Monday, April 29, 2013

Tooth and Claw: Through the Bramble, part three

Sunday, July 8th, 2012

                Della’s mind races with the possibilities.  The revenant, asking for her help?  She had thought that being a bloodkin would give her that sense of the extraordinary she had been seeking, but it was turning out to be a colossal disappointment.  Sure, she saw things and knew things that would have flabbergasted her in mortal life, but this was another thing entirely.  If the revenant was looking to turn the very world on its head – well, Della wanted to be there to see it.  And she wanted to be on the side doing the turning.  Look for the ravens, she recalls, glancing at her watch.  It was something Jamie had gotten for her, after her cell phone was taken for the faking of her death.  The watch took its time and date from cell phone towers, so it should tell her the date.  It was clear that the bramble path she had been walking with Samantha took them not only through space, but through time as well.  Sure enough, the watch told her it was the 19th of July, 2012.  Less than two weeks into the future.
                Lots of things could change in two weeks.  She thought of her brief romance with Edward, of her martial arts training with Jamie, of their confrontation with the Hunters that had gone from “casual night out” to “cat and mouse” to “face-stomping hunt” in the space of a single night.  She had options upon options, and even if this raven thing turned out to be a bust, she at least had some intel to share with Thomas while still keeping the best parts to herself.
                However things ultimately turned out, tonight everything was coming up Della.  She smiles at the thought as she jogs back to Sam across the catwalk.
                Della finds the bramblekin sitting cross-legged, with her eyes closed and her back to the door, breathing deeply.  Her left hand still holds the writs of safe passage, the wooden hoop clutched in her right.  “You OK,” Della asks as she slows to a walk.
                “Yeah,” Samantha says, “I’m fine as long as I don’t look down.  Is there a door on the other side?”
                “Sure is,” Della says.  “I don’t know if it’s locked, though.”
                “Doesn’t matter,” Sam replies.  “The spell will open it for us.  Was la mujerta there?  That’ll really tell us if it’s the right door.”
                “I saw her as I headed out,” Della says, “but she had moved on by the time I got to the door.”
                “Good deal,” Samantha says with a nod.  Della cheers silently at the bramblekin’s easy acceptance of her lie.
                “I can carry you piggy-back across the bridge, if you want,” Della offers.
                “Yeah,” Samantha agrees, “that would be good.”  She rises to her feet, eyes still closed, and Della takes her hand to guide the bramblekin around her shoulders as she backs up against her.
                As she proceeds across the grated walkway in silence, Della reflects on the nature of the creature on her back.  That glamour of hers was sure a funny thing:  even though Della knows that Sam is wooden, she feels like flesh and blood.  Right down to her heartbeat, she seems human to a fault.  And how exactly does she make those facial expressions with her glamour, when her actual face isn’t capable of such expression?  Then again, Sam had apparently needed to put in a little extra whatever-it-was for the spell to work on Della; perhaps it had something to do with making others see what they expected to see?  As her senses had grown more acute post-infection, Della would be more difficult to fool – Thomas and Herman would surely have seen her for what she was as well, but they were used to dealing with this sort of thing, so it probably didn’t faze them.  But to fool them, it would take a more convincing illusion, right down to that telltale thump in the chest and the faint body odor that the straights wouldn’t miss, but would be conspicuous in its absence to the bloodkin.
                At the other side, Della lets Sam down, saying, “All right, we’re here.”
                “Good.  Thanks,” Samantha says, peeking through one eye as she reaches for the doorknob.  Once safely back in the bramble, she heaves a deep sigh of relief and says, “OK, we’re over the hump – two more stops and then we’re home.”  Della nods and follows Sam as she heads off at a brisk walk.  “We’re coming up to the last place where the Sandstorm Hourglass will be between two doors at night, which might bring us to its final resting place, but really could take us almost anywhere.  So keep your guard up.”
                “Gotcha,” Della says, ducking and weaving among the thorny branches crowding the path.  She watches the third writ crumble to dust in Samantha’s hand.  “So tell me about those writs again.  You said they run off of agreement?”  She looks over to see if she can read the paper, but the writing is in a language she does not recognize.
                “Oh, yeah,” Samantha begins, glancing this way and that through the brush.  Her brow knits in thought as she gathers herself.  “You ever hear of pan-psychism?”
                “No,” Della says.
                “No problem.  It’s basically just the idea that everything is conscious, at some level.  Which is, in a back-handed kind of way, mostly true.”
                “How ‘mostly’?  Like, let’s say I have a rock,” she says.
                “A rock’s a good example,” Samantha interrupts.  “Now, the rock isn’t aware of much, mostly just pressure acting on it, age, and the occasional breaking.”
                “Wait,” Della says.  “Are you telling me that I can hurt a rock by breaking it?”
                “No, of course not.  But now you have two rocks, and if you could somehow talk to rocks, you’d find that they remember splitting apart.”
                “So how much can I do this?  Like, what happens when I bust it all the way down to atoms?”
                “Hmm,” Samantha says.  “Well, it would probably stop being rocks and start being dust at some point before you got to atoms – but that’s kind of the thing.  You see, rocks are rock-like because they want to be; if you bust it down to dust, even though it’s the same stuff, it doesn’t want to be like a rock any more.  It doesn’t have the, uhh, patience.  Kind of.  So it just wants to be dust.  Atoms do like they do because they want to.”
                Della is visibly confused.  “I don’t know if I buy this.  It doesn’t make any sense to talk about rocks and atoms acting with a will.”
                “Oh,” Sam asks with a smile.  “Does it make more or less sense to talk about humans and insects acting purely according to the laws of physics?”
                “That’s different,” Della says.  “I have a will.  Free or not, I will things.”
                “So you say,” Samantha replies with a slow nod.  “Prove it to me.”
                Della waggles her fingers and says, “I do this because I will it.”
                “So you say,” and another slow nod.  “But psychology shows that humans tend to try establishing and demonstrating their freedom and individuality when pressed on the matter.  And psychology is neurology is biology is chemistry is physics – so if you just pile physics up high enough, then you’ll waggle your fingers to ‘prove’ your will.  Whether you have it or not.”
                “OK, fine,” Della says, rolling her eyes.  “What if I didn’t waggle my fingers?”
                Samantha shrugs and says, “There is individual variation among both particles and people.  Psychology and quantum mechanics are both steeped in statistics, and neither deals in ironclad certainty.  In fact, uncertain tendencies and aggregate trends are the hallmarks of both fields.”  Della thinks this over for a moment, then Samantha adds, “Now, an atom of gold doesn’t have any crazy complex drives or desires – it doesn’t hunger, or feel tired, or enjoy TV – it mostly just wants to be gold-like.  Which is to say:  most of the time, most gold atoms do what they want; then we come along and see this behavior, and we call it gold-like, because it’s what gold does.  Kind of how most of the time, most people do what they want, and when you have experience with enough of ‘em then you start to call it ‘human nature’.”
                Della is disconcerted, it does make a certain kind of sense.  Especially in light of how often people speak of machines having “minds of their own” and so forth.  And while it might make someone more empathetic to her stuff, it still wouldn’t make much sense to talk to one’s things.  Even if it so happens that your pet rock speaks English (and if it’s mostly interested in being rock-like, then it would make little sense for it to try), it’s got no way to speak back.
                “OK, fine,” Della says at last.  “But what does all this have to do with your magic paper, then?”
                “Oh, right,” Sam exclaims.  “So people, being all complicated and stuff, can scheme to break rocks.  You would be hard-pressed to find a rock scheming to break a person, though – unless it were sufficiently motivated and had the opportunity.
                “That’s where these writs come in.  They’re a written agreement between the bearer and – whoever fuckin’ wrote the thing, I don’t know – which basically comes down to the idea that if anyone so much as raises a hand against you, the Earth itself will rise up in your defense.  Or whatever’s handy, you know.  Like if you had caught up to la mujerta and she had attacked you, maybe the walkway would have chosen just that moment to give under her feet and send her for a swim.”
                “That seems like a pretty potent spell, there,” Della says pensively.
                “It is,” Samantha says.  “But like I said, I got about a hundred of the things.  Payment for services rendered on a big job a while back.  They’re useful for things like this.”
                Della nods in agreement.  “But then how does the spell know what to do to keep you safe?”
                “Well,” Samantha begins, “it’s not so much the spell that knows, but rather the ideas that were in the minds of the parties making the agreement at the time.”
                “So you’re not just talking about weird physics here, you’re talking about actual magic.”
                “Well, duh,” Samantha says, rolling her eyes.  “Everything is magic, in one way or another.”
                “What?  No, it’s not,” Della says.  “Science is like the opposite of magic.”
                “Psh,” Samantha scoffs.  “S’magic to me.  So’s your logic.
                “Now you’re telling me that logic is magic, too?”  Della was incredulous.  She had taken an introductory logic course as an elective in the fall – it was fascinating to see the ways an argument could be analyzed purely by its formal components, regardless of whether any part of it was true.
                “Sure is,” Samantha replies.  “What’s that silly gesture you go on about, the one where you prove something by proving it?”
                “You mean modus ponens.  What about it?”
                “Well, give me an example.”
                “OK,” Della says.  “A general syllogism would be, ‘All As are Bs, all Bs are Cs, so therefore all As are Cs.’  Is that so hard?”
                “Greek to me,” Samantha says.  “You may as well say that all wasps are oceans.”
                “But that makes no sense.”
                “Feh, you’re the one who just said all bees are seas.”
                “That’s not what I meant,” Della insists.
                “So?  Whoever said that what you mean is what counts?”
                “Well, the way I mean it, it works,” Della says.  “The way you took it, it doesn’t work.”
                “See,” Samantha says, “that’s where you’re messing up.  The world itself is vague and ambiguous, and that’s where we do our magic:  by holding our meanings fixed in our minds, or flexing them loose, we can weave spells to do all manner of things based almost purely on our intentions – and, of course, whatever amount of oomph we can put behind it.  It’s easy for us, tougher for the mages, but nearly impossible to you.  You, on the other hand, are able to concretize and clarify things in ways we bramblekin could never dream.  In specifics and statistics, you do your magic.”
                “But what we do isn’t magic at all,” Della persists, “It’s just the way things are.”
                “No, you’re still not getting it,” Samantha corrects her.  “Magic is the way things are, you just don’t think it’s magic ‘cause it makes sense to you.  Our magic is weird to you, your magic is weird to us, and that’s just the nature of the beast.”
                They turn a corner, and the conversation is cut off by a heavy oaken double door standing before them.  It is large and ornately carved, depicting a scene of various animals killing and eating each other and rotting in the ground beneath plants which are eaten in their turn – the circle of life, with a macabre twist.  Stylized bronze handles meet in the middle to form a split ankh.
                “OK,” Samantha says, standing before the doors.  “We’ve come a ways through the bramble, this is probably very far indeed from the last door.  I know I said we had no idea where the hourglass was going to end up, but I think it’s safe to say that this looks like trouble.”  She takes Della’s hand in hers and squeezes tightly.  “So make for the first door you see, and try to take a quick glance around.  We’ve got writs of safe passage, sure, but there may be forces at work that could prove… overwhelming, shall we say, for our little scrap of paper.”
                Della nods her assent, and Samantha opens the door.
                The first thing Della registers is torchlight – the second, a matching doorway some few dozen yards straight across.  Halfway between, there is a throne made from what look to be bones bound together with leather.  Then she hears the clang of metal on metal, and looks to her right as she hurries behind Samantha.
                Two men are dueling in the middle of what seems to be a great black temple, columns lining the walls toward an open front facing out over a moonlit mountain range.  One of them is pale, bald, and dressed in a black cassock; the other is heavily tanned, with black hear, and wearing a white silk robe.  Their longswords are simple and well-balanced weapons, flashing through the air with frightening speed and grace.  Beyond them Della sees the revenant, standing at a distance and holding a sword of her own.  They lock eyes.
                “Della,” she shouts above the din of battle, “Whatever you – ”
                “Silence, insect!”  The man in black waves his hand at her without taking his eyes off his opponent, his voice booming in the stone temple.  The revenant flies through the air on a current of unseen force, slamming into one of the onyx columns.
                “Safe passage,” Samantha shouts as she leads Della through, just now clearing the throne at a dead run.  “Holy shit do we ever have safe passage!”
                The duelists pause to glance at the intruders, then return to the fight.  The man in black is a hair too late – the man in white has seized the distraction and run his opponent through.  Della glances back at the revenant, sitting in a heap at the foot of the column.  A few rivulets of blood – not the black ichor from when Della thought she’d killed her, but blood, red and real – begin to trickle down from behind the broad silk choker at her neck.  She stops staring just soon enough to cast her gaze about for the hourglass, but it is nowhere in sight – she fixes for a moment on a golden-haired corpse laying in a pool of blood between two columns, also wearing a white robe.  Then Sam is leading them through the next set of doors, and they’re back in the bramble.

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