel. Coruna is the weaver, Vania.”

“Such fervor. I would almost believe you. I would almost believe in you. This is why the last days of your devotion will be anchored at the Dark Harbor.”

Though Eleita was prepared to die, this thought made her cold. “I will never see day again?”

“The sun could die, and you would not know, for the Dark Harbor fills the sea with its own light.”

Still embedded in Eleita’s memory, the scroll fragment and its verse illuminated her fear of never leaving this otherworldly, subterranean world.

Though Khlarn was nearby, that flighty and self-absorbed wizard was more chicken than swan, quick to brag of his many forms and many journeys, though that made him only a master of escape, not a hero. The swan who took eighty years to avenge his tribe and the monk who dabbled with a holy vow deserved each other, she supposed, and whether she died sooner, locked in the Dark Harbor, while Khlarn flitted and slithered and scurried for another century with his self-imposed duty unfulfilled, both would die with a burden of torment that only the goddess could redeem.

Should she utter the words that flashed in her mind from the crystal-clear memory of the scroll? Should she let those long-buried words back into the world? Words that echoed Coruna’s voice, resonating throughout creation? Was it really magic, or just gossip, to repeat the holy words that she ‘eavesdropped’ by lucking into the scroll?

As her mind’s eye flickered again on her memory of the scroll, her mouth moved around the words, by reflex, as if she rehearsed for this moment. ′Water fury embreak the earth,” she said, though there was no word like embreak in Cjantoskan, just as there isn’t in ours—it signified an embrace that destroys. ′Sacred Mother hallow our birth.′

Moments later, the brackish waters of the Dark Harbor seeped through the temple floor, an ichorish flow flush with silt and teeming creeping things.

“’Hollow mortal, that breathes and dies, / Fear not your ‘passioned soul that flies.’”

“What did you do?” shrieked Vania. The swirling eddies fused into watery fingers that lifted the weaver aloft when the hand’s possessor stood, sucking the inflow into a watery form as black and bright as polished mahogany. The water fury’s head brushed the vaulted ceiling of the temple foyer, and enormous streams dangled down her back like long, ropy braids. The upswell of her gargantuan breasts would have been obscene had they not been featureless and full of roiling water. Once all the moisture in the room was pulled into her body, the temple floor was again bone dry; then the desiccation continued, parching their lips and drying their eyes. Just when their eyelids stuck, their lips cracked, and all the monks groaned as one, the room was deluged by the onrushing brackish water, as the Dark Harbor answered the call of its mistress. Eleita choked on a mouthful of the black, briny water as she broke free of the arms that held her fast.

When the Djaltoujimin of the Dark Harbor abandoned their human skin, there were those that seeped into the scales of fish and struggled with the mad current, those that slipped into rat skins and climbed into hidey-holes, and the wisest, who turned to bats and flew away. Squeezed in the water fury’s mighty grip, Vania could not speak or sing a spell, nor move her limbs.

When the water fury raised her free arm, the raging waters raised her in their dark rapids, like a churning waterfall in reverse through the temple ceiling. Falling shards churned the Dark Harbors, which kept flowing into the walls to funnel the jet that thrust their mistress towards the stalactite-crusted cave roof hundreds of feet above.

As the water level gushed towards the voluminous hole in the temple ceiling, the gigantic statue of Coruna was dragged by the current to crush that shell too, and then the rest of the Dark Harbors rushed in. In the sudden upward effusion, Eleita escaped being squashed by the ceiling by swimming vainly toward the receding peak of the ascending water. At the drag of her robes, she flung and kicked them off, but her body fell back through the water. Her chest constricted around its gulp of air until the compulsion to inhale nearly became too great. Then the coils tightened around her ribs and pulled, and she watched in breathless anguish as her breath dragged bubbles through the retreating water.

When they blasted into a heavy, moist air that smelled of worms, she sucked in air and thrashed as she first grasped at wet sand, then pushed herself to her hands and knees and disgorged her sloughing lungful of water. Though the water burned her chest, throat, and nose as she vomited it out, and the air seared as she sucked it back in, the pain eased her fright, and she gulped down the wracking breaths of air.

She had little time to savor her relief, because no sooner had she regained her tremulous feet than she was fearstruck by the endless locomotion of scales that drizzled dark waters . As she watched, the sinuous dragon retracted into the Khlarn she knew. Eleita mused that she had never seen the wizard’s swan self.

Though the lake mud seeped back over their feet, the shedding of the Dark Harbors persisted, as the water fury topped the column fountaining through the fissure she cleaved with the massed pressure of the lake.

Eleita’s knees, feet, hands, and one side of her face were caked with gray silt, mud streaked her robes, and sand scoured her deepest folds of fabric and flesh. “We should run.”

“I want what I came for, even if all that water returns to bed.”

When Khlarn sounded half-submerged, though his shape-shifting skin was nearly clean, she scooped a fingerful of mud from her right ear, and liquid drained down her shoulder. “Your scrolls are a sodden mess.”

“Maybe,” he groaned. “Or they might be in a tube, unless they were being read minutes ago.”

“We should run,” she repeated, gazing at the towering waterspout. Now that her ears drained, she heard a crackling noise, then a pop of air that seemed to pinch the bridge of her nose. Tiny tears leaked from her irritated eyes.

“We″ll fly. I’ll carry you by claw to the temple roof. When the waters fall, you must only grip the gables.”

Eleita was aghast.“That’s a horrible idea. Take me back.”

“That is unwise. The force of the lake’s fall might overflow and drown the tunnels.”

When she realized his bad idea was all they had, she agreed, and after Khlarn flew her to the roof, then took his human form, they clung two-handed to the temple spires, then planted their feet like anchors. They waited five minutes, then five more; after ten minutes, when dawn’s rays skewered the crevice to glint on the muddy lake floor, it seemed the water escaped the Dark Harbor.

They lowered themselves through a balcony window into the mud-blasted temple interior, where they began sifting through flotsam and jetsam. The tapestries were dirtied, tangled, and torn, with some shorn from the walls and in slimy scraps swirling in the foul water. Though splinters and scrapes prolonged their labors in the wreckage, after several hours they tugged free a drawer concealed under the altar. While the scroll tube was not sealed, the drawer interior and the scroll were bone dry, and Khlarn smiled when he realized what he found.

“It will be lunch when we get back,” she said.

“You mean dinner. We can’t pass through the crevice, and if we use the tunnels, we can’t take the skiffs, nor fly under such a low ceiling.”

“Not as a dragon, but you could fly as a bat, pinching that scroll in your feet.”

“And leave you in the Dark Harbor without a companion? No.” Then Khlarn added, “and no bats.”

But without the waters or dry tunnels to ease their interminably muddy underground journey, they didn’t return to the monastery until the following morning.

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