Chapter 5: Sparks from the Forge
Silt clouded the water in a fine grit, and only chance (or perhaps the Deus) provided a meeting of submerged bodies. Gasping for breath, Galen arched his head to a welcomed life at the surface after almost drowning; and with a steel grip, he held Vishpala’s left arm, trying to pull her upward. In a moment she began sputtering, coughing water from her lungs. Looking toward the right-hand bank, he turned upon his back, snaking an arm around her. He partially swam and drifted, finally reaching water shallow enough to place his feet on river-bottom. His cracked rib throbbed, yet to heal. And torn flesh, new and bloody-raw, burned along his lower right leg. Must have scraped it on a rock, but I could swear it came from her thrashing. With laboring steps, he dragged Vishpala behind him until they reached ankle-deep water.
He released her and she bent low, placing hands to knees while coughing again. “You alright?” he asked. She nodded and took a step toward shore. The riverbank was muddy and partially eroded by a previous flood, undercut below jagged outcrops of steppe grass. His right shin felt as if it had been slammed by a sledge, yet somehow Galen managed to scramble over the cut, reaching down to pull Vishpala up beside him. She nodded, her tone apologetic, “Thank you. I no longer swim like I once did.”
“Forget it. I was just enjoying a dip when you came along,” tilting his head to shake water from within his ears.
She cracked a thin smile. Both of them surveyed where they were: at the edge of an Avar village, while two dozen warriors came running toward them, each one armed with either a bow or something sharp. Galen shook his head, snapping a little finger from an ear. This is not my day. First, a thrashing woman almost breaks my leg. I think that’s what happened. Hard to tell in near-zero visibility. Now we’ve got a welcoming party. The Avars slowed stride to a cautious pace, the closest one with his sword drawn. With a fake smile, Galen held palms outward, “Nice day. Spraken de deutsch? Avanti? How about kunta-kinte?” He never was proficient at foreign languages other than Greek and Latin. That was about it, a sprinkling of Sanskrit, but the only Avarish he knew was horse nomenclature. The warrior stepped forward, planting sword-edge at Galen’s neck, turning to the others while spouting a derogatory remark. They all laughed.
Then with a lightning kick, Vishpala slammed her right foot to his groin! The man went down!—and he went down in deep pain, dropping his sword immediately while curling into a fetal position. With a deft pluck, Galen retrieved the Avar’s weapon, twirling it in a well-practiced circle, “Well, I guess Dufus, here, got a kick out of that one. My woman friend has an iron foot. Who else wants to waste his future reproductive capacity?” Vishpala began laughing uncontrollably, and within moments the Avars joined her. Perhaps language was a barrier but not humor. Amid the chortles, Galen leaned to the stricken, helped him to his feet, flipping the sword to return it hilt-first. The poor man accepted it, still grimacing and unable to walk. Turning from the Avar, he quipped to Vishpala, “That was one hell of a kick. Lifted him right off his feet.”
* * * * *
Daemon strolled along the street of the First Level, stopping momentarily at a thermospodium. Ah! The non-smell of stewing water. A Roman held a knife to the shop-cook’s throat, demanding, “All your money or I’ll cut your heart out,” the cook replying, “Think you can find it?” Daemon flashed a big grin and continued his daily tour. At the street-corner, a kid scratched graffitio along the rock wall, “The Deus Sucks.” While passing by, Daemon tussled the juvenile’s hair, “Way to go, kid. Keep up the good work.” He reached his office, swinging the door open as Edweena rose to attention behind her desk.
She clicked heels together, “Velcome, Herr Daemon. Vas der valk bleasant?”
“Pleasant enough. Any news of when the Boys will install the water-organ here in the office?”
“Yavool, Herr Daemon. Dey vil be here domorrow afternoon. Vun o’clock,” clickity-click, stomp-stomp.
“Good. They’ll be placing it right here,” and he tapped her desk.
“But vot about der desk? Vot about ME?” she screeched.
He walked over to the comfy chair, adjusted his piggy jacket, and sat down, folded one knee over the other, and leaned back, “Well, to tell the truth I’m a little tired of the horned helmet, wing-slapping, and heel-clicking. A receptionist is surplus. The business doesn’t need you. I know exactly who will arrive and when. For instance, the next person to enter this office is the one-eyed man lumbering down the staircase carrying a heavy sack.”
“Vot? Der staircase is karrying a heavy zack?” she blurted, wide-eyed.
He closed his eyes for a moment, shaking his head, “What do you think? Did you ever think? In fact, CAN YOU THINK? So, just pack up your files and get out.”
“But vot vill I do?”
“Open a manicure shop. Everyone knows that fingernails keep growing after death.”
“Ooo, Herr Daemon! Ya! Goot idea,” agreed Edweena, “Vhy didn’t I think of dot? I vill pack up my viles now.” And she stomped into the File Room.
Daemon jumped to his feet and circled his prized table, polishing it with his sleeve, while saying, “Come in.” The outer door opened, and the one-eyed man entered to stand immobile with the sack over his shoulder. Physically perfect but a little slow in accruement. “Well, if it isn’t Moron. How fare your brothers?” quizzed Daemon, tucking a hand to his piggy jacket.
“One is dead,” replied Moron in a buzzing monotone.
Daemon was surprised! His one-eyed men were impervious to everything except submersion; and he demanded, “What killed him!”
“He took an arrow,” came the explanation while dropping his bag on the table—WHAM!—as it smashed to the floor in a thousand splinters.
Daemon stood dazed! He forgot the question at his lips; his eyes snapped deep black. Two lumps throbbed at his temples, each lump growing larger. Finally he found his voice. “THAT was a Jove-wood gaming table presented to me by Julius Caesar. It was PRICELESS!”
“Julius Caesar? Who’s that?”
“Who in Hell could Julius Caesar be?” snapped Daemon, “Caesar, as in the genocide of Gaul.”
“Oh, that Julius Caesar. Down on the Third Level,” droned Moron.
“You know, I just can’t pinpoint how to deal with you idiots. I give each of you every break, always the benefit of a huge doubt.”
“Here is the three hundred pounds of gold,” claimed the one-eyed man, “Now you can make me human. That was the deal.”
Daemon stepped to the wall chart, “Come here and check your mission statement.” Moron obeyed as Daemon grabbed his swagger stick, tapping it repeatedly, “Read this clause.”
Scratching his metallic cheek, Moron spoke slowly, “Catch Twenty Three: I understand and agree that all my gold will be forfeited if I inflict damage to company property, at any Level, in all shops, along the stairways, and especially in the Front Office.”
“Where are we?” asked Daemon.
“In the Front Office?”
“That’s correct. You lose all the gold you’ve accumulated. You start over again, back to ZERO GOLD!” screamed Daemon, “Now get out! I don’t want to see your ugly face again until you steal another three hundred pounds.”
“But there are not many nests left,” claimed Moron, “I want to steal like a human. You promised.”
Daemon pulled a hand from the piggy coat, stepped before Moron, and looked up to the dumb slit of an eye, “Are you having a tantrum? Should I turn you off? Is that what you want?”
“I want to be human.”
“That’s it! Farewell to defective thought,” and he reached under Moron’s chin and flipped the switch. He spun around in a fury, surveying the broken game table, kicking it and the sack of gold again and again. Finally, he opened the outer office door and shouted, “Someone bring a shovel and clean up this mess. Do it now! Not two moments from now.” Immediately, eight workers shuffled in, shoveled like madmen, and departed with heads bowed and arms full. Daemon paced back and forth across the office, dropped into his comfy chair, stood again, and walked over to Moron to snap the switch back on.
“What was that?” asked Moron in his monophonic style.
“You were totally dead, not just mostly dead. BUT, I took pity and brought you back.”
“How long was I dead?”
Daemon rolled his eyes, shrugged, and explained, “Twenty-eight days and two hours. Almost a month, while your dimwitted brothers beat you to most of the gryphon nests. That’s what you get for pulling a tantrum.” He paused, trying to control his temper, “When will it sink into that metallic head of yours? Hell is a business designed for profit. It’s all about gaining. Breakage creates loss. Is that an oxymoron? I lose and you lose. So smarten up, screw your head on straight, and do your job faster.”
“Can I go now?”
“Yes. But be good. Just kill Magyars and steal the gryphons’ gold. Understand? And maybe—if you’re real sneaky and fast—you might get the last three hundred pounds.”
* * * * *
The remaining three ships hung tight to the icy edge of the Aral with their cables staked to thawing shoreland. Rumo confirmed their approximate position, somewhere on the northern end of the Araxates delta; and Prester John calculated another hundred fifty miles of rowing through slush cakes before reaching the northwestern coast. They hunkered around a driftwood fire; and contorted racks pushed to thawing mud helped dry wet clothes. At a distance beyond the shore, the grave of Aristeas consigned a poet to half-frozen earth, the eulogy now a bitter reflection. The mood of those who heard it remained subdued.
Galen squatted to warmth, poking a twig through trampled swamp grass and digging at the frost. In a quick flip he tossed the stick to flames and snapped straight to the young night. From the other side of the fire, Rumo pushed his knees to stand upright, pacing around to face him, “The Prester has prepared a speech, a few positive words,” and he tipped his head toward Vishapa. The Indu stood from them at a deliberate distance, gazing beyond silver waves lapping beneath a toenail moon. “You’re good with women. See if you can convince her to rejoin us.”
I’m good with horses, not women. I just fake it. He gave Rumo a narrow eye, shook his head, and paced lightly to the Indu, hating to disturb her meditation. Stopping beside her, Galen cleared his throat, “Prester John wants to speak to us enmass. Your clothes must be nearly dry, and they’ll fit better than Amanirena’s.”
She turned, shivering, not facing him directly, “That is true. This tunic hangs like a blanket; Amanirena is large. You must forgive me for contemplating my role in this great scheme. Have you ever read the Vedas?”
“Partially but not really,” he admitted, “They seem like mysteries.”
“Ah, mysteries.” And she met his eyes, “Then you have no idea of who I really am. Who do you think the Ashvins were, and what was I?”
Her question was pointed, intended to refute whatever his answer might hold. He shrugged, “I thought you were ancient warriors.”
Vishpala gave an abbreviated smile, ever so subtle, “We were sparks from the forge. Can you visualize that? Red-hot and spiraling upward, turning yellow and cooling, to become falling flakes of ash. So we were born, and thus we died—the Sun Riders, following a path of brightness, the Ashvins, in our great race east to west across daylight skies. You are a Christian. Never can you truly understand what I was.”
He couldn’t find his tongue. Perhaps she was giving him too little credit, or maybe she was correct in her judgment. He might never fathom who or what she may have been, but realized Vishpala was no ordinary woman, not in the worldly sense of humanness. All he knew came from the old Rig Veda; yet only now could he visualize her place in a timeless cosmos. She was once an avatar! He replied in the softest voice a man could utter, “You were someone between human and godly.”
She clasped his wrist, producing another half smile, “I have underestimated Christians, yes? But they cannot see what cannot be viewed. This Prester John believes he recreated life, but he is only a necromancer,” she squeezed Galen’s wrist, “He sees only one person, one physical body in a great stream of many. Yet what is the truth? At the moment I died, my karman flew to its next birthing; and at the end of each lifetime, it flew again and again. The flight is called samsara. You view the karman as a transmigrating soul, but it’s the Vital Essence of the All-Seeing Eye. It flies at the precise point between the spark and ash. Who knows how many flights it flew before the cycle was destroyed? When Prester John resurrected my life he wrenched the karman from its last owner and it returned to me. Do you see what he did?”
Galen watched a ship tug against its cable and waves lapping to the swamp he stood in, “He broke the connection, stopped the rising process.”
“The karman strives for godliness. In whom or what it resided last?—I know not. But Prester John stole it from a living being to return it to me. You have seen it. When the spirit leaves a person, what happens? No more can that person move or eat, neither can they drink. They are catatonic, unable to speak or function and await impending death. How long does that person last? Two weeks? How magnificent I stand before you in the flesh, but I am not complete. The karman flew back to me, a reversal of two millennia of spiritual evolution, and I touch your wrist through great loss and a person’s death.”
He nodded. Amazing she can smile at all. “Prester John is too human to understand what you know. He should never learn of this tragedy. It might destroy all he believes in. He has correct intentions, a generous heart; and if he fails—if we fail—what might this world become? We carry a liability far greater than individual burden.”
He is wise for a man his age. In the past two weeks, she had sized him up. The scars of his profession could not diminish an innate handsomeness, nor could his carefully clipped beard hide the scars. He preferred to be called the Horsebreaker, not Galen, his streak of rebellion, but his heart beat firm in the knowledge of what was correct and righteous. He was bold, tapping an inner source, unlike his uncle; for the Prester often hesitated, unsure he was making the correct decision. She released his arm, “The eve is dark, and clouds hide weaker stars; perfect night for a necromancer. Come. Let us hear what the Magus has to say.”