“Tuck and roll, Dianire. I’m letting you go…now!” Rintiala shouted over the noise of the hurricane winds that Berylia had added to her perverted living dream.
Dianire curled up as best she could, but she had been suspended her own body’s height above the smoothly-raked white sand in at the entrance of Rintiala’s new Healing Temple. Contact with the surface made her right shoulder nearly snap–she could hear the crunching of bone-on-bone within her–and white sand flew up in her face. Only the poncho given her by the Pregnant Virgin protected from the further harm. She spit sand out of her mouth, and coughed.
“Come on, Dianire, we’ve only got a few moments before Berylia realizes we aren’t frozen in fear,” Rintiala commanded, grabbing her and pulling her up sharply by her left arm. “Goodness! You’re heavy for someone so skinny.”
Dianire rose to her feet, shaking off both the sand and Rintiala’s helping hand. “What do we do now?”
“We use the Temple against Berylia,” Rintiala said. “First thing, you’ve got to call back all your termites and attack the eighty-one Cactus Mothers that ring the Temple.”
“Don’t I need to be in a Cactus Mother to do that?”
“No, silly. You’re in a living dream right now. Just think it, really really hard. We can’t fight at Dragon Head and the Temple at the same time. Right now the Berylias around the Temple are half asleep, waiting for new orders from the first Berylia. Okay, that’s enough explaining. Let’s go.” With that Rintiala ran to and through the main entrance, heading for the Great Altar.
Rintiala and Dianire return to the new Healing Temple within the living dream of the Grotto, and prepare to defend it. Rintiala explains the danger: she has learned that the Birthing Mothers can hold a living Nueguan woman in indefinite suspension; they were designed this way in case of potentially fatal birth complications. The supreme danger is that if Berylia can obtain this knowledge from Rintiala, she can poison both her and Dianire with her perverted Mother Fruit, make them believe they are dead, and then place them in Birthing Mothers. The living dream of the Grotto would become a living death.
“But how can Berylia do this?” Dianire asked.
“The same way I’m going to show you how the Great Altar can fight,” Rintiala answered. She took Dianire in her arms and kissed her full on the lips. In a rush, the knowledge of the mechanics of the Great Altar flowed into Dianire from Rintiala.
Rintiala broke contact first. “That’s the first time today I’ve enjoyed myself,” she said, winking at the astonished Dianire.
Dianire asks if the Pregnant Virgin could stop all this, but Rintiala says no. The Birthing Mothers are older, and can override the Pregnant Virgin. (I want to introduce the programming concept of override to young readers,as a science fiction parable).
All is not lost, however. The Great Altar is a living machine, designed to protect the Temple against intruders. But it requires two Nueguan women to operate it: one the brain, one the tail and talons. As a backup measure, Rintiala has Dianire recall all of her termite workers to the Temple, to kill all eighty-one of Berylia’s Cactus Mothers, which have now grown poisonous projectile thorns.
The battle begins. Berlyia launches an attack on two fronts: one through the main entrance, and one through the topmost arches of the Temple, so as to gain the high ground. Dianire succeeds in flooding Dragon Head with mud and silt, but then she does not have enough resources to combat all of Berylia’s multiple selves. For every termite soldier she creates, Berylia matches it with a poisonous thorn.
Dianire fights on, sweeping away Berylia and her poisons from the floor of the Temple, while Rintiala changes the structure of the Temple arches even as the Berylia’s are climbing across them. But neither strategy is enough. Many Berylias sweep down on vines from above, and force Rintiala out of her seat on the Great Altar. To demonstrate her power, Berylia fuses all of her copies back into herself. She positions a poison thorn to Rintiala’s left carotid artery, and forces Dianire to yield.
“I don’t want to kill either of you, but I also can’t have you interfering with my plans. With Clan Demetra plans.” Berylia hissed.
Because she is now only one, and her attention is split between Rintiala and Dianire, Berylia does not see the translucent threads growing together behind her. In a wink of an eye, these threads flow over the thorn, yanking it from Berylia’s grasp.
The silvery, translucent form of an athletic young woman leaps from the highest arch, with a trajectory punch to Berylia’s heart, knocking her off the altar. The athlete opens her eyes and mouth wide, from which spidery webs flow, covering the struggling Berylia. Though they seem insubstantial, they lift Berylia off the floor, and carry her back to the now-visible red-and-gold Training Mother, depositing her there, and closing the cover.
The athlete’s form becomes more substantial until a woman of mature years, strong and svelte, stands before Rintiala and Dianire. Dianire can see a bit of every Clan in her: the strawberry blonde hair and violet eyes of Clan Tiala; the muscularity of Clan Redourine; the curvaceousness of Clan Demetra.
“I am Oldest Mother. I heard your call,” she says to the two shocked girls.
“Do you have a Nueguan name?” Rintiala asks.
“No, I came before Nuegua. You could say I helped to build this place. My name is Andrea Radford, and I was born in 2073, thirty-seven years before the war with the Sky Wanderers.”
“Did you actually defeat them?” Dianire asks, recovering her composure.
“Not really. We just tricked them for a while. I’ve been waiting for you two for a long time. It’s your task to defeat them.”
“You made Nuegua? I have so many questions to ask you!” Rintiala shouted.
“Me too. Like how Rintiala can do what she does,” Dianire added.
“Later for both of you. Now, it is time to wake up,” Andrea Radford, Oldest Sister of All Clans said, as her image and voice faded away.
Dianire woke to find Berylia sitting up in her opened Training Mother, sobbing uncontrollably.
“I had terrible nightmares,” Berylia choked out between sobs and sniffles.
Dianire’s vision blurred for a moment. She saw an older, filled-out version of herself walking up to Berylia’s Training Mother. “No you did not,” this older Dianire said. “You saw your potential. You saw the truth about yourself, and so did all the Healling Sisters in the Temple.”
This older version turned to Dianire. “So you’re awake? You don’t look all that awake.”
“But how can I be here and be you at the same time?” Dianire asked, feeling very light headed.
“Oh, snap out of it. It’s me, Tianara. I’m your older sister, remember?”
“Okay, okay,” Dianire complained. “All I care about is: where is Rintiala?”
First Sister Alathea came walking up behind Tianara. “Rintiala has yet to awaken, but her dreaming-signs are normal, not to worry.”
“Tianara, how did you get here so fast?” Dianire asked.
“Fast?” Tianara threw her head back and laughed. “Dianire Redourine, my trouble-making sister, you have been in the Training Mother for three days. I came as fast as I could from the far south-east. There’s been Western Bandit trouble down there.”
“I called both First Sister Tianara and the First Sister of Clan Demetra to the Healing Temple when it was clear that something had gone wrong with your Mothering.” Alathea said. “We have reviewed the evidence from all three of your living dreams and have come to our decision, which we will deliver as soon as Rintiala awakens.”
As if on cue, outer shells of Rintiala’s Training Mother split apart, revealing a Rintiala on a cushion, her strawberry-blonde hair spread out like wings. “I heard lots of mumbling, so I thought it was time to wake up. Did I miss anything?”
Dianire vaulted over to Rintiala, placing her left ear over Rintiala’s heart. “After all we’ve been through, you have to make an entrance like that,” Dianire said softly.
Rintiala tucked in her chin to get a better look at Dianire. “And I’m glad to see you. And Mother? And First Sister Tianara? I’m sorry, but I don’t know your name, First Sister of Clan Tiala.”
The First Sister of Clan Tiala was much older in appearance than the other two First Sisters. Streaks of grey ran from the temples of her hair, all the way down her back. She had the fiercest steel-gray eyes that Dianire had ever seen. Her mouth was set in a permanent grimace. “Just First Sister will do, young Healer. I don’t plan to be here long.”
Alathea took command of the conversation. “We First Sisters have a set of difficult problems to solve with you three. The first problem is that the Pregnant Virgin has decided that you are now Mothered. Do you understand what this means?”
Rintiala spoke first. “We can heal any disease with a touch.”
“Poetic but somewhat accurate. In the presence of a dangerous disease, your body will secrete the antidote, primarily through your breast milk. All you have begun to lactate, though with stress you have been through, you might not notice it yet.”
“But we’re just girls! At least Dianire and I are,” Rintiala objected.
“Not any more, my daughter. Mothering is permanent. Do any of you know the second power that Mothering bequeaths you?”
Dianire thought that Alathea was just reciting something out of a book now. “Of course I do. All three of us will live to be two hundred years old. We will grow up normally until we are twenty, then change will occur, and we will not turn twenty-one until we are eighty years old.”
“Very good,” Tianara replied. “I see that you do occasionally pay attention when I try to train you.”
“And the third? Do any of you understand why this is our biggest problem?” Alathea asked, looking directly at Berylia.
“Our dreams can become our deeds,” she answered, tears still drying on her face.
“We Firsts cannot take this last power away from you, nor can the Pregnant Virgin rescind her Mothering. Each of you must make a choice, then. Rintiala of Clan Tiala, we three Firsts have decided you can enter the Guild of your choice. Which do you choose?” Alathea looked at her daughter, her concern evident in her furrowed brows.
“Mother, Sisters…I choose the Healer’s Guild.” Rintiala answered solemnly.
“And you, Dianire, you can choose any of the three Guilds. Which do you choose?” Tianara asked her sister.
“I choose to be a Builder. I’m just not comfortable in the Grotto of the Pregnant Virgin. Let me live out in the open, building things.”
“So? All this for nothing?” Alathea asked incredulously.
“Nothing? No, Rintiala showed me that I can do things no other Builder can do. That’s why I want to be a Builder.” Dianire said proudly.
All three of the Firsts turned to Berylia. “Berylia of Clan Demetra, in your living dream you attempted to murder two of your fellow Nueguans, and prospective Sisters. Had you done this in the flesh, your punishment would be swift and sure. But since you did no lasting harm to Rintiala or Dianire, it is decided that you may not enter any of the three Guilds, nor may you use a Cactus Mother again.”
“You will be made a Servant of the Guild,” First Sister of Clan Demetra said to her softly. “It is for the best.” Berylia took in a deep breath and held it silently before she answered.
“YOU CAN’T DO THIS TO ME!” Berylia screamed at the top of her lungs.
Tianara spoke next. “In your dreams, you made it clear that Clan Demetra plans to create an addictive Mother Fruit, to enslave all who eat of it. Worse, you made it clear that Clan Demetran women will have indiscriminant sex with all the men in Empty Earth after these men have eaten of this perverted fruit. All the Healing Sisters witnessed your dream from all three perspectives, and they have judged this to be true.”
“You made me do this!” Berylia shouted at First Sister of Clan Demetra. “It is your plan, not mine!”
“There is no proof of any such plot, nor would I condone such a thing,” First Sister of Clan Demetra said to Alathea and Tianara. “Berylia descended into madness, and I am willing to admit that was my fault. She is too old to be Mothered, but she would not stop petitioning me, so I let her try. I assumed that the Pregnant Virgin would reject her as soon as the Living Dream of the Grotto commenced, but that was not to be. For this indulgence, I am deeply sorry to all,” she said, bowing deeply to the other Firsts. She looked at Berylia silently, while her fists clenched and unclenched. “Bath yourself, and pack your things. We leave for Village Demetra within the hour. Speak to no Healer or Builder while we leave.”
With that, First Sister of Clan Demetra helped the shivering Berylia out of the Training Mother, and walked beside her, holding her gently. When they reached the doorway, golden in the afternoon light, Berylia turned and stared at Rintiala and Dianire in a way Dianire could not fathom, but she felt ants crawl up and down her spine. Then the Demetrans were gone.
Alathea looked at her daughter and sighed. “This was not the Mothering Day I expected, not at all.” She put her thumb to her lips, cogitating. “Still…there is a large group of people waiting outside for you two, and we can’t mill around here much longer without missing supper. So come girls, let’s eat.”
“You’re going to let Clan Redourine eat as much as they like? Goodness, there will be nothing left over for tomorrow,” Tianara said, laughing. “Come my new younger Sister, let’s see what they are serving. I hear it is roast emu, with all the dressings.”
Dianire helped Rintiala out her Training Mother, while Alathea prepared for her daughter a robe of white and indigo, the dress of a Healing Novice. “Fits quite well, I think,” Alathea said, smiling for the first time.
“I apologize for my behaviour when we first met,” Dianire said to Rintiala. “You can call me Dee from now on, now that we are friends.”
“Is that what we are?” Rintiala said smiling. “Now, you can call me Rinnie.”
In the late afternoon of Village Tiala, home of the Healer’s Guild, three young women left the entrance of the Healing Temple entrance together; two of them arm-in-arm, smiling and waving at family and friends. The third, the small one, waited until the first two had moved on with their party, and slinked off the premises, her eyes filled with a fire of unquenchable fury.