jaysu was free to fly at dawn, but it did not excite her as much as it should have. The landscape she’d awakened to was among the most barren she’d ever seen, and she wondered how she would even get food and drink for the long journey ahead.
To the north there was a mountainous landscape with noticeable green all about and even a waterfall in view, but it was distorted by the gauzelike effect of the hex barrier. She could see the Customs station and the triple fencing that went as far as the eye could see, and she knew that she didn’t dare go back that way. Even if she could have flown over before, she surely would face a trap now.
That left Quislon, the object of her long journey but also a place definitely not made for Amborans. She wondered, in fact, how the two Pyrons were going to make it, considering how barren it seemed.
She launched herself into the air, suddenly conscious of where she’d lost some feathers and had perhaps gotten a scrape coming through that fencing, but finding, too, that it was an endurable nuisance and not a debilitating injury.
Before her was a cold, hard desert, with hard-packed rock and ancient windblown canyons and tablelands. It was clear that nothing had ever lived in this region, and she couldn’t imagine how such a place could support a large population of anything, not unless they got moisture from somewhere belowground and ate rocks.
She climbed, hoping to spot some hidden pool, some oasis, some sign of green, but there was nothing at all. Here and there were curious clusters of what at first seemed to be natural shapes, but after realizing how organized and perfectly shaped they were, she realized they were pyramid-shaped buildings. Still, there was nothing to indicate fires coming from any of them, nor could she see any sign of creatures moving about, nor even roads that would connect the structures and other clusters. She flew directly over one and got the oddest series of empathic impressions. It wasn’t that there was nothing recognizable there, but there was so much it overwhelmed her senses. About the only use she could get for this was the limits of the habitation, which stretched solidly through all the structures and some distance beyond. She realized that they were underground, and the structures were not houses or buildings, but some kind of entranceways to different parts of the world below.
Now, at least, she understood why even the most evil saw their only chance at grabbing this sacred object to be the one time it was brought out for ceremonies.
She hadn’t seen the two Pyrons, either, and suspected they were keeping out of sight somewhere, possibly resting. They were more comfortable in the dark.
For a while she followed the curious tracks, and eventually caught up with Wally’s group, which included a dozen or so of those horrid Jerminins. They seemed to be taking turns hauling huge cubes on giant sleds, illustrating their strength, but what was in those cubes was a mystery.
She thought she spotted Wally, flattened down and probably asleep on one of the sleds just in back of a cube. The little winged monkeylike creatures were there, too, each one sitting atop a cube, and she decided that she’d rather not have a confrontation with them if she could help it. Best they not know that she’d made it this far, let alone all three of them.
She was curious that they were not heading due south, but southeast. It didn’t make sense if they were going to try a snatch at the ceremonies at Quislon Center, but she couldn’t waste time shadowing them. She’d been told to get to Quislon Center as quickly as possible, and that had to be her duty.
She would have to undergo some fasting, but if she could find some water, somewhere, anywhere in this barren place, she could make it in just a couple of days.
It turned out to be easier than she thought.
Thirsty, heading south, she passed over a particularly elaborate complex and decided that, if she was here to speak to the locals, she should try and make contact. Everyone had warned her that they were very ugly, but she was beginning to see that looks had little to do with good and evil, the spiritual and the profane.
She circled and landed in front of the largest pyramid structure near twilight, figuring that if the natives were nocturnal or diurnal, it would be a good time to make contact. She could feel beneath her the sense of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of creatures moving about, all with complex and overwhelming empathic waves, but far too dense for her to pick out any and make any sense of it. Their lives, almost entirely underground, must extend to great but deep complexes. Since this was a nontech hex, she wondered if they might be blind.
“Hello!” she called out. “I am Jaysu, priestess and servant of the Grand Falcon of Ambora. I am on my way by invitation to witness your great forthcoming religious affirmation, but I fear that I am unable to forage or find food and water. Does anyone guard these buildings? Can anyone hear my call for assistance?”
There was an odd reaction. The area directly beneath her and extending to the big structure simply stopped, as if a stampede of wild animals had somehow been frozen in its tracks. She sensed that she’d been heard, and that somehow this had been instantly communicated to a large mass of others. It was fascinating. While the rest of the complex went on, this area suddenly seemed to lock on as if the individuals within were now one organism. A door in the pyramid that she hadn’t realized was there opened, and a grotesque face with big round eyes and insectlike fangs peered out and looked at her.
“Interesting,” commented the Quislonian. “Don’t believe we ever saw one like you before. You say you are going to the festival?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Well, then, camp here tonight. What is it that you require?”
“Just a little food for energy and some water.”
“Water is easy, but what do you eat?”
She hadn’t considered that. “Anything that is not of animals. Vegetables, breads, confections . . .”
The creature paused. “No vegetables here, but we’ll see what we can do.” The door shut.
She had a sense that she’d been wrong; they weren’t blind. Rather, from the little bit she had seen, they were self-luminescent and possibly secreted the substance and rubbed it on their walls and tunnels. This festival was beginning to sound more interesting.
In about fifteen minutes, just as darkness fell completely, the door opened and two of the creatures crawled out. They were grotesque, multilegged, fanged, glowing, but with no discernible color. The forelegs appeared to be usable as claws, perhaps all the legs. They brought out a long oval bowl in which there was water and some kind of reddish-brown cake-like substance.
“Our elders believe that the cake will be compatible with your system,” one of them told her. “The water is fresh. Please take it and continue in the morning.”
Before she could properly thank them, they went back inside and shut the door.
Curious creatures, she thought, eyeing the cake. She would have liked to talk to them a bit, but this would have to do for now. She picked up the spongy cake, sniffed it, and found it hadn’t much smell. She tasted it cautiously. It was almost sickeningly sweet, like bread soaked in pure honey. Still, it appeared to be edible, and would give her energy. As she ate it she realized she was being watched. She drank some of the water and tried to relax as the darkness swallowed her.
“Thank you!” she called out to the hidden watchers, aware now that she’d passed some sort of test by taking the offering on trust. They didn’t reply, but she sensed that they were no longer potential adversaries. It was a start.
It seemed the natives had a rapid method of communication, nontech or not, since she had only to land in what she thought of as a “village” and someone would come with water and cake. She hoped, though, that she’d be able to speak to their holy ones at Quislon Center.
It wasn’t difficult to spot, once you got near it. The enormous volcano was smoking and churning, and there, embedded in the side of the great mountain, was the bizarre hexagonal shaped nothingness of a Zone Gate.
The region was also so dense with settlements that she wondered how they all fit down there. This was no collection of villages, but a great underground city. She couldn’t help but wonder what happened when the volcano erupted, as it most surely did—they had volcanoes in Ambora, and she could see the evidence of fresh flows.
If there were preparations for the great event to come, they were not evident, nor was any area obviously reserved as the holy place for a priesthood. Maybe they had group minds and no need of priesthoods, she thought, but she didn’t get that impression from the sensations emanating beneath her. No, these were individuals who could also become a single group entity. Not the same thing, and probably not that simple, either.
She decided to set down amidst a large complex and call out for aid. This time, though, it wasn’t food and water that she needed, but authority.
These were such different creatures than any others she’d dealt with that she was unsure how to proceed. She assumed from the way she’d been treated that they had some sort of empathic ability to read truth, sincerity, and perhaps threat as well, and that was why they had fed her, but their society was a closed book, buried deep underground in a self-illuminated complex. The translator always made every creature sound quite normal, but in this case she understood that it was being a deceiver. She didn’t know how these people thought, or whether she ever could know. She was beginning to wonder why Core and the others thought she could speak to them on more than a basic level, and of course, anybody could do that.
And so she stood before the largest of the pyramid entry-ways and said, loudly, “Hello? I am sure you have some way of already knowing who I am. I am here to witness your great festival, but I wish more than just to witness, for to witness without understanding is to see nothing. As different as we are, we have in common certain religious truths at the very center of our beings. I need to speak with, to learn from, anyone within your society who can communicate this understanding to one such as me, or at least as much as one not of Quislon could understand. I do not wish to see merely what you do, but why you do it.”
She waited, feeling that she’d been heard. The door opened then, and one of the creatures with a different striped coloration about its head looked out at her and said, “Northwest past two principalities, then east directly toward the Holy Mountain to the next one you see. They might be able to help you.”
She thanked the Quislonian, noting the term “principality,” or at least that was the word as the translator caught it. It implied some kind of royalty. That was interesting. She would never have thought of these people as having a monarchial structure. Perhaps it was like the insects of Ambora, a physical thing. But in that case there would be one queen and no others. Well, it was one of those things that might be learned, or might even be a translator error due to the impossibility of precisely mating the ideas in her mind with those of theirs.
By “principalities” she was sure it meant what she’d interpreted as towns or villages or, in this area, maybe neighborhoods. At least it was to find, considering the short distance, the precise direction, and the relation to the volcano. She found, however, that she was amidst a cluster that did not feel as densely populated but did in fact emit a very different sort of empathic energy. She looked around and realized that this might not be the most popular place for a very dense population; there were recent flows very near, and this “principality” was almost at the base of the mountain. Beyond it they did not live, but just beyond, and a bit higher, on the side of the mountain itself, she could feel as much as see the proximity of the Gate. If anybody was going to rule this place, then they would be here, danger or not. You passed here to climb the sacred mountain, or to go to or from Quislon to Zone.
“You are quite perceptive,” a voice said, and she almost jumped, not having sensed anyone nearby. She turned and saw an exceptionally large Quislonian uncharacteristically fully outside the enclosure. She turned, then self-consciously knelt down, as uncomfortable as that was for her, to be more on a face-to-face plane with this newcomer.
“I-—I apologize sincerely,” she told it. “I had thought that I could not be surprised, but here there are so many sensations that I did not see you there.” In spite of her stops and the charity of the others, this was as close as she’d ever been to one of the creatures, and her first chance to study one.
It stood about a meter high on all six legs. Its base color was pinkish-gray, its skin or possibly soft exoskeleton had a smooth and slightly wet look to it, but it had a unique design over its back on both right and left sides near the top. The design, in scarlet and gold, seemed woven, yet also appeared natural.
Its head was adorned with the same scarlet and gold trim, and was on a retractable neck that appeared to be able to turn most of the way around and rise from a notch in the body, elevating the head another thirty or so centimeters or leaving it facing forward as an extension of the body. It was no beauty; there were four horns, two long, two short, atop an oval mouth that seemed to have wriggling worms where teeth might be, constantly dripping some kind of wet ooze and also constantly in motion.
“You did not see because I did not wish you to. Just as you just did with me, I wanted to get a good look at you as well, you see. We are so very alien to one another, physically, perhaps otherwise, you and I, yet within you runs complexities I have never encountered before.”
She felt confused. “I am perhaps the simplest of creatures on this world who thinks and breathes. This—metamorphosis, or whatever it is, which changed me into a grander looking Amboran and restored my flight, and which also gave me some powers I do not yet understand, well, this was all laid upon me without explanation.”
The Quislonian said nothing for a moment, then commented, almost as if to itself, “So this is one who listens to the God of the Well.” Its voice became bolder, more direct. “You do hear it, don’t you?”
“I—suppose—well, yes, I hear it, but I do not understand it.”
“How can one of us understand something that is running the whole universe? That at one and the same time keeps track of we two, individually, here, and worlds upon worlds out to infinity?”
“You believe, then, in a single godhead?”
“Hardly that! We know that God was made by the Ancients. That does not make it any less God, for its power is absolute and cannot be challenged nor superseded, which is the essence of being a god. Your own beliefs have many gods?”
“Yes. We see the one who is Creator, and then the Agents, the lesser gods, who maintain the stability and utility of the universe and, as it were, take care of the small details such as you and me.”
“We think the opposite, proceeding from the same Creator. Not lesser gods, for we’ve seen nor sensed nothing of them, but greater ones. The Ancients, who built this place and the Creator and then left for a divine plane that we cannot comprehend. Are they not in your cosmology?”
She thought a moment. “There is some sense of the Ancients, who have a particular name and vision, yes, but they are considered outside the universe, First Causes now removed from power. If they could create a god to control the universe, then they have to be outside it, and beyond anything we can comprehend. If we proceed in our own universe as properly as we can, then when death comes, God may send us to them. Until then, we do not believe that they are the ones with whom we are to deal.”
“Interesting concept. You worship agents of the Creator, who then, I suppose, worship the Creator, who in turn . . . Makes an odd sort of sense. No! Please! I am not intending to offend, but it is a strange cosmology to us, and a concept that is a bit, well, alien.”
It took her aback for a moment, and she realized now how provincial had been her thinking. Not only here and now, but ever since she’d left Ambora, it had been she, and always just she, who’d been the alien. Still, being a polite guest did not mean abandoning core beliefs.
“I have communed with the god of my people, whom we call the Grand Falcon, although, of course, he is no bird, but spirit. We have spoken to one another, and he is never that far from me and inhabits a tiny part of me. I cannot deny his existence, yet I will not deny the truth of yours as well, just its emphasis and interpretation. We may never totally agree, but we are, I believe, far closer, particularly for two such different species, than either of us would have thought.”
The Quislonian paused a moment, then said, “I would have been more surprised had we been farther apart. This is not a large world, it has a single origin and Creator/Maintainer, and it has a very ancient history. There are 1,560 different outlooks on the truth, and the same number who see the truth from a different perspective, but there is more unity than you think. But if you in truth are convinced you commune with your local god, so be it. We have knowledge that not all the Ancient Ones have passed, and that one, perhaps more than one, still roams its creation, for whatever reason. There are infrequent visitations here. The Ancients gave all power over to the God of the Well, and even these have none in particular, although they cannot die. No God could allow the destruction of its creator. And we have something of the Ancients ourselves. Something left as a sort of proof and memorial. It, too, is indestructible. Even the fires of the Holy Mountain cannot harm it, nor even seal it in. It comes back. That is why we hold it in such reverence.”
Here it was. This was the holy object that Wally intended to steal.
“Tell me, then, holy one,” she responded carefully, “does your faith believe in evil? Not just the wrong path, but evil in its pure form?”
The Quislonian shuffled a bit, as if uncomfortable. “Evil exists,” it admitted. “But we find evil is a choice that acts most thoroughly when it is embraced by large numbers. That is, in fact, why we were given the sacred honor so long ago of holding this holy relic, which is but a piece of what is believed to be a tool the Ancients used to create the Creator. Like evil, it has no power if left as an individual, but if all of its pieces come together, then the tool will operate. The Ancients, as I said, produced things that cannot be destroyed nor discarded.”
“But they can be stolen,” Jaysu said, dropping the bomb.
There was a gurgling sound from inside the Quislonian that might have been anything from a sign to stomach problems. Finally it said, “We were given the piece at the end of a great war. A war thought by most to this day to have been for world domination. That is the way it is taught, the way the histories read, because it is better that those who do not know of the artifact remain ignorant of it. Our people, to their honor, were a part in stopping that war, in defeating the evil that had seized the artifact and possibly used it. The Emperor-General who used it vanished with many of his associated nobles and generals, thus leaving the side confused and leaderless for a period. We were all able to crush them in that moment and seize the artifact before it could be better used by new leadership. It was disassembled and pieces scattered. We were given one. It was an incredible honor, a blessing without price. We were minor players in that war even according to our own holy books, but we were remote, hard to find, physically good at making it nearly impossible to get to the artifact, and we are a race where traitors are simply impossible. And what alien race could wage a nontech underground war against us with any hope of success? So, you see, we are one of the best guardians.”
“But you will take it out for the festival.”
“Yes, for one night only, it is true, as physical evidence that God is real. Few faiths get that luxury, you know. It is essential to retaining the communion that holds us and binds us all together. You may realize that we can combine as one great being if need be, but are also individuals. If you could do that, but only if you allow it to happen, would you trust it to happen, in pure faith, with no reservations, if you did not have evidence of God’s truths?”
“I would like to think I would, but I cannot honestly say so,” the Amboran admitted.
“That is why it is essential that, four nights from tonight, I will accompany the Emperor to the top of the great caldera and there we will with prayer and ceremony drop the artifact into it.”
“You will what! Oh, I’m sorry, I—”
“That is all right and understandable. But it will not stay there. You will see.”
“And the artifact now?”
“Secure, in this complex. It will be brought out and shown to the people, and then we will climb the Holy Mountain using that path, which only the Chosen may use, to ascend. Once the artifact returns to us, it will go below once again.”
“Yes, but during that ascension it will be vulnerable!”
“Perhaps. As only our own kind can come from Zone through the Gate, it is not a threat. And, as we ascend, we will be surrounded by a minimum of ten million of our people, all of them committed, willing to die, to protect the artifact and us. No one can get even this far who we do not already know and examine. And even if they did, there are committed guards with great strength and bred for strong poison perched at the entrance to the Zone Gate, the only way anyone could exit without being eventually caught and killed after stealing it. No, you will see. It is impossible.”
Jaysu sighed. “I truly hope that you are right,” she told the holy one. “If so, then much worry will have been for nothing. Still. . .”
“You don’t know Wally.”