by: William C. Burns, Jr.
On the evening of the day after Kota Tu Arye’s burial, Kota Cyon, son of the elderly healer, received a summons to the “Court of Thieves” to settle one last affair of estate.
As he entered the cobbled marketplace, the blue-white sun broke through the perpetual cloud cover. Everywhere, people paused in their transactions and shielded their eyes to look skyward. Sunlight was rare here on the water-covered world, Lao-Damia, and the youngsters cast off their cloaks and danced in the glaring light. The elders tried to look on with disdain, but a glint had appeared in their eyes also.
Smiling to himself, Cyon reexamined the address noted on the summons and quickly found the edifice of Das Mi, dealer in demons, new and used. The Aegis, guarding the entry, bowed in deference to the Kota’s lincoln-green robes, then smiled warmly and admitted him to the inner court.
“Kota Cyon, please be welcome and comfortable! Bring wine; what am I saying, this man is a healer. Bring iced tea, spiced? . . . No? Very good, be seated.”
“Das Mi, it is a pleasure.” Cyon shook the dealer’s hand and seated himself in the aromatic furs of the proffered chair. Both men maintained the customary moment of silence, allowing themselves time to gather their thoughts. Their drinks arrived.
“You are wondering about my summons, young healer. Yes, well, the fate of one demon, holding of your father, must be decided. He mentioned as much?”
“While serving internship at Creautal, I seldom communicated with my father. His illness had advanced when I returned and he was often incoherent. As executor of his estate I’m surprised to find he held a demon, angel or any other thing of value.”
“Well, about that . . .” Das Mi looked embarrassed and uncomfortable. He stood and motioned for Cyon to follow him, in response to the healer’s puzzled look.
They passed though an ornate door and down a short stair. The damp air was thick with the acrid smell of demon.
The dealer guided Cyon into one of the demon keeps. The leathery scales of the creature, writhing against the rough stone wall, were dull and some of the thorns cresting the head were missing. A shrill whine escaped its drooling mouth as it repeatedly raked blunted claws across the floor. Three of the delicate eye stalks dangled listlessly. The dealer remained silent.
Cyon moved to the head of the beast. It hid its face, turning away.
“Can it traverse the Path?” Cyon asked.
“Well, yes, it yet retains some virtues, but for how long? I haven’t a clue.”
“Perhaps you could barter the privilege of this beast and retain the profits for yourself.”
“Honestly, I fear that such a barter would be a liability to my business. In fact, the sooner you take it . . .”
“Das, I just received commission. I plan to minister locally for the next seven years and then perhaps barter for transport, to reach the Far Places. My father left many unsettled affairs and in the balance I have very little with which to compensate . . .”
“Kota, Kota, there is no charge associated with this beast,” interrupted the dealer. “I am mortal and as such I have no desire to incur the wrath of a healer. I may require your services someday. At such a time, I would see you smiling.”
“Well, I can use transport.”
“After all, you are Kota. Perhaps you can . . . heal it?”
Cyon was clearly not amused.
Beyond East Gate, in the rolling hills of Rewgen, the evening mist wrapped everything in a soft blanket of darkened fog. Cyon kindled the fire in the hearth before venturing out to the improvised grotto to assess his inheritance.
The demon lifted itself when he approached. It groaned and stretched its tattered membrane wings as he pulled down a bale of straw.
“You could at least be grateful I did not leave you to the charity of Das Mi, you filthy beast,” he said raking the fur behind its (his? her?) wings playfully. The throttling smell of the demon was only heightened by the moisture.
“What shall we call you? You have the power of speech, speak to me. Tell me your name?” There was no response. “Vector, I will call you Vector. Do you like that?” It huddled against the earthen wall and would not face him directly.
He sensed something of the afflicted thoughts churning through the mind of the creature. He poured the prescribed three measures of food into the massive feeding pot and checked the water, then stood a moment in silence, measuring his circumstance. Shaking his head after a time, he walked back to the warmth and light of the cottage, leaving the grotto door unlatched, as custom demanded.
The Call came five days later. Cyon, the only Kota with any chance of reaching the Fringe with haste, dropped his travel pack on the floor of the keep and approached Vector. Gently, taking the head of the beast into his hands, he stared into the three fixed eyes in the center of the forehead.
“Fainthearted beast, great is my need for your services. There is a little boy in the Fringe and he is very sick.” Cyon visualized the destination and impressed it on the seething mind of the creature. “You must take me there,” he said, at last satisfied it had understood. Vector tried to pull away. Cyon gently but firmly pulled the head back around. “Demon, stand.” It mewed softly and obeyed. Cyon snatched up the pack and mounted.
There was a flash, a clap of thunder and they were gone.
By what road do demons and angels take us? This is difficult to say exactly. Even those who have traversed the Path more than once give widely differing accounts. Human senses are so undependable and the passage taxes travelers beyond their limits. Two things can be said for certain. First, humans would have no access to the Far Places without the aid of the creatures. Second, angels take the high road, while demons take the low.
Cyon felt something . . . something other than the gut wrenching after-shock of traversing the Path. He slowly opened his eyes, finding a vast desert, dark with night. Looking up he caught his breath. A dazzling ringed moon, many times the size of his sun, hung above the distant hills, filling the horizon. The entire surface of the moon, obscured by cloud bands, ran the visible spectrum from ultra reds to incredible violets. The clouds of the moon whirled and danced at the whim of the distant winds. Three sets of rings crisscrossed the vista. One was barely visible because it was edge on and the other two were at various angles.
“Wrong! Vector, this is wrong.” Vector mewed in discomfort. The mind of the beast was slippery and hard to hold. Cyon fought his own anger as he re-envisioned their original destination.
“Why?” asked the demon, speaking for the first time.
“Vector, I’m gratified you’ve a voice, but this has to wait. We must go . . .”
“But, why?” it whined.
“Because, our assistance is required.”
“You won’t like it.”
The flash lit the night desert and thunder rolled over the empty dunes.
The hovel of the sick child was abominable even by Fringe standards. The father, a self-exiled refugee from civilization, ignored the healer and beast when they arrived. The wife and mother threw open the door and dragged Cyon into the dim interior without greetings. A boy, about five years of age, lay in a small, freshly made bed.
“Vector, wait outside.” The beast complied.
“Please, your name?” Cyon asked, removing his travel cape.
“Mehetable, Mehetable Aryowade, and that, that was my husband, Urse. He doesn’t like healers.”
“Charming fellow. How long has your son been ill?”
“He got the fever three days ago. I thought it was just the faints, you know? But it got much worse. He’s burning up and I can’t do a thing for it. What do you think?”
“What’s his name?”
“Linwood, we call him Lin.” The mother appeared worried, while the father on the other hand, had looked extremely angry.
Cyon carried out the four rites of examination. There were contra- signs for all known diseases. He concluded the child had contracted a nova-virus, the kind that crop up on the Fringe all the time. He gave remedies designed to relieve the fever. Together, he and themother cleansed the boy. “Mehetable, have you ever received ministration of a healer?”
“Well, I was awful sick when I birthed Lin. The midwife at Central, Angela, she helped me.”
“Was she Kota?”
“Might I spend some time with Lin? Alone?”
“No sir. Urse didn’t want you here, wanted no part of it. He’ll kill me if I leave you in here, alone. I’m the one what sent the call, this is all on my head.”
“You want to stay?”
“I insist. I must,” she said taking hold of his sleeve. Cyon looked into her eyes and knew the measure of her determination.
“Well, this might get messy. I need an assistant. Feel up to it?”
“First, there is the ritual of preparation. I will be a moment.” Cyon assumed the position beside the foot of the bed. Moments passed as he centered. Mehetable watched silently. There was only one way to kill a virus. The boy would need quickened anti-viral bodies, produced in a living body.
Cyon stood, drew the cleansing breath and moved over the boy’s head. “I must kiss him,” Cyon whispered, then licked the boy’s forehead. Special senses in his tongue, mouth and mid-brain began the analysis. “And now I must prick his finger.” The mother drew back as he penetrated the soft flesh at the tip of Lin’s finger and squeezed out a ruby droplet. A stifled squeak escaped her when the healer put his lips to the drop of blood.
Cyon sagged, staggered and caught himself on the edge of the bed. The mother rushed to catch him.
“Ease me to the floor,” he whispered.
“Is something wrong, Kota?”
“No, no . . . well it hit me rather suddenly, but this is normal, everything is fine. I just need to sleep a moment. Cover me with the cloak, yes. Thank you. Watch over things for me?”
The modified spleen and liver of the Kota produces anti-viral bodies genetically designed to seek out and destroy the invading antigens, while fortifying and regenerating the host. All this happens without the Kota’s direct knowlege, all in all, a pretty good system.
However, there had lately been talk of psychogenic diseases that could overwhelm even the healer’s fortified immune system. Of all things, this frightened Cyon the most. Such a disease could not be contained.
Cyon awoke hungry, which was a good sign, just a simple virus. The itch across his abdomen and in his wrists indicated that his immune system now held the healing agent.
Lin stared at the ceiling, fevered eyes glazed and uncomprehending. The Kota placed his hands on Lin’s temples and the flesh in Cyon’s hands opened. He pressed both hands firmly to keep blood from escaping. An artery and a vein crept from the incisions in his hands and burrowed into the temples of the boy. A tingling sensation along his left arm told him the anti-viral bodies were leaving his body and entering the boy. This one had been tricky, but the boy was going to be well again.
Suddenly, something struck Cyon across the back of the neck. His mind exploded in fireworks and he was falling into darkness.
Without fully regaining consciousness, Cyon tried to drag himself into a standing position. He had to reach the bed, something to do with the bed. Pain assailed him and his hands felt wet. There was blood on his hands.
“The boy!” he bellowed, staggering. He saw the bed, empty. The woman was in the corner rocking back and forth, weeping. Beside the bed, a pile of rags suddenly resolved itself into the stone-still body of the husband.
“Woman? Woman!” he shouted, bracing himself on the headboard of the bed. She did not respond. “What happened?” he asked, creeping in her direction. She was cradling Lin’s dead body. “Mehetable, speak to me,” he commanded.
“He came in . . . He promised to stay outside. He came in and he was wild. He hit you when he saw . . . and now . . . now my Lin’s dead. My little boy is dead.” She sobbed.
“How long has it been?”
“Yesterday. It happened yesterday.”
“Noooooo!” shouted the Kota. He couldn’t breathe. He was numb with shock. Vector seized the helpless healer and dragged him from the hut. Then came the flash and thunder.
The hell ride went on forever. Faces whipped across a sky filled with fire. Voices chanted, whined and screamed all at once. The world was coming apart with a bang. All times were crowding into this place all at once. His mouth filled with the taste of bile and his skin felt like ice, though he was sweating. And then there was darkness.
His head began to clear. The demon had returned them to the desert world of the awe inspiring moon.
Cyon scooped a handful of sand and watched it slip through his fingers. The wind played with the sand as it struck the ground, making it dance. Had he come here yesterday or been here forever; only dreaming his other life, the life he thought was real?
Vector stirred at his side, but remained silent.
The wind twisted a vortex of dust and danced in the growing light. Distant voices hissed in the wind. Cyon contemplated the strange constellations lingering in the unfamiliar skies. They bore no resemblance to the skies of his youth. Just before sunrise he discovered the moon had an equally spectacular sister.
“How can you do it, Healer? How can you stand it?”
“The child died.”
“I didn’t kill the child.”
“But you failed.”
“Deep was your grief, deeper perhaps than even mine. I felt . . .”
“What is your grief, Vector?”
“We will not speak of this,” the demon hissed. There was silence.
“Vector? You know the problem with demons?”
“What is that Kota?”
“Demons just can’t let go. They know only one emotion and their whole existence centers around that one feeling. All of your thoughts are one thought, all of your memories are one . . .”
“Healer, how can I let it go?”
“Don’t fight it. Don’t give in to it. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. Just let it happen and let it end.”
The wind whispered over the sand.
“Healer, the sun will rise soon and the sands will burn.” Cyon looked at the demon. All the eye stalks were erect and there was a new luster in its scales.
“Where shall we go Vector?”
“Home, I would like to go home, healer.”