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T. Pascal
King of Pascal
King of Pascal


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Something about #shithole reminded me of my novel Potus Goes to Washington from 2012. Here's the exact quote:

“These foreign countries want us to pay for all the carbon and excess which is the basis for our advanced civilisation. We will not give in easily to their demands for a clean environment and a reversal of global warming. If it is too hot in the hellhole you live in, try moving to the great country of Canada to the north. They also have some open space available in Siberia. You will be welcome in those places and you can wait for the planet’s temperature to rise enough for you to enjoy living in those frigid wastelands."

So it's not exactly #shithole, it's actually #hellhole, but you get the drift. This is echoed later in the story:

Potus nodded. "First of all, sir, thank you for your sacrifice for this country. Not many people could live as far away from society and heat as you do to bring us valuable resources that we need. The lower 48 percent salute you." Here, Potus made a snappy salute. "Second, as far as drilling and pipelines, let's do it. Nobody is stopping you, just some bears and some ice. God forbid the environ-wackos find out we broke some ice. The ice is going to melt anyway, based on the climate change and all that. People in Alaska have the right attitude: sit in the ice hole of the world and wait for the heat to turn on while the rest of us losers burn. I salute you again, sir."

Potus saluted, and then left his hand up to shade his eyes so he could read, "Spokane, you're up. Speaking of hellholes," he smirked.

A young white man in a hoodie looked suicidal. "What do you mean hellhole?"

"You know, a place where hell is." Potus answered.

The young man scowled inside his hoodie. "Eff you buddy," cursed Spokane. Two men in suits grabbed him from either side before the screen blanked out.
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[Author's note: and just like that, it's over. I'm only at 36K words, which isn't nearly enough to be a novel. Maybe I can add 1-2K in the next year during rewrites. Any suggestions and comments are welcome.]

And she laughed again. As 8999 laughed, she seemed to catch her right side as if she were hurt there.
She composed herself and turned serious. She said: Your father was 2711? Did you know my father?

9001 shook her head in the negative.

8999 said: He was 2713, his twin.

9001 mouthed the words in her head: Ordered heaven with emptiness imbalanced. Out loud, she said: My father was ordered heaven with balanced emptiness.

8999 nodded. She said clearly, slowly, as if giving bad news: Your father died because my father died. This is why twins are separated. They cannot survive together, because when they are close they collapse in on each other. Separated, they can continue to live normal lives. The left-handed twins are shunned because they are sinister, outcasts. They teach each other the dark arts of Healing.

She continued, and here the bad news struck: The right handed children are given masks so that they are never discovered to be the twin. The Masked Ones are given the secrets of identity so that they can avoid death and disorder. Druj, as you say. Your father died when you struck my father. I watched the whole thing but was too late to respond. Your training has equipped you with skills that I only find by accident. Your father made two mistakes. The first mistake was taking you with him instead of me. The second was using his skills to track down his twin and destroy him.

9001 wept openly. Her sister stepped close to offer comfort. She said: O sister! Older sister! I address you with respect. You are the one who should be the Masked One. I have always wanted to break free from this mask and get out of the palace. I have long wished to practice the arts of Healing and frozen time. I never knew my place until recently when my father revealed your father’s mistake. I had always assumed I was unfit or that God had not smiled on me.

9001 corrected her: His name is Ahura. Saying “God” is like calling someone without using their name. Like, Hey you! What’s your name?!

8999 bowed her head in contrition. She said: Everyone learns only what they are taught.

9001 said: My father made a mistake? He said the Elders separated us and that you were 9003, the eldest.

8999 shook her head in the negative. She said: No. The Elders had warned my father that your father had sought out the powers in the Perfect Sight. None of us know what that is. However, the Elders warned my father that he would try to come to meet his brother. Your father came to Kabul and he wisely disguised himself with a Mask. Everyone assumed he was my father.

She dropped her voice, but continued: Even our mother. The Elders told me that our fathers never met, but they must have crossed paths without knowing it. Our uncle thought that they were the same person. He never understood why a Masked One wanted to learn the ways of the Healers. The Elders kept it hidden and had your uncle working to keep records on both of them.

She said: When we were born, our mother died and my father was still away, hiding from your father. Your father heard of the children and came back. He stole you while one of the wet nurses was feeding me. He never knew which child was which. He merely stole in, took you and assumed I was the one sacrificed.

9001 grabbed her sister by the shoulders and hugged her close. She wept.

8999 returned the hug and sighed heavily. They separated and stared at each other.

9001 broke the silence. She said: What can we do now?

8999 was silent for a long time. She said, finally: Take me with you, sister. Train me as a Healer. We will go together and wander the earth side by side as we were meant to.

9001 shook her head. She said: I am weary of it. I want to rest in one place. I do not like the life of a nomad. I cannot stand the sight of blood. I am clumsy and bad at the spells. Father trained me my whole life and I am not half of the Healer you seem to be without any training. I am a failure.

8999 said: No! No, older sister! You carry yourself so bravely. You issue orders and speak about strategy and plans. You are a natural leader. You are not a failure, just in the wrong station in life.

9001 said: So we are only slaves to our profession?

8999 said: We are what we become.

9001 said: We become what we are.

8999 seized on it. She said: Yes! Yes! That is it exactly. So what will you do?

9001 drew herself up to her full height. She seemed a bit taller than her sister. She pull out her triangular blade and offered it hilt first to her sister. She unhooked her sister’s headgear and replaced her father’s lungee with it. She covered her face and felt powerful, strong, and important.

She said: I am you. You are me. Leave me here to rule.

Her sister held the blade over her head and put it in her waist cloth. She left.

9001’s father seemed to smile and disappeared. She knew he would not speak to her again.
Tother Hand, Chapter 8, part 4
Tother Hand, Chapter 8, part 4
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She made her way deeper into the middle of the oasis, unsure what exactly she should look for. She felt a tingling in her spine and the hairs on her neck stood up. The words were spoken in Avestan, but they slowly transformed as she processed the practiced language in her head.
The words were: Healer. Welcome back.

And: Turn around.

She placed her hand on her father’s blade and turned. An unusually happy old man sat on a rug next to a yurt. He nodded and laughed and laughed silently. He waved: Come here.

He nodded again, grinning ear to ear, and patted the space on the rug next to him.

She walked over hesitantly. She asked in her native tongue: What do you want, grandfather?

The old man smiled and smiled, and laughed. He had perhaps only one tooth in his whole head. His face was impossibly old and wrinkled, but the hills and valleys in his face were completely smooth and shiny. One eye seemed completely covered by eyelids and the colour was off, almost whited out with a milky mist.

He spoke Avestan again and it took a while to make the marks in her head: Don’t be formal.

And: Sit. Sit.

She kneeled down opposite him. This was both a sign of respect and a solid fighting stance. The old man continued to laugh silently and smile crazily. His one good eye moved around eagerly.

A squirrel chirruped and the wind whistled through a canyon. This meant: I know who you are, child. I know what you seek.

A camel belched in response. She replied: Tell me everything.

The ancient man smiled. He smiled more, and his lips spread so wide you could see the gaps at the back of his jaw where his molars used to be. He nodded and nodded and waved her inside the yurt.

She looked over her shoulder and nodded inside. She pointed. It meant: In there?

The old man smiled and laughed and laughed silently. He nodded the whole while.

9001 stood and turned, then lifted the blankets covering the yurt entrance. Her eyes took a long time to adjust to the darkness inside. But she heard a familiar voice and arch lilt in the accent.

The voice said: Hello sister. We meet again. Come in and sit down.

9001 pushed herself forward into the space between the light and dark. Her eyelids were mostly closed, but her senses were tuned and she could sense the layout of the yurt and the objects in it. She moved swiftly in the proper rhythm, leading with the left to pull out her father’s rondel and follow the corners of the imaginary metre-sized squares in front of her. She closed the gap to her opponent quickly and could see everything brightly by the third step.

A cicada hummed and a rook tapped at some tree bark insistently. This meant: Do not fight. We must talk.

Undeterred, 9001 could feel and sense the forearm of her opponent in outside-cross position, that is, her left was crossed with her opponent’s right. She pulled the blade back across the elbow to cut the tendons where the bicep ended, and pushed forward with the right hand to strike at the ribs behind the opponent’s elbow. She must have missed with the blade, but that was a feint anyway, she did connect with something that crackled and squished, though, as she smashed her right hand through the target.

She felt a sharp pain in her left side and collapsed in pain. Her left foot was simultaneously kicked out from under her and she floated to the ground in the frozen time between the light and dark. Her eyes were completely open by now and the light in the yurt was bright. She stared straight up at the ceiling of the yurt. She marvelled at how perfectly in sync she was despite being bested, and wondered at her mastery of the magic spell.

She blacked out before she hit the ground, however, and fell out of the spell as she rolled over in pain. She raised her blade in the left hand defensively, trying to get her legs under her. A foot pushed down on her left shoulder and she collapsed. Her father’s blade went skittering across the floor. Her own blade was still hanging on her right side and she wanted desperately to move her right hand to it.

The foot pressed her upper arm and shoulder, and was dangerously close to her neck. She grasped the ankle with her right hand and tried to twist it off. A masked face leaned close to hers and laughed gaily. She recognised the mask and the eyes from the night when she had fought the woman in Kabul.

The woman said, laughing: O sister! You are very determined! If you will not talk, at least listen. Please listen to what I say. If you are wilful, you’ll just get hurt more.

Another voice said: Stop it.

It was her father’s voice, she realised. Only she would have heard it. She relented and the foot came off her almost immediately.

The woman offered her left hand to help 9001 up. She took it with her right, which seemed more natural and easy. Sure enough, the hands interlocked and the strength of both arms lifted her easily. She felt sharp searing pain in her left ribs and grabbed herself with her left arm to support her ribs and side.

They regarded each other for a while, eye to eye. The woman seemed the mirror image of herself in every way.

9001 asked: Who are you?

The woman asked: Who are you?

9001 said bravely: I am 9001, daughter of 2711.

The woman said: Who was your mother?

9001 held her mouth shut in fear and shame.

The woman said: I will tell you, since you know but won’t answer. Our mother was 2387.

9001 stared in shock. Had the woman actually used the first person plural?

The woman laughed and unhooked her silk veil from one side so that 9001 felt the shock of looking at herself in a shiny reflection. Except that this was no facsimile of a shiny reflection, it was a real person who looked exactly like the way she envisioned herself from her reflection.

The woman said: 9001, I am your sister, 8999.

9001’s mind rebelled. She said numbly: My sister’s name is 9003.

8999 laughed happily. She said: O sister! 9003 has too many threes. We are both indivisible, you and I. The rhythms you have tried to use were mine and yours. But I am the left-handed twin and you are the right. No wonder you are always slightly unbalanced.

And she laughed again. As 8999 laughed, she seemed to catch her right side as if she were hurt there.
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They reached another high valley pass where a huge river coursed eastwards. This was the famous Panj, and 9001 nodded approvingly, as if she knew it well. There were more caravans on this stretch of river heading up and down stream. They were of all different sizes, shapes, colours, and types of dress. 9001 had never different languages spoken before; only dialects. She was completely unable to understand the other teams that passed by who called out greetings and salutations.
They followed the river for a few days and passed breath-taking views and mountainous lakes. The valley trek had taken a decidedly uphill slope for the first half of their trip. After they crossed the pass before the river, the ground headed steadily downhill. The trip was easier, and the river kept the valley they travelled in green and fresh. The Panjshir valley, for all its comforts, was dry and dusty where living was difficult. This valley was green and lush by comparison, even though it was at a higher elevation and seemed much colder.

Ice and snow still clung to the tops of the Hindu Kush to the south. To the north, the mountains seemed lower and the caravan seemed to be heading that way. They stayed one night on the shores of a large lake and ate tiny freshwater fishes. 9001 had only seen fish before but never eaten one. They were delicious and crispy outside from the fire but soft and juicy inside. The custom was to eat the whole fish: head, tail and everything.

The next day, they backtracked a two thousand steps and crossed at a narrow but shallow spot to the other side. They continued north in the flats of a large valley that descended from the mountains now directly behind them. They came upon another large, flat river that flowed almost as slowly as the camels walked. The headed north and east, crossing gentle tributaries that lazily flowed out of the hills. At some points in the flat valley, the tributaries merely petered out in fan-like tails that barely made contact with the river.

The men commented that this was Ahura’s way of moving the rocks from the top of the mountain down to the valley. 9001 wondered why Ahura would move rocks around, but couldn’t speak to voice her suspicions.

After several more days of easy trekking, they pushed out onto a much wider plain—almost a plateau—that extended farther than the eye could see in any direction. It reminded 9001 of her visit to Kabul, but the valley at Kabul was clearly enclosed. This valley could not even be considered a valley, because the mountains dropped away and disappeared in all directions. They did not stray far from the river that descended in an alluvial fan, because the valley became dry, dusty, and turned to sand. It was, in fact, the edge of a huge desert, the men said.

They also said that meant Kashgar was near.

The caravan stopped in a small oasis near a pool where several other caravans were camped. As night fell, a communal party and feast started up. The customs were different here, and the caravanners caroused with a foul-selling drink they shared out of a large barrel. This was the perfect opportunity for her to wait until midnight and sneak away to separate from the group.

She walked with her camel through the night, able to pick her way fairly easily in the easy terrain under the fading light of the final quarter moon.
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Chapter Eight
The next morning she took the camel with her to carry only essential items: some blankets, a piece of the khana for shelter, and food. While she was unloading all the other non-essential items, she uncovered a swarm of baby spiders running amok inside a small ball of silk about 4 centimetres across. She said a silent blessing for her spider friend’s offspring and placed them in a brush near the yurt.

She walked for two days as quickly and rapidly as she could, from very first light until well into dark. She stayed with the old grandmother on the first night, but the second night proved hard to find a friendly yurt or any lights from fires nearby to sleep next to. Fortunately, it was nearing the full moon, so she was able to gather a few pieces of wood and setup the khana and blankets as a small, one-person yurt.

She started the fire by striking her father’s slag false blade against a stone.

Her father said: So the blade does have iron in it.

9001 started and cried out in fear. Then she collapsed on her haunches in front of the fire.

Her father said: I did not mean to startle you.

She asked: Are you not dead yet? Where is your fravashi?

He said: I am closer. As you progress in your new mission, I sense the truth approaching. Ahura is guiding you, which means that I am nearing my battle in the afterlife as well.

She asked: Are you afraid?

He said: No. I was not afraid to die. And I am not afraid to leave. I know that you have great talent. I have chosen you as my daughter, which is a blessing that many parents do not have.

She asked: Who was that woman, the Masked One? She seemed familiar.

He did not answer for a long time, so she made up the fire so that it would last a few hours and faced the opening of her mini-yurt toward the warmth.

Finally, as she was drifting off, he said suddenly: I do not know. I was distracted by some visions I do not understand. The Elders know about us, I am sure of it.

She nodded wearily and fell asleep.

The next morning, she packed up and left early. It was easy to rise in the pre-dawn cold because the quarters were so cramped and heat was scarce from the embers. She was nearly delirious from exhaustion and sleep deprivation. That could account for her father’s appearance, she reasoned, but then put it out of her mind.

After an hour of walking along the Panjshir, she spotted the tail end of a caravan, literally. She was able to catch up and merely followed along. A few of the men seemed to notice her but paid no attention. They thought she was a boy who had gotten separated from a caravan or was even part of this caravan. The colours on her father’s patu and lungee were been generic enough that they did not elicit any response. 9001 covered her mouth to prevent her from talking or accidentally forming feminine mouth shapes. She set her jaw instead and held her head erect.

As the caravan proceeded north, the valley the ground grew moderately steeper and the river ran thinner and faster on their right. On the third day, they passed over the ridge of a small mountain pass as they turned their right, away from the Panjshir River. They descended into a different valley with a small lake and stopped for one day to replenish supplies.

They moved on for a few more through a much steeper set of mountains on either side of the valley, finally ending at a higher lake that was even larger. The lake was so large that 9001 had never seen so much water. It was so wide from where the caravan approached that she could not see the opposite shore, if there was one at all.
Here they turned more easterly to follow a separate valley away from the lake to follow a valley range that did not have any rivers running through it. At the camps, 9001 had heard the men refer to the range on their right as the Hindu Kush. They followed the valley along the mountain range, skirting back north for several days.
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She glanced around the yurt at the other family members who sat, struck dumb with awe.
She continued: All of you are blessed and the Creator will continue to grant many blessings.

She retrieved her ney and began to play, and this is what it sounded like: The wind moved through the valley, low and calm. The weight of it was heavy and palpable. The sound of the flute mimicked this wind. If one faced into the wind, the edges of one’s sleeves might move slightly. It would tickle the eyebrows slightly. The music, a tongue of wind, would move around one’s chin and lap at the back of the neck, under the turban or head covering.

Along the wind front, there were subtle smells. Memories of moist earth, pine branches, wet camel fur, and dry dust came to mind. The scents were in no hurry, and they did not rush past each other. Instead, they lingered and left, while the next arrived and tarried just long enough for the next one to appear in line. The music was low and melancholy, like each aroma moving along, wafting past.

A gentle undercurrent of something comforting, like a mother’s breast or the smell of butter tea being prepared, moved through the air. On the surface of this current, like a leaf riding the waves of a river, the main harmony reached longingly for the sky. It jagged up and down, like the ridges of the mountains that lined both sides of the Panjshir valley. As a man might climb along the ridge of the valley, bobbing up and down, sometimes going further down a ridge, then climbing back up, so did the music follow the same irregular stride.

The music lilted up and fluttered. It was the longing flutter of a mother’s heart for her infant. Then it sank and floundered. It was the suffering of a child who has lost their mother and cannot replace that warm embrace. 9001’s heart rent in two as the ney produced these soulful notes. The music flooded out an apology to her father, whom she failed. Salty tears made the ney sputter.

She stopped playing and the spell was broken.

Every eye in the yurt welled over with tears. The man of the house clapped slowly.

He said: It is a curious fact that anyone, even a child of five, may merely walk from here to Kashgar. The Silk Road goes through hills, valley, and even mountain passes. It passes in front of the tallest mountains that Ahura Mazda has created. But you do not even have to climb over a single boulder to go around the entire world. You can go north through the valley and follow the passes with the last caravan that passed through here no more than two days ago. You must confront the Elders and demand justice for your father.

9001 nodded. She wiped the snot and tears from the ney with her sleeve.

She asked sorrowfully: Do you think it will matter? A thousand years from now, will they tell stories of people like us who lived in tiny yurts in unknown valleys? Do you think they will remember me, or my father, whom they barely met?

The man’s eyes glowed hotly. He said: Yes. Yes, they will remember you a thousand years from now. And another thousand later. They will listen to stories about you and they will not rest until they find out how it ends.
Tother Hand, Chapter 7 part 4
Tother Hand, Chapter 7 part 4
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But no matter! The treachery is too much! You must speak directly to the Elders. They will bring the lies to the light. They will bring the Masked Ones to the truth. Ahura Mazda, Creator of the World!
9001 said: I appreciate your kind words, father.

The man objected: No, no. No! Do not be formal. I do not deserve it. Call me “father’s little brother”.

9001 choked up and her words would not come out at first. Then, she said: Uncle…

She gathered her bravery though the tears and continued: Uncle, I am scared. I am not a good Healer. I have failed my father. He cannot meet his fravashi because of me. I have not trained well. I was bested by a Masked One who has not even been formally trained in our arts. She made a mockery of me and killed my father. I killed my own uncle and made my aunt a widow. I have no one to turn to, and I can help no one. Not even myself. Ahriman may take me now!

As she exclaimed, she drew her triangular blade and turned it toward herself.

Her father said clearly: Daughter, stop! I am your father and I am proud of you. Put down your blade. Ahura does not accept the souls of those who kill themselves. The fravashi cannot defend a spirit that is so helpless. You must learn to live, barely alive and scrambling, or else truly end it all now by driving the point into the scar on your neck… again.

Again? she wondered. And then she pushed forward into the gap between light and dark. She could see herself in the forest near their camp just before they were to set off. She could see herself a little distance behind her father, on the left side. She could see her posture was wrong: slovenly, leaning too far forward, legs too far apart, and heels flat. Her father stood in the correct position with equal distribution front, left, back, and right. His blade pointed outward and back in the left hand.

9001 watched in silent horror as the girl—her—leaned way too far forwards toward the point of the blade. She could see that her eyes were fully closed by this point. Her stance and practice were so horrible she had essentially tripped forwards and fallen onto her father’s blade. Her father turned as he realised the problem, but it was too late, the blade had slipped into her neck and she was sure to die.

Her father moved so quickly that his arms were a blur, even in the frozen time between the light and dark, he moved even faster. His body was still and his face was frozen in a concentrated grimace, but his arms moved like this: his left arm withdrew the blade, rotated and circled inwards, near his shoulder. The blade caught in the long tail of the lungee turban he wore and as he turned his head and pulled the blade along, he tore off a piece of cloth about the length of his forearm. In two or three motions, he had wrapped up her neck with a tight makeshift bandage and then held the front of her neck with his right hand. He applied a great deal of pressure to her neck.

The look on his face was horror and contrition. Before her body had drifted to the ground, he said: I have failed my training in you. I would rather kill myself. May Ahriman take my soul in her stead. I have failed my daughter!

The magic spell ended and 9001 fell to her knees and put away her blade. The man of the house was frightened and held both his hands in front of his face. The man asked: What was that? What happened?

9001 said: I had a vision.

The man said: You stood frozen as if a statue; your eyes rolled up to heaven, and you mumbled. It was fearsome. Please spare me. Ahura save me!

9001 nodded. Power welled up inside her, and flowed out of her words. She said: I bless you, loyal and faithful follower of Ahura and our prophet Zarathrustra. I bless your family, and all your descendants.
Tother Hand, chapter 7 part 4
Tother Hand, chapter 7 part 4
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She said: I curse you, uncle. You betrayed us. The druj that you spread while you lived continues in death. You gave my father a false blade. You sent a messenger to warn our target that we were coming. You tried to falsify my blade, but didn’t act on it because you thought I was weak. You denied my birthright to become a Healer. You were a hateful and vile man who was self-centred. You… You…
Her voice faltered and tears ran down her cheeks under her face wrap. She pressed the cloth against her face with the crook of her arm. She continued with the curse: You killed my father who is now a lost mainyu. You tried to reach between my legs when I was asleep. You attacked me from behind and hurt me. I take no joy in killing you. I mourn your loss like any other person we have helped meet their fravashi. I also celebrate your reunion so that you may perform some good in the afterlife battle against Ahriman.

She wiped her face again and sniffled.

Her father said: I did not know what he did to you.

She said: I know.

She withdrew the blade from the back of her uncle’s neck with some difficulty. She cleaned the blade on his patu. She tried three times, unsuccessfully, to turn him on his back. She decided he would have to lay where he died, face down. She stood weakly and stumbled outside the hut. The cold air hit her clothes, damp with exertion. She shivered violently. She suddenly stood still as stone when she spotted a female figure standing away from the entrance.

The woman raised a small candle and 9001 realised it was her uncle’s wife. Her eyes were pleading for something, perhaps mercy.

9001 said as reverently as possible: Forgive me mother. Your husband attacked me. He betrayed my father. You gave us hospitality and we have overstayed our welcome. Your husband is going to meet his fravashi and join the fight against Ahriman.

Her aunt-in-law fell to her knees and ululated wildly. She dropped the candle carelessly and it went out.

9001 was torn between comforting the woman and running in terror. She stayed rooted in the spot for several seconds until her father said: Run.

She ran silently in the opposite direction she had come to the compound, completing a full circle to get back to her camel. She did not encounter anyone but could still hear her aunt screaming as the sounds carried downwind.

She walked her camel all through the night, avoiding the main road. This made progress very slow and difficult, but it seemed safer. By dawn, she could make out the mountain range and the valley she needed to head towards. She joined a trail that was well-worn and continued nearly the whole day until she found a safe-looking yurt off the trail. She approached and tied up her camel behind the structure to be hidden. She entered and bowed to the couple inside. As was the custom, a tray of fruits and nuts was set out for any guests.

She sat down at the tray on some cushions. She bowed her head, making sure the lungee covered most of her face. She coughed as deeply as she could and made a cutting motion near her mouth and neck: she could not speak. The young woman of the yurt nodded and motioned to a bundle on her back. The infant was asleep so it was better not to speak anyway. 9001 was relieved and nodded, but kept her eyes and head lowered. She uncovered her mouth only long enough to snack on the treats for guests.

Even though it was still light for a few more hours, she fell asleep on the cushions. She woke up well into the night. She went outside, found the hole that served for reliving bodily functions, and used it. She pulled her father’s patu close and untied the camel, then continued on until late in the afternoon the next day. The terrain had grown hillier and the mountains rose quickly on both sides of the valley plain she was leaving.

She stopped at another yurt when she felt she couldn’t walk another step. She took the same precaution of tying her camel behind the yurt so that it would not be visible from the road. She entered the yurt and recognised the same family she and her father had stayed with on the way into the city. She almost turned on her heal to run away, but her host stopped her.

He said: You! Boy! Come in, we welcome visitors! May Ahura, creator of all, help all of us.

Then he said: You look familiar, but you are the girl I saw earlier! The Healers!

He bowed deeply and made his children and wife also bow deeply.

He said: You are my welcome guests, of course. Your father is still outside with the camels. Let me help him. Sit. Sit. Why are you dressed like a boy? I’ll go see your father, praise Ahura!

He scurried outside and 9001 uncovered her face. She spoke to the man’s wife. She cried: I’m sorry mother. I am alone. My father was killed in the city. I am trying to go home to a safe location.

The father of the house came back in, confounded. He said: But, your father is not out there, and you only have one camel. You are traveling alone… and you are crying, child?

9001 explained the events and drank two whole cups of butter tea telling the story. She left out any references to the arts and Perfect Sight, but most of the story was true and accurate.

The man exclaimed loudly when she was finished: By Ahura! Oh, please forgive me for taking his name. This story is nearly impossible to conceive. The Healers have always been a service to the people. If we did not have experts to take care of our dead and dying, we would be sick and unable to escape druj. You helped my father and mother! We celebrated your arrival and helped you on your way. If I had known you were on a mission…

But no matter! The treachery is too much!
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She took one camel and some provisions back along the road her father and she had taken to get there. It took several days to travel, and during the time she planned her revenge on her traitorous uncle. At night, she preferred to sleep alone out in the open under a blanket, sleeping against her camel for warmth and shelter. This way, she would not have to meet anyone close up and blow her cover as a farmer boy.
When she came near the metal making compound a few days later, she veered off the road far into the adjoining pomegranate orchard on the side of the road. She walked a long way around the area, hiding between patches of trees and huts. She tied her camel to a tree some distance downwind of the bloomery. She would use the smell of the fires to guide her to the compound after dark.

She waited until the quarter moon had moved overhead, which indicated midnight. She removed the turban and used her female headdress to cover her face and head. There was just enough light to manoeuvre and she tested the air to make sure she was headed in the correct direction. She came up to the back of the bloomery where they had secured their camels previously. She paused for a long time, listening for any movement or people about. It was perfectly still.

Her father said: Do not do this.

She started and looked around. She asked: Why are you still here?

He said: You did not curse my body. My fravashi does not know where I am. I did not get scared away from the worldly arena and now I follow you around.

She said tearfully: Father, I miss you.

And: I’m scared.

She felt him nod. He said: My brother did not mean any harm. I am sure of it. He did not betray us. I believe he meant to warn the Masked Ones and the Elders. He did not mean for them to ambush us and kill me. I think he is innocent.

9001 felt the anger and shame building in her from her encounter with her uncle. She said: He is a bad man, full of druj, deceit, and lies. I do not believe he is innocent. He must be guilty of harming you. He did send a messenger ahead of us to set a trap to get us killed. That must have been his intent. He delayed us with the new blade he created, which was false and he gave specific information about how to prepare defences and when we would arrive and who we would target.

9001 suddenly sneezed, twice in succession.

Her father said after a long pause: My brother was right. You are not a Healer. I must have made a grave mistake when I chose you.

She asked: You chose me? You said the Elders chose.

She waited for a response. After a while, sensing his presence was gone, she gripped her triangular bronze blade and drew it out in her right hand. She pulled her headdress wrap more closely around her face and snuck around the wall, peering each way and behind her as she moved noiselessly. As she rounded one corner of the clay walls, she peered into the compound and could see and hear nothing moving inside. The fires were all covered with sand and dirt, but provided enough gentle light to verify the place was empty.

She entered and searched the workbenches for her father’s original iron blade. She wondered where it could have been. She focused her mind and crinkled her forehead in concentration. She unexpectedly entered the space between light and darkness, but something was different about this spell that she had created. As she looked around, she saw the same compound scene before her, except it was too bright. It seemed to be early morning.

She saw her uncle and one of his younger apprentices walking away from one of the clay bloomeries and reach down to a table to pick up a piece of dull grey metal. This was her father’s original rondel, she realised. He placed the blade into the bloomery with wooden tongs while his assistant operated the leather box they used as bellows.

Each movement was slow and watery, as if viewed from a distance, but still perceived close by. There were orange and blue waves of light rippling at the edges of her vision and she could not look away to see other things in the periphery of her vision clearly.

Her uncle turned in the slow methodical motion of the vision and she was shocked to see herself and her father entering the compound. Her uncle waved a casual greeting to her alternate self and her previous father, then he brought them over to another table and showed them something.

The spell ended abruptly and 9001 nearly fell to her knees, breathing heavily.

Her father said softly: You have achieved the Perfect Sight. I misjudged your talents.

She spat out venomous words, saying: Do you see now, father? Your uncle did betray you. When he presented the blade he was working on, he had already destroyed yours. Do you not see?

Her father said: The Perfect Sight allows you to see things as they were, not as you wish them to be. I cannot argue with that.

9001 exited the compound and followed the edge of the road to the house where her uncle lived with his wife. The moon was lower in the sky to the west. It indicated almost two hours had passed. She moved around the house to the front entrance and prepared to enter.

She took two deep breaths and forced herself into the space between light and dark just after she had blinked. She had entered the frozen time almost perfectly. The light from the moon was bright as midday. She moved with perfect timing and rhythm to lift the deer hide curtain across the doorway. Inside, the orange glow of the fire spirits dancing in the wood gave the hut enough light to navigate.

She moved towards the wooden divider behind which her uncle and aunt slept. She planned to kill them both if necessary; it would be very difficult to keep the frozen time long enough to move around the hut and she needed to escape afterwards. She noted a large man sleeping next to a slighter person under several pieces of hide stitched together.

A lonely wind blew across the plain. It meant: Behind.

She struck swiftly and too viciously at the necks of both people. She had lost her concentration and the glowing lights flickered dangerously. Her eyes had begun to close in the space of one full blink. Black bands moved slowly, sped up, slowed down, and then covered everything as she fell out of the spell.

A bright light exploded in front of her and she fell to the ground. Her training kicked in before she realised she had been hit. She vaguely realised her blade had fallen onto the floor somewhere. She rolled over onto her shoulder and drew her knees up. Someone collapsed on top of her, grabbing at her neck. She was grateful for the training her father had taught her because this was exactly the same escape she had practiced several times.

She reached across to her attacker’s far shoulder with the arm closest to the ground. She pulled the shoulder and arm down against her opposite ribs, trapping the elbow and upper arm. Then she used the leverage of her other hand to push against the ground and used her bent knees to push off the ground with her feet. Her attacker lost all contact with the ground and rolled onto his face with her now on top of his back.

She quickly reached under the armpit and reached under his chin to grab his opposite shoulder. This formed a triangle arm choke across the neck. She gripped her wrist with her other free hand and pulled back as far and as hard as she could lean. Her attacker tried to gain leverage with his legs and arm, but lost consciousness too quickly.

She held the choke for far longer than she thought possible, pulling as hard and leaning back as far as she could. Sweat stood out on her forehead and rand down her armpits. The man jerked several times, until he stopped moving completely. Only then did she let go. She quickly scrabbled for her blade and found it in the dark. She plunged it into the back of the neck of the attacker, pointed at his eyes to drive the blade into the brain stem.

She collapsed onto the floor and knocked over the divider. After catching her breath, she stoked the fire in the middle of the hut and examined the area. The two bodies she had struck behind the divider were merely wooden blocks carved to be round and the size of a human head. The man that had attacked her was unusually large and heavyset. His long bushy beard was unmistakable as her uncle.

Her father said: Breathe. Clean the blade. Curse the body.
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Chapter Seven
9001 woke up slowly to the sounds of goats bleating and hot breath on her face. She sat up in the hay and startled two goats who bleated and bayed loudly. A farmer boy nearby dropped his wooden rake.

He called out druxš, which means demoness.

9001 responded: Not demoness. I am just sleeping here for the night.

The boy asked: you are the one who came by here with your father?

She responded: Yes, son. I have returned sooner than intended and I need to return with one of our camels to fetch some help for my father.

The boy ran back to the hut and the family came out apprehensively. 9001 dusted herself off and presented a story she made up on the spot.

She said: Mother and father, forgive me. My father and I came by the day before today. We left our three camels, do you remember? My father has gotten sickly and I need to get our supplies from a settlement nearby. I ask that you let me get one of my camels to make the walk there. I need to get some medicinal herbs to save him and I will be back this way in a few days.

The farmers were very apprehensive, for a woman must not travel unescorted. They would need to be responsible for their guest and her safety. 9001 argued that she had her father’s patu so that she would only need to borrow a turban to pass as a boy. The farmer finally agreed to lend her his lungee and cap. It was clearly a farmer’s lungee but that would provide excellent cover for her story. The farmers finally agreed to her plan and felt indemnified of any wrong doing.
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