Sunday, 7 July, 1839 — near Manchester, Michigan
Mount Tisé rises four thousand feet above the plains of western Tibet. Three quarters of that distance above the plain, on a sheer face of black rock five hundred feet high, windows and balconies are carefully concealed in permanently shadowed fissures in the rock. Behind them the rock has been carved out in spacious rooms lit and ventilated by hidden shafts. But there are no doors that permit access to the Pathshalla Tisé. Only the Mistress Sipaimen, who walks disguised among the towns and villages of Zhangzhung to find her students, can bring a mortal to those halls. So for centuries the holy monastery has remained secret, a rumor of peace and enlightenment hidden in the mountains that march across the roof of the world.
Tonight the mistress of the Pathshalla Tisé sits facing a lone student in a meditation room while the others sleep. The student, named Rinchen, is also seated in the lotus position, his eyes closed. Rinchen is trying tonight to achieve his first projection. He is trying to reach the mountain top, a thousand feet above the hidden school.
“Your body is safe,” Sipaimen tells the child. “Let your hold upon it weaken, as in dreaming. Dream of the mountain’s summit. There is a flat place at the very top, a place where the perpetual wind scours away the snow and ice. Can you see that place? Can you feel that wind? It blows forever, so that the gray stone is exposed. Can you feel that cold, hard stone? The Moon is full tonight. It lights the snow around the summit and all the snow of the surrounding peaks like a different daytime: the daytime of dreaming. Can you see that moonlight? It is brilliant!”
She sees his eyes moving under the lids. She stands with him on the mountaintop, even while she sits with him in the meditation room. Her heart beats faster, hoping that this child might, under her guidance, take his first steps.
Rinchen is twenty-five years old. Middle-aged, by the standards of his people on the plain below the mountain. If he stays with her, he will live longer than he might have imagined. Most likely, she cannot bring him even to the first gate, let alone the second. Yet in this life he will achieve, with her help, what it otherwise might have taken him twenty lifetimes to accomplish. And that is something, is it not?
It has been five hundred years since the end of her people’s Sequestration. Arias has spent every year of that time making this school. Believing and hoping that, even in this new and terrible world, she might make a place where she might teach as she did of old. Tonight, the wind whispers to her, she will have the reward that she has earned.
He is nearly separated from his body, but even so the child’s face lights with joy and the sight of it is a song in her heart.
“I feel it!” he says. “I can see!”
And then a tremor runs through his body, and the child’s eyes open in fear. Arias come out of her trance and looks at him with concern,but without understanding.
“Mistress? Mistress?” Rinchen says, speaking his final words. “Something—something—”
And his body convulses.
“Rinchen! Rinchen!” She leaps out of her pose and take his shoulders in her hands. “Come back now!”
She imagines the worst, that his soul has lost its connection to this body, but why?
Then Rinchen’s eyes open, and Arias knows that her worst fears were not fearful enough.
Her student’s eyes light with the fires of a demon. Rinchen’s face smiles.
“Mistress Si. Pai. Men,” the creature says. “We have come for you.”
It reaches for her throat with many times the strength that her student could have summoned from this body. Arias leaps backward. The creature rises from the floor, levitating, without bothering to stand.
“You are mine now, Sipaimen.” it says, with the voice of a frog. And it flies toward her.
“Rinchen! Rinchen!” she shouts into its face as it grapples with her with terrible strength.
“I have cast him out, mistress,” it croaks. “You will not see your slave again.” And it takes her neck in its hands, its mouth opening impossibly wide.
“Rinchen,” she says, with its hands upon her throat. Then puts forth her strength and strikes the foul thing away from her, with enough force to break human bones.
It flies to the stone floor, broken, then rises laughing, teeth lengthening in its mouth. It flies again upon her, grasping her neck again with terrible strength. Arias forces her hand underneath the demon’s, preventing it from crushing her throat, and look into its flaming eyes.
“Why do you do this?” she says to it. “What do my enemies pay you?”
“Life,” the demons grins at her. “They pay me with life. Tonight they will pay me with yours!”
Arias feel the being’s fingers tighten upon her throat.
“Then you have made a fool’s bargain, soulless one.”
Moving her hand, she breaks its grip and in the same gesture draws her weapon from the air. Its actinic radiance underlights her face.
The creature staggers backward.
“You cannot run from me mistress!” it croaks gleefully. “I will follow you forever!”
“Then do it without legs,” Arias says, and sweeps he weapon beneath the hips that once belonged to her student. The demon’s body falls to the stone floor in three pieces.
“That will not stop me!” it growls.
Arias runs past it, shouting.
“Students! Students! To me now!”
But her calls are drowned by the sound of screams.
As she runs toward the room’s door, weapon in hand, more of the creatures emerge from it, wearing the bodies of her students. One of her students, Yeshe, runs through the door, screaming, her body in flames. A demon follows behind her, leaping, falls upon her burning body. It tears out her throat and buries its face in her bleeding neck.
Arias stops, holding her weapon before her.
“We have weapons also, mistress!” one of the creatures croaks, and it flings something, a small silver disk upon the floor. The device makes a sickening buzzing noise.
The creatures advance upon her. They are demons: elementals that have been corrupted by the enemy. Creatures of this universe, soulless, and often hating the ensouled. The most advanced of them, as these are, can control the matter of this world powerfully. The enemy has done well to recruit them. If they had merely sent their soldiers, Arias is confident that she would kill them all. But these—she could cut her way though two or three of them. And then the rest would be upon her, and would feast upon her life.
Weeping, Arias translates out of the school.
But she does not. Somehow the buzzing sound of the silver disc that the one threw down prevents her. She finds herself rooted to the stone floor, as unable to translate as any child. And now the others are casting similar device about the room, their sounds increasing.
“You are ours now, mistress Si-pai-men. You cannot leave.”
She could give up her life now, destroying as many as she might. Perhaps breaking through their line to run down the corridors of her school—What a fool she has been! What a shameful fool.—to slay her own students with her weapon before they are devoured by these foul things. Arias teeters on the balance of that choice.
And chooses life
“You cannot leave,” the creature says, grinning with a distorted face. “You are ours now!”
“Not yet, soulless one,” Arias says.
Letting her weapon fade, she runs.
The creatures bound after her, some of them sprouting jointed legs like great spiders. But they did not expect her to run toward a window. Only one is able to interpose itself, and she bats it away with enough force to send it flying against the far wall.
Then, folding her arms before her, Arias hurtles through the wooden balcony’s sliding shutter-door, sending splinters flying. She plunges out into the cold air, five hundred feet above the unforgiving stone of Mount Tisé.
She has never before translated while falling.
Time, now, to learn—or die.
As she hurtles downward, passing out of the ranges of the creatures’ strange translation-suppressing devices, she can still hear the screams of her students echoing from the walls of her school.
She will hear them in her dreams for the rest of her life.
Arias awakens seated in the lotus position on Prospect Hill a few miles north of the village of Manchester at four o’clock in the morning. Prospect Hill is the highest point in gently rolling western Washtenaw County, and now in the cool hour before dawn offers an unobstructed view of the clear night sky. In a little more than an hour the Sun will be rising, but there is no indication of it yet save the slightest paling of the eastern sky. The sliver of moon, a few days from the new, has risen a hand’s length in the east while, high in the sky, Cygnus the swan has begun her journey westward down what some of Arias’s recent friends call the Great Sky Road. In the north the Big Dipper is perfectly right-side-up, parallel to the distant horizon, as though ready to scoop up the falling dew while, up near the zenith, old Cassiopeia rides like a bright letter M. The sky is clear and dark, with no obscuring haze in the dry air, no sound yet of birds. There are not even cricket sounds in this high place.
Arias has walked the Earth for two hundred lives of men—she does not include the long years of her people’s Sequestration—and she has seldom felt such profound peace as she feels now at this place, in this time. Yet she is subtly unsettled even by this brilliantly starry sky because of one exceptional detail. Tonight, in all the firmament from east to west, there is not a single planet visible. So here is Great Sky Road—the long journey that each soul must take, but with no guides to inform the wayward traveler.
Arias shudders as she rises from the lotus, not with the coolness of the predawn air but with the memory of her dream. It has been many years since she last visited those terrible final moments of the Tisé School. The problem is not with discerning why those long-ago events have returned to trouble her now, on this particular night. The problem is with having sufficient courage to admit that there might be a perfectly obvious connection between that time and this.
Arias can barely remember the Fall. She recalls only the confused sights and sounds of tumult and chaos, terrible weapons roaring skyward, terrible weapons falling upon the Earth. From all that long night of fear and destruction, there are a few images that have remained sharp in her mind over the millennia. Arias remembers the moment when—as she and her colleague Teachers were cowering amid the quaking rubble, putting forth all their strength to shield their few surviving children from the leaping flames, the arcing missiles—she remembers the first moment when a Warrior came into their midst.
Young and beautiful, his face stained with smoke and his white armor scarred with great gashes, the weapon is his hand shining with a terrible radiance, he shouted to them.
“Save your strength!” he called to them, and in that moment replaced their massed shield—which had been close to failure—with his own. The young teacher Arias felt a kind of awe blossom in her heart. Of course she had known of the Five Warriors, but in the course of her duties she had never actually seen one. And she had certainly never felt so intimately what it meant to be such a being as she did when the Warrior replaced their shield with his own. No longer denting inward or flaring at every impact, Arias understood with a shock that this single Warrior had made a shield more powerful than she and her thirty peers had been able to create with all of their pooled strength.
In that moment, Arias understood that this was not merely one of the Five Warriors. This was their captain. Michael.
“Use your strength to carry as many of the children as you can!” Michael called. “Jump with me!”
Then the entire group of them translated, carrying the surviving children, into the way he cleared by his own passage. And then came to a place where there was no war, no tumult, no terror.
It was nighttime in that place, as it had been in the burning Bright Hills a moment before. But in this place, the young teacher Arias saw with awe, the Moon shone twice as large in the night sky. And less stained.
“Make shelters for the children!” Michael called to them again. “I—”
And then his eyes did fall upon her, and his strong voice did falter.
That is the moment, even beyond all that came after, that Arias has always remembered.
“I will return with more,” he finished less powerfully, his eyes on hers.
He left and returned several times, bringing more teachers each time and even a few children, but finally came to stay. And then three thousand years passed in that place.
Although that may not be entirely true. Time did not pass there as it passes upon the Earth, which is why Arias does not count it as part of the span of her life. Yet however long or short that time was, two things happened there that Arias knows have shaped her life to this day. A Warrior befriended a Teacher, and a Teacher understood that a Warrior and a Teacher could never entirely be friends.
The long years in the outer world passed, and the Great did not return. At first everyone assumed that the counterattack would come within a century. Some hoped for a much quicker response, arguing that forces from Sirius might arrive in less than twenty years. But two decades passed, and then a third.
The optimists then focused their hopes for an early response on Capella, believed to be home to a large realm of the Great, from which help might come in less than a century. But that century passed, and then another.
As the years wore away, the survivors of the Fall—a few thousand children, a few hundred Teachers, and three of the original five Warriors—explored their new home. Raphael, the Warrior most given to love of knowledge, declared that their Enclave was an entirely separate universe, but a small one. A kind of snapshot of the Earth as it was long ago. Yet it was not nearly the whole Earth, but in fact only a few tens of square miles where the last refugees of Filii Veritas culture upon the Earth learned to live. How the Enclave was sustained even Raphael could not say, except that it was by a device of Ruler-level technology—those beings of the Sun whom the Warriors referred to as ‘the Great’—which had been entrusted to Michael in the final minutes of the Battle of the Fall. Raphael assured all that so long as they stayed within the Enclave they could not be detected by any means known even to Ruler-level technology. But they could also not look outward and could only imagine what their ancient enemies, the so-called Filii Lucis or Sons of Light, were doing with the few desperate surviving children of the Earth. Raphael said also that no history known in the entirety of the Akashic Records spoke of any Filii Lucis conquest of a Nursery World, that such an event had never occurred in the entire galaxy as far back as any records could reach. He said that such worlds were precious beyond comprehension, requiring vast preparation and effort, and that certainly the Great would regroup as soon as they might, and return to liberate it.
But the centuries passed, and finally a millennium. Then Raphael said “They must have taken even Mirzam. They have conquered the entire Local Chimney.” But when asked how much farther away the next known outpost of the Great might be, he did not know. No one knew.
The long years passed. There was dissension in the Enclave, and despair. When at last Raphael estimated that three millennia had passed in the outer world, Michael relented and opened the gate, allowing brief visits only onto the true Earth. He ruled that any who chose to go and live there permanently could not be supported by the great stockpile of life with which he had also been entrusted, housed in the Enclave. Without life, a Teacher-level being, unless they could find sufficient students to support them, would slowly age and finally die. And who could say whether such students could be found and protected in the harsh new world that the Filii Lucis had made?
Arias was one of those who tried.
With the result that she dreamt this night.
Now, in the light of the predawn sky, Michael comes walking up the hill.
He is not wearing white armor now, but a dark suit like a lumber businessman from nearby Tecumseh might wear. As he once wore a conservative suit in Nieuw Amsterdam.
He walks up the hill and regards her, his face touched, subtly, by joy and pain.
“You have come,” she says.
He steps forward and they embrace under the slowly wheeling stars.
“When I first saw you,” she says after some time, “I thought you had come to your senses at last.”
They sit on the grass at the top of Prospect Hill, a mile from any human household. They have both arrived without horses and without walking, Arias came hours ago to avoid any possibility that children would see her even for a moment in the repeated translations that she required to reach this place from her school house abode.
Michael, no doubt, came in a single jump.
He touches her hand, and looks into the tops of the trees below the hill. The small birds are beginning to call now as the light rises. His dark hair falls to his powerful shoulders.
“You could look like anything,” Arias says. “Old or young, great or small. Then why do you always appear the same? Since the day,” she takes a breath, “when I first saw you?”
After some moments he turns to look at her. His dark eyes see everything.
“I remember that day,” he says.
In the trees the birds are awakening, singing. The sky continues to pale before the dawn.
“All of you know what I am. What I have been to you,” he looks at her. “Should I appear otherwise?”
“What do you think you have been to us?”
“I have been your jailer.”
“You have been our guardian.”
“A guardian that so many have escaped from, as from a jailer, going their separate ways, passing from this life. If I am a guardian, then should they have suffered so, under my guardianship?”
“So you—even you!—indulge your doubts?”
Michael takes a slow breath, and looks at her in the growing light.
Arias takes his hand.
“Then come with me now! You have come this far! Lay down your burden, which you have borne long enough and longer! Come away with me to the places that I have prepared, and we will live as a man and a woman for whatever time we may.”
He does not smile, but his face softens as he looks at her in the early light. Then he looks away at the treetops where the birds are singing even as they have sung these last twelve thousands years, knowing nothing of the wars of men, and more than men.
“I cannot leave,” he says quietly, looking away from her, “so long as I have my duty.”
A sharp indrawn breath, and Arias releases his hand.
“You say that the others have suffered. But I wonder if any have suffered as much as you.”
“There is one who has suffered more,” he says, and looks at her, his face is perfectly controlled.
“You, the most senior of the Teachers. If this world were ours again, if the Great ruled again in the Sun, you would have long since graduated. You have earned it many times. You would be as I am now.”
She smiles at him.
“And if that had happened,” she says, “then I would still not be with you. For you would be yourself among the Great, and I would see you only in the sunlight.”
He looks away again.
“I do not desire it.”
“And what do you desire, Michael, first among Warriors? What do you desire?”
He pauses before answering.
“To have my duty discharged,” he says. “To know at last that it was accomplished.”
“And then to have the accolades of the Great? To fly away and live in the bright celestial realm? Or do you desire, rather, to live as I have wished, walking on this world with me? Do you desire that?”
He waits long before replying, then turns to regard her with night-dark eyes.
“I do desire it,” he says.
Arias waits for him to say more. She feels as though the birds in the trees, the clouds in the sky, the very rocks and stones await his words.
“But, again, I cannot leave,” he says, “so long as I have my duty.”
He waits a long moment, then looks at her.
She takes his hand, and nods.
They sit together for long minutes as the sky brightens.
“You have moved the gateway here, then?”
“Yes,” he smiles. “It matters little when it stands upon the Earth. I thought that this place would be as good as any,” he smiles. “And better than most.”
Arias returns his smile.
“We will see each other more often, then,” she says.
Michael looks at her, the early morning breeze moving his hair.
Then she watches him walk away down the hillside.
Just as he disappears into the trees, the Sun rises over the distant horizon.