The world ground around me, nauseatingly loud, as my coffin of roots corkscrewed me away from the fire, away from the mine. Away from Miqual, the man I’d thought dead and gone. The man who tried to kill me. I expected to be filled with fear again. Plunging into the darkness of the mine had wracked my nerves, but now I felt only a little frightened – startled by the suddenness of how I was taken from the cavern – but I did at least recognise the power that had hold of me. I’d also been snatched from one life threatening situation after another, and this felt like it posed the least immediate likelihood of pain and death. It’s all a matter of perspective, I suppose.
I felt as if the alltree had learned from its previous experience, since it had crushed me and broken my bones when it had seized me from the flames of the End, and then had more healing to accomplish. Perhaps it had just been the alltrees’ emergency response. I couldn’t judge; it was rescuing me from harm again. This journey was a much better way to be carried through the earth. The twisting roots had left me space to breathe and move a little. Room enough to be bruised as I was bounced back and forth. They had also provided me with light, some at least. In scooping me out of the mine, the roots had borne a layer of soil inside my cocoon which was laced with the same source of the violet glow that had lit my journey into the mine. There wasn’t much to see of course, other than the densely interlaced roots, and my hands, which I kept braced either against the sides or cushioning my head, depending on how hard I was being shaken.
What I could see for the first time was that the tendrils braiding my little subterranean vehicle were constantly unravelling and being replaced. Rather than being dragged by a single root system, I appeared to be being passed between them, at shocking speeds. The more I was carried along, the more the luminous dirt was lost, until finally my cage gave off no light at all – but by now, I’d been covered head to foot in soil and mud, so the light came from me. It was odd being the source of illumination. Perhaps this is how it would feel to be a candle, able to see only because of your own existence. And, like the candle, I was slowly going out. The fire in the cavern had already taken much of the breathable air away, and there was no more to be found down here than what I’d brought with me. That accounted for a certain elongation and trails of fancy in my thoughts, but it did render my sense of time and distance worthless. I spent what felt like an age observing the weaving of roots around each other, like watching the growth of a plant played backwards at high speeds, jerky and each step was too precise to be real, slotting into itself in minute, impossible ways. They were like my complex of overlapping, interlocked memories: all part of some whole, but their order was gone and they came and went faster than I could feel them.
Once more, I left my body behind, and lost myself in memory.
Who had I been? The final challenge from Miqual before he tried to blast me into oblivion. I had, it seemed, been many people, and in most of them I led a similar enough life. I had family and friends, I loved, I lost, I moved on. Worked, slept, played. Almost all of them had taken me to places of beauty in the allforest, in Brisingham, and had begun in places like the chalet by the lake. There were variations of course: I was with different people, we did different things, but it all felt as if it had the same quality of existence. Bound by shettling at beginning and end – the familiar pattern of development, an arc that was repeated over and over. Miqual and I fought many times. Perhaps we should have found different circles, but somehow we chose to come back together again and again, hoping that it would all work out eventually. And it did, often even, but those where we fought, sometimes violently were prominent, and laced with fear and anger. We had fought about love, about the pointless, stupid domestic things that drive all people crazy, but most of all we argued about shettling.
My fear, which I had expressed when we were in the archive, that we’d been re-living the same life seemed valid, now that I could line them up together. I’d been living in a loop, free from time or consequences. Our culture had protected that way of life for what had to be hundreds of years at the least, allowing us a special liberty from the passage of time. We just fit back in again each time. But not everyone – some had stopped shettling, maybe even many of us, to judge from how few there had been at my last, disastrous shettling. They were people like me, or like I would perhaps have been if Miqual were less fierce in our arguments, and less able, with the rest of my circle, to convince me to return to the earth and be wiped clean again. Shettling was a sacred rite, and though the others had opted out, our society was still structured to support it. And if you were shettling, you were barely aware that the rest of the world really existed. If I hadn’t sought out work in the allforest, requiring me to be away from the rest of the circle, I’d have been even less mindful of the world around us.
I couldn’t quite reconcile my former blindness to the world with the welter of memories I now possessed. Smashing mental and emotional paradigms together is hard, and people run naturally on cognitive dissonance. I had, for centuries it seemed. With the other freedoms offered by the alltrees, such as healing and rejuvenation, those who chose not to shettle were able to simply persist. And if they did feel the need to start over, that was available. I wondered what rich complex life I might have found if I had been content to just live. The lure of a fresh start, by purging all the mistakes I’d made, had evidently been too appealing to reject.
Underneath those layers of familiar lives and memory, there was something… else. Separate from the cycle of shettling, it stood out alone, in fragments I couldn’t fit into the mix of those other lives. Images of cool, spartan rooms; planting tiny seedlings with such pride; swinging round, past Talens turning to watch Calia in her glory. Different people, different clothes. Still me, but everything else was different, right down to the sounds and the feel of the ground.
A dull roar tugged me from my sleep. The air was fresh – there was air! I took huge gulping breaths while lying on my back, until I could get myself to my knees. The travel pod made of roots was unravelling, disappearing into the earth. I was left in a long, low space, dimly suffused with a blue tinge to the air which eventually faded to black in all directions. The floor was perfectly smooth bare earth, but the roof was a tangle of tiny roots, gently waving in the faintly salt-scented air. There was no breeze, however, and the air was a pleasant temperature that felt entirely comfortable. I’d been taken from one cave to another. There didn’t appear to be anyone pointing a rifle at me, so it was an improvement. Since I could only see about fifty feet in any direction, I couldn’t tell if there was a way out, or make any good decision about where to go next. I did discover that I was almost clean again. Most of the mud that I’d had all over me had fallen away, leaving me dusty and undoubtedly grubby, but not the thick mud monster I’d been. My recently borrowed clothes were quite ruined though, from being either scorched or ripped during my scrapping with Miqual.
It took me a moment to realise that the stiffness in my torso was as much to do with the folder I’d shoved inside my jacked, as it was from being banged about on the way here. So I pulled it free. It was barely light enough to read by. I was forced to screw up my eyes, with the papers pressed close, before I could even read my own name. It would have to keep. I folded it in half and slotted it into the inner pocket of my jacket, rather than trusting my waistband and buttons to keep it safe.
Since there was no particular direction to head in, and nothing forthcoming from the allforest, which I presumed I was still under, due to the lightly waving fronds above me, I just started walking. The blue gloom moved with me, never allowing me to see further ahead or behind than I had before. Some relation of the violet illumination in the other caves, I presumed. Nonetheless, I was making progress – I could tell because the roots emerged from the ceiling in distinct patterns. I could trace along their lines from baroque formations into perfect squares. Unless they were subtly changing without my noticing… It’s easy to be paranoid when the world keeps dragging you from one place to another without ever explaining itself. I kept going.
Abruptly the blue radiance melted away, revealing a broad arch, thickly lined with ancient-looking roots twined around each other, looping in and out of the chambers walls. The chamber beyond was awash with light – rich and creamy, so like being under Calia and Talens the night before shettling. It’s a colour I associated with the night, in a world brimming with energy and power. It sent a surge of delight through my heart. My feet took me forward without stopping to think. I stepped through the arch to an incredible sight.
I stood on the edge of a vast subterranean hollow, a rough sphere filled with a hundreds of fully mature alltrees, and dozens more juveniles, pressed in close around them. I’d never seen juvenile alltrees so close to each other without their territorial weaponry being deployed. It was a huge underground forest. It was beautiful, and it took my breath away. When I looked up, I thought my heart would stop. Roots and branches arced upwards from around the rim of the forest, crawling and climbing across a ceiling that was pure light, framed and held in place by those sprawling roots. Impossible. That was Calia’s light – I had known it for all of my lives and could not fail to recognise its qualities now. But how? From around the very edge of the ceiling I could make out a series of gentle waterfalls, trickling and misting the trees below. It could only be the source of the air’s salty tang. I stepped out into the chamber fully, gazing up and down, trying to encompass the enclosed forest with my meagre eyes.
I almost jumped out of my skin when a hand landed on my shoulder.
“I see it’s rescued you too,” the voice, like the light that filled this enormous space, was instantly recognisable to me.
“Relyan,” I breathed, nearly falling to my knees from the shock.
“Whoa! Easy there Jenn, you’re white as the sun,” she– Relyan, said, “I know, it’s been a while, but it’s really, really good to see you again.”
I was lost for words, I was delighted, and gladly stepped into her open arms. It had been sixty-four years since I had been hugged, and Relyan did not disappoint. While I feared for how I might smell after my adventures, ever conscious of making a good impression, Relyan didn’t seem to care. It was a hug I could have maintained forever. At last we drew apart, joined by our hands, to look at each other properly. I saw the faint narrowing of her eyes as they swept over the patina of scar tissue that now covered my skin, resting on the stubbly spikes that passed for hair. I would have cringed away, but she kept hold of my fingers and wouldn’t let me hide. I bore her compassion. Relyan was older than I remembered – certainly not so ancient as the archivists – but it was still her, still lovely Relyan. And still her hair was beautiful.
“I’m so sorry, Relyan,” I said, “I should never have left you, I’m sorry.”
“I know. I know.”
It was to be all the consolation I’d receive. In fairness, it had been a much longer time for her – perceptually at any rate – than it had been for me. I imagined she’d finished cursing, or forgiving me decades earlier. I certainly hoped so. I wouldn’t want to think I had preyed on her mind for such a long time. Well, I did, but that was just a selfish part of me; one of those I’d have hoped to lose and relearn better in a further life.
“So, what do you think of the allforest’s new home?” Relyan asked, waving an arm over the view.
“It’s unbelievable – but how? This light, it’s just like Calia. But she’s gone, I saw her destroyed. I’ve seen her destroyed in the sky.”
“You’ll like this, Jenn,” she said with a wicked smile, “when Calia was destroyed, she rained down on the land for years. Chunks of moon, from grains of sand to vast city sized meteors burned through the atmosphere. Most burned up, but a few huge portions survived. One of those enormous hunks of Calia smashed down in the sea, specifically the shallows of the Hadycede sea.”
“It’s Calia, all right. We tracked it – along with a thousand other falling stars – but the alltrees had already found it. They began excavating this chamber sixty years ago, exposing the underside of Calia’s child – that’s what we’ve ended up calling the rock – and basking in her light at night. The root systems are incredible, if you’re into that sort of thing. Oh, and they adapted to brine almost instantly. And now, watch it thrive.”
I gazed up, in even greater wonderment than I had before, at the vast crystalline piece of the moon, mortared in place by the roots, strong enough to keep the sea itself from crashing down.
“They can’t all have grown in that time,” I said, “those in the centre are mature trees.”
“They brought themselves here. As far as I can tell, they dragged themselves underground and hauled themselves into the cave. There’s nothing they won’t do to survive. They are perfect. But then, you already know that, don’t you Jenn?”
“Why do people keep thinking I know something special?”
“Because you are. Or you were. I knew I shouldn’t have gotten involved with you, but I couldn’t help it. We’d been lost in shettling for centuries before I stopped. You kept on, endlessly involved with that circle you’d created. I never truly understood what you wanted to get out of it – it seemed like penance for something you thought you’d done. But then you turned up, living next door. I couldn’t help myself, it was like we were getting a second chance.”
“I – I do remember you. From before…”
“Don’t you remember yet? The alltrees put you back together for a reason. You made them – you’re the reason any of us here.”