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The ghost gums didn’t respond to the movement in the ground. They retained stillness, leaves held tight. Not a branch cracked, nor a twig dropped, not a single exhalation of breath escaped the stomata. The trunks glimmered. The dual light of the moon and its reflection on the still water refracted from lumpy burls. The sky dimmed, the moon sank and set. Darkness seeped into the clearing where waters flowed from afar to come to the inland salt lake.
A body, prone, the only movement the grip of his fingers digging into earth.
Using hands and feet, Kano dragged himself into the shelter of the wave-shaped overhang. The pain in his chest cut like a saw. He gasped for air, panted, forced his breathing to slow, to ease into regularity — hold, two, three — out. The tightness eased. He pushed the toe of his boot into the sand, dug his fingers deep, pulled. This was another creek-bed, and he needed to get out of it, higher than the next flow of water. At least above the flood-line, a clear mark on the sandstone that looked like the height measurements a parent did for kids.
This one was above his head, but he couldn’t go further. Not yet.
Toe by toe, foot by foot, Kano hauled his weary bones over the pale sand. The only clean area he’d seen since his camp was lost. All the stuff since then, the red mud, the black clay, the rotten vegetation from the inundation of water … these things stuck to him like resin, burned worse than the sun, stank worse than what he’d run from … oh, the singed flesh, the pain of knowing what it was. He closed his eyes, his mouth, and lay still.
Exhaustion filled him. Remorse filled him. The need to finish what he started, to redeem himself … If he could cry, he would, but he didn’t then, and he couldn’t now.
The black rock. Get to the basalt rock. It was too far. Whether it was eight or nine metres, or only one or two, nothing ever felt so far away, so difficult to reach. One more push, one more shove, one final lunge. His fingertips brushed against it. Basalt. Cool and solid. Not sand, not mud. Kano rolled over, pushed up, propped his body into a sitting position. He breathed out, relaxed.
Sounds roared into his head, screams and squeals and sirens, shrieks and squalls and the terror of a person in the thrall of nightmares. Kano jammed his eyes shut. Those things were for kids. He’d outgrown it.
Contorted kaleidoscope patterns and colours flashed on the back of his eyelids. He opened his eyes, tried to see through the darkness. It didn’t help. The sounds were in his head, the visions his childhood fears. This was different to the usual terrors. This horror roared pain into his senses. Harsh smoke, eucalyptus leaves that burned in a flash of stink up his nose, in his eyes.
It wasn’t real. Hallucinations. He closed his eyes again, leaned back against the rock. Let the solidness of it anchor him into reality. Even if only for a moment.
Trees crashed and exploded in a cyclone of fire — now that was different — and the earth opened and swallowed the sky. No, not the sky. A meteor. It hit the earth and ruptured the ground.
A rock. His obsession with rocks. The single-mindedness of his search for an answer. It ended up killing those he loved. Kano’s eyes stung. He fisted his hands and rubbed the sting away.
The noise was probably a desperate message from his brain. To sit still was to die. A warning to get up and find water.
Sweat tickled the back of his ear. It was hot. He put a hand to his forehead. A fever? His skin didn’t feel hot.
The noises increased in volume, became more strident. Kano shook his head. Stopped. The visions were so vivid. What he saw wasn’t real. A different world, an emptiness in flat blacks, a swirl within — a wide-open eye zoomed into close-up. The centre was a vertical slash of emptiness surrounded by stabs of hate-red and peridot-green that throbbed toward the lazuli-blue sclera. The eye zoomed in, became large, larger — too close.
It looked inside Kano, not at his soul, but at his thumping heart. Kano’s vision split into two. He saw with the mad eye from somewhere he wasn’t, and looked at his ghost floating in the branches of the trees. On the back of his eyelids, the picture was his life, fading beat by beat.
A scream sliced through his ears. His hands clamped over them. It didn’t help. It came from him. The tenor tore at his soul like talons. His body jerked. His heart raced, skidded, stopped. Kano flung his eyes open, banged his head against the rock at his back.
Not real. Not real. Nightmares. He wanted to run. The normal response — fight or flight, but the freeze hit him. He couldn’t move.
Sweat dripped down his neck in drops as hot as melted lead. He raised his knees and sank his head onto them.
A breeze cooled his back.
He needed water, but he needed rest more. His eyelids trudged downward, scraped across the eyeballs. He needed water.
If he could imagine drinking it … he opened his mouth, lifted his head, rested his back against the rock. Coolness touched his tongue. Air moved. Cool. Dry.
Water. He needed water. Even if it wasn’t good water. He wasn’t dead, but it must be close. If he didn’t find water soon — even insects or frogs or … leaves rattled in the cold breeze.
Kano breathed in. Trees. Water. Trees in a depression.
He pushed one hand to the rock and one on the ground, leaned back to balance, took a breath. Another. He couldn’t move, needed rest, but if he did that, it was forever. Death.
Maybe he’d be better off dead. It might bring peace. Just to let go would release it. He could be free.
His chin slumped against his chest. It would be best to do it now.
A nub of charcoal lay on the ground beside his foot. Nothing to indicate it came from a recent fire, either wild or campers. Just this one pencil-shaped piece. He picked it up and rubbed it. Black soot marked his dirty skin.
A message-stick. He faced the rock.
The sharp tip of charcoal touched the surface, slid on the slippery remnants of peeling paint. Graffiti, even this far from civilisation. Tags, juvenile scribbles. Kano scooped up a handful of sand and scraped off the depraved cacography of fools and idiots. A thorny bush, a demonic head with horns, the wave-rock drawing, white lines that covered yellow and red lines, squiggles that meant nothing.
The drawings looked like his visions, his nightmares. He’d seen it and internalised it. That was all. It wasn’t a representation of the Diaballein. The head was too familiar, too clear in shape and fears, that was all.
This was the only suitable surface to use as his slate, close, tough. Slight undulations patterned it. Marks from changes in water levels, or topography lines on a map, but that was more madness. He only needed a small space. Not for a map.
Black basalt, a vitreous lustre. A void in the moonless night. The only igneous rock in the vicinity. Everything else was sedimentary, various forms of sandstone and lumps of iron-rich red ridges, a few glints of white quartz. None of it useful for his purpose.
If he wrote this, the words needed to survive long enough to be found. A single storm, rain or sand or wind, would wipe his message clean from any of the other surfaces.
Not this rock. He patted it like an old friend. Not with a hardness rating of seven.
The point of charcoal pressed against the dull facet.
‘I, Kano Varre, being of sound mind,’ he stopped writing and stared at his name. Was that who he was? How long since he’d heard someone say it without the underlying venom? Was it two or three or four weeks ago that his adopted sister, Casi, said it, in full, when she’d sworn to disavow him?
“Grieve,” she’d said. “Don’t run away. Don’t chase that shadow.”
Only Casi remained to see his final downfall. His throat constricted with a solid lump of futility. It was his fault. Then and now.
If he’d been of sound mind, if he’d listened to Casi, he wouldn’t be here. And the campsite — a sensible person didn’t, under any circumstances, camp in a creek bed in a dry-flood zone.
Kano removed the last two words.
‘I, Kano Varre, being capable of logical thought and rational actions,’ he almost laughed, but held it in. Finish the job first.
‘… hereby release and bequeath all of my worldly effects to the last remaining blood of my blood.’ Casi would know what it meant. He rubbed the scar that joined them as blood kin. If he had a knife, he’d do it again — sign in blood, her blood brother, adoptees joined by more than name, even if not by DNA.
Nothing nearby was sharp enough to cut his skin. He had scratches, nothing deep, and nothing to make an impression. A few plastic cards, blunted edges, and the plastic tags, too soft and flexible. He scraped his thumbnail against a large scratch on his arm until it bled, wiped the resultant mess to the rock.
A thumbprint should be enough. Kano went over the words again. They had to be clear, legible. Black on black? He frowned. How could black charcoal be so clear on black basalt? He dropped the nub and rubbed at the last few characters.
The matte background moved. A spiralling darkness spun Kano’s senses in a wild paroxysm of fantasy. The end-of-life path. He croaked out a half-hearted laugh. Kano didn’t believe in that. This madness was caused by dehydration and starvation. Sprinkled with an abundance of guilt.
His obsession was about to kill another person, this time himself.
He crawled on his hands and knees toward the trees, leaned up against the triple-trunked ghost-gum. How many days since the flood washed him down the proverbial creek? It might be one day, it could be seven. His mind wandered off without him on more than one occasion since.
He licked his cracked, bleeding lips with a swollen tongue. The light-headedness zoomed in again. There was water here, somewhere. The sandy depression disappeared behind the stand of eucalypts. The dry creek bed smelled of moisture.
What did he have to dig with? Nothing on him, unless he used the cards, but that would damage them, and Casi would need them both.
Hands would have to do. He scooped and scraped until he had a wide hollow. He kneeled and dug at the lowest point, loosening with his fingers and scraping the dampness to the side.
The hole became solid. A stony reef lay underneath. Water would be there, under the stone, but he couldn’t get to it.
He raised his hands, clasped them together, closed his eyes.
The illusions raged onto the screen of his eyelids. Dead, cold eyes gored him, showed him death as a reflection, as silence, an emptiness of forever. A cramp knotted Kano’s back and the spasm spread upward to his neck and shoulders. He tried to open his eyes. Failed.
Kano watched his body on the ground below him, wondered if it could have been different.
A shapeless darkness of moving points slithered from the deep shadows. It wasn’t Kano’s shadow. The form seeped up the face of the black rock. The face and eyes from the graffiti returned, blue and dark ochre, against the dull exterior.
The Diaballein moved, a wide grin on its fanged face. The eyes looked up at Kano, dared him to look away, but he wasn’t a scared little kid anymore. His floating soul froze when the shadow shaped itself to a reflection of Kano’s face. The only thing missing was the beard growth.
It pushed outward, the image gellified, became separate, popped out of the stone like a bubble. It floated across the clearing and wrapped itself around the shell of Kano that stared up at the night sky with open eyes.
Kano floated above, speechless and disbelieving. The impossibility, the image of his silly fears, the monster he’d called Diaballein, soaked into his body and filled it out with an aura of citrine as stinging as razor-wire. He needed to get back inside his body, to pick it up, run, run, and keep running.
The appropriation, the opening of a mind, the creation of a bond from blood joined to blood. A simple process. The Diaballein took a few lazy beats of his stone heart. A breath. It breathed. Deep, living breaths. So long had it waited, so very long, for this chance.
The Diaballein opened the mouth of the new vessel and bugled, the sound as vital as the taste of a first blooding in battle. It felt good. He did it again, wondered if he had the strength to sunder the earth, flame the sentinel trees.
Soon. The sentinels had failed. He had a body. Weak-minded, weak-boned. A hominid that was too close to death to understand the warning message. Too bad. It created the bond of blood to blood. It belonged to the Diaballein now.
Grit eddied in the rush of wind. The trees dropped limbs and tossed sticks and leaves. He moved toward the mouth of the gorge, blew another breath of threat at the sentinels.
If he had more energy, he’d burn them to the stumps, leaving only their memory.
He had other priorities. Strengthen this creature into a vessel worthy of the covenant. Food, sustenance. Become strong, enable the memories of all Diaballein to come to the fore, recall the cognomen, find the weapons and tools needed to make the call.
Once he recalled his name, it would enable the memories to unfasten from the unliving structure of his imprisonment in stone. He would become worthy of his Ancestors.
The Diaballein used the muscles of the hominid face to smile. He nodded at the trees, lifted one finger, spoke.
Chapter Two tomorrow … if we survive the night.