“Right!” He swung around, exploding, “As if you give a damn about any of us! Sounds good, though, doesn’t it? Great excuse for your big experiment, your noble work for posterity. All hail Saint Ariadne!” He snorted. “Maybe you’ve forgotten you’re still human. I heard Marta ask you to help the villagers, but you were too good to lower yourself. Look, I don’t give a damn about your holy water, but they really believe in you, and it might have made them feel better. Like maybe somebody cared.”
He threw the rifle over his shoulder and strode up the hill, kicking away a loose rock to clatter over the slope.
The wind howled, pushing high clouds to obscure the stars and the lurid auroral filaments. Heat lightning flared, thunder booming distantly, a false promise of rain in the parched air of the drought.
Ariadne stood stiff, hands clenched, fury surging with the wind and the swirling force fields clashing in the sky. If only they’d leave her alone. She couldn’t let herself feel all the suffering, let them all drain her for healing. She had to save her strength for the larger work. Couldn’t he see that? She didn’t want the believers, their adoration, their wounds, their pain and their demands. . . .
“Maybe you’ve forgotten you’re still human.”
She clenched her fists tighter, hating Peter Mitchell.
In the end, she came to the church. Ariadne hadn’t realized that the sacred spring emerged in the village well, in the courtyard fronting the chapel. But it hardly mattered. By the time she’d made her way in the fitful dry-lightning bursts down the dirt road to the sleeping village, and past the impromptu encampment of the desperate RP-Hansen sufferers, she was numb to reasons and doubts. Guided by two children from the camp and followed by more pleading stragglers as they limped or were carried along, she threaded dark lanes between stone fences and crumbling masonry walls, waking a swelling chorus of hounds and cocks and finally reaching the stone basin pooling the upwelling artesian spring.
Another strobe split the night, thunder rolling. She took a deep breath, grasped the polished Tinos crystal in both hands, and plunged her arms into the shadowed spring.
No knowing how long she knelt on the coping of the well, reaching down into the spring, letting the cool waters and the liquid voices of its deep source lap up and through her, swirling her down.
Darkness, and light, and the singing, the two voices jarring and buffeting, tugging at her. She anchored herself with the crystalline lattice as it unpeeled the facets of her self, and she let herself flow into its calling.
“Our daughter,” sang the pure high tones of light. “Come to us. Ascend.” The silvery voice of the Tiniotissa lifted her up a moonbeam, and she launched free of the exhausted husk of her body, unfurling diamond-bright wings to fly in the exaltation of freedom toward the stars. She soared as the music swelled, spreading those glorious wings as her heart opened and the taut wariness dropped away, the song filling her with joy as she dipped and plunged and spun among the spinning planets. She was the song, filled with its grace, its purity, its benevolence to shed upon the poor groveling humans below in the muck and mire.
Ariadne, enraptured, flew higher into that distillation of pure light, free of confusion, free of pain, free of longing and caring—
“Ha! That’s how they trick you!” A deep voice caught her, pulled her down from the heights into a velvet black cavern where swirling warm water caressed her naked limbs. “Down here in that muck is where you’ll find your real power. Come with me.” A strong hand gripped hers, pulled her floating through tunnels of fizzing hot water, glowing magma that pulsed with the heartbeat of the earth, to emerge on the lip of a black volcanic crater overlooking a lake of molten lava.
Ariadne’s heart pulsed with the flowing currents, power rippling through her as she swept her arms and the lava surged at her command, the forces tingling through her as every cell in her body sang—Alive! Alive!— with the compelling dark voice.
“Yes! Stay with me, and I will give you dominion over the earth and all its creatures. All you need to do is plunge in with me.” Beside her, gripping her hand, stood a dark stranger, carved in ebony male beauty, the god Vulcan come to life. He smiled, eyes glowing coals, as he drew Ariadne into his muscular embrace. She gasped in arousal as his hardness pressed against her and she wanted nothing more than to melt into his heat and be reforged into his dark queen.
She looked up into his face as his warm hands stroked her breast, and it was the face of Michael Vendemis smiling down at her, dark eyes kindling with passion as she raised her face to his, and then it was Peter Mitchell leaning closer, his warm, sea-salty lips claiming hers, offering her earthly delights, offering her all the power she wished, to help or brush aside the sickness as she chose, and she longed for him, longed to be rid of the weariness and doubts and sink into the pulsing heat melting her. . . .
Ariadne ripped herself free of the embrace, tumbling dizzily through the buffeting waves of the light and dark battling for her. “I have not forgotten I am human,” she whispered as she groped to find her hand, still gripping the Tinos crystal submerged in the springwater.
She ignored the tempting voices, gathered herself, aligned herself with the lattice, and poured herself into its orientation to recreate the flow and return of the healing waters, realign the buffeting force fields so they would slide smoothly past each other with the life-giving water. Now smooth waves pulsed from her fingers, through the crystal, to ease the remaining sharp jitters of misalignment shivering up from the earth.
Far away, much deeper, a building tension of blocked subterranean forces boomed against the smoothed currents, but for now they were held back. Ariadne and the spring and her own music floated in a sparkling crystal lattice. Singing its glowing pattern. . . .
A cock crowed. Ariadne blinked. The well’s stone ledge was digging into her knees and arms. She shivered in the gray prelude to dawn as she withdrew her arms from the water. The storm had passed, dropping no rain.
Ariadne stood slowly and turned. The courtyard had filled with people watching her, shifting and murmuring. Old women in black. Men in shabby trousers, caps gripped nervously in their hands. Young women with sleepy children. And the RPH victims to one side, lying or sitting on the cobbles. All of them waiting.
“The water.” She cleared her throat and gestured heavily toward the well. “It will help. I hope the purification will hold. . . .”
She saw the old priest in his faded black robe standing above the others on the steps to the chapel, a shadowy phantom against the pale walls. She blinked, bracing herself against everything the Church had come to mean to her—sin and judgment, restriction and abandonment.
The priest finally raised a hand, touching his long gray beard and the rosary tangled in its strands. He walked slowly and carefully down the few steps, reaching out a hand to steady himself on the shoulder of a young boy. He and the boy moved through the others as they stepped back. He stopped before Ariadne, straightening his bent shoulders to look into her face.
Eyes shadowed in wrinkles studied her. “Come into the chapel, my child.” The voice from the ancient face was surprisingly firm and resonant. “Too windy out here for the ill to wait.” He gestured to the RPH victims to one side of the courtyard where the villagers were avoiding them. “Bring them in as well.”
Some of the men moved to obey, helping those who couldn’t walk.
Ariadne hardly noticed. Exhausted and numb, she was led into the chapel, into the musty presence of incense and candlelight flickering over the narrow faces and distant eyes of the few poor icons. Far-away voices howled with sardonic laughter as the saints mutely watched and a long-ago voice teased: “Those gifts of the gods. . . always a price, eh?” But Ariadne was beyond caring, and soon there was not even herself, only the pulsing colored auras of pain and illness, the crystalline lattice pouring out blended healing light until the source was drained.
Hands touched her, touched the husk of her as she hovered in the shadows looking down on it all. She watched them guide her stumbling footsteps out into the courtyard as prone figures on their pallets slept, chests rising and falling smoothly now. Seated men and women were touching their disfigured faces as scaly flakes peeled away to reveal smooth skin. A young girl raised her hands, wiggling her fingers and shouting, “Mother, I can feel them again!” Faces crowded close, mouths and eyes brimming gratitude, fingers moving in blessing, hands offering food, bottles, flowers. Voices repeating, “Ariadne Sancti. Efcharisto.”
Ariadne was spent. She had only the ebbing strength to hold her body upright as it moved woodenly through the crowd, feet carrying her away to the road.
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