Chapter Four Factorial
Scene Seven: Quick, Avatar
“What did you see?” Ruffina lay on her side. Denario crouched next to her. The mossy floor of the temple felt soft beneath his toes. He didn't remember it seeming so thick before.
He was tempted to lie down next to the witch but they were both naked. Even though she was old enough to be a grandmother, he found that he liked her smile a bit too much. He averted his gaze. He tried to describe what the goddesses had shown him.
“More than I could understand,” he said. The heart moved! He'd known that it made a beating noise inside him but that was different than seeing the chambers of a heart in action. Together, they formed a pump like an engineer would make. And the mind is in the brain! He'd heard that doctors in Muntar had performed experiments on animal bodies and discovered that the soul lies in the brain, not the heart. He hadn't believed it. Oggli and Anghrili physicians proclaimed that the brain's function was to cool the blood. The accountant had believed them. “It's all alchemy inside.”
“And that's not math.”
“Underneath it all, in the blood, is math. That part made sense.”
“What about when you got very big? Did you feel the invisible force between the stars?”
He hadn’t. He shook his head.
“I thought so.” The witch let her eyelids narrow. “Even in a magical vision, you can only comprehend a small part of what goes on. There was a lot more happening. You were right there in it. You could see it all. But your mind couldn't perceive it. Your memories couldn't hold it. That's okay. I know what you saw because it's what Ruffina could see her first time.”
“Numbers. The universe is made of numbers. And the stuff in our blood is numbers.”
“Did you notice much about them? Do you know how to extrapolate from what they did?”
“If you are a careful thinker, you can see through the numbers you perceive to more of what's really there, more than humans really comprehend.”
“Who am I talking to now?”
“The three of us. Earlier, it was Onuava. Then Glaistig took over and gave you her gift. Now it's mostly me, Ruffina, although sometimes one of the others slips in a few words.”
“Did you receive the same vision, Ruffina?”
“I made sure that you got your gift. I didn't have time to look around. Sometimes the goddesses don't have a good understanding of people. I suggested the inner vision.”
“I think you'll earn it.” Her irises sparkled.
“Why are we naked?” He suspected that he could see the presence of the goddesses in her eyes. He wondered which deity sparkled green.
“Glaistig did something.” As she spoke, the light shining through her dimmed to about normal.
“One, two, two, one, three, four, two, one, four, four, one, three. Ruffina, my body is controlled by little golems running on codes. They use a base four system.” They didn't operate through simple addition. That wasn't how things lined up. Although he'd caught a glimpse of the rules only briefly, he knew that much. There had been an interaction between 102 123 313 200 233 132 013 and another string of numbers, 302 021 122 133 202 012 031, but the details had faded from his memory. He'd been puzzled. But at least he'd caught a glimpse of the basic concept. “Why base four?”
“I'll ask.” She titled her head. It took her a few seconds and he got the impression that she repeated her question. “They both say, 'because it's convenient.'”
He added that to his list of what he knew about the mechanisms of his internal organs. Then he concluded, “And spirals are important.”
“What do you know about spirals?”
“They're an expression of math. There are spirals of base four numbers inside me. They're double-spirals because that's how the golem control works. The numbers break out of the spirals to operate. Otherwise, being in spirals is the resting state of the code.”
“I saw some of what you were being shown. Now that I think on it, the sight meant different things to me. All the alchemy in our blood seemed to be symbols and colors.”
“Aha. I saw some colors, too.”
“There was red, green, blue, and yellow on one side. There was another color on the other side, something like a purple.”
“That's right.” Her phrase struck a memory. “There were two base four systems, weren't there? That seems so odd. The process I saw started with transcription from one base four system to another.”
“No idea.” He shrugged. “I suppose because it's convenient, like the goddesses say. But we are golems of alchemy as much as other golems, formed by priestly hands, are forces of wood and gears or, by wizardly hands, moved by clay and magic.”
He felt cheated. His knowledge of blood alchemy didn't do him much good. Maybe it did him harm. It didn't get him home or feed his apprentices. As an accountant and as a man, he wanted more. He ought to learn a spell or be inspired to understand some other sort of practical connection between math and life. But the gods granted him the gift they wanted to give. They took his body in return. There was no haggling. The gods named their price and enforced the deal in the same breath.
Since he'd seen through their eyes, however briefly, he knew they could pierce inside him to his mind.
He turned to Ruffina to voice a suspicion. “Do the gods watch our thoughts?” he asked.
“They can see patterns swirl inside our minds. Our ideas look like fires and sparks to them.” She gave him her smile that reminded him of a younger woman, one with dark red hair. Her yellowed teeth didn't bother him as much. “But still they don't understand how we think until we act.”
“Interesting. Can they tell what I'm going to do next?” He reached out to touch her shoulder. But she was naked. So his fingers went to her chin. That seemed too intimate. He didn't want the gods to learn too much about him. At the same time, he felt sure that he could learn more about his life than what the gods wanted him to know. If they couldn't understand his thoughts, he was free to think of ways to trick them.
Ruffina could tell him how. She could ride on the mind of the gods as they inhabited her. But as he touched her hair, her eyes changed. The glow in them brightened.
“Knowledge of the gods is not for mortals.”
Damn. “How did gods get started in the lives of mortals anyway?”
“Oh, Melcurio,” she said. “You do know how I started, dear.”
Suddenly, Denario realized that he did know. The spark of godhood began with a female goat, not even a river goat. She had been a wild nanny with more muscle and bigger horns than any of the domestic males. The nanny introduced herself to the herd and became its leader. The townsfolk were happy about it. The wild goat protected their herd better than any dog or any person.
Then, one day, a hippogriff attacked. They did that from time to time. They hunted by scattering flocks and separating the young from the rest during the stampede. But the nanny goat wasn't having it. As soon as a kid started bleating, she spun around, pawed the turf, and charged. After her, other goats joined in the combat. They rammed the hippogriff despite it laying into them, talon and claw. It snapped its beak and ripped their flesh. Still, the nanny goat fought.
Together with townsfolk and a handful of goats, the nanny goat drove the hippogriff away. A final, mad butt of her horns knocked the beast over. When it got to its feet, it decided it had taken enough. It flapped once and, as its magic kicked in, rose to avoid the next attack from the nanny goat's horns. The nanny stood bleating in rage. Blood dripped off her fur on every limb and all over her back, even her belly. One of her ears had been ripped off. She watched the beast go. Then she laid down to rest.
She never rose again. She died there, staring in the direction her attacker had departed.
All of the villagers said prayers for the nanny goat that night. They said them again the next day, too. They hoped that the soul of the wild goat, wherever she was, would look over them. Who wouldn't want that? Who wouldn't love to feel her looking out for their common defense? And so the goddess of the river goats, Glastig, got her start. At first, she was just the wildest of animals and could only manifest herself as a sort of ghost. But she could possess warriors and give them fighting spirit. Many fighters along both sides of the river prayed for her. They wanted her blessing, her heroism.
The river folks came to associate Glaistig with the river goats, the makari, even though she had never manifested herself as one. Because people thought of her as a river spirit, it became true. Glaistig found that she could possess the makari. She could, on occasion, communicate with witches, shamans, and wizards. She learned to speak to priests and priestesses. She favored priestesses, as a whole, but she learned never to turn down anyone with religious fervor for her or a talent for magic.
In time, she learned to take over human bodies and project the essence of herself so that she appeared to be a physical being. Taking an independent physical form without a host was more difficult. For that, she needed many worshippers gathered together.
“The gods get their magic from the minds of people?”
“You ask too many questions, avatar.” She reached a hand toward his face. “And you guess too easily.”
If the goddess had stayed within Ruffina's body, Denario wouldn't have seen the opportunity. Her glow stretched out farther than Ruffina's hand. As she came to touch him, he reached through the green glow of her. He touched the pale ghost that was Ruffina. The goddesses hardly noticed.
Coming up from behind the accountant was a golden glow. The bubbles of bright light from it cast themselves among the green. The gods had reached for each other, Melcurio for Glaistig. But the accountant wasn’t lost. He had anchored himself on the witch.