They walked into morning. It was a steep, uphill walk, out of the valley that was still in the last half hour of the long, sultry night, into the sunlit mountainside forest where the dawn’s light filtered playfully through the leaves.
It had been one of those long late-night conversations. Zentala associated them with University life and youthful craziness. But Carmine hadn’t changed a bit since her days at Chancandre College. She was still full of wild ideas and schemes that made the fervent nights too short for sleep. She had been outlining her idea to run a bullet-train all the way from Jenilow City in the east, through Nevryayapurh to the Imperial Capital at Ladyton. She believed, probably rightly, that bringing both Jenilow and Nevryapurh to the imperial doorstep, as it were, would change the very balance of the Western Empire.
Then she talked of the strange and disturbing phenomena that she believed might stand in their way—as if persuading all the people that would need to be involved in such a vast scheme were not sufficient of a hurdle to overcome.
If her talk of the Golden Arrow (she had already named her projected ) had seemed like crazy ambition, her talk of dark forces seemed like craziness of a more literal sort. And yet she was as enticing as ever, as convincing as ever, at least in the small hours after midnight. The daylight might bring a more sober perspective—though doubtless not to Carmine.
And here was the daylight—half-way up a mountain.
When Zentala had suggested that the phenomena Carmine spoke of were beyond improbable, Carmine had replied that she believed she could show evidence. They would need to go to Arashene, but that wasn’t very far.
“I’ll go with you when I have time,” said Zentala.
“Excellent,” said Carmine. “Here’s your hat.”
“You have time right now. It will only take an hour or so. You can’t pretend you’re doing anything else.”
“But it is dark. We won’t see anything.”
“It’s nearly four o’clock. It will be light by the time we get there.”
And it was.
Carmine picked up a twig. It was unnaturally black and crumbled between her fingers as if it were rotted or burned, but it did not seem to be either. The smell that arose from it was neither that of decay nor of smoke. Although it was faint, it seemed worse than either. It called up feelings of nameless dread in her heart. The feelings, like the smell, were faint, but they were very distinct and very unpleasant.
Zentala saw the map of the area superimposed on the blackened area of woodland.
“You were right,” she said. “This is exactly where you thought it would be. But what is it?”
Carmine was already analyzing it. Data and symbols appeared above the twig, generated by her internal optics.
“The readings don’t make sense.”
“What do they say?”
“According to the analysis, I am not holding anything in my hand at all.”
“So what does that mean? That it’s an illusion? That all this is an illusion?” She looked around at the blackened, withering trees, the black grass and ferns covering a roughly circular area of a few yards amid the otherwise dense green forest. The first birdsong of the day was already filling the air; sensereli chirped, but all from a small distance away. There was no living thing in the blackened, bare branches immediately above them.
“What does ‘illusion’ mean? Is this something we are imagining purely in our own minds? I don’t believe so. But the analysis only works on the level of matter and energy, which, of course, are two modes of the same level of existence. It can’t tell us anything about the subtle bodies of material objects.”
“So what you have there is something, but nothing material?”
“That’s my guess.”
“Can you feel it?”
“No, but I can smell it.”
“What does it smell like?”
“Faint, but very unpleasant.”
“A non-material bad smell.” Zentala laughed without much mirth.
“It isn’t a bad smell in the usual sense. It doesn’t smell noxious. It is emotionally bad. It smells of—desolation.”
Despite the warmth of the day, Zentala shivered.
“Invoke night vision and take a look,” said Carmine.
They both received the night-vision overlay direct to their optic nerves. Normally using night vision in daytime had minimal effect, mostly adding a slight “doubling” or “glowing” effect that children liked to play with. But now they saw two scenes superimposed on each other. In one they were in a small blackened area of forest. In the other they were in a small empty space surrounded by green, flourishing trees and grasses that abruptly stopped growing at the edges of the rough circle.
“You see what I mean,” said Carmine. “The sensors are feeding what they ‘see’ to your vision field, and where this black stuff is, they don’t see anything.”
“Well, one thing is certain,” said Zentala. “We don’t want to run a train through this.”
“No, we don’t.”
“But could something like this just pop up anywhere? Would we be safe to lay a line that avoids this particular spot?”
Carmine was putting samples of blackened material into small transparent bags and sealing them. “According to my theory we would. This spot is a very special spot and it is just where I expected to find it. There should be others too, but we should be able to find and avoid them.”
“But what is this?”
“I’m not sure. It feels…”
“It feels diabolical. The longer I stand here the worse it gets.”
“I know. Let’s go. There’s nothing more we can achieve here.” Carmine put her bagged samples into two of the ample pockets in her elegant tweed field jacket and turned away from the blackened area. The two picked their way through the dense green forest in a different direction from the one they had come by.
“Once we hit the road, there’s a village not far down it,” said Carmine.
It was only a few hundred yards to the road, but it was hard going through the trees and abundant undergrowth. Birds sang, sensereli chirped, wild flowers blossomed everywhere. The abundance of life was overwhelming. Every step rendered more improbable that circle of death that was perhaps not even death, but pure nothingness.
They climbed over a small wire fence and stepped onto a road that was little more than a dirt track. They walked in silence along the forest’s edge as the sun rose over the mountaintops, each deep in her own thoughts. As they rounded a bend, a river valley came into view with a few houses clustered around it. The road led quite steeply down toward a bridge with a few buildings on either side of the river. As they drew closer, they caught a scent on the air that put heart back into both of them.
“Isn’t that wonderful?” said Carmine. “Those dear people get up so early every day so that everyone can have fresh bread for breakfast.” There were tears in her eyes. Carmine had always been very emotional.
Zentala agreed. It was wonderful. Here in the first moments of the valley’s morning that most beautiful of smells. Bread, the very symbol of nourishment, baked by loving hands. The world was so nurturing and good.
Left to herself, Zentala might not have thought twice about such matters. She was grateful for Carmine’s appreciation of life, for having her eyes unveiled to the real beauty that lay every minute around her. This, she realized, was why she listened to her “craziness”. She was convincing even when she was odd, because, at least on some level, she was generally right.
And that darkness they had just seen. That was the opposite of the nurturing world. The darkness that lay always in wait. The necessary opposite of all the loveliness. If one lost sight of the nurturing goodness of the world. . . How true it was that one should love the good and serve the light.
“You know, Zentala-chei, this is why I want to make this railway.”
“Because of the bread?”
“Yes. Yes, because of the bread.”
“I don’t think I understand.”
“The bread and everything else. All the goodness and kindness. I don’t only want to receive it. I want to give back what I have to give. The very best I have to give. I am not very good with my hands, but I think the angels give me wonderful ideas.”
“I think so too,” said Zentala. She felt a little guilty. Sometimes she was inwardly rather critical of Carmine’s ideas. Sometimes she thought them more strange than wonderful. But they were wonderful, weren’t they? Even if they were strange. Even if sometimes they were wrong, they would still be wonderful.
With the return of daylight, Zentala had expected to come back into her everyday consciousness, far from the heady emotional world of Carmine’s thoughts, but the opposite was happening. Her heart had been somehow shocked by what she saw and felt in the forest. She saw now a world in which terrible darkness loomed and in which the simple sunshine of everyday things was more radiant than she had ever realized. No—not ever. She had seen the radiance of life before, when she was very young. But for a long time it had all been dulled. The brightness less bright, the dark less dark. Everything in shades of grey.
Now she was seeing things more as Carmine saw them, and she felt she was perhaps seeing them as they really are. The brightness was so warm and bright, but the darkness was so very, very dark. Her mind kept wandering back to the blackness in the forest. It felt like a weight upon her soul, amid the brightness of a friendly dawn.
A small child ran out of the forest offering a flower.
“For me?” said Zentala, taken aback.
The girl came closer, holding the flower out to her.
“Yes. It is flower of life. Because you saw flower of death.”
“It will make you be happy again.”
Zentala, crouched down to the level of the child and, a little nervously it seemed, took the flower. “Thank you,” she said.
“Where are the flowers of death?” asked Carmine.
“It isn’t there,” said the child. “There isn’t any.”
“Forgive me. I thought you mentioned them.”
“I made them up.”
“Did you now?”
“Mamala says there aren’t flowers of death.”
“Well she is very wise. Flowers are things of life, aren’t they?”
The little girl nodded.
“But if there were flowers of death,” said Carmine. “Where might they be?”
“Up there on the mountain, where you just been.”
“How do you know where we have been?”
“I know. You look like——”
“Like you’ve been there.”
“The bread smells good, even from here.”
“It’s the best bread.”
“I believe you. But I guess they aren’t open yet.”
“Yes. You’re out early.”
“I like early.”
“So do I.”
“You like bread too.”
“If you want I can take you there. To the bread.”
“Well if it isn’t too much trouble that would be very nice. My humble name is Carmine.”
“My name is Chentilia. It is my humble flower-name.”
“It is a very lovely name.”