The Slough of Despond

From the Story Arc: The Fading Flame

Previous Story in the Arc: Determination by John Murdock (Tuesday, April 10, 2007)

Next Story in the Arc: A Kettle of Vultures by John Murdock (Saturday, April 14, 2007)

(posted Saturday, April 14, 2007)

Inter hastas et hostes -- "Between spears and enemies."



Ratt had found them a hiding place as close to perfect as could have been expected. Somehow, he had found an opening no bigger than a rat-hole that led to a cellar beneath the ruins of some building that had once been very tall indeed, if one judged by the remains of the walls. Trusting to his assurances that this tiny hole would lead to somewhere secure, the four of them had labored to open it; Ratt had insisted on going first, and lit up the space below with his fires--and not incidentally, frightened away or incinerated anything living that was down there. Then Sera and Aedan had lowered the unconscious JJ down to him and Astra, and after blocking up the opening again, they had all retreated to the farthest point from it.



It was dry, though filthy. They had made JJ as comfortable as they could; Ratt had gone nosing through the debris while the rest of them tried to settle themselves in the light of Sera's flames. After a time he came back--and from at least a dozen places, Sera heard the plinking of water against metal.



"Found some cans'n stuff," he said, as he dropped down between Aedan and Astra. "Set 'em under the leaks. Water should be clean enough, once we boil'n filter it."



Sera sighed, and nodded, unspeakably grateful for Ratt's survival skills. Astra opened her backpack and handed each of them a single sandwich. Ratt looked mournfully at his, and began to nibble it, to make it last as long as possible. The twins followed his example, but Astra looked apprehensively at JJ. "If...if we're here very long," she said hesitantly, "And if JJ doesn't wake up--"



"Sports drink," Aedan said abruptly. "Sugar'n vitamins. We can get him to swallow, can't we, Ma?"



"I--should think so." She stroked the hair off of JJ's forehead. He looked so young, and yet so like John...she felt her heart bleeding. John--John-- Without him she was less than half herself. And John--without them? They were his world, as he was theirs. At this moment--



We must live, and find our way back to him.



"Ma--where are we?" Aedan asked hesitantly. "What were those things?"



She bit her lip. They were her children, her babies, and yet--they were not children anymore. They had proved that, over and over again. This was not the time to protect them. They must know what they faced. "I--what we fought, were the Fallen."



All three of them took a swift intake of breath, although Astra, having touched their minds, already knew what they were. "But Ma!" Aedan protested. "How? An' how come Pa's off the Family Channel?"



"I do not know for certain--and I am thinking out loud, darlings," she said, walling off the stab of pain and grief she felt at Aedan's words. "But this is my guess. You know that within the Infinite, all things are possible."



They nodded.



"And so, among all the worlds that are possible, there are worlds, Earths, where the Fallen hold sway. I believe this is one such." She picked up JJ's limp hand and held it tightly. There was much of John in him--and some of her. She took comfort from that. "I think that they have not held this world for long. Perhaps thirty years at most. Long enough to have conquered open opposition, not long enough to have driven covert opposition into despair and apathy."



Astra nodded at that. "There were freedom fighters in their memories. So they have to be around here somewhere."



"But Pa--" Aedan said plaintively.



And my siblings. The Song. The Divine Infinite-- "It is in the nature of the Fallen that although the Infinite still holds them, they have closed themselves off from it," she explained painfully. "It is an absolute wall that they place about themselves and any physical world that they hold, mental, spiritual, emotional, magical. Nothing gets out, nothing gets in." She looked steadily at Ratt a moment; he met her eyes, and a tear welled up and cut a path down his dirty cheek. He knew, better than the twins, what she meant. He had saved his mother's spirit from this fate, from descending into the endless mire of despair that the Fallen sought to pull souls into. "If once they see me, sense me, they will know me. They will know what I am. I am the living negation of all that they hold to. And they will try to destroy me." She forestalled their protests with a raised hand. "I am only telling you what their goal will be. This might work to our advantage. While they concentrate on me, they may pay less attention to you. But we must try to stay hidden. Pitched battles are not in our favor." She looked to Ratt. "This place is, indeed, very like Praetorian Earth. Those in command will be different, but their motives are not dissimilar. The Fallen feed on despair and pain as some of the Praetorians do. So...tell us what to do, Ratt."



Ratt scratched his head, furrowing his brow. "Well...we gotta get home. So, I guess the first thing is t'find these Rebels. See if we kin get 'em t'help us. Yeah?" He paused. "Act'lly, the first thing is, we gotta find somethin' we kin trade fer food. The sammiches ain't gonna last too long." He pondered that a moment, and his eyes lit on Astra. "Ya know what? I betcha th' folks in that shanty town never see so much as an asp'rin. Astra, we kin trade healin' fer food."



Astra opened her mouth to protest--then stopped. < Need's a hard master, > said the Kheldian, Kyne. < We'll figure out a way to make it fair. But healing is all we've got, kiddo. > Astra sighed. "All right, Kyne," she agreed, sadly. Sera's aching heart hurt a little more for her generous daughter, who would gladly have healed anyone she came across without asking so much as a crumb in return.



Ratt nodded. "OK, we got a plan, then. I'll go make contact." He grimaced. "At least I look th'part." It was his habit to wear his old Praetorian rags as a kind of uniform of honor whenever he went Portal-hopping. Now Sera was glad he had. As practical and shielding as the armor the rest of them wore was, it was going to stand out like neon signs. "I'll figger out who's safe t'talk to, palaver healin' for food an' whatever else we need. Then I'll figger how to make contact with these Rebels. I reckon if anyone knows where there's a Portal, they will."



Again, Sera nodded. There could be Portal science here; the Fallen would want to find other universes where their kind were the conquerors. Magicians also knew the ways of opening Portals; both the Circle of Thorns and the Banished Pantheon were adept at such things, and both would welcome the Fallen as their Masters.



And...there might be one other way...but she would not think about that right now.



Though her mind, her spirit, might be cut off from the Infinite, yet the Infinite had found a way to sustain her, even here. Her fires were not burning out. She felt...as she had since she had been granted her wings again. With a thought, she called the wings up, and spread them wide, beckoning to her children. "Come, use me for a pillow," she said, love infusing every word. "I will keep you warm and watch in the night. You know I do not not need to sleep."



All three of them were too exhausted, too weary of spirit and mind, and too lost to argue. Ratt and Aedan curled up against her shoulders; Astra pillowed her head in her mother's lap, beside the unconscious JJ. She furled her wings around all of them, and let her fires diminsh to a warming, faint glow. Within moments they were asleep.



She held them, her babies, and slow tears dropped from her eyes as she listened to the echoing silence in her soul and allowed her heart to ache. She knew where he was this night, or at least, what he was doing. Frantically trying to find them. Whatever disaster had cast them here, he would beat himself against it like a bird against the bars of a cage, until he either broke them free, or fell to the ground, exhausted and--dying--



John--John--oh, John..... She faltered, and barely caught herself. This was the land of despair and the death of hope. This was what the Fallen fostered. It was so hard to fight against it, to remember that this was not all there was.



But she must bear this. For his sake. For theirs. Yes, there was one final escape possible for them all. Death would free them. The Fallen could not hold their spirits. But it was an exit she was not willing to take, for no matter where they were, even in this extremity, she and John were bound as one life. If hers ended, so would his. Did he remember that, even now? Did that thought, grim as it was, give him some tiny measure of hope? Let it be so....oh let it be so....



And I won't go
I won't sleep
I can't breathe
Until you're resting here with me



And I won't leave
I can't hide
I cannot be
Until you're resting here with me