Thursday, July 15, 2010

Serial Fiction: Whisper from the Dust XIII

Chapter Five

September 14, 440 Y.A.

The Well was dank inside and dark. It was nearly as empty as the Healing Well had been; Ryn and I recognized this immediately, even as he lit another torch to replace the ones we’d left behind. We knew it was empty because the Wells of the Profusion all maintain traces of their previous users, mental impressions of those who’ve gone before. The Healing Well had long been venerated precisely because it retained that fierce loving clarity of purpose that had so driven the first Faith; all the other Faiths through time had come, sooner or later, to commune with his essence there – and left lesser traces of their own. For the rest, the Weapon Wells are said to impute some martial wisdom to all who enter them, the Wells of the Histories have long imparted knowledge to the Historians of their predecessors – and of the Wells of the Blood of History, well, of them you already know.

But the sentience of the Unknown Well – for I came immediately to think of it as that, and it did not correct me – bore no trace of having been used before at all. It was like walking into someone’s forgotten crypt beneath a derelict basement. It had not been used since before the wars between the cities. It might have not been used since the Profusion itself, and consequently never at all. My orphan’s education recalled nothing quite like it, and the Historians teach us more than most because they need articulate advocates among the poor of all the cities. If there is general knowledge of a subject, we are not unlikely to have gained it.

“I know of no Well like this one,” I told Batyst aloud.

“It hasn’t been used before,” he said, and I thought about his awareness but came to no conclusions. Because the Unknown Well, despite its alien and desolate impression, despite being even a little smaller than the Healing Well directly above it, was not entirely empty after all.

The growing light of what I presumed was Ryn’s last torch illuminated in the center of the room a long silver box approximately the length and width and height of a man lying down. The silver was of the same Profusionist metal as the floor and walls; it rested on a low slab so that the whole came only a fraction above my waist as we walked over to it.

“It’s a coffin,” I said inanely.

Batyst grunted and reached out to touch it. I did as well, and found that a seam ran all the way around it, only a finger’s breadth beneath the top – the coffin had a lid. I felt also that strange warmth that is one of Profusionist metal’s greatest mysteries: unlike all the modern metals of the world, it is always slightly warmer than room temperature. Batyst and I pushed against the lid together, though doubtless he could have removed it himself, by virtue of his decades as a blacksmith and of Profusionist metal’s own comparative lightness. Humans have never been able to make something so light and strong themselves.

But they have been able to manipulate it. The lid canted to the ground with a knocking thunk. Batyst raised the torch so that its light allowed us both to peer inside.

I don’t know what either of us expected. A quicksword eternally aflame, perhaps, or a suit made entirely of light. Perhaps I expected information in its purest energetic form, all the secrets of the Profusion pulsing through the interior as so much electricity. Perhaps Ryn expected filaments of all the dead, or an animated corpse that would restore to us the transfiguring grace of the Profusion itself. We would be pure exultants, then, hierarchs of the world as we threw down the Historians and led all others to enlightenment.

What was inside instead was dust. White dust-like powder lined the otherwise silver interior of the coffin. If ever it had held a corpse, that necessary remnant of our existence, that had surely disintegrated by now – but the dust bore no resemblance to anything organic. It was more like chalk, perhaps, or even snow, though even this Well was far warmer than that temperature and of course living Profusionist metal would have melted it regardless. No, if this coffin had ever been intended for a human form, such had never made it there. I reached out to touch the dust, but Ryn grabbed my hand.

“It’s no weapon,” he said, “and if it’s poison let the Historians find it and die.”
He sighed, looking from the box to me and shaking his great broad head. “There’s nothing worth risking here.”

I lacked the enthusiasm to so much as protest. For a moment, perhaps – Ryn has told me so many incredible things about myself for so long that I must have acquiesced to at least a few of them despite myself. Perhaps when I had opened this Unknown Well after first opening the Healing Well that had been unreachable for so many years, perhaps when I had awoken the scroll of history that supposedly spoke in only the dead languages of the Profusion – perhaps then considering all of those things I had for one electric moment actually believed. Believed that something beyond, something greater than my miserable experience of the world would be held out to me. The ghost of the faith of Ryn Batyst had held it out to me.

But it had gone with the opening of that lid.

The dead of the Blood of History, if they had truly sent us here to find some great weapon to scatter the Orchids from our world like so many seeds, were simply incorrect. They had been mistaken. There was no real reason, after all, to suppose that humans then were any less fallible then than they are now, and who is to say what a thousand years entombed has done to their collective human minds – if, indeed, they can still be said to be human at all?

“They’re insane,” I said, walking around the coffin. “The minds of the ancient dead have been corrupted.” Batyst started to say something, then refrained, merely staring at me in that grave intent way of his. His eyes shone in the dying torchlight.

“They sent me visions,” I said again, “when I was last in the Blood of History. The visions predicted the arrival of the Orchids but otherwise make no sense. I can’t understand them. I thought I did when I came here and the memory of that dream was the key to opening both of these Wells. But it was for nothing, Ryn. Because there is nothing here. The Blood of History has gone insane, their memories fragmented, their knowledge of this world illusory.”

Ryn Batyst closed his eyes; he looked very tired. But his voice had the soft impassioned quality that men usually attribute to a whisper. “They are wiser than you or I can possibly comprehend. Their experience has compounded their knowledge so that it no longer seems human anymore. But they have not decayed. The dead are not wrong about your abilities. The scroll in your hand – it is still awake.”

I held it up and looked; indeed it was, and increasingly it was the only light in the room. “But it tells us nothing, only that the Historians have been looking for this place. And now we know only that if the Historians do manage to open it, they will be just as disappointed as we have been.”

Ryn grinned wryly. “But we will have been disappointed first. And it is more likely that you and I can now go someplace the Historians cannot. We now have a refuge.”

“Do you always have a double purpose?” I asked, thinking of my testing before the Historians in the Temple.

Ryn sighed, breathing out a great lungful of air. “Part of the leadership that you must learn is to always accept contingencies. All plans fail, Del. All of them. Nothing you ever do will succeed as you intend it. What matters is how you let that defeat affect you.”

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