RHYTHM • by Lindsey Duncan

Of the thousands rushing down Riwdin’s streets, I was the only one headed for the city center.  I pressed close to shuddering walls and waited for lulls to ease forward.  Necessity propelled me; I clung to patience.

Dust from shattered brick and tile swathed the air.  Buildings gyrated like spiders in the wind.  People stumbled, twisted, mouths distended in fear.  I tasted blood as if my heart pounded in my throat.  I could stop this, if I wielded my powers with skill.

The earthquake thrummed. Its consuming force radiated up into my bones… and underneath the randomness, the chaos, I felt the mystic vibrations created by the natural outburst. As a rhythmist, student of the magic of pattern, I relished it, even as I felt guilty for enjoying it. A handful of other rhythmists lived in Riwdin, but they were fighting a war in the north. Only a few students remained, and they would be overwhelmed by the auditory cacophony and unable to concentrate on the earthquake. My world was soundless, undisturbed.

In my private silence, I dodged stragglers — inner-city merchants, new wealth who refused to leave their jewelry and carved ivory couches. Panic drummed within me, but the surging tempo of the earthquake overwhelmed it. I could feel nothing, think nothing but the persistent pounding. I imagined I could swing my arms up and dive into the earth, and that frightened me. Frantically, I scrambled back within my skin.

Every time tiles broke free and slammed into the street, every time a wall lurched with sickening purpose, I froze… like a prey animal convinced a hunter could not see me if I remained motionless. But it was as if I was in a tunnel. Once behind me, everything vanished, unobserved — and ahead was the light of the quake’s epicenter.

I hesitated on the threshold of my destination. The roiling earth threw me forward. I collided with cobblestones, ripping up my palms. Brick scraped raw skin. Shuddering in pain, I pulled myself upright.

The clocktower loomed, untouched by the tremors — as if it were the eye of the storm. I stood in its shadow, bloodied hands caught in the fabric of my trousers.

I closed my eyes and focused on the throbbing ground, the way it pulsed. The rhythms of magic flowed with it, not slavishly following, but counterpoint, interpretation, call and response. The beats made my body quiver in answer. The pain vanished.

I would not lose myself to the tumultuous pattern. I felt, I followed, I found the truth: the two rhythms fed each other, earth into power and back again. Change one, and I could change the other.

When the next tremor ceased, I danced — my method of shaping spells. My heels pounded on the first beats, creating their own vibration that meshed with the power below. I spun, shuffled, leapt when instinct moved me. Once joined with the rhythm, I could feel each shudder before it began and bend with it like a storm-tossed tree.

Delight thrummed through me, hotter and fiercer than my mission. This was my music, my symphony — the only voice I would ever hear. Through the rhythms of the spell, I touched the heart of the earthquake. With steady, even steps, I calmed the vibrations on the surface, and sensed them flow downwards. The quake responded, weakening under my feet.

It was working, and I exulted. I increased the tempo of my subterranean reel as sweat trembled on my skin. As I danced, other impressions swept over me: shelves of earth grinding together; fissures that cut like blades; molten rock flowing. More than understanding this, I became it, and sensed the city lying over me like a handful of children’s blocks. I felt the swaying of the clocktower as a pinprick.

I took serpentine steps away from that consciousness, forcing air into my lungs. I slowed, knees trembling with weariness. I had to avoid missteps: a mistake or break in the pattern could cause a reaction worse than the original quake. But success was near. All I had to do was smooth the patterns into a repeating loop, quieting the earth with each turn.

The clocktower, which had withstood each blow as if the impact were feather-soft, shuddered. I realized the last tremor had cracked the foundation, and now it would topple into my path.

I could not avoid it and maintain the dance, yet if I let go, my hard work would backlash. It could rip the city apart. I wavered, I cried out inside: this was not my responsibility. I should not have to bear the burden, make the choice… but I had committed myself when I started walking.

I continued dancing as the clocktower fell, its shadows stretching thirstily over me. I lost sight of the sun. I stumbled and caught myself, dragging lead feet into the final steps.

The earthquake subsided with a sigh in my lungs. Triumph glowed in me… then that flame snuffed out as I turned my face to the descending monument. The clock face shattered; soundless, gears and glass showered over me. I stared, transfixed. No time to run.

The last aftershock filled me. I trembled in its rhythm… and I knew what to do, even as I knew it could never be reversed.

I had only time for a handful of steps, belated coda, but it was enough. I swung my arms up and dove. I melted through the ground, shedding flesh as I did. My body flowed like the magma below.

The rhythms of the earth welcomed me.

Lindsey Duncan is a chef / pastry chef, professional Celtic harp performer and life-long writer, with short fiction and poetry in numerous speculative fiction publications. Her contemporary fantasy novel, Flow, is available from Double Dragon Publishing, and her soft science novella, Scylla and Charybdis, is forthcoming from Kristell Ink. She feels that music and language are inextricably linked. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio and can be found on the web at www.LindseyDuncan.com.

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