Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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Gone to Abaddon

by McCamy Taylor


My sister turned to snow before my eyes and melted beneath the hot July sun. Her son was not there to witness her demise. Sensing that death was near, she sent him to the market to buy flowers. When Raleigh returned home, clutching a nosegay of pansies and pinks, he found me on the patio, kneeling beside a puddle of water, trying to cry. My tears turned to steam and evaporated the moment they touched my cheeks.

His small hand clutched mine. "Where's Mama?" the child asked tentatively.

I crushed him to my chest. Though my embrace must have felt like a furnace to a mortal child on that hot, hot day, Raleigh stood still in the circle of my arms.

"Where's Mama?" he asked again. His voice was muffled against my shirt.

"She's gone to Abaddon," I murmured into his soft, black hair.

"Abaddon? Where's that? Is Papa there?"

"Yes, sister's-son. Your Papa is there and your Mama, too."

Raleigh lifted his chin. The only thing about his face that hinted at his mixed parentage were his eyes, wide and black as night. "When can I go to Abaddon?"

"Soon," I promised. The knife in my heart took another turn. "You will be with them, soon." Not adding that "soon" to me was a lifetime to him, a mortal child who would be fortunate to see eighty summers. A mortal child who would grow and bloom, then wilt and fade like the flowers in the nosegay that lay on the brick paving stones besides the rapidly fading puddle that was all that remained of his mother.

Gone to Abaddon. It was a phrase we used in the Summer Lands to describe those who had ceased to be. It happened sometimes, once in a blue moon. An Elvish child wandered too close to the Dark Hart Forest and was devoured. A swimmer came upon the Kraken and gave up his breath in the beast's powerful tentacles. The Summer Lands were not without their dangers.

However, nothing about my birthplace could compare to the dark pall which covered the land where my sister and I had been exiled. Every mortal man, woman and child lived with the terrible knowledge that his days were numbered. No matter how handsome, beloved and full of life a man might be, all could be taken from him in an instant. And his loved ones would be left with nothing but a memory and a promise that their grief would not last forever, since they, too, were destined to join him in the grave.

I warned my sister, Sylphe, not to fall in love with a mortal man. I told her that it would end in grief. But when has the heart ever listened to wise counsel? She and Perry married -- over the objections of his family, wealthy landowners in Somerset. For six years, they lived in newlywed bliss, and then death struck, without warning, in the form of a runaway carriage which cut down my brother-in-law as he was returning home from the solicitor's office where he worked as a clerk.

We had suffered loss before. When Queen Medb, She Who Was Born a Mortal But Became a Goddess, conquered our corner of the Summer Lands, she tore a hole in the Wall Between the Worlds and forced the natives out to make way for her kin. Under a full moon, three-hundred thirty Elvish crossed over from the land of perpetual summer to cold, dank Glastonbury in winter. The shock of the journey killed some and drove others mad, but the young ones of less than eight hundred summers or so, like my sister and me, were more resilient. We made our way through marshes and brambles, past cottages which reeked of dead animal flesh and burning coal, north to the sea, where mortal descendents of the merfolk made a living as fishermen. Being distant kin, of a sort, they sheltered us, teaching us the ways of modern England under the widow queen Victoria.

The young ones among us adapted, survived. Some of us even flourished. We became artists, musicians, courtesans and actors. Our otherworldly beauty drew the mortals to us like moths to a flame --

Poor Sylphe. Her silver-white hair and graceful figure caught the eye of a young scholar, named Percival Blythe Shelley Waltrop. His grandfather was a German mine owner who had fallen in love with a local girl while on a business trip to England. At his young bride's insistence, he bought an estate and adopted the role of English gentleman. Two generations later, the Waltrop family had abandoned everything German -- except their surname. However, they had never quite discarded their Germanic affection for all things scientific and their aversion to anything that smacked of the supernatural. The father of the family was a chemist, as was his eldest twin son. The younger twin was destined for a career in law -- until he announced that he was marrying a fey girl of remarkable beauty and unknown parentage.

Though the Elvish refugees in England had tried to keep their heritage secret, there were rumors about a new kind of Celtic gypsy, fair of face with silver tongues that could control animals -- and the hearts of men. Some of the older farmers still remembered a time, before the coming of steam engines and gas lights, when the fey ones would cross over on a summer night, to woe mortals. A pensioner at the Waltrop estate recognized Sylphe for what she was, and though the Waltrop family was too "civilized" to believe in elves and fairies, they knew that she was not the sort they wanted for a daughter-in-law. Perry's parents gave him an ultimatum. Give up the girl or give up his family and fortune.

Perry gave up his family for Sylphe. And, in return, she gave up everything for him. Six years after they were wed and six months after his sudden, unexpected death, she breathed his name one last time. Then she surrendered herself to her birth element, frost. Snowflakes formed on her eyelashes. Her lips took on a bluish tinge. The white of her hair began to spread across her skin, starting at her forehead and moving down her face to her throat and arms. The light in her blue eyes was snuffed out.

Alarmed, I threw my arms around her. Though we were twins, my birth element was fire. Foolishly, I hoped to warm her heart and help her regain the will to live. I called for Raleigh, thinking that the sight of her son might change her mind. But Sylphe had already thought of that, and she had sent him off to buy flowers, even though the garden was abloom with primroses, daisies and cosmos.

She turned to ice in my arms, and then the ice melted and flowed through my fingers to become a small puddle. That was Raleigh's last sight of his mother, though he did not realize it. It would have been too cruel to tell him that the woman who had nurtured him was now nothing more than water. Better to let him go on believing that his parents were living happily in a far away world called Abaddon. When he was older, he would understand the truth. This land of Albion was Abaddon, the world of inevitable decay and destruction.

Abaddon, the land of death.

####

In December of that same year, my sister's-son and I boarded an ivory and chocolate colored train with an immense black and red engine at the railway station in Bristol. Christmas was two days away, and there were an unusually large number of passengers carrying parcels tied up in colored paper and ribbon. The upper classes were dressed in black, a sign of their never ending mourning for Prince Albert and a reminder that death was always here, ready to cut short their already ephemeral lives.

The lower class travelers wore whatever coats, scarves, sweaters and hats they could find, in a motley of colors and sizes. For the air had turned bitterly cold. I had bundled Raleigh in several layers of clothing topped by one of his mother's old jackets which hung to his knees. Her pale blue wool scarf was wrapped around his head and neck, turban style. Despite all the clothes, the tip of his nose was white with cold and his cheeks were bright red. Big for his age, he looked the very image of a British schoolboy armored up for an adventure in the snow.

I can only imagine what the other travelers thought of me. In recent weeks, my body temperature had risen as the fire element within me attempted to seize control. At home, I went naked, even when we ran out of money to buy coal for the stove. But the citizens of Albion were excessively modest -- the mere sight of a woman's foot and ankle was enough to make them blush. So, reluctantly, I had dressed myself in a threadbare black coat that had once belonged to Perry. It was even larger on my slender, Elvish frame than Sylphe's jacket was on Raleigh. I rolled up the sleeves, but there was nothing I could do about the wide, sagging shoulders. Beneath the open coat, I wore a thin singlet and loose trousers. A pair of black cotton gloves would keep anyone from noticing my fever, if our hands happened to meet. Dark tinted spectacles concealed the fires which burned behind my eyes, making me resemble an angry Siamese cat. My otherworldly red hair was concealed by a black hat, several sizes too large, which had also belonged to Perry. I was dressed for a summer stroll, and yet even those garments seemed too much to me, despite the freezing wind and the light dusting of snow that turned the bleak landscape white and sparkling.

Though we were desperately poor, I had persuaded the ticket agent to give us seats in a cabin car. I traded the usual barter -- my body. Luckily for me, these Victorians were starved for sex and business was good. The young man was so eager and quick that he did not have time to notice the heat radiating from body. Or maybe, he thought it the heat of passion. As if I could ever feel desire for one of those small minded, frail bodied mortals.

Raleigh was excited by this, his first train journey. I found the presence of so much elemental iron and steel almost more than I could bear. The rails were made of metal as was the frame of the passenger car. Luckily, the seats within our cabin were cloth covered, so I was not forced to actually touch the awful stuff as we settled in and waited for the big steam engine to roar to life.

It did not occur to my sister's-son to ask where we were going. To a child his age, riding the train was reason enough. This was a grand adventure, an early Christmas treat. I could not spoil his fun by telling him what awaited us at the end of our journey.

Once our tickets were collected, and I was sure that we would be left alone, I took off my tinted spectacles. Though it was only mid afternoon, the world outside the window was already growing dark. Gas light made the shadows within our train car dance and threw our reflections upon the glass. There were two hot water canisters on the floor, designed to warm the feet of passengers, but I had no need of them and Raleigh's legs were too short to reach them. In any case, he had me to keep him warm. I opened my coat and he snuggled next to me.

"Reading," he said aloud.

"Pardon me?"

He pointed one gloved finger at the tickets which lay on the empty seat beside me. "Bristol to Reading." Though only seven, he was unusually bright. He had picked up his first book at three, and he knew all his numbers and how to add, subtract and even multiply. He also had just a touch of second sight, from his mother, which made him lucky in games since he could always tell where the ball was going to be thrown and how the marbles would land. "We're going to Reading. That's where Papa was born."

Sometimes, he was too bright. I had intended to keep our destination a secret, in case Perry's family refused to see us. They had made no effort to contact their prodigal son during the years he was married to my sister. They had not responded to my letter informing them of his death. For all I knew, they would not acknowledge Raleigh, though he was the very image of his father, with his pale complexion, curly black hair and dark brown eyes. But I had to try, for the boy's sake. He was too young to fend for himself in this brutal, dangerous world.

Raleigh stayed awake for the first part of our journey. When his nose was not pressed to the foggy window, he was asking me questions I could not answer. The train stopped in Swindon, and I dipped into my small supply of coins to buy him a sweet bun, still hot and sticky from the oven and a mug of milk. My own appetite was poor -- the effect of all that iron -- and so I settled for a cup of tepid tea. On our way back to the train, I snatched a newspaper whose headline had caught my eye. Spontaneous Combustion in Exeter.

Shortly after the train started up again, my sister's-son fell asleep. I pocketed my dark spectacles and opened the newspaper to read about the third case of spontaneous combustion to occur in England in the last twelve months. The authorities were at a loss to explain why a young woman, seemingly in excellent health, had suddenly been consumed by fire while talking to the landlady of her boarding house. They had ruled out foul play, and now they were working on the theory that she suffered from a rare metabolic condition which raised her body temperature so high that her own fat ignited. The police claimed that the case bore no relation to the other two deaths by spontaneous combustion, one of which occurred in London and the other in Bristol. However, the authors of the newspaper were not convinced, and they speculated that this might be a new, deadly form of influenza.

I knew quite well what had caused those three fiery deaths. Like me, the victims were Elvish, born under the fire element. Despair or anger or grief over the loss of their home had destroyed the delicate balance which kept their mundane bodies intact, and their element had taken over.

These were not the only Elvish refugees to die by elemental transformation. However, when my kin changed into ice, water or wind, no one tended to notice. For some reason, earth element types seemed to adapt well to this new world, and, as far as I knew, none of them had gone to Abaddon.

I folded the newspaper so that Raleigh would not see the headlines. He was a bright child and might recognize the connection between these deaths by spontaneous combustion and my constant fever.

The iron monster continued its noisy journey along steel tracks. For some reason, the fire within me seemed to have cooled a bit. The hot water canisters were now cold. I moved closer to my sister's-son, so that we could share body warmth. He smelled of milk and sugar and the lavender sachets which Sylphe used to keep the moths from woolen clothing. The thought of my twin sister sent a shock of pain through my chest, and my fever flared again. To my horror, the corner of the newspaper which was touching my leg began to smolder. Alarmed, I tossed it to the floor, then I pulled away from Raleigh and threw open the door of our sidecar. I spent the rest of the journey in the passageway, with one of the windows cracked open so that the sleet and wind could cool me. A few passengers on their way to the dining car eyed me with open curiosity, but I had kept on my dark spectacles and hat, so all they saw was a gentleman overcome by motion sickness.

At last, we reached Reading. Raleigh needed to use the water closet, so I gave him a penny and waited nearby. I had only been alone for a few moments, when a blond bearded man dressed in grey approached me. He was a full foot taller than me and outweighed me by three or four stone. However, we Elvish are stronger than we look. I sized him up. Probably a procurer. Despite his finely tailored clothes, he had the look of a brawler, with a nose that had been broken and reset too many times and a scar along his left jaw that could only have been made by a knife.

I assumed that he would try to interest me in a woman. To my surprise, he offered me a card instead and murmured "If you need work, come see me at this address." So he was recruiting whores, not selling them. "Tell them Anders sent you."

Raleigh appeared at my elbow. "What kind of work?" he asked. His eyes were narrowed, and he gazed up at Anders with open hostility. The boy was entirely too bright.

I hurried him away from Anders, towards the cabstand. Using the last of my coins, I hired a hansom cab. The wheels were taller than Raleigh, but he insisted upon climbing into the carriage by himself. Did I mention that he was very independent for a child of seven? Elvish children of the same age seldom strayed from their mothers' side.

I paused to stroke the mane of the roan mare who was harnessed to the front of the vehicle. "Thank you for your labors, my sister," I murmured to her under my breath.

Her dull eyes showed a momentary spark of life. The way that mortals treat their animal companions is a scandal. Mercifully, the cab driver only cracked his whip above her head and did not lash her skin. Had he struck the poor beast, I am not sure what I would have done. When the fire burns hot within me, I throw caution to the wind.

Raleigh was wide awake again, with questions about everything we saw as we raced through the darkened streets of Reading. The scarf had fallen down around his shoulders, and his black curls were tangled and slightly damp. He looked so much like his father! If only Sylphe had been able to transfer her love for Perry onto his son. However, the resemblance between the two had only seemed to remind her of her loss. In the six months between Perry's death and her own elemental transformation, she had distanced herself from him, spending her days in bed with a "headache" -- a malady from which the Elvish do not suffer -- and her nights on the patio, gazing up at the stars, which were the only thing about our new home that resembled the land of our birth.

"It's the same sky," she said more than once to me. "If the stars are the same, then this must be the same earth. How can it be so different on this side of the Wall? Why does everything here have to fade and die, if the stars overhead are the same?"

During those six months of mourning, I became like a parent to Raleigh. Or, should I say, even more like a parent. A sister's-son is always dear to his uncle. The mortals try so hard to ensure that their sons are their sons, buying brides at a young age and keeping them locked away in houses where they will not be tempted by other men. And yet, how can a man be sure that it was his seed which made a woman bloom? Your sister's-son, on the other hand, is definitely your kin, for the simple reason that he emerged from your sister's womb.

Under ordinary circumstances, Raleigh would have left his mother and come to live with me when he was old enough to feel the wanderlust of youth. I would have taught him the ways of our people -- how to coax flowers to bloom when he was hungry, how to call water from the earth, how to talk to birds and other animals, how to cull ancient knowledge from trees. He would have learned to separate himself from his shadow, so that it could creep abroad by night, to spy upon his enemies. When he was old enough, I would have showed him how to use his birth element to fashion weapons, armor, pets --

Regret closed its cold fingers around my heart. And the fire within me flared. I threw open a window, and let the night air cool my face. Raleigh was asleep again, nestled like a fledgling bird in the nest of my arm. I draped my sister's blue wool scarf over his small, dark head. Though his mixed heritage gave him an unusually strong constitution, he was still mortal. A bout of pneumonia could cut his already short life even shorter.

The hansom cab left the cobbled city streets for the dirt roads of the country. The air lost its coalfire stench. Through the open window, I smelled freshly turned earth and grass sod and the musky scent of animals, domestic and wild. Badger, fox, mouse, cow, dog -- each had its own distinctive odor. The sky was a muddy charcoal color, the stars hidden behind clouds which released a light sprinkle of snow upon ground still too warm for the flakes to stick. The chill wind in my lungs eased my fever slightly. Perhaps, if we had settled in the country rather than the city, I would have adapted better to this world. However, there was no work for an educated man like Perry in the countryside. And, there were not enough customers for a courtesan like me.

After Perry died, it was up to me to support my grieving sister and her son. I think that Raleigh suspected how I made the money to pay the rent and buy the food and fuel to keep our little family alive. When I set out in the evenings, three nights a week, to meet my regular customers, he would fidget and whine. Once, a client happened to pass us on the streets, and being a bachelor gentleman with no family to speak of, he greeted me openly. Had my sister's-son possessed elemental powers, that man would have been frozen, incinerated or turned to stone on the spot. For once, I was glad the boy had been born a mortal. How could a full blooded Elvish survive childhood in this land, where puny creatures insisted upon bullying anyone smaller, poorer or younger than themselves? I know that I would never have put up with it.

The Waltrop family house was only a short distance from the city. I had been there once, in daylight. Set back a few hundred feet from the road, it was surrounded by a small stand of trees that gave the family the illusion of privacy. Though not grand by the standards of modern Albion, it was considerably larger than the two room apartment where I had lived for the last seven years. Two stories tall, with tidy rows of glasses windows -- all but one of them dark at the moment -- beneath a gabled roof dotted with three chimneys. Well tended hedges flanked the driveway. The clouds parted as we neared the front of the house, revealing a small fountain with a statue of Diana and her hunting hounds.

The hansom cab pulled up at the main door of the house. "Should I drive you round back, sir?" the cabby called down from his perch behind the carriage. He took us for servants.

"No, thank you. This will do." I climbed down from the carriage with Raleigh in my arms. The cab driver unloaded the small chest that represented all of our worldly possessions. All of Raleigh's worldly possessions. Where I was heading, I would not need clothes, shoes, toiletries or books.

The driver offered to wait, however I sent him away. I had no money left for a return fare, and in any case, I did not intend to take "no" for an answer. If necessary, I would leave Raleigh on his grandparents' doorstep. Face to face with the only child of their dead son, they were likely to forget who his mother way, especially when they realized that he was a perfectly "ordinary" boy.

With sleeping Raleigh still in my arms, I let the knocker fall on the door, once, twice, three times. The curtains in the lighted room parted. I got a glimpse of a tall form silhouetted against firelight. I let the knocker fall again, herder this time.

"Coming!" called an impatient voice from within. The heavy oak door swung open, and I was face to face with my brother-in-law, Perry.

I was swept away by emotion. Sylphe and Raleigh were not the only ones to mourn the passing of the big, smiling man who had married my sister and sired my sister's-son. Twins are always close, and among my kind, the bonds which link those born from the same womb are especially strong. If one twin stubs a toe, the other feels it. If one twin falls in love, the other feels that, too.

It was his scent that brought me to my senses. Though he was identical in appearance to Perry, the man who stood in the doorway dressed in a dark blue robe and slippers had a unique smell. It was the odor of factories and sulfur and cold iron mixed with a hint of ozone. Chemical odors. This was Perry's twin brother, William Blake Waltrop, the dutiful son who had followed in his father's footsteps.

"Do you know what time it is?" he demanded. His voice was quite similar to his brother's, a rich baritone which had resonated through our small apartment on the rare occasion when Sylphe could persuade him to sing. The familiar sound tugged at my heart strings.

His words woke Raleigh, who stirred in my arms. "Where are we?" he demanded, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He glanced up and saw a face so like his father's that his next words came as no surprise. "Papa!" he exclaimed. He practically leapt from my arms and ran towards the man framed in the doorway. Hugging him around the knees, he cried out "Uncle said you were gone to Abaddon. Is this Abaddon? Where's Mama?"

William looked as if he had just seen a ghost. "Perry?" Tentatively, he touched the small, dark head which was pressed against his leg.

"Not Perry," I told him. "Perry's son, Raleigh. Both of his parents are...are gone. I can't take care of him any longer, so I've brought him here. He is mortal, by the way. A perfectly ordinary child. You need not worry that he will embarrass you by talking to flowers or sprouting wings."

William seemed to really see me for the first time. "You're that woman's brother." His tone was accusing.

"Yes," I replied, pushing my way past him, into the house. The scent of sulfur grew stronger -- the elder Mr. Waltrop kept a laboratory in the back so that he could work on his experiments at home. "I am your nephew's mother's brother."

William winced at my emphasis on the words your nephew. "My parents are away. Father has a position teaching at a college in Japan. He won't be back for at least two more years. I live here alone now, except for a woman who comes to clean and cook. At night, there's only me. I don't see how you expect me to take care of a child all by -- "

The sitting room beyond the front hall was just as I remembered it, small but elegantly furnished. The carpet underfoot felt plush. Dresden statues decorated the mantle.

" -- a child his age needs a mother. I'm a bachelor and likely to remain one -- "

I stopped his tirade by the simple act of removing my dark spectacles and giving him a good look at my eyes. The room was lit only by a single incandescent bulb -- being scientists, the Waltrop had installed an electric generator when their neighbors were still using candles and oil lamps -- and the smoldering remains of the fire in the hearth. In the dim light, my pupils must have burned especially bright, like those of the Tyger in William's namesake's famous poem.

Leaning close to him, I whispered in his ear, too softy for my sister's-son to hear. "As you can see, I am not well. Raleigh needs someone who can look after him once I'm...once I'm gone to Abaddon."

William touched the back of his hand to my cheek. "I knew it!" he breathed. "Those cases of spontaneous combustion -- they're fairies, like you!"

My sister and I were not fairies, but there seemed little point in arguing over that distinction now. I wondered how Perry's brother knew so much about the mysterious deaths that had plagued Albion this last year. Maybe the police consulted him in his capacity as a chemist. "If you understand the nature of my affliction, then you know why I can not afford to be around Raleigh any longer. He is a mortal child. Like his father," I added. "He needs to be brought up by other mortals."

I had forgotten to drop my voice. Though Raleigh was entranced by this man who looked so much like his father, he was as observant as ever. "You're going somewhere, uncle?" His forehead creased in one of his dark frowns. "You should stay here. We should both stay here." He turned to William and offered up his hand like a proper little gentleman. "You're Papa's twin brother, William, aren't you? I'm Raleigh. This is Aden, my uncle. My other uncle."

William shook his hand solemnly. He seemed more comfortable dealing with this miniature man than he was with the childish Raleigh. "Pleased to meet you. Has anyone told you -- ?"

"That I look just like my father?" Raleigh gazed up at his other uncle with dark, solemn eyes. "Papa said I looked like you, when you were a boy. Since he and you were twins, that means I look like him, too."

I could see William softening to the child, who looked so much like the lost companion of his childhood. I had counted upon that. The absence of Perry's parents was an unexpected bit of good luck. Old Mr. Waltrop had objected strongly to his son's marriage to a girl of dubious origins. His wife, with her fondness for Romantic poets, seemed much more willing to accept Sylphe as her daughter-in-law. Though William was a chemist, like his father, he was also his mother's son. If she had raised him on Christabel and Childe Roland, then perhaps he would see his nephew's mixed blood as something natural. Or, if not natural, something that could be tolerated.

While Raleigh and his uncle were getting acquainted, I fetched the boy's trunk from the front steps. My fever was rising again. The world before my eyes had taken on a reddish tinge -- a very bad sign. It would not be long now. I had to get away, before I burst into flames, an event which might set the whole house on fire and cut my sister's-son's short life even shorter. If I could creep away without either of them noticing, then William would be forced to take in Raleigh. I would put as much distance between myself and my sister's-son as possible, before finding some hole where I could curl up and wait for my inevitable end.

Raleigh was asking about the electric light. William was attempting to give answers that a seven year old could comprehend. Slowly, I edged towards the door --

"Where are you going?" my brother-in-law demanded.

Simultaneously, Raleigh cried out "Uncle! Don't leave!"

"I'm not going anywhere. I'm just feeling a bit sick at the stomach. Some fresh air will help me...help me..." My mouth was suddenly too dry to form words. My breathing became labored as fire scorched my lungs. My legs went weak. "Out...out. Must get..."

Stupid mortal. Foolish mortal. In response to his nephew's pleas, William hurried forward and caught me before I could slip out the door. His hands felt like ice, a sure sign that my own body temperature was dangerously hot. My pant legs began to smolder. The hat fell from my head, exposing fiery red hair edged with flames.

Ordinarily, seeing something like that, a sensible mortal would have run. Perry's brother was anything but sensible. He lifted me into his arms. "Raleigh!" he ordered. "That back door, open it for me!"

There was a tornado going round and round inside my head. I could barely hear their words. Strangely, after that first rush of searing fire through my chest, there was very little pain. My body almost seemed to welcome my elemental transformation. I was only dimly aware of being carried deeper into the house. The smell of sulfur grew stronger. Was William mad? If I turned to flames in the laboratory, I might ignite the chemicals and then the whole house would blow up. Feebly, I struggled. However, as my elemental energy rose, my physical strength waned.

"Now the door to that metal cabinet," William urged. "Open it! Quickly?"

"What is it?" Raleigh demanded, ever the inquisitive child even in a moment of extreme crisis. "Will it make Uncle better?"

"It'll cool him off," his other uncle replied. "It's a locker I use to control extreme exothermic reactions. An ice box, if you will. Powered by an electric generator. If we can fit him inside -- "

My physical form was compressed into a space much too small. A wall closed in on me, muffling all sound. Cold gas filled my nose and lungs. A terrible, piercing pain ran through me, from a point midway between my eyes, down my throat, into my chest and from there into my four limbs. My joints shrieked in protest. The fire within me tried to overcome the dreadful numbing cold, but in the end I succumbed to the ice and the darkness. My heart slowed and then ceased to beat. For a mortal, this would have signaled the coming of death. For my kind, it meant that I had entered a state of deep sleep, much like a bear's hibernation.

Even my dreams seemed frozen. Faded, almost transparent images of scenes from the past. Sylphe running through a poppy field. The first woman I ever loved. The day we were forced from our homes by Queen Medb. The first man to break my heart. Sylphe handing me a robin's feather. Sylphe turning to ice before my eyes. Raleigh saying my name over and over until his voice turned hoarse....

No dream that last. Slowly, I pried my eyes open. Two Perry's leaned over me. One was older than the Perry I had known before by ten or so years. The other was ten years Perry's junior. The two men wore identical white smocks, and they babbled at each other using scientific jargon that I struggled -- without luck -- to understand.

It took me several tries to get my tongue unglued from my palate, and then several more attempts to get it to form recognizable words. "Who -- who are you? W -- where -- where am I?" And the unasked question, Who am I?, because Aden of the Summer Lands was a creature of fire, and as I thawed painfully, it became clear that this new me was a block of almost solid ice.

"It's me, Uncle Aden," said the hoarse voiced youth with curly black hair and dark brown eyes. "Raleigh. And this is Uncle William. He finally found a cure to keep you from turning to fire."

"It took ten years," my brother-in-law said. He sounded apologetic. "The breakthrough came when I realized that Elvish prisoners in gaol never transform. That's because of their leg irons. Iron and steel -- "

"Poison," I interjected, "Iron is poison."

"Not exactly. Some forms of the metal are toxic to your kind, it's true. But I found a piece of Elvish jewelry -- a broach -- in a pawn shop in Bristol. The mithril which your people brought over from the other world contains iron, along with silver, platinum and several other rare metals. I reproduced the compound in my laboratory and tested it on others like you, who were undergoing elemental transformation. It took a dozen tries, but I finally came up with a metal alloy that kept the physical form stable with a minimum of toxic effects. Once I was sure that I had found a cure, I thawed you.

"Are you saying I've been frozen for..."

"For ten years, Uncle Aden. I missed you." So I was Uncle Aden now. I used to be just uncle. Silly of me to be jealous of the man who had taken care of my sister's-son and who had saved my life.

Slowly, painfully, I forced myself up on one elbow. I was lying on some sort of leather covered examination table in a room that reeked of soot and chemicals. The shelves on the walls were filled with books. The tables were covered with beakers, flasks and other glass equipment. All of it was as I had expected. However, I was not prepared for what I saw when I glanced down at my own body.

A shirt much like chainmail covered my torso. The links were so fine that it had the appearance of loosely woven wool. I sat up. The mail shirt was surprisingly lightweight and flexible.

"I found that a palladium-gadolinium-iron alloy plated over aluminum worked best," the chemist William explained, giving me credit for more scientific knowledge than I possessed. "That way, I could get by using a minimal amount of iron and still achieve the same magnetic effect. Too much iron, and the metal did almost as much harm as good."

"Itches," I muttered. I twisted and turned beneath my mail shirt, trying to get comfortable. My limbs were fast thawing out. I could wiggle my fingers and toes now and bend my arms slightly at the elbow.

"You'll get used to it," William promised. "And I'm working a version that creates a magnetic field using electricity flowing through wires sewn into a cloth vest so the metal doesn't actually touch the skin -- "

"He doesn't understand, Uncle William," Raleigh interrupted gently but firmly. "They don't have things like electricity where he comes from."

I flexed my arms and legs. After ten years in an ice box, I was ready to move again. "Help me stand up."

With William on one side of me and Raleigh on the other, I managed to get both feet on the ground. My head did not seem to know where my legs where, and my first attempt at taking a step would have ended in disaster if my sister's-son had not been there to catch me. He was taller than me, now. Broad across the shoulders, with a bit of dark stubble on his chin and a deep voice that occasionally broke. His scent was different, too. Less milky sweet, more acrid. How quickly these mortals changed. How brief their lives!

And how brief my own life had almost been! If not for mortal ingenuity and science, I would not be here now to see my sister's-son grown up. Tears filled my eyes. Since fire elementals never cry, I assumed that the chainmail vest was having some effect on me. Despite the weight and the way it made my skin crawl, I would put up with it. I would even wear a garment made of electricity, if it meant that I could stay at Raleigh's side and watch over him for the rest of his life, before he made his final journey, to Abaddon.

Though mortal lives are short, I had come to understand that their very brevity made them all the sweeter. Only a species which burned with a passion to survive in the face of ever present death could have found a way to help me avoid a fiery demise. From now on, I would follow the example of the natives of my new home. I would become adaptable. I would create my own destiny. Though all around me was death and dying, I would live.

The End

THE END


© 2010 McCamy Taylor

Bio: McCamy Taylor is, of course, Aphelion's reigning Serials / Novellas (fiction longer than 7,500 words) Editor. She is also the author of many stories and articles that have appeared in Aphelion and various other publications too numerous to list here. Her most recent fiction contribution to Aphelion was the story Father Friday Cemetery in the November edition.

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