It is the morning after arriving in Babel, only just after the rising of the sun, and presently it seems that the only people up and about would be the servants and slaves who, since some wee hour have been going about daily chores in a time when they are least likely to offend guests of the tower with their intrusive presence. There are only a few Eeee overseers, coordinators, couriers, mostly, though some hold menial tasks such as cleaning windows that those without wings could not hope to reach. There are also many Nagai the serpent-people hissing to each other in a strange variation of the Babelite tongue as they go about their duties, and switching to a something more understandable only when issuing commands to the slaves under their command.
And at the bottom rung of this ladder would be the Savanites the spotted, wiry felines that sprint here and there with impressive and sometimes seemingly impossible speed, and who silently carry out their tasks, seemingly telepathic or robotic to outsiders, for their silent signs to each other are so subtle or carefully hidden as to easily escape notice to those unfamiliar with the nature of their language.
However, there's at least one Eeee up and about who has a greater understanding of this language than most, for Alptraum has already gotten up and prepared himself for the new day. Occasionally, he senses curious eyes at his back, as the servants must wonder why this guest should be up and roaming about so early, and sometimes they abort their cleaning work, bowing with faces hidden, as they step aside and hope not to obstruct his passing.
As Autumn-Storm taught Alptraum, Silent Sign is three languages in one, a very redundant form of communication with more than one way to say something, and a very flexible grammar. First is Formal Sign, which depends upon turning the hand and positioning the fingers in various directions to create a variety of words and word combinations perhaps the most difficult to master, as the necessity of adding new words over time has required odd combinations of signs to form them … combinations that at times seem less than intuitive. Added to that, Formal Sign is slow and requires great precision; moving too fast may communicate the wrong idea, for a missing sign or a hand slightly in the wrong position or a finger still in motion could convey an entirely different meaning. Species that don't happen to have four fingers and a thumb on each hand are at a great disadvantage.
Second would be Wild Sign, a more expressive form of the language that relies on the whole body to contribute to the conveying of a message. A great deal of it is pantomime, and also very regional. Referring to "this thing" or "that thing" generally just involves pointing at it. "Yes" is a nod of the head, "no" a shake, "me" a finger pointed at oneself, a "thumbs up" recognizable as either approval or well-wishing, a "thumbs down" as disapproval things that even those who don't know "Wild Sign" tend to pick up if they live in Rephidim or any area frequented by airship crews. (Obscene gestures, of course, are readily understood by non-Savanites.)
Last would be "City Sign," the most subtle and most varied of the three "languages," and here it is more a code than a true language. This is the secret cant of slaves, a collection of seemingly "innocent" gestures scratching an itch here, a twitch of a tail tip there, a flick of an ear, a wiggle of a whisker, in combination with several other such gestures that might look to the uninitiated like a nervous twitch on the part of a slave at worst, but certainly not communication.
The trouble is, these "codes" are usually unique to any group of slaves … sometimes carried on by a slave that moves from place to place, but generally relocation requires a Savanite slave to learn the new "City Sign" of the other slaves in service of his new master. This also applies to Alptraum and thus, he gets the feeling that there are "whisperings" going on that he is not privy to, from the number of nervous tail-twitches and such going on.
Coalition Tower Slaves' Quarters
The large tower structures of Babel are more like city blocks in other places, though a considerable amount of the interior space is open, obstructed only by structural supports and bridges spanning here and there, making access between floors easy for those gifted with wings (and a nuisance at best for those without). There are many other sections just like this one, but here, a few floors down (and each "floor" being a considerable span, with branching corridors tall and wide enough to fly rather than walk) is a cluster of chambers, almost like cottages built within the interior space, walled off from the rest of the tower in such a way that a casual flier might not even notice their existence only appropriate, since these are the quarters of slaves, and the best of slaves act without being seen.
Alptraum makes his way down into the tower proper, approaching the area that is designated as quarters (and supplies) for the slaves. At the other end of the bridge he presently crosses, a wide opening shows the brightening morning sky, though the sun itself is blocked out by neighboring towers.
It's still dark enough that lanterns hang at regular intervals to light the way, even with so many openings to allow in sunlight. A threesome of Savanite cubs, however, make their way across the bridge with snuffers, putting out flames. (Lanterns in the lower levels, however, will likely remain lit all day.)
One of the cubs stops in his chores, and looks up to Alptraum with an expression that seems a mixture of surprise and curiosity, but he quickly bows his head, splaying his hands (snuffer still clutched in the right) in a gesture that basically means, "How may I be of service?"
Alptraum signs back in reply, "No need to be so formal with me, little one. I'm just exploring the grounds and trying to get a bearing on where I am. I'm new in town." He pauses for a moment to tap his chin, thinking. "Well, perhaps you'd be willing to guide me around some? Show me what's what? And by the way, what is your name?"
The cub just seems dumbfounded now, his jaw agape. He blinks a few times, then taps at the drab wooden collar around his neck. Only now that his attention is called to the collar can Alptraum see barely, in the poor light that it has engraved in it, in Babelite script, "Resh."
"Resh," Alptraum pronounces, taking a bit to read the script. "Pleasure to meet you. I'm … well … my name would mean Nightmare in your language," he signs with a smile.
The cub shakes his head vigorously, and then his ears blush and he bows his head low.
The two other Savanite cubs still keep about their business of snuffing out lamps even though the light is poor enough here that it seems a bit premature for that but it's evident that they're sneaking peeks at the exchange whenever they can manage.
Alptraum kneels down to bring him more to the cub's level. "Hey, no need to bow your head like that. Well, not to me, anyway. Would you do me the honor of showing me around this place? I've heard that even a prince lives here," comes the Eeee's response.
As Alptraum stoops down to the cub's level, he can see that the cub's eyes are full of tears. He sniffles and wipes his eyes with his free hand, then moves his hands in pantomimes that generally mean, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," and "Have mercy, have mercy." He shakes with fear.
"Hey, it's all right," Alptraum says, aloud this time. "I'm not going to harm you. I'm not mad at you for anything. Even if I was, I wouldn't hurt you."
The cub clasps his paws together, clutching the lantern-snuffer as if for comfort, and chews on his lip curiously as he fights with a case of the sniffles.
"Why are you frightened of me?" Alptraum asks in sign.
The cub seems frozen in place, unable to answer. One of the other cubs, though a girl, slightly older than the child standing in front of Alptraum, walks over though the third cub (a boy somewhere between the ages of the other two) at least makes acts to seem like he's still busy. She puts a hand on the youngest cub's shoulder, and wags a hand as if to scold him.
"He's not in trouble," Alptraum now signs to the girl. "I know your language because one of my best friends, Autumn-Storm, taught it to me. I asked her to. You can speak freely with me."
The girl's collar identifies her as "Shea," and when she looks to Alptraum, she verifies this by making the sign and pointing to herself, then naming the boy cub beside her as "Resh," and the third (and distant) child, "Tauh." "You look like the scribe," she signs, in unpracticed gestures, making Alptraum's hand-signs look fluent compared to her own. "Why say you are his nightmare? We work hard. If you wish to beat, beat me, for I am oldest; he is only a kitten."
Alptraum half grins, understanding. "My name means Nightmare in your language. I was named such because those around me feared me when I was younger. I'm not going to beat any of you. I don't know how others treat you here, but I am not from here. I consider you equals and will treat you as such," comes the reply.
The girl looks at Alptraum with unbelieving eyes, doubtful of his gregarious airs. She makes a roll of the hand and a bow that conveys, "As you wish," albeit awkwardly.
"Do I sound like I'm from around here?" Alptraum then says, not trying to mask his accent. "In any event, who is the scribe you talk about? I was told those who look like me are fairly rare."
Shea signs, "With still tongue and hands, with nicer clothes and washed hair, you'd be double for the scribe."
"Really? I'd like to meet this scribe, then. Would you show me the way, please?" Alptraum asks.
That "as you wish" gesture again, and Shea turns to Resh to pull out a handkerchief and wipe his eyes and clean his nose. Without further signs, she gives him a gentle push toward Tauh. Resh clutches his snuffer tightly and sprints across the bridge toward the older cub, and together they dart off toward more points of light to put them out. Satisfied, Shea looks to Alptraum, nods, then starts walking past him, to the edge of the bridge, and then turning down a walkway Alptraum has not yet explored (which, really, includes the vast majority of walkways in the building as of yet).
Alptraum glances back toward the other two cubs, then follows after Shea. "Thank you," he says as he follows along.
It takes quite a bit of walking, going along this walkway, turning here, going down some stairs there, and occasionally they pass away from the central shaft into some side corridor, then down some stairs, and back out again, making it very clear to Alptraum that if he were not obliged to be following a guide without wings, he could have covered this distance in far less time. But, little can be done for that, as it would surely be a horror to try to solicit directions from her to navigate this labyrinthine tower and to know just the right level and corridor to branch off to. By the time they make it to any place worth noting, there is not a lit lantern around to be seen, and the sun has risen enough to provide serviceable light for navigating the corridors safely.
For the entire walk, they do not encounter another soul, and though it is clear that they have left the area primarily reserved for the servants some bit ago, it is also clear that the servants are more occupied with keeping the upper-most levels clean and tidy (spotless, save for themselves), whereas the rest of the building must be a little dusty, a little neglected, because there simply aren't enough of them to hope to manage such an absurdly large complex on their own.
But at last, Alptraum hears some noise it sounds like a musical instrument, stringed, of some sort, being played by only moderately skilled hands, accompanied by some humming, and frequently breaking off, then followed by the dry rustle of a page of parchment being turned in a book.
Alptraum's ears cant, trying to focus on that humming.
Shea comes down a branching corridor that terminates in a large window that unlike the windows on the upper level actually has glass in it, and a very thick pane at that, reinforced with beautifully sculpted but still sturdy-looking bars. Chips in the glass on the outside hint that the window has not been spared all attempts at vandalism, and it could do for a bit of washing. The servant passes many doors, coming to the last on the left, and Alptraum can tell that whomever is humming is on the other side of this door. Shea hesitates, then puts her knuckles to the door in some sort of forced bravado, and knocks rapidly.
And just as rapidly … she dashes away, running down the corridor, right past Alptraum!
Alptraum blinks, then says, "Um, thanks!" after the fleeing cheetah. He then swallows and puts his hands behind his back and waits nervously for a moment. Could this be her? If it is, will she even recognize me? Does she want to? It's not like I'm a good omen to have around, it seems. "Forgive my intrusion," he manages the courage to say. "But have I reached the office of the scribe?"
A dissonant pluck of a string. The scrape of a wooden leg against tiled floor. The sound of a hollow wooden instrument being gently set down upon a table. Booted feet tapping toward the door. "Who is it?" comes a male voice from the other side.
"Alptraum bar Reisender," Alptraum replies. "I came into town with Sihr Ariel bint Azale. I'm new to Babel, and wish to learn of this town. I thought perhaps the scribe could help me with that? Please? I'll try not to take up too much time."
"A newcomer wandering about the tower at this hour of the morning? Oh, what matter? If you're some assassin, at least the day won't be dull." The door creaks open, and it takes Alptraum a moment to realize just what he's seeing. The room beyond is an oddly shaped suite, with barred windows along a curved wall that goes from the south around to the east across from the door, and a tall ceiling. A strange rack some sort of torture device? is positioned across the way, and Alptraum can see that nearby it are several other odd contraptions. There is also a bed, some furnishings, but nothing that looks like some scribe's office. Nor does the Eeee in front of him look like a scribe. His muscles are firm and well-defined, his arms left mostly bare by his short-sleeved tunic. His hair is long and perfectly clean and combed, and bound behind his head. His fur and teeth are immaculate. But that's hardly worth any notice for he looks, aside from those little details … exactly like Alptraum.
Alptraum blinks a few times and shifts his weight a bit. "Good morning, sir. I really don't mean to intrude. My… " He finds himself a loss for words.
The scribe squints his eyes, looking Alptraum looking up and down. "Is this some sort of jest?"
"No jest, sir. I I'm as confused as you are," Alptraum replies."Forgive me, but I've never seen anyone else like me before."
The scribe steps back and sweeps a hand to indicate the room, as he pulls the door the rest of the way open. "Forgiven." He cracks a faint grin. "I do not think this will be such a dull day after all."
"May I ask your name?" Alptraum inquires as he steps into the room and looks around.
"Scribe Rikat," the double says, and as Alptraum looks around, he can see that the room is decorated with a mish-mash of curios, many of them looking to be quite valuable, but quite a few of them looking to be broken, then glued back together again idols, figurines from foreign lands (none of them Sylvania, that Alptraum can tell), weapons, masks, tapestries, dried plants pressed between glass, stuffed animal heads. "I do not often have visitors."
"Rikit? A pleasure to meet you. As I've said, my name is Alptraum. I… ," Alptraum says, then sighs. "This is just really strange. I've never felt like I was looking in a mirror before. Sure, black fir and white hair but the eyes."
Rikat hmms and nods, though he doesn't seem so greatly impressed as if anything amused. "Uncanny, yes. You have an accent. Where are you from?"
"From, well, here originally. Born here some twenty-two years ago. Exactly when, I don't know. I grew up in Sylvania," Alptraum admits.
Rikat raises his eyebrows. "What a small world. I am twenty-two years old as well, going on twenty-three. A grown man and I'm still not let out on my own."
"Avralie, well, being out there isn't all that grand. I've been on the road near my entire life," Alptraum replies. "Who was your mother?" Alptraum then asks a bit more quietly.
Rikat frowns. "What sort of a question is that?"
"I never knew mine," Alptraum admits. "Thought perhaps mine might have been related to yours or some such. It would explain the resemblance. I don't even really know who I am."
"I am born of House Tekkis," Rikat says, "though my family was slaughtered by the dropping of the Boomer."
"I see," Alptraum says. "I am sorry for asking. My curiosity has often been my bane."
Rikat shrugs. "No harm." He turns away, walking to the window. "So why are you here?"
"Now that is a long story," Alptraum says with a sigh. "I was asked to come, by the Yodhsunala. No idea why, really. They just kept claiming I was special and Babel needed me. I mainly came to try and find the answer about who and what I am. Why I was so different. All I find are more mysteries."
Rikat raises an eyebrow, turning around. "The Yodhsunala called you? You came all the way from some foreign land? How far away? Did you have any adventures coming here?"
"Called, in a way. Then one came for me, Yodhsunala Nekara," Alptraum replies. "And as for the journey, plenty of adventure. I'm rather surprised I'm still alive after it all. All the way from Sylvania to here. Several trips by boat and airship."
"Fascinating," Rikat says, staring back out the window again. "So … you get to go anywhere you want, then?"
"The life of the gypsy is to travel," Alptraum answers.
Rikat nods quietly. "It sounds splendid. I envy you."
"Sounds. But isn't. It's not that great out there … not if you look like, well, me. I was much the pariah, just because of how I looked. Life out there is hard, Rikit. I envy you," Alptraum replies. "To have known your family and to have been safe. Two things I never had. Seems trivial, till you're denied them."
"Hmm," muses Rikat, as he rubs his chin with one hand. "Do you like parties? Balls? Inane chatter with beautiful girls who will laugh at anything you say, even if you talk gibberish? A parade of posers vying to sit at your table, so they can brag about it to their friends afterward? Servants tending to your every need and desire, waiting on you hand and foot and tail and wing?"
"Actually, I do like parties. But the others, not particularly, no. But it beats being stuffed into a cage. It beats having to live and hunt day by day," Alptraum says.
"Well then!" Rikat says, sweeping one hand as he spins about to face Alptraum again. "I propose an idea. I shall be Apple-tram, and you shall be Rikat. I have learned a great many useless skills, and I'm certain I can fix up your hair and make you passable as me. No one cares greatly what I have to say, so you needn't worry about that. I'll even pay you. Just for a time so I can see what it's like to be free."
Alptraum shakes his head. "I can't put you in that sort of danger, Rikat. Not all the Yodh are happy I'm here. One has already made an attempt on my life. You're obviously someone important. I'm a nobody. I'm going to find my friends, then probably move on," he says.
In a flash, Rikat's hand launches from where it was just a moment earlier lazily hanging by his side, to grasp Alptraum by the throat. With a strength more appropriate to a Jupani, perhaps, but certainly not an Eeee, Alptraum's double lifts him off his feet and slams him back against the wall. There's a fierce look in Rikat's eyes, a flash of intense anger that wasn't there a moment before indeed, it seems that the careless, bored "scribe" has been replaced by a monster and then, before Alptraum can even recover from the shock, can even manage to strike back in his own defense the look fades, and Rikat lets go, letting Alptraum slide down the wall. The scribe backs away. "I can defend myself," he says, coldly.
Alptraum's lips pull back off his fangs and the Eeee glares. "So can I, Rikat. And I believe I've just overstayed my welcome," comes Alptraum's reply, then lets out a breath to calm himself down.
"Go on then," Rikat says, waving his hand in dismissal. "Be a nobody. Go find your nobody friends. Just go."
"Indeed. And you can live you life threatening people when you don't get your way," Alptraum retorts and gets back to his feet. "And there is one part of me you could not simulate, anyway. Nor one part of you I could simulate. The trick would not work."
"GO!" Rikat repeats, louder, fuming.
"I'm a vampire, Rikat. You couldn't fake that. And I won't condemn you to living with the treatment I do," Alptraum says quietly, then heads to the door.
His egress from the room is not blocked by the fuming not-Alptraum. When Alptraum makes it to the hallway, he finds that it is no longer empty. A couple of serpents in glistening chitin armor are slithering down the hall, carrying pole arms. One of them hisses, loudly, "What is the disturbance?"
"Just an argument, nothing else," Alptraum replies with a shrug. "I'm leaving."
The serpents look at each other, momentarily confused. "Don't go too far," one of them cautions, but they part to each side to allow Alptraum through.
"Oh. Forgive me. I am not Rikat. He is inside," Alptraum replies and starts to walk away.
Once Alptraum makes it around the corner, he can hear the serpents laughing.
Alptraum turns and walks back around the corner to face the guards. "What are you laughing at?" he asks.
Just as Alptraum turns back around the corner, Rikat bursts out of his room. His clothes are a mess, and his hair all in disarray. "Guards!" he shrieks, when his eyes alight upon Alptraum still in the hall. "Seize him! He's an impostor, come to assassinate me and take my place! Get him before he escapes! Sound the alarm!"
The serpents react to this with surprising swiftness and even more impressive agility, as their heads whip toward the real Rikat, then back to Alptraum and they move into action.
"What the!?" Alptraum screams. "Just because I wouldn't switch places with you … " He then turns and runs full tilt, looking for a window to dive out of and take flight.
There are many windows … but they're all barred, just like all the windows Alptraum has seen on this level so far. If only he had the running speed of Autumn-Storm. If only he had that cheetah cub to guide him through this labyrinth of corridors. If only there were a nice big hole to jump through. If only the snakes didn't move nearly so fast on their coils.
Alptraum continues to high-tail it down the corridors, skidding around the corners. He looks around madly, trying to find somewhat out of this building. "Why did I come to Babel? I'm a fool," he curses inwardly.
A gong sounds out behind Alptraum, and he can hear shouts from several quarters and a few screams, too. The two serpents are still hot on his tail, wriggling down the corridor, pressing their coils off of wall and floor and even ceiling in a way that defies logic and defies Alptraum's attempts to outpace them without the freedom of flight. But then, as he turns around, the corridor widens. There's a straightaway down toward the central shaft, which he could fly down without obstruction. There are also many branching corridors off of it, and he can't see what's down any of them.
Alptraum darts down a side corridor and looks for a room to duck into. Perhaps he can hide and wait them out. "This is insane," he thinks.
One door is cracked just a bit open, and in Alptraum's desperation, he dives into the darkness inside. The door slams shut, coils slither past, and he can hear another door opening up one that for an instant he was tempted to open, but for some reason turned away from and he can hear several shouting Eeee and Nagai and something else big in chitin armor bursting out. "Catch the impostor!" one of the serpents shouts.
All the shouting outside apparently covers the sound of the female scream from the room that Alptraum has just dived into.
Alptraum breathes slowly, trying to catch his breath. "How are you getting out of this one, Traum?" he ponders, then swallows and turns. Being in the same room, he did hear the scream.
The scream abruptly stifles. "Oh! It's you," comes a familiar voice It must be Davaryna, especially by the girlish giggle that follows it. She whispers, conspiratorially, "It sounds like you're trying to hide. How much will you pay me to keep a secret? Yodhbarada don't keep others' secrets for free. Not unless there's something in it for them, of course."
"Why does he look like me?" Alptraum hisses.
As Alptraum has a chance to regain his bearings, his ears do enough with the ambient sound to spell out the general shape of the room, and the location of the priestess sleeping late, it seems, hanging from the ceiling. There's a flutter of wings, and the priestess lights upon the floor. "Oh! Questions, questions. I don't think you understand. You just woke me up. I'm not feeling generous right now." This said in what seems a teasing tone, though there's something malevolent just underneath the surface.
Alptraum approaches the priestess, silver eyes narrowing. "I'm not exactly feeling generous right now too. What is it that you want from me? I know you want something in particular," he replies coldly.
"Secrets are lovely," Davaryna whispers, "but money will do or you can simply owe me an unspecified favor to be called in later at my discretion. And do keep in mind owed favors will be collected."
"Like I have any money, Davaryna," Alptraum replies. "I don't know if there is anything about me you don't already know."
"Then an owed favor it is!" Davaryna squeals, clapping her hands together.
"Did you hear something?" someone growls outside in the corridor.
To Davaryna's credit, she doesn't giggle or shriek or babble, instead letting a silence fall upon the room, letting Alptraum sweat as he considers the implications of owing her a favor.
"I like that idea even less," Alptraum whispers. He takes in a slow breath, then whispers, "Fine. I don't think it matters anymore. I'm a blood-drinker. That is my darkest secret."
Silence follows Alptraum's admission within the room. Coils shuffle, paws stamp, chitin scuffs, wings flap. Many doors open … but not this one. There's a rap at the door. "Forgive me, Yodhbarada," a timid-sounding serpent hisses, "but are you all right? There is an intruder on the loose!"
"Oh, bother!" Davaryna squeaks, yawning loudly, then throwing a piece of pottery at the door sending shards flying every which way on impact. "Go away, you horrible slithering thing! Let me go back to sleep, or I'll tell the whole world what you really did last holiday!"
"Forgive me!" the guard cries out, and he quickly scurries away.
Time passes, as Alptraum holds his tongue, holds his breath. It seems an eternity. But at last, it sounds like things might be calming down. Coils slide past the door boots, too but without any great urgency.
"Mmmmm," Davaryna purrs. "Well, a pity you can't owe me a favor, too. I suppose you'll be wanting to sneak out of here, now won't you?"
"Avralie," Alptraum says and shrugs. "Not that it matters anymore. Everyone wants to kill me."
"Oh woe!" Davaryna squeaks mockingly, then giggles. "Well now. I'll have to fashion for you a disguise. You haven't, perchance, any idea where you'd like to go from here, now would you?"
"I'm going to the Sunala Temple, then probably out of Babel," Alptraum replies.
"You say that as if one would allow for the other," Davaryna giggles, and rustles around in the darkness. "Here. Put this on. It will have to do." She hands him a thick bundle of cloth: robes.
Alptraum fiddles with the robes some, fitting them onto his body. "This is a Yodhsunala outfit or some such, isn't it?" he asks.
"That would be too perfect," Davaryna says, "and I honestly wish I had the foresight to think to have such a set of robes. But, no, you're just putting on my spare robes, and I'll do something about your fur. Let me put on some light… " She works with the sparker on the lantern.
Fortunately for Alptraum, he manages to rid himself of the disguise and Davaryna before actually reaching the temple, by stopping by a very seedy-looking tavern. The presence of the priestess seems to be enough to encourage the patrons not to pay too much attention, and if anyone is curious about the idea of two Yodhbarada going into the washroom and only one Yodhbarada and some strange male coming out, they don't act on it. So, after a little more teasing and flirting from the priestess of secrets, Alptraum wings his way toward the Temple of Sunala an unfriendly-looking mountain with a long red-stoned path winding up its side, bound in by rope fences, and flanked by ancient statues that seem more like graveyard memorials than idols.
Alptraum is wise to remember what he was told of certain taboos here in the city. He keeps well clear of the Wound and the Yodhrephath airship patrolling it. He also takes to the ground at the base of the mountain rather than simply flying straight to the temple. He finds a group of pilgrims to try to blend in with, as they make their long trek toward the summit. Although he may have very distinctive looks, the pilgrims seem more interested in their own concerns not some white-haired, black-furred fellow with patches of fur-coloration here and there that refused to come off totally clean.
Alptraum takes in a breath again. "I hope this is the right thing to do. I just don't know anymore. Was Rikat my brother? Great, now he's trying to kill me. All I can do is move forward and hope," he thinks as he slowly climbs the stairway.
Now and then, there is a priestess of Sunala along the route, her chin high and haughty. The pilgrims are careful to bow low, to say nothing unless spoken to, and even then, to respond in humility, even when the "blessings" offered by the Yodhsunala occasionally sound like mocking insults.
"You there," one of the priestesses says in a mocking tone and she can't even be more than sixteen years of age, though she looks at Alptraum as if he's her junior "Such a fine head of hair wasted on a man."
"I am sorry to have wasted it, Yodhsunala," Alptraum replies and bows low. He has no desire to get into any more trouble.
The girl laughs when Alptraum bows, and tussles his hair with one hand as if he were a child. "Wash it sometime then," she taunts. "On with you."
"I will, Yodhsunala," comes his reply and he continues onward.
So it continues, Alptraum occasionally having to suffer some indignity on the way up, but shouldering it like the others. As they walk along, Alptraum can't help but notice a few bones lying along the path. Are they bones of beasts? Or perhaps not? Even when he ponders this, he sees a body lying along the way an old Eeee man, sprawled along the way, the joints of his wings so swollen as to be unusable, and twitching besides. He wheezes, and the pilgrims walk to the opposite side of the path, keeping their distance from him. He says nothing, not even looking up to those passing by. He just lies there, askew.
Alptraum moves toward the man and asks quietly, "Would you like me to carry you the rest of the way?"
"How much will it cost?" the old man wheezes. "I have not much on me."
"Nothing," Alptraum says softly. "I need no reward to help someone."
The pilgrims move on, not slowing down for Alptraum, and certainly not for the old man. The old bat looks up. "Ah. I do not believe you. But I haven't the strength to protest. What harm can it do? If you need no reward, then help me up, and I will give you the no reward you need." He tries to laugh, but breaks into fits of coughing.
Alptraum does indeed that, he helps the man carefully up to his feet, then uses his shoulder to bear a great deal of the man's weight. "We'll go as slowly as you need," Alptraum says. "Tell me when you need rest." He then starts to move, trying to help the man up the stairway.
The man leans heavily on Alptraum, and although the man cannot be all that heavy, the path is already awkward, and the man's off-kilter motions make it all that more difficult to navigate. "Two drunken sailors!" a Yodhsunala jokes when she sees the two staggering along, and laughs at their expense.
There is a second Yodhsunala at this bend, though, and rather than laughing, she frowns severely at the scene, following Alptraum and the old man with her eyes. Alptraum has made it over halfway up the slope, but it seems that the remainder is that much further, with his added burden far enough to make him wonder if he will have the strength to climb the whole of the way (and likely to wonder how the old man was crazy enough to ever think he'd make it alone).
Alptraum bears the insults, his eyes looking straight ahead as he moves onward. Inwardly, he prays to have the strength to carry the man all the way. His resolve then hardens. I'll find the strength to make it; I told the old man I would do it.
If Alptraum weren't so determined, he would surely falter along the way, not to mention the rough time the old man is having of it even with the help. But somehow they manage. Somehow, despite all the rottenness that has gone on during this wretched day, even though the sun sets before they reach the summit, even though the pilgrims meet them heading back down, even though the Yodhsunala first taunt them, then nearly threaten them for having the gall to still be making their way up after nightfall … at last … Alptraum and the old man make it to the foot of the temple.
Alptraum takes in a slow breath, then says, "We have arrived, my friend. I told you I would bring you. Where is it you wish to go?"
"To the graves," the old man says. "To the graves of the sacrifices. I must … must pay my respects."
"Guide me there," Alptraum says softly. "I know not the way."
"It is too late for that," a woman says, a Yodhsunala, looking much like the others, but only different for her age, for she is not a child, not a young woman, but older, with tight cheeks and thick robes to hide the disfavor of time. "You must come another day," she says to the old man. Then, she turns to Alptraum. "And you … you are expected. Leave this old man, and come with me."
"I have carried him all the way here. Please indulge me with this, and let him pay his respects," Alptraum says not pleading, but a simple, honest, request.
"My order will not be denied," the Yodhsunala says, her tone flat unsympathetic, but not condemning, either. "It is too late, but what matter that you drag him along. But you will leave him at the graves of the sacrifices as we pass them, and you will come with me."
Alptraum nods and says, "As you command, Yodhsunala."
Although there is not a steep slope to climb, the remaining steps seem as hard as any, so late into the journey, and with so many obstacles to side-step. They pass around the ziggurat, and go through a field of short towers, crypts and monuments, dwarfed by the monument, but quite capable of holding untold numbers of remains. The old man almost sings Alptraum's praises, though he lowers his voice when the Yodhsunala gives him a warning glare. "You are as kind as an heir to his rich father," he says. "A blessing on you and all your descendants Here! Here is where my Sarai lies. You need carry me no more." He shuffles toward a crypt that bears no name, no marking to distinguish it from any of the others.
Alptraum nods his head gently and smiles. "Good journey to you, then, sir. May your road ever remain peaceful," he says in farewell, then turns back to the Yodhsunala. "Thank you."
"Show your thanks by being attentive in eye and ear," the Yodhsunala says, leading Alptraum along, away from the old man and the nondescript crypt. And then, the priestess stops at a tower with stairs running around its base, spiraling upward, with numerous doors on the outside, like a Babelite tower turned inside out. She looks up. "There," she says. "There is where your mother lies."
Alptraum looks upward. So, I'm finally here, mother. I know you never knew me. But, I hope you are at peace, he thinks, then nods to the Yodhsunala. "May I ask a question, Yodhsunala?"
"You may," the priestess says, formally.
"What is Scribe … or should I say Prince Rikat's relation to me?" Alptraum then asks.
The priestess's gaze remains at some point high up the tower. "There is a word from your land: Doppelganger. That is what he is. He is your twin, because that is what he was meant to be. He shares your face and your blood, but no more than that. He stayed in Babel so that you might be sent away in secret. He was raised to be you, in your stead."
Alptraum blinks. "Then… I am a prince?" Alptraum asks, stunned.
A strange quirk falls upon the lines of the priestess's mouth. "It may be said so," she says, "but it is nothing to be thankful for. Go to the tower where your mother is buried. Read the name on her door."
Alptraum nods quietly. He then makes his way up the stairwell, and to the door the Yodhsunala indicated.
It's hard to tell exactly what door the Yodhsunala meant, as there are so many, and she seems not inclined to go out of her way to give him directions. But even as he looks to the doors, he finds that he may have even more trouble than expected. Upon this door, ringed with stonework representing a vine heavy with grapes, there is a name. The door reads, "Srinala." Upon another door, its frame a morbid stylized collection of rib-bones and skulls, the name reads, "Srinala." Another door, with a plain frame Srinala. A door ringed in a stylized chain with barbs Srinala. A door flanked by two demon warriors Srinala. Each door … Srinala.
"They are all the same," Alptraum says. "Srinala."
The priestess, still standing below as Alptraum calls back, only nods in reply.
"Which is hers, then?" Alptraum asks.
"According to faith, all of them," the priestess answers. "But walk five steps back down the way you came."
Alptraum walks five paces back down and turns to face the door there. He takes in a breath.
The door is like any of the others that are occupied, given the name inscribed upon the door, though the frame is its own design, not one Alptraum recalls being repeated in the others. A twining tree, impossibly twisted, forms the frame around the door, and in bas relief are skillfully rendered leaves on the branches, leaves in the process of falling toward the ground, where, half-buried and easily unnoticed is a single fruit of some variety unknown to Alptraum half-buried amidst the leaves.
Alptraum reaches out, brushing a fingertip over the frame. "This door is different," he says, leaning in close to inspect, his eyes going to the single piece of fruit.
A cool breeze tousles Alptraum's hair, as he inspects the fine engraving of the features, the intricate etching that spells out the rough texture of the bark, the delicate lines of the veins on each leaf, the pocked surface of the half-buried fruit.
"Almost like my mother ruffling my hair. I wish it were so," the Eeee thinks, expression sad. He then asks, "What am I? What was different about her?"
"Come down here," the priestess says in a quiet voice that still carries. "It is disrespectful to shout amongst those sleeping."
Alptraum lingers a moment longer, running his fingers over the doorframe. Then in silence, he descends.
When Alptraum reaches the bottom, the priestess starts to walk along, though slow enough for Alptraum to easily catch up with her. "You were begotten by a Srinala, when a Srinala does not beget. The Yodhsunala assigned to attend to this Srinala was held accountable for the imagined atrocity that she should allow some blasphemer to violate a Srinala so. So she was compelled to end her life honorably to fly into Srinala's realm with tattered wings and the child of this blasphemy would have shed his blood upon the altar. But she claimed without ceasing that this child was miraculously born, that no wrong had been done, and that this child whatever happen to her must live."
Alptraum only nods, not wishing to interrupt.
The pause in the priestess's story gives Alptraum plenty of opportunity to do so, but when he does not take it, she continues. "Mariamara was this one, this youth, this blessed of Sunala, who threw herself from the heights without complaint. And though her wings were tattered and unable to hold the wind, and though this great height was enough to dash a Dromodon to pieces, and the jagged points at the bottom sharp and hard enough to break a skedat's shell … she lived. She lived where none have. A miracle Sunala spared her life. And as her life was spared, we knew Sunala had spoken. The child would live as well. The child seen as a blasphemy was now a miracle from Sunala and no ill could be allowed to befall him."
"So, I am the one Nekara spoke of. She wasn't certain," Alptraum finally says. "Mariamara was sent to look after the doppelganger, wasn't she? But, why? Why was I sent away?"
The priestess nods at this. "Mariamara's body was mended, her wings made new, and she became the protector of the child, the son of the Srinala. But the Sabaoth was still alive in those days, and he heard of his miraculous birth. The Sabaoth's immortality came at a price the price of a new, healthy body to transfer his soul to when his body grew old, or suffered a mortal injury. But in this miraculous child, he saw a new potential. It would be a vessel for him, he supposed, and one he need never shed … for the child of a Srinala … would be immortal."
Alptraum blinks at this. "I am not immortal. I can't be. I wound, I fall victim to poison, I… ," he stammers.
" have no wrinkles yet to prove or disprove anything," the priestess finishes for Alptraum, then turns to look at him. "But it matters not, so long as the Sabaoth believed. He would take this miracle of Sunala, claiming it by his authority as high priest of all the gods and goddesses, and pervert it for his own benefit. That could not be allowed. Rikat came to be, to live in the child's stead. And Mariamara took the child to a faraway land, to live with a couple far from Babel but faithful to their heritage. And there she bid farewell, and returned, to tend to Rikat, who was taken into the Sabaoth's palace as a 'scribe,' but trained only to strengthen his body not his mind, for that would be replaced soon enough."
"Rikat rightly hates me, then. We have met. Earlier today, in fact. I refused to take his place so he could go free and he sent the guards after me, claiming me to be there to kill him," Alptraum replies. More quietly, he adds, "Of course, Yodhsunala Sutrana has also attempted to end my life."
The priestess raises an eyebrow at the mention of Sutrana, then nods. "There are many others who would kill you if they knew who you were not because they hate you, not because they even care about you, but because they wish to prove that you are mortal … and there is only one way to prove that, beyond all doubt. I would have preferred to leave you far from here but that is no longer my choice." She stops. The crypts have been left behind. They stand now at some walled complex (walls more symbolic than actually capable of keeping anyone with wings out) of buildings and shrines … and a garden. A young girl steps out through the vine-tangled gateway, white eyes gleaming in the Procession light.
"It's her," Alptraum whispers. "I met her first, when I first started my trek in Sylvania to get the Necromancer. We met … here. But that was only a dream."
The priestess only nods. She says nothing more. In fact, she bows low, and takes a step back. The girl dressed in robes like that of a Yodhsunala, but more elaborate than any Alptraum has seen steps forward. A smile lights up her face, and as she walks forward, her steps turn quickly into a run.
Alptraum doesn't dodge. Instead, he heads toward the little girl, a small smile appearing on his face. "It's really you," he says softly.
… which is exactly what she says at that same moment. She doesn't slow, but runs right into Alptraum, throwing her arms around him in a tight embrace. "You're here! You're here!" she squeaks.
Alptraum returns the hug equally warmly and his eyes close. "Almost didn't make it. So many things happened. Never thought I would meet you in person," he mutters, smiling. "For a while I wasn't even sure you were real. But then when you disappeared and I couldn't find you anymore I was worried you were in trouble. Then… sorry, I'm babbling."
The girl giggles, saying, "That's all right! That's all right! You're safe now." And then she looks past Alptraum to the priestess, who is still standing outside the gateway, head bowed. "Asterezadze," she says, in a soft voice, "you are dismissed."
The priestess bows again, then straightens. "As you will … Sunala."