Ten days. Ten days we’ve been arguing back and forth regarding using John’s orchard as the site of the ritual. I’ve always refused, insisting that the next site I check will be suitable. Except that they weren’t. I’ve personally visited eleven sites where the ritual was previously performed and seven were occupied by the Church, one has been built over by monsters, two have centuries old forests growing over them, and the last is now an enormous sinkhole with no observable bottom.
Now, I hover a hundred feet over his head with hook, paper, quill, and ink at the ready. However, they are not for arguing. After reading his next push for the ritual and all my unsuccessful site evaluations, I imagine I have no choice but to give in. At the very least, I need to figure out why he’s in such a hurry before I move forward.
– It’s no problem to have the orchard moved for the ritual.
~ John. It’s taken you the better part of a year to build your home here. What is possessing you to throw it all away?
“Oooooh, just trying to make you happy in an attempt to keep myself sane… Also by trying to stay happy. Why yes, that sounds completely selfish and suggests we have no actual friendship… Or is it that I’m being selfish by not telling you… Whatever, won’t be worrying you with that, Palamina. Instead I’ll be writing down…”
– Thanks for the compliment, but this place is actually nothing compared to my old place way back when. If I had actually started from scratch, planting new branches or saplings in the ground, fruit-bearing trees wouldn’t show for at least four years. The orchard here was rushed, and the trees are showing signs of dying from my carelessness.
The monthly report I sent a few days ago states that the three remaining pear trees are showing signs of rot. The rest are starting to get damaged by the cold. It’s only going to get worse once it starts snowing.
When does snow start to fall anyway?
~ Likely within the next two weeks.
But can’t you leave them alone and see if they do survive the winter? And what do you mean by rushed?
– If any of them survive, they’ll be too weakened to produce fruit on any meaningful scale for the rest of their lives. Better that they’re used as firewood or broken down for mulch.
When trees are moved from one place to another, it’s best to do it during the middle of or early spring, whenever the thaw has occurred. That gives the roots more time to
Forget it. It’s all in my report, and it’ll take too long to fully explain. Just give me a week, and I can have the entire place cleared out. You already told me before that the other sites were either built upon, grown over, or turned into a giant sinkhole so we don’t have much of a choice.
He’s lying. Or hiding something. Maybe both.
I should follow up and pry. But I can’t bring myself to as his long standing illness comes to mind.
During our regular ‘chats,’ I’ve seen him vomit or slump over slightly whenever he gets upset or starts arguing with me. It’s been too long for such behaviour to be mere flu or food poisoning.
I’m afraid that John is dying. From what, I do not know. There’s a bitter, twitching smile on my face at the thought that his final wish is to see our work completed. I want to grant it so he can have peace. So I struggle to not question him, to not foul his mood.
~ Alright. It’s good to know that there is a location to perform the ritual at. The rest of the arrangements and details have been settled and I should be able to perform it alone. Can you have the trees moved before the snow starts to fall? It’d be best to do that to avoid any mishaps with the dance.
– No problem. I’ll visit Sari and her crew later and hire the salamander gang from Thrawm village to speed it up. If I’m lucky, Garth’s research on transferring trees might save the trees too as long as they’re properly stored. I’ll save some branches in any case.
Going to start taking long walks when we’re done, Palamina?
He’s claiming that he’ll try to save the trees by properly storing them, but earlier stated that all of them are beyond hope…
I still keep my thoughts to myself.
~ I’d love to try.
“Well! Today’s the day!”
“Your despair when you get wiped out by the power of friendship!”
Or I could completely lose it from the fact that all my trees are currently suffering from the shock of being moved again. Replanting them later in the cold, starting to freeze, winter ground where their roots can no longer draw on nutrients is stupid.
“Garth’s research (and some coin) allowed their safe storage in Kitty’s forest warehouse (warecave? Wareholeinahill?). Maybe they’ll live, but if they don’t, Helen’s work helped me remember and improve on how to keep branches and stock for the spring. In one of the other fields around here, I can have a fresh start… without you.”
Oh, I’ve got all the angles worked out, do I?
“Damn straight. All my stuff except my writing tools are in there too so they won’t get messed up or interrupt the ritual. Now I’m going to greet Palamina who’s beginning to show in the distance with all the gear she’ll need to perform… … … that’s a lot of giant mirrors. Now shoo brain, shoo.
“Alright, that IS what we discussed before… Obtained some records of previous attempts at the ritual, and we found out that it could be performed solo with a lot of mirrors. There’s usually eight dancers around the ritual site, each will do a routine in sync with the ninth, main dancer. The main is always the one saturated in demonic energy and moves around to various positions for whatever stupid wizardly reason- cause magic; who knows how it works. That need for movement is why this can be pulled off by only one person. Just need to be sure that the dancer’s reflection enters and leaves the mirrors at the right times or there could be a massive explosion. Not of demonic energy but of the fiery kind that renders the site scorched and magically blazing for several days. Even though it’s a contained problem, it’s probably worse than that other thing from bad rock placement. Also, the demonic energy gets torn out from the main dancer anyway so at least that gets done… Stopgap measure, sure, but it took her entire life, measured in centuries, for a hundred foot aura to show up. This buys us a lot of time to look for something to actually suppress the aura’s appearance or maybe to research simplifying the ritual for the future. But considering how much energy Palamina has inside her…”
Hey, I sound worried. Don’t be. Soon as she dies, I’m free.
“Shut it. I told you to shoo.”
Can’t do that when I know I’m practically biting my nails at this.
I laid out (and previously carved with magic) the rune-engraved stones myself yesterday with John’s help. From the ground, he made sure the cuts, spacing, and positions were correct. The plateau looks almost like a playground of sorts now. Children could play tag or race here with the stones seemingly haphazard formation forcing twists and turns out of them. If they’re placed correctly (which they are), the demonic energy will flow from the saturated dancer and grow into crystal formations on the stones. If not, the energy will go flying all over the place and turn the landscape into a blanket of unstable crystals prone to bursting and causing chain reactions. Strange how that with a proper cleaning up afterwards, misusing the ritual could probably create a demonic realm. It’s something to consider. However, that is not what I’m after.
The crystallization of the land is an impossible scenario thanks to our work, and the plateau being set ablaze for several days and nights with me inside is also unthinkable with all the dancing practice I’ve done. However, I have no doubt that I would survive making a mistake with even the smallest fraction of my power, but John would not for somewhat unrelated reasons.
We’re both nervous about this, having examined records of the ritual’s successes but also the failures. It would be unacceptable if he drowned in a pool of stress-induced vomit whether I succeed or fail. So I wondered long and hard about how to keep his hopes up and calm him. Last night, I was looking at a charcoal drawing by Malida’s youngest child, Malory. A crude semblance of a man labeled ‘John’ is giving a shoulder ride to a tengu labeled ‘Malory.’ Malida had included it with a report on John’s health. It made me realize that, in all our time together, we’ve never actually gotten a good look at each other’s face.
Before sitting down and beginning to draw a self-portrait, I believed that this was the way I wanted John to remember me. I’m not sure what state I’ll be in with all my demonic energy drained from me, perhaps completely vulnerable or maybe the ideal scenario of only my excessive aura disappearing will come true. Still, if anything goes wrong, there would be a memento of happier times in his possession, a face to attach to all the feelings we’ve poured out, perhaps a sort of imaginary friend to talk with. Well, that last point was just silly now that I recall it. John isn’t mad, a bit crude but not mad.
Unfortunately, while I am a qualified architect and engineer… blueprint creation experience does not translate into artistic skill.
Far above the ground, I slowly dig the mirrors into the ground around the ritual site, John once again supervises their positioning. It’s done quickly, and I swiftly break out my quill, ink, hook, and rope to start what I hope will not be our last conversation.
~ Good morning, John.
– Good morning, Palamina. Ready for this deadly dance?
~ Don’t call it that. The last thing we need is for this to fail from a spot of bad luck of all things.
– Alright, sorry. I know we’re both not doing great right now. Should I get going?
This is something for you, a talisman of sorts that I hope will help you stay calm.
“Talisman? Like those papers with inky squiggles those priestesses use in Zipangu? Well this is a squiggly drawing at least. Looks like a large ball on top of a small mushroom… A horned ball with bulging eyes pointing in different directions and sparse, but long, straight lines going down the length of the mushroom’s bac- Oh! Is this supposed to be Palamina? … Pfff ha ha.”
– Clearly you’re not actually a lilim. You’re very ugly.
~ Ha ha. I’m very proud of my beauty thank you, even if I can’t do it justice personally.
– Well, you care enough to try and give it to me as a good luck charm, even if it’s perfectly good material to mock you with at the next party I attend. Thank you.
Better double check everything yourself, I’m going to find something to give in return.
And before I even start to pull up his response, he runs off into his cave.
Seeing John joke like that… It’s calming. It’s a sign of what I would call and appreciate as ‘normal.’ I can feel a hint of a smile on my face before beginning to double check these mirror and rock positions- … Oh damn, it’s starting to snow.
“I glance away from my efforts when the surprise sound of rock cracking reaches me. Palamina has done this before, bashing her hook against the cave to get my attention when I’m huddled insi- Damnit. It’s starting to snow. She’s lived here for two hundred years, of course her weather predictions are right. We’re going to be seeing enough of this damned white powder to drag our ankles through same time tomorrow, so it’s now or never. I better hurry up with my return gift.”
Gonna meeeeess up! Gonna messsss up!
“I’m not THAT worried, damnit! Go away!”
~ John, you devilish little hypocrite. You can’t draw to save your life either. I imagine your ears are actually higher up and your jaw isn’t dislocated.
– Yeah, I can only draw things with a ruler. You’ve seen my hothouse sketches.
~ What are these blots supposed to be? Pockmarks? Scars?
You drew straight lines that happened to make shapes when connected and nothing more, not unlike myself when I’m planning civil projects. Perhaps we should consider drawing our heads with the bottoms of ale mugs and our ears and eyes with a small cup just to make sure they’re at least round.
– My facial hair. I never shave unless it’s a babysitting day, kind of lazy, and it’s getting cold. Malory HATES my beard, gets in the way of her hugs, she says.
There’s an idea. We both need guides.
Keep it. Think of it as me standing by your side during the ritual.
So everything’s set up? These mirrors are huge, but why so many different shapes?
~ I will. This is a great thing we’ve done, John. I’m glad you can be here in spirit at least.
Every dancer does only one sequence. I’ve measured, cut out, and double-checked each mirror to ensure that when I perform the ritual that my reflection is caught only at the appropriate times.
– Otherwise we risk giant fiery explosion?
John, I need you to get away from here now. I have to finish this before the snow piles on.
– I know. Good luck, Palamina. I’ll be watching from the edge of the forest.
Everything’s ready… All double, even triple-checked for positioning. I won’t get a second chance. John’s terrible drawing of himself is tucked in my left leg warmer; the flapping paper tickling my bare knee as I move. It’s distracting in a good way, reminds me of John’s teasing. My efforts and his, both our fates intertwined on the success and failure of this ritual. An exaggeration perhaps, but one that will drive me to ensure I do not fail.
No billowy dress or shoes adorned in gold and baubles… No blood sacrifice, whether animal, human, or monster… No wicked knives… No virgins… Only the steps are needed. And I take my first.
Start from the center. Twist upper body, legs follow quickly halfway through. Kick right leg out and step forward as far as possible without bending the knee. Raise face to sky. Twirl, twirl, twirl, holding hands across chest and clutching shoulders to first mirror. Face mirror. Never break eye contact as arms swing outwards and fingers splay…
“Okay, try to keep busy here. Nothing to worry about, she’s a perfectionist. Doing perfect things is what she plans for and does with perfection perfectly. Just focus on the knife in my right and the wood block on my left- what am I carving again?
“… A well torn into… cube… chunk… Rock thing. My third. And I’m up to my ankles in shavings almost.”
When she toooyyyed with the laaadies and lads,
Did I seee them fuh-riiiiightened or glad?
“And the horrible, horrible singing will never end. This is why I suddenly decided to take up woodcarving with zero experience or guides. That and to try and not worry so much over what’s happening over beyond. The forest sits below the plateau enough that I can’t see it’s top, only the bottom. I’m sure I’ll see the progress of the ritual soon enough once the demonic energy transference kicks in.
“Hope this is all worth it though. I mean, yeah sure, have to try at least after all this effort, but…
“If this ritual will drain all demonic energy, how will it affect a monster?”
Backstep, backstep, backstep, not one more. Right foot lifts to touch knee. Hold. Third sequence completed.
Step… Almostfallover- steady self. I just about stumble into the fourth set of steps, resisting the urge to look around me and ruin the ritual- Plant feet, twist self around one hundred and eighty degrees, see pink ribbons of demonic energy flowing from me, one for each rock. The drain has begun, but besides the initial shock, I feel nothing- Leap forward, throwing one hand into the air. Lower hand and raise the other at the same time. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Face fourth mirror…
La La La La La La La La
La ALLYOURTREESAREGONENOW La La
La La La La La La La La
La CHANCESARETHEYDIE La La
La La La La La La La La
La REPLANTINGINWINTERISSTUPID La La
La La La La La La La La
“Kitty and Danielle were around earlier. Kind of blew them off even after Kitty offered to finally tell me how she got that nickname despite being an arachne. I’m probably going to regret not accepting that offer later, but that’s reaaaaally not worth my attention right now… Why hasn’t anything happened up there yet?”
La La La La La La La
La La La La La La
La La La DON’TLOOKUP La La
La La La La La La
La La La STOPLOOKINGUP La La
La La La La La La
“Maybe there IS progress, I just still can’t see it. I mean, even the rocks aren’t visible from where I am- Aaaaaand that’s a lot of pink.
Midway through the sixth sequence, my legs are starting to… tingle. And my arms don’t feel as light as they were at the start. The sensations are almost undetectable but are so foreign to me that I can’t help but be distracted. Not enough to miss the next step- of course- but- ah, stop thinking. There is only the dance now, and the last three sequences are much longer than the others.
Crouch. Move left leg and upper body forward. Sweep in a three-hundred and sixty degree rotation while rising. Throw arms out as far as possible in opposite directions. An open hand towards the mirror and the other pointing directly behind me. Oh, I’m getting tired. THAT’S what this sensation is. Advance towards mirror in four strides, no more, no less. Touch palms to mirror, touch right big toe to mirror. Were those crystals I saw in the corner of my eyes? Then this is working like the book described. Withdraw right foot. Touch left big toe to mirror.
“Ohhhh boy. She’s noticing those giant crystals that are forming right? That book said that the energy would gather all around the rocks like flies to honey, smooth formations looking like rough, translucent gemstones growing off of them. But… I don’t think there are any records of the crystals growing this large and this rapidly. … Godsdamnit. It’s because Palamina has so much demonic energy inside her that this is happening isn’t it? The ritual drains all energy in a set amount of time. From where I’m sitting… She’s got enough space to do the whole dance, right? … Right?”
Bring out your dead! Ring ding! Ring ding! Bring out your deaaaaad!
Quarter way through eighth sequence. My hair reverted to it’s natural white colouring back at the seventh mirror. I just couldn’t keep it up. Step forward. Bow low, flick upwards. Worry about the narrowing passageway in front of me in the way to the eighth mirror. Both feet together, heel to heel. Bend and LEAP forward. The crystals are going to press together any moment now. Spin once with arms outstretched on the spot. Come on, come on, forward movement, Forward Movement! Spin towards the next mirror, fingers stretched out as if to stroke something gently. I NEED MORE FORWARD MOVEMENT! Stop. Skip, skip, skip, spin with hands clapped together above my head, JUST make it between the crystals before it closes behind me.
Keep it moving. There is nothing to worry abou- CRACK! Resist the urge to look behind you and confirm that the growths are rapidly putting increasing pressure on each other. Just. Keep. Dancing. No matter how much I feel like I’m burning now.
“What do I do?! WHAT DO I DO?! There’s a dome forming around there now! And it’s STILL growing!”
“FUCK OFF FOR ONCE, BRAIN!”
I can’t do shit for her! Yayyyyyyyy! failure, Failure, FAILURE!
End eighth sequence. Look skyward with both my hands’ fingers opened in front of my eyes. See nothing but the sun’s light filtered through thick pink crystal that is becoming thicker still. Fissures are everywhere. My legs beg for collapse. My arms feel like lead. I’ve been sweating for a good long time now. Ha ha. I’M sweating of all things; the thought still amuses and shakes me.
Last sequence. Spin, lower and pin arms to sides. Now quickly find the cave. Why can’t I see the cave? Damn it, the direct path is blocked by crystal! Calm down. The last sequence is not a straight one. It’s a circle. Slowly… deliberately… Walk with my feet hovering (wobbling) above the ground with each step, like those figures in stories that try to sneak quietly. Outer perimeter.
I have a good guess where the cave is despite the changing environment. My shoulder brushes the crystal wall, several small bumps threaten to throw me off-balance. Some even suddenly sprout right beside me, jabbing my skin. Shards start to fall from the geode-like ceiling as a series of crunches begin snaking their way across.
Curve walking path. Make a full circuit, heading towards the center. I almost wince from tiny shards digging into the bottom of my feet, but rather than pain, there’s relief as miniscule amounts of demonic energy flow back into me. It’s an even bigger comfort to be able to start supporting my limbs with a bit of wobbly telekinesis. Hopefully I’ll finish this before this all collapses.
And I never thought I’d find myself thinking about my own… mortality, but given the situation… I hope I’ll live.
“You can hear it all the way from here. Everyone in the forest can hear it. Snap, crackle, pop. Crystals crack noisy.”
“Shut up, brain!
“Kitty showed up again, caught me muttering under my breath and behind my lips and now she’s heard that outburst. Ha, she’s ignoring me now, but I know I’m getting a funny look every now and then. Probably gonna tell all her friends that are trickling in now. I can hear the rustling, oh so loud, but the crystals CRACKING against one another is even LOUDER.”
Gonna fall like an avalanche
“I touch my right pocket, where Palamina’s ugly ‘face’ was folded away. In my head, the hilarious image of finally coming face-to-face with Palamina as I’ve seen ‘her’ is conjured along with my own ‘face.’ Two big-headed mockeries.
“Laugh my other thoughts off. Laugh at it… LAUGH, DAMNIT!”
Brush the walls with fingertips. Don’t look back.
Use a little magic to see in the dark. Don’t listen to the sounds of crystals walling up the cave.
Crouch deep enough to skim the ground with fingertips. Don’t call for help.
This strange foot-dragging gait I’m in lets me see ‘John’ flickering in and out of the bottom of my sight. ‘He’s’ a little torn from some particularly sharp crystals, a little of my blood is spattered around ‘his’ brow too. It would be nice to see him up close. To see what he looks like without a broken jaw and muddy hairs on his face.
An interesting human.
The one who got away.
A man with a life among monsters without needing to become one himself.
Stop at the very back of the cave. Press top of head against rock. Straighten hands. Lift them up. SLAM my fingers deep into the earth.
“… … It stopped. Why did it stop?”
That’s her tomb now! Pretty ain’t it?
“No, no, Palamina must have succeeded. She must have. That’s the only reason the growing stopped. She’s going to find a way out any second now.”
That ritual REALLY wasn’t meant to handle as much energy as she was packing, eh? Impaled on her own sword! Probably flattened, crushed, or punctured, gouged, and all those other words that mean-
It’s quiet. Not perfectly so, but there’s only little snaps of crystals pressing against one another now. I dare to haul my aching arms back up from the dirt and spin around so I can put my back against the wall… Oof! That landing certainly lacked grace, but clearly I can relax now. Relax in this near pitch black cave, the only light being the odd wavy shine of sunlight filtered through the enormously thick crystals blocking my way out of this cave.
I take a moment to examine myself. The ribbons of demonic energy have vanished, and what little energy I managed to retain is still present… I’m still alive. The ritual is complete. I’d celebrate, but I’m too tired… And I need to find John to have a proper party.
Ha… Ha ha… I’m exhausted, bleeding, and barely able to focus on rejuvenating myself with what power I have. … No problem. I’ll rest a while, then take back some power from the crystals to properly recover. And then…
I shift a hand over to my knee, and hold onto John’s terrible self-portrait with a little smile.
I used to experiment with giant panes of glass to see if they would fit my allseas- hothouse plans. If they didn’t work out, me and the guys and gals back at Gunecies had fun smashing them up and then the local wizard would use them for spell components or for one of those strange sculptures he did as one of his many hobbies.
And now I remember all of those giant pieces being demolished by the Church when they ‘cleansed’ the place. It’s… haunting and sounds like… loss. The cracking of that pink dome atop the plateau stopped a while back though, don’t know how long. I’m almost ready to slap my hands over my ears so I won’t have to listen to it possibly collapse in on itself.
… … … I’m going to head up there. To her. Sure, it’s a giant concentration of demonic energy, but it’s all trapped in crystal. I’ll just get that big winter coat I bought earlier this month from the warecave plus some gloves and- … My legs are moving? Already?
“I was wondering when I’d notice.”
Awww no, no no no-
“Awww yes, yes yes yes!”
When did you- How- Stop tossing that knife back and forth between my hands- what are you doing?
“Combination of stress, excitement, fear, some leftover weakness from all the vomiting and falling I’ve been causing and doing… I am not a healthy man, I see. Even talking to myself behind closed lips.”
So what? Run away now?
“On the contrary, I’m running TO. … … Her. … With this knife. This is for my own good.”
Don’t you DARE touch Palamina!
“But don’t I get it, me? I have to touch her (stabbily) before she touches me (rapily). I’ll thank me later for this, I’ll see. I have to keep myself safe. Suuuuuper safe. Should have been making traps instead of helping and tempting that lilim with my stupidly kind words and research efforts. Soon as she gets to me, IF that ritual worked (hopefully it didn’t and the crystals crushed her between them by now), I’m fucked in a grand variety of ways.”
Do not do this! How is she going to be affected by a knife anyway?
“The knife… Well I think the gesture is what counts. First thing I do now that she can get close without draining me of blood? After a ritual that drains her of demonic energy, of her power? SHICK! … That’s the sound of stabbing, right?”