From Peshast, Baron Bayard Sala leads Haziel’s dwindling party west through a maze of footpaths that winds through the hills that border the Wall of God. With the baron goes hyz commoner servant Aliwe, and from time to time Bayard stoops to pick up an agate and hands it to the girl. Victoria notices that hyz fingers linger on Aliwe’s hand as she takes the stone from hym, and the expression on the girl’s face is hard to decipher.
For the first time since joining Haziel’s group, Victoria looks at Aliwe very carefully and is surprised to see that the girl’s face has features that strongly remind Vic of her own. But there are also things in Aliwe’s appearance that remind her of Baron Bayard. Vic doesn’t know what to think.
The quest moves at the pace of the oldest and slowest person among them, Count Berek Antero, who is entirely aware that hy is holding everyone up. Hy also misses hyz wife Losna who has stayed behind at Gerazan, and hy is not entirely sure hy is prepared to endure the Catwalk as Bayard has described it. Yet hy is a thoroughly honorable yang who wants to aid Haziel in every way that hy can. So hy is torn by an internal debate as hy trudges along.
Victoria looks at Haziel and sees how har legs have become muscled and wiry. The walk has aged har a decade. Haziel is more handsome now than beautiful. Victoria and Haziel both know full well that beauty has a sell-by date. Haziel regrets only that sha would never grow old together with Princess Khondiel.
Behind them goes a single company of Fallen Angels, only about two hundred forty yin now. Two of every three have elected to stay behind in Peshast and disband, and gloomy Berek warns Haziel that some of the yen who elected to tag along are certain to fall. The law of averages would claim them and there is little anyone could do.
At length the Baron leads them south on a footpath that gently climbs up a long wooded ridge. It looks like a simple trail, but Baron Bayard assures them it will become the Catwalk when they walk a little bit further. They all look back down the way they have come. They are now at an altitude where the trees are stunted and sparse, so the views east are unobstructed and spectacular. But at the summit of the ridge the view west is absolutely beyond belief.
Nineteen thousand feet below them lies the land of Haaretz in its entirety, even to the great sea known as Thalury. In one glance they take in both the Northern and Southern Ice, walls little higher than the Wall of God itself, racing west and drawing together until both they and Thalury slip over the horizon. Nowhere else on Barbelo is the spherical shape of the world so apparent.
To the south the trail slips below the ridge and becomes an ice-carved wall almost concrete smooth, and the travelers can see how the trail transforms into the infamous Catwalk, a lip only three feet wide where the cliff juts out and falls once more. As hy feared it would be, all of this is far too much for Count Berek Antero. “I am deeply sorry,” hy says. “I have already delayed the quest, but now I see I cannot go on.”
“I would say that you have made a noble decision, Highborn,” Aliwe says, and not a few Fallen Angels come to the same wisdom as Count Berek. Haziel’s party whittles down to some one hundred fifty souls.
Haziel suggests that they make camp and embark on the Catwalk in the morning when everyone is well fed and fully rested. But rest will not come for many of them. In the morning there is little speech, for the enormity of the task ahead has weighed in everyone’s mind all night.
As Count Berek also had feared, the law of averages begins to take its toll. About once every hour or so the silence of the trek is broken by the terrified scream of a yin somewhere far behind Haziel slipping off the Catwalk and falling to har death. Waiting for the next one to fall becomes a constant and living horror that none would ever be able to banish from their memories for as long as they lived.
There comes a moment in the quest when Baron Bayard makes a move to fondle Aliwe, and Aliwe tries to back away from hym. The problem is there just wasn’t much backing-up room on the Catwalk, and she, like some of the Fallen Angels behind her, slips off the face of the Wall of God.
There is no scream but Victoria sees everything and flies down after her, not even taking the time to think that Aliwe’s weight would be too much and there really is no saving her. Didn’t she say as much before they embarked on the quest?
Below the Catwalk the Wall of God is not perfectly vertical. Victoria cannot stop Aliwe’s fall but she can push Aliwe out of the way of any stony outcroppings as she approaches them. Aliwe tells Victoria to let her go, and reluctantly, Victoria has to arrest her own descent and let Aliwe slip away to impact the broken talus at the base of the cliff.
Victoria continues down at a smaller pace, trying to estimate where Aliwe’s body bounced so she can attempt to bury her. But when she finds her, Aliwe is smiling, none the worse for wear. She is standing in a small woody glen at the base of the Wall of God. They are at least three thousand feet below the Catwalk where the rest of the party waited for any sign of them.
Victoria finally guesses that Aliwe is b’nei elohim like herself, but one she never knew.
“I’m the daughter you haven’t had yet,” Aliwe explains. “Mom.”
Victoria smiles back. “It makes sense. I thought you had my cheekbones.”
“And I have Baron Bayard’s eyes.” She knows the implication of that statement has sunk in when Vic stops smiling. “Sorry I ‘slipped’ off the Catwalk, but I had to get Bayard to turn his attention to you. Otherwise the ick factor would have been too much and I wouldn’t be born in this loop. Besides, as you can see, my own particular talent is indestructibility.”
“Similar. I can heal myself with supernatural speed but I can’t heal anyone else. Aren’t we superheroes all supposed to have a weakness, like Kryptonite? And even Del can only fix so much.”
“Let’s see. Bayard is a yang, so I guess that makes you an ambi?”
“A very feminine jen, actually.”
“You are here so it means we win, right? Binah and Chokhmah survive?”
“We win, they live, Thaumiel dies. This quest is important. Thaumiel has this weird passive-aggressive thing going on with his dragon where he can assail any city or army on Barbelo and it’s all Keri Antero’s fault for getting laid and breaking the Dragonthorn. After you kill the dragon he has to decide whether to use his first avatar in the same way, but either way, he loses. If he uses it, people stop following him because he’s a violent and malevolent god. If he doesn’t, then there’s peace on Barbelo. Win, win, for us.”
“So why are you back here?”
“Yeshua wanted me to improve the outcome for Haziel’s group. It’s already paid off to an extent. On the original loop Kari killed Kirodiel with Dragonthorn. With no need to escape with her lord still living, Joy simply had the dragon burn down everyone at the Council, which meant of course that I was the only survivor.”
“So who is that Joy woman? I’ve never seen her up close.”
“Joy is really your aunt Ariel, killed in the Moon War and living out her afterlife here. She’s not doing very much to impress Yeshua, if you ask me. Joy has been possessed by Jill, and even before that Jill went completely over to Thaumiel, so don’t hesitate to kill the dragon even if it means Joy dies too, which she will, and when she does she’s basically screwed because Yeshua won’t give her a third chance.”
“A long as I don’t fuck Bayard before it happens. Rules you know.”
“That whole virginity thing was part of Thaumiel’s scam all along. It’s all lies. You could fly straight out of a week-long orgy and still kill Demonstroke with that shard.”
“One thing still bothers me,” Victoria says. “You said on your loop Joy killed everyone at the Council except you. So if she killed your father, where the hell do you come from?”
“I should have said she killed everyone who came to the council chamber when the Queen summoned us. Dad was still in his own chamber having sex with Luzea. I don’t blame him for that, actually. Luzea ain’t one of the b’nei elohim but she sure has a natural born talent! On your timeline I interrupted them because Luzea is all mine, and then Dad went back to see Gramma Aurra. All this this was before you got here, but you’ve heard the accounts so you already know I saved Kirodiel’s life by intercepting the diamond blade with a metal tray. On my timeline Dad was the only surviving noble on the planet, outside of the Middle Land. He became something like a renegade while House Gerash started to take over the world.”
“So how did I meet him on your timeline?”
“Pretty much the same way you did this time around, Mom, except the quest was just you and him. You took the Catwalk, went to Menkant, the dragon shows up, and you fought Joy pretty much the same way you will again. As for how you fell in love with Dad I don’t really know, and do you know what? I don’t even want to know!”
“I find it impossible to believe that you will result from our union again, when there must be a trillion factors that will be different this time. The timing is crucial. This sperm and not that sperm, fifty-fifty you’re a boy instead of a jiste and very few of the events that formed your memories on your timeline will be present again in this timeline.”
“You are absolutely right, Momma, but even if you and Dad have nothing but boys that will have nothing to do with me, because you did have me back on my timeline. But all I want to do right now is get back to the talented Luzea. Now this next part is going to seem strange to you, because I know you but you don’t know me, but here goes.” And Aliwe pulls Victoria close for a kiss and a hug.
“I love you, baby,” Victoria says. “Will we meet again when it’s all over?”
“I hope so Mom, but this is a new loop. It rhymes, but it’s not the same.”
Then Aliwe leaves to pick her way down the river, a trip that would kill a less hardy person. On the coast she will try to find someone willing to take her to Saharad.
Victoria soars directly into the sky along the face of the wall to return to the Catwalk. Everyone sits around looking sad, except for Baron Bayard, who looks guilty. Victoria tells them only, “Aliwe is in a better place,” which considering the nature of the Catwalk is absolutely true. Besides, it would keep Bayard from trying to hit on her at least until they got down off the face of the Wall of God.
A day later Haziel’s party has nearly completed the descent of the Wall of God on the Catwalk. Only about a thousand feet of vertical distance remain. But no one lets their guard down just yet. That thousand feet is still perfectly fatal.
On that final afternoon they arrive at a section of the Catwalk that Bayard calls “problematic”. It has been damaged somehow, perhaps in a quake, and for nearly a mile it was no wider than a toehold. But there are steel pitons already pounded into the rock ready for them to snap brass carabiners and sling ropes.
By some quirk of fate or baronic contrivance Victoria is next in line after the Bayard. He says to her, “Haziel calls you one of the b’nei elohim, yet I know almost nothing about them. Can you tell me more, or is it some sort of divine secret?”
“There are some things about us we may never reveal,” Victoria replies, “but what I can tell I will. The most important thing is that we are a family, one big unruly but mostly loving family with the usual family squabbles.”
“Then are you noble born?”
“Not in the way you are royalty, Baron, as the son of Queen Aurra. In a real sense we would be considered nothing more than common folk here.”
Victoria does not know that was precisely what she needed to say to raise Bayard’s interest level in her to eleven. Still, Bayard wants to test that. “And yet you can fly. Some say you are demigods, which would make you far greater than royalty.”
“I can fly, that is true, but it’s not on account of something innate to me, to my body. For all practical purposes, it’s nothing more than a magic trick.”
Applause and cheering break out on the line ahead of them on the Catwalk. Lady Haziel successfully traversed the broken portion to safety on the other side.
“And our foe, this woman Joy, is she also b’nei elohim?”
“She is one of us, and that is what I alluded to when I mentioned family squabbles. Some of us have removed themselves to the camp of the enemy.”
“And the way she controls the dragon, is that another magic trick?”
“More trick than magic,” Victoria said. “Neither we nor the elohim that we serve hold the supernatural realm to be real. So call it a holy deception.”
“The House of Sala has also dabbled in the same sort of thing,” Bayard says. “When the gods of Earth first brought people to live in Haaretz, the Gold Beards feared that many of them would sail west across Thalury and make their homes in our ancestral lands. We sought to discourage that, so we spread a tale among them that the world was constructed like a stair, and the Wall of God was but the second of many such awesome barriers. We told them another wall existed to the west, and Thalury tumbled over this step in a bottomless cataract.
“We went on to tell them that from the beginning of days sailors heeded the divine injunctions of all the elohim never to sail out of sight of Haaretz, lest they meet the edge and fall over it. We made the claim that so rigidly was this law observed that if any sea captain captain, drunk or otherwise, steered his ship such that the land of Haaretz faded from view, it was cause for the crew to mutiny and throw the captain overboard. No such crew returning to port ever faced punishment.
“And the story contained a warning that went something like this: In the fullness of time King Ravenmaster was put to death. It was the days of the revolution in the ancient kingdom of Kurgan, when the union of loosely-united city-states known as the Saiph League was born, and many of the laws established by the elohim were overthrown.
“‘Reason’ reigned supreme, and when time was ripe seamen were found to man two ships, sailors who were willing to disregard the divine warning never to sail out of the sight of land. Such was the rebellious mindset of the men of the Saiph League that it never occurred to them the gods issued their commandment for the safety of mariners.
“Instead, there were rumors of yet another land far in the west, a choice land the elohim created for their own enjoyment, a beautiful realm filled with gold, rich in abundant fruit, and the divine prohibition was to keep this land from being despoiled by mere mortals.
“The two ships commissioned by the revolutionaries were Will O’ The Whisp and Fire of the Covenant. They drifted in the current with sails unfurled. After two days, the dark line that was Haaretz could no longer be seen in the east, and some of the sailors shuddered, for the tradition was deeply embedded within them.
“And their fears proved more than superstition, for one night after about a week underway the lookout in the highest mast of Fire of the Covenant screamed that the horizon ahead was closing in on them. There was a sharp edge to the sea!
“Captain Dogtrapper signaled with lamps to Will O’ The Whisp that he was raising his sails and turning back. Captain Skulldagger aboard the Will didn’t follow suit until it was too late. With billowing sails Fire of the Covenant barely escaped, but the current became too strong for her sister ship. In short order she was seen to tip over the edge and was never seen again.”
By a strange coincidence Baron Bayard slipped off the Catwalk just then and screamed. Victoria pushed her nose into the wall of the Sacred Cliff, resisting the urge to fly after him, since it would be as useless as her attempt to save Aliwe. But Bayard’s fall was arrested by the ropes, as they were intended to do.
When he had been hauled back up, and had recovered enough that his voice had steadied, Victoria begged him to continue his story again. Or his meta-story, his story about a story that had been told to the Israelite colonists in Haaretz to keep them from sailing to the lands of the House of Sala.
“’Will ‘O’ The Whisp had indeed fallen over the edge of the world,” he said. “For not far away from Haaretz the sea poured over a great cataract, an infinite waterfall. For days the ship fell partially submerged within these waters, which had become a vertical sheet.
“The crew found they had no weight, they floated freely, and some floated far away from the ship. Winds eventually broke the sheet into globes of water, ranging in size from a man’s head to the size of a barn. Fish were seen swimming in some of these spheres of water, and when the food aboard ship ran out these fish provided the only source of food. There was no thirst, for Thalury was a freshwater sea, always replenished every few thousand years by comet-fall.
“As the crew continued to fall, the black underside of the world became visible overhead and the doomed crew could see that the warnings were true, the world was indeed a vast stair.
“The eternal winds blew the globes of water further and further apart, and the heat of the day caused them to slowly evaporate. One day none of the water globes which remained near the ship contained any fish, and the men began to starve. Thoughts of killing each other for meat crossed their mind, but by the time they were desperate enough to act, they were too weak to successfully attack each other or do anything more than moan pitifully.
“Then came the final week, when they passed away one by one, according to their remaining strength.
“But the story we told them didn’t end there,” Bayard tells Victoria. “We said that when human beings die in Haaretz they find they are resurrected on the rim of the Wall of God, where they wait for a ship to carry them across yet another sea that lies east of the rim.
“The dead people atop the wall can hear voices upon the winds of Haaretz through a trick of reflecting sound. Ever they walk the ramparts, hoping to hear their loved ones. When they do hear their name it is bittersweet, for they find their friends and loved ones have soon forgotten them and moved on. The more famed a person was in their life, the more fragments they hear, so they linger a while more. The humble accept the truth sooner. It’s really all about letting go.
“But there are always the dummies at far end of the bell curve, and firmly anchored there was Captain Skulldagger, captain of the Will o’ the Whisp. To this very day the shade of this infamous captain is still standing on the rim of the Wall of God waiting for his name to be heard once more as the story of his voyage was retold, just as I have told it once more to you.
“But Skulldagger notwithstanding, at length almost all the dead come off the precipice and rest on the lawn behind it before the Upper Sea, waiting for a white ship to come and take them east to an unknown destiny. The priestesses who attend them always refuse to speak of their final fate, and only say to them, ‘Great gifts are sweeter when they are but revealed in their fulfillment unspoiled by hasty tidings.’”
“Within twenty years all the members of Captain Skulldaggers’s ill-fated crew passed east across the Upper Sea, or leaped from the rim to a more permanent death, but the captain alone remained. For he had attained a form of immortality through infamy, and never a day passed but that his name was spoken aloud by someone far below in Haaretz with a shudder as the story of the Will ‘O’ The Whisp is told to yet another generation. The sound of his name is carried aloft to the rim, and he savors it.’”
When Baron Bayard finishes telling hyz story, Victoria begins to see a glimmer of how she can see the way through to loving this yang. Hy is strong and kind, and more important than that, hy is interesting.
After everyone survived the rope traverse the Catwalk becomes much wider and safer, but their journey is slowed by the presence of many blown-down trees which have been knocked over recently in a storm and lie directly across the trail. Sometimes the travelers roll over them, but other times they must crawl under them, which is exhausting work, and they could not avoid getting their clothing soiled.
The fearsome cliff under the Catwalk comes to an end, and forms a normal slope. The company enters a small stand of fat virgin trees that drape the slope down to the bottom, and here the character of the journey changes dramatically. Victoria thinks it to be a magic place that has escaped the ax in the first, second, and third waves of cutting from Wazol, as though by an oversight.
After that they reach a large outcropping of stone that Bayard calls Picture Buttress. It offers a marvelous view to a forest glade below. Victoria thinks it is beautiful but still dangerous. The trail actually wraps around the parapet here, and a thoughtful person, probably Bayard on his journey long ago, has provided a rope for each of them to hold on to.
They pass a large duckpond so serene that it reflects the sky and the branches of the trees above the water like a mirror. The trail skirts the edge of this pond with a small but calm diversion before resuming its course.
“It’s going to be a little rough going here,” Bayard says, plowing through prickly foliage and bidding Victoria to trust him. The route is flagged with orange and black ribbons. “Not many people know about this trail. Those of us who do know of it use it and we maintain it but we don’t fully connect it anywhere.”
And finally the Catwalk ends ignomiously in some poor old man’s back backyard in the city of Wazol. He is tending his garden and shrugs as one hundred forty people tramp through his property and go out the side gate to the front of his house to reach a city street.
“Where do we go next?” asks the Baron.
“Victoria knows,” says Lady Haziel with a smile revealing her awareness that Vic has spoken to a living Aliwe. “Menkant. Then Joy and her dragon will come to us.”