This story segment contains scenes of mild body horror, mild misogyny and light injury to a child.
29th of the Yarrow’s Sun, 2007 D.C.E
Adjar Dominance, City of Bada Aso — Central District
She held on to her hat and bag for dear life as she dashed through the Msanii, the traditional marketplace, evading the kiosks and leaping over goods on carpets, her steps barely sounding above the murmur of the crowd. She cast breathless glances over her shoulder.
Was he gone? There people everywhere around her, in robes and shawls and headscarves and long flowing garbs, a few in shirts and overalls — there was only one man in a uniform. Around her the street was thick with people. Dozens of men and women crowded the street.
Today was a festival day; in front of a kiosk a crowd of at least twenty people stood around waiting to purchase a miniature wooden chariot for the Ratha-Yatra festival.
She pushed past them without slowing and ran along the gutter, ducking around the people coming and going on the street, running under carried packages, between the held hands of couples, and through the gaggles of cared-for children visiting with their parents.
Her little heart pounded in her chest. Did she lose him in the market? Though there was only a single package in her satchel it felt incredibly heavy. She had run her thin legs raw.
At the other end of the market street she stopped to catch her breath, thinking that she must have lost the guard in that mess. She looked past and into the throng, gasping. Her chest heaved up and down under her boyish vest and dress shirt. She pressed her hat against her head, tufts of short, straight hair falling over her cheek and ears and the back of her neck.
“Thief! That boy’s a thief! Stop him! Stop that boy! Someone grab his fuckin’ hand, now!”
She saw a headscarf go flying, a box of pastries fall along with a dazed man; the guard was not done with her. She saw him shoving his way through the crowd toward her like a tusk-fiend, and Madiha took off running again, her chest tight, her throat raw, her eyes tearing up. She no longer even knew where she was going now — she hardly ever detoured through the lower central district. The Zaidi, the socialists she worked for, avoided the shadow that the imperial administration cast here. There were more alert guards and one could not bribe them. Any coin in her pockets was useless for this zealous man. He was not bought. He would beat her!
Perhaps she could have run to the house of a Social Democrat here — if the Zaidi weren’t feuding with them at the moment. Instead, all she could do was run into unfamiliar alleys.
She heard his tramping behind her, growing ever closer. She was gasping for every breath. Her legs felt like giving out. She dashed past a dingy little street made up of old stones.
In her satchel she carried a revolver, and she knew if she aimed for his head she could kill him, but it was not dark out, and she knew no place she could lead him to where she could kill him and be completely safe from discovery. She felt it clanking inside her bag, useless.
Over her shoulder she saw him take the corner and reacquire her with his bloodshot eyes.
She bowed her head and swerved into a tight corner — and found a dead end punctuated by a large green metal garbage bin. Unbelieving, she stared at it for a moment. She was trapped.
Madiha rushed to the garbage bin and started to climb it. Then a bullet pierced the lid.
“Stop you fucking rat!” Shouted the guard, in a voice so loud it seemed to resonate within Madiha’s flesh. Though she was seven or eight years old (she knew not with accuracy which one was the case) she was tall for her age, and the guard had only a head on her, but he was burly and rough-looking, with a yellow and red burn scar along his thick neck. In his hands was a concealable revolver that the Imperial police used. They could draw it within a second.
He picked her up as if she weighed nothing, and slammed her against the garbage bin.
She cried out and dropped her bag. Her hat went to the floor. She crumpled against the garbage bin, trying to choke back tears and all kinds of miserable sounds. She thought she felt a rip in her vest, along her back; she thought she felt a rip in her spine, it hurt so much.
The Guard hovered over her, staring at her quizzically for a moment. He looked around the alley, and he looked behind himself. There was nobody around. There were tiny windows on the left-hand building enclosing the alley, and he looked into them and seemed satisfied nobody was watching. He produced his truncheon and prodded Madiha, lifting up her chin, pressing against her stomach, tapping her on the peak of the head a little too roughly.
“Shit, you’re a girl? Spirits defend.” The Guard spat on the floor of the alley. “Woulda hit you less hard. Fuck you dressing up like that for? What’s the world coming to these days?”
Madiha breathed roughly and silently. She hadn’t worn a dress or a shari and parkar in over a year. To her none of this meant “dressing like a boy” — but the city as a whole cared little.
The Guard picked up her bag and withdrew the package. He was quick about it. He knew all along that she must have been ferrying something important. Kids carried all kinds of things in bags in Bada Aso. Gangs used kids to steal things or to transport money. Madiha’s satchel was a special brand of bag that was big and light and popular with working homeless kids. Most gangs made you steal your own bag, but Madiha had gotten hers from the Zaidis.
“Should’ve stopped when I told you. If your mother ain’t gonna learn you, I will.”
Madiha laid against the garbage bin, her spine screaming with agony. She felt like bending double and rolling up into a ball, but she was in too much pain to move. Nobody had ever hit her so hard in her life — and she had been hit a few times before. This was different. She thought this must have been what it was like to be hit by someone trying to kill you.
A shadow obscured her, and the Guard knelt down. He pressed the letter against her face, and waved the paper cruelly and mockingly against her nose, flicking the tip with the envelope.
“What’re you carrying here? Tell me who gave you this. You tell me here and you can go, but if you don’t I’m gonna have to take you down to the guard house.” He said.
She struggled to make any kind of acknowledgement. She stared at him; she glared.
“Giving me the evil eye? Ain’t nobody gonna care about one less little vagrant on the street. You tell me something right now or you’ll be leaving without teeth, and trust me, there hasn’t been a single happily married girl in this city lately who’s been missing her pearly whites.”
Madiha said nothing back to him. She stared right into his eyes as if through him. She struggled to breathe. Her head was turning hot; a red haze that obscured the edges of her vision.
He took his truncheon again and he raised it up into the air to beat her over the head.
“Don’t touch me!” Madiha shouted. She waved her arm as if slapping him away.
At once, the Guard’s legs swept out from under him, and a force drove into his gut in mid-air and sent him crashing back hard onto the stones. He squirmed on the ground.
Madiha struggled to stand, and hobbled toward the man. He stretched along the floor in pain, disoriented, twitching. He swept his leg impotently at her and nearly tripped her up. She fell on her knees over him, and she pushed her hands against his head as if she were trying to pump something into his skin. At once, his eyes went glassy. He babbled for a second.
She felt the power in her fingers, coursing through him, forming a connection. Flashes of vague thoughts and emotions seeped from his mind to her own. She saw in him a desperate, chained-up monstrous thing, and she set it ablaze, and it howled and screamed until it died.
Then he remained quiet, placid, staring at the sky as if he had found a new dimension to the color blue. Madiha had wiped out all of his aggression — and maybe other things with it.
Her own mind recovered from the eldritch process with astonishing quickness.
She caught her breath and stood slowly up, gently helping herself upright by the wall. Her back was in terrible pain still, but she could walk and given a bit of effort she could even run. She picked up her satchel, and took the letter from the floor and put it back. She would have to explain what happened, but at least today’s delivery was to Chinedu Kimani. Anyone else and she might have felt anxious explaining, but Kimani would understand what happened.
Madiha Nakar, the favored courier of the Zaidi socialists of Bada Aso, took off running again. Her routine consisted of running, and fighting was not unknown to her. Though she was little and still feeling shocks of what had transpired, she would not let it stop her. It was not only her height and precocious intellect that drew the Zaidi to her. It was not even the strange abilities she exhibited. Above all else what they prized was her conviction.
Unlike the other children conscripted around Bada Aso, Madiha Nakar was a volunteer.
* * *
A nascent Bada Aso, little more than stones at the edge of the sea, labored to renew a cycle.
Skies unfathomably ancient watched as the young race below meddled with forces quite beyond their understanding. Chanting overwhelmed the natural song of the night. Figures danced under the dark. Naked men and women traced dizzying patterns with their sweating, gyrating bodies. Shadows played about the stones. The People screamed and struggled for the primordial lifegiver to accept their offerings, and to keep the world moving, sweating, burning.
Clad in pelts and tusks, the Seer left the dance near the apex of its sound. Dusts were cast into the bonfire and it raged ever higher; the dancers, the chanters and drummers stamped and screamed and beat louder, working their bodies raw from a pleasurable fatigue to an exquisite pain. The Seer approached the edge of the Umaiha and followed the riverside below the earth. In the seaside caverns and tunnels beneath the sacred site rich, thick fumes from the soil’s underbelly overcame the senses and brought visions to the religious mind. Arms and legs shaking, the seer fell to the floor, knees quaking against the stone, hands thrust skyward, taking deep, greedy breaths. Sickly sour gas burnt the nostrils and eyes and spun shapes in the air.
Hours passed. Gradually the dance worked itself down from its climax. Leaning on a stick, feet unstable, stomach churning, the Seer returned to the circle of stones. Before the fire, the fumes escaped from the Seer’s throat and nostrils. Suddenly the fire rose, higher than ever, and threatened to consume the Seer. Flames spun across the circle like ribbons in the wind.
In the middle of the bonfire appeared the Warlord, the executioner that fanned the flames.
Madiha Nakar stood in the midst of shadowed figures vaguely in the shape of Ayvartan men and women. She was not naked like them; her ahistorical military uniform had traveled to the world of the visions with her. It was the anchor of her sanity within this false antiquity.
The Seer’s featureless face suddenly split down the middle, and Madiha saw a flash of teeth.
“Cunning, Command, Fearlessness, Ferocity.” It said. This mockery of her people’s shape could no longer replicate their voices to her. She knew it for what it was — a figment meant to control her. A familiar of some millennia-removed shaman, dragged from the shadows into her head. Its voice was a series of harsh, seemingly unrelated noises that produced words in her mind.
“I know what you are, and to a certain measure, I know what I am.” Madiha said decisively.
On the Seer’s split mockery of a face the teeth ground. “To a certain measure? You don’t really know anything. Your kind can’t know anymore. You’re in a world long past able to know.”
Madiha had no answer to that. Magic was dead in their world. He was correct about that.
He seemed to take her silence as a personal triumph, and he started to speak without pause.
“Madiha Nakar, there is only one reason we speak.” So fervently did the mouth now speak that the upper half of its face quivered and shook and thrashed about like the top of a hood. Madiha felt a certain disgust. It was almost painful to stare at this fiend. “Madiha Nakar, you are again chosen. Once before, we met; but you are a different person now, a different candidate, for a different event. Each Warlord is appointed to carry the primordial fury of Ayvarta to a stage of history. You will continue a cycle that has sustained life for millennia. In this age of ignorance you will give nourishment to the flame, as your predecessors have done. You will be hated, and ultimately, destroyed. You will be the monster of your era. You are the martyr of a blind race.”
“Ayvartans, or humans as a whole?” Madiha asked, eyes still averted from the monster.
Vertical rows of teeth clicked and clacked but offered no audible explanation to her.
“You have been the source of much confusion and suffering for me. I demand an answer.”
A bloated black tongue escaped the teeth and seemed to mock her. Wild laughter ensued.
“I am here to see the ancient will carried out and nothing more. I have done only what was necessary to see the flame set alight for this generation. That is my destiny, and your own.”
Madiha felt the burning in her. She felt the heat trace every sinew in her brain, she felt the power like a pressure against her eyesockets. When she opened and closed her fingers she felt the potential, thrumming inside of her, the latent ability to invoke something alien, strong. This was with her now, every second of the day, fading into the background. It was like the sensation of wearing clothes. She knew how it felt to be bare, but clothes still felt like a second skin.
She remembered what she did as a child, what she had practiced, and she held out her left hand toward the monster. Something swept out toward the beast, but only in her recollection of the moment; in reality the power was noiseless, and had no tell. Madiha moved her arms and in an instant the creature roiled, as though being boiled in mid-air, its black shape bubbling.
“You can’t do this.” There was no pain or distress in its false voice despite the thrashing and shaking of its oozing, shadowy body. Its teeth clattered and snapped but made no sound.
“I am doing it.” It took no effort on her part to double the pressure. Its body collapsed, becoming ever more shapeless and inky, spilling on the floor like a puddle of blood.
“It is your destiny. It is imprinted on you. It is in our flesh. It is in our soul. We cannot escape the blood. Your destiny; our destiny; the people’s destiny; has been an unbroken line traced from antiquity to modernity. Cycle after cycle, we have witnessed it. We are slaves to it.”
“We? So you want to be a part of this now? But you can’t disguise yourself as me anymore.”
“So long as you desire to inflict the burning you must acknowledge yourself, myself, and us.”
Madiha grinned. “I acknowledge that I possess a monstrous ability and I even acknowledge that it may have the history you claim it does; but I refuse the extent of your predestination. I am nobody’s slave; and you are unnecessary to my functioning. I am going to excise you.”
A soundless scream escaped its gnashing mouth. “You will feed the flame. Your era of ignorance still needs the flame. Your kind will never outgrow the flame. There must always be fuel that burns for humankind to see in the shadow. It is in your nature. It is necessary.”
“You are not human and you can never know. You are a tool created by a people that has seen midnight. Your world may never change but mine visibly has.” Madiha replied.
Sound returned. Now she heard the sloshing of its thrashing body, the gnashing of its teeth. Its voice finally took on an affect. It was furious. “I will return; when you lie broken in the soil, stomped to pieces by every foot in the world, a hated thing, an unloved thing, a thing, nothing but broken and befouled meat; Ayvarta will select another of your kind to carry its wrath.”
“You are not Ayvarta.” Madiha said. “Ayvarta has changed. It has transformed beyond you.”
“He said that too; and you destroyed everything he built. Human works are temporary. Each of you has tried to defy your fate and your fate has always overcome you. I am the part of you that is eternal. I am the only part of you that will ever matter to the natural order of the world.”
“Humans are not immutable. They are self-constructed in many ways. You admit you are part of me. Then you are a human work too. And you are right, human works are temporary.”
She made a visible effort, and the force inflicted upon the being was finally too much for it.
Under the creature’s black, inky flesh a red core flashed brightly and then collapsed. As if draining through a hole in the world the creature tore away from existence altogether. Everything started to quiver and to shake itself apart. Overhead the sky fell, and around her the stones ground to powder. Finally, brick by brick the Bada Aso she knew came into sharp relief.
Madiha was no longer in the vision of an ancient, wild Ayvarta where a fractious people fought their separate wars to escape depredation; she was in a new Ayvarta that needed protecting.
Things would be different this time. She had to believe that. Though she knew that when she woke her resolve would wane against the harsh material world, she tasted the surety of the vision world for as long as she could, and for once, she drew strength from it instead of fear.