Mist swirled all around them. There was a stale smell in the air. The ground was slippery, as if they were walking on damp leaves but when he looked down Kaleem could see nothing. He could hardly feel the ground beneath him either. "Is this place for real?" he murmured.
"Where are we then actually?"
"You may as well say we're walking though the mists of time. Excuse the cliché."
"Just keep walking. Concentrate. Just listen to your footsteps. Think only about your breathing."
Alright. He'd been there before. Meditation had always been good. Meditating and moving at the same time was a bit different though.
The ground did gradually become more solid. The mist cleared a little.
"So now we have it," muttered Meelak. "Now it's becoming real."
"What's becoming real?"
"Me. You. The Beast."
"What do you mean?"
"How on Zenoto do you think all of this happened? Or anywhere? Every reality is the result of a dream."
"Are you saying I dreamt you?"
Had he? Kaleem couldn't decide. Perhaps he'd always been a bit bothered about how plain and boring he was. And yet when he was younger he'd always worried about how different he was from others. Had he tried too hard to be the same?
He glanced at Meelak. He positively sparkled. Did he want to be like that? He thought he rather did, actually. He held himself taller. The mist lifted completely. The sun was shining and steam was coming from the ground.
"The sacred place?"
"The very centre. Listen to the silence."
Kaleem listened. He could hear nothing.
"Have you ever heard such silence?" Meelak asked.
Kaleem certainly hadn't. He shook his head. There was just nothing. No sound at all. He couldn't even hear his own breathing.
"Some call it the still small voice. Some find it through meditation or what the old monks used to call mindfulness. Empty your mind. If you can't, count backwards. See every single number and think only of the numbers."
Ah. That again. That was at least familiar.
"Start with a hundred."
Kaleem began to see the numbers in his head. 100, 99, 98, ...
Meelak disappeared. The mists dissolved. All he could see now was bright light. He was still aware of Meelak, though. He couldn't hear him or see him but he knew that he was still there.
"Just concentrate on the numbers," a voice in his head said. Was it his own voice? Meelak's? Someone else's?
He was suddenly aware of an almost overwhelming peacefulness.
"Don't think about it. Don't try to define it," the voice said. "Open your eyes and look."
He opened his eyes.
Everywhere was light. A white light, edged with gold.
He could now see Meelak again. "This is the sacred place. Remember it well."
"Is it really a physical place?" asked Kaleem.
"It's real. Which is more real? The truth or the physical world? What is the physical world?"
Kaleem began to hear soft sounds. The hint of a breeze. The rustling of leaves, perhaps. Maybe a stream running in the distance.
"Oh yes," said Meelak. "It's hard to stay in the sacred space."
"What's its purpose?"
"It'll always bring more clarity when you go back to your own world. Come to it often. But now we have to move on."
He sort of had done that, hadn't he, from time to time? This type of meditation. Perhaps he could now use it more often as a tool?
And he had the feeling that now something had changed though he couldn't quite define what.
Kaleem found it hard to keep eye contact with Meelak.
Meelak shook his head. "You've got to look right into my eyes. You've got to see who I really am. There's nothing to be afraid of. I am you and you are me. At the moment we are two extremes. There is a middle way. We must find that and then we can be one. We're better together. Come on now. Look into my eyes."
Kaleem swallowed and tilted his head upwards. He felt drawn in by Meelak's eyes.
He pulled back a little and looked at Meelak's face. It was actually rather fine. His features were emphasised by the lines and shading. He was well defined. Did it give him more authority? Kaleem peeped though his eyelashes. He could still see Meelak clearly. He looked bold and confident.
"So, what is it you see, Peace Child? Is there anything abhorrent here?"
Kaleem shook his head. Meelak was only beautiful.
Meelak grinned and nodded. "Don't ever forget any of this."
Could he ever be like that though? Really? He touched his own forehead. Then he looked at his finger. There was a smudge of pink on it.
Meelak smiled. "You have to make the changes."
"How can I do that? I'm so used to being me."
"You'll figure it out."
Kaleem wondered whether he would. How could he become more like Meelak? Yet apparently he was already. He looked again at the smudge on his finger.
Meelak nodded. "You're only going at half speed at the moment. All that you do is good, very good even verging on excellent. But it lacks the final buzz."
Kaleem nodded. "Yes I get that. I really do get it. But how do we become one?"
"Oh yes. Most certainly. Nobody said it had to be easy." Meelak jumped and clicked his heels in the air.
Was he supposed to do that?
Meelak grinned. "Go on. What's stopping you?"
Kaleem tried it. He landed clumsily and a pain shot through his ankle.
"Don't worry. You'll get used to it."
Meelak started humming. He couldn't do that, could he?
"It's easy, you know. Everyone can sing. Everyone can hum. Just hear the note before you attempt to make it. Take a deep breath first."
Kaleem took in that breath. And surprise! He found he could hum.
They carried on tramping forwards. Their footsteps were just as in tune as their humming. Kaleem didn't know where they were going. It didn't seem to matter. All that actually mattered was that they were together. Humming and walking together felt like working together.
Kaleem began to notice odd things. Light on a leaf. Clouds forming shapes. Faces in rocks. Were these his thoughts or were they Meelak's? Occasionally he looked at Meelak. Meelak smiled back and nodded. "You're getting there."
The ground started to slope away. The path went down steeply. It was covered with leaves, just like on Terrestra. Without stopping to think, Kaleem jumped into the leaves and then slid down the incline. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Meelak doing the same.
Kaleem felt a strange jolt. Then Meelak was no longer there. Had they become one now? Did he feel any different? Kaleem couldn't tell.
He carried on down the slope, not really sure where he was going.
He touched his face and then looked at his fingers. Yes, they were smudged again but this time the colour was darker. He'd become Meelak then? But what was left of Kaleem? Did he feel any different? Maybe. Less frustrated. More willing just to see what would happen. Perhaps that was useful.
Kaleem carried on walking. He could really sense Meelak inside him now. But then Meelak had always been there hadn't he? Or should have been? He still had to get that sense of oneness rather than that of there being some separation. He walked on, one foot in front of the other. He started to hum again. That at least felt natural now.
He would have liked to look in a mirror. Fat chance of that out here. But as he looked down to the ground he noticed something silvery and shiny. A small piece of metal. He picked it up. He held it up in front of him. It made an efficient enough mirror. Oh, yes, he was Meelak indeed. But his eyes were Kaleem's. Was he going to carry on looking like this? Would others accept him this way? Time would tell, he supposed.
He put the piece of metal into his pocket. That was a Kaleem act all right.
He still wasn't sure where he was going. He was confident, though, that he was going in the right direction. He stopped worrying. Meelak became a little more cautious. The scenery was changing. He was now walking on a path. The sky was becoming brighter, the mist now completely gone. He would soon be where he needed to be, he knew it.
He sensed he was nearing civilisation or at least a place where civilisation had once been. What looked like abandoned houses began to appear at the roadside. What were these places? What had happened? In the distance he could see there was somewhere more built up.
He sensed, too, something he thought might be to do with other people's feelings. A feeling of utter blackness. Meelak? No. They were one now, weren't they? And Meelak would never feel that desolate, would he? There was a faintly unpleasant smell as well. It gradually got stronger.
Then he was in the middle of the built-up place he'd seen in the distance. It was exactly where he'd been when everything had gone black and Meelak had appeared.
This was it then? The place where the most evil part of the Clementine Order was hanging out. What happened to all of those ideas of excellence, then? This was so poor and desolate. Even Terrestra’s Z Zone had been more pleasant. It had at least functioned. But this place was squalid and deserted. The door was battered. There was a smell of decaying rubbish. It was deadly silent.
“Anyone there?” called Kaleem.
He thought he heard a groan. It didn’t sound quite human. He pushed at the door. It crumbled and gave way. A cloud of dust rose into the air, making him cough and making his eyes run.
This wasn’t really a proper dwelling at all. It was a cave with a door across its entrance. It was cold and damp inside. The smell of rotting rubbish grew stronger and made him gag.
“Where are you?” Kaleem called again.
Something rustled. Were there rats as well?
His eyes got used to the dark. The dim light from his communicator helped him to see a little more easily as well. Maybe it wasn’t just a cave after all. The walls were certainly lined with high quality tiles though they were filthy. There were tiles underfoot as well but they were broken in places.
He could hear a low moaning, like someone in pain.
He took a deep breath. Yes, he needed to see what this was all about. It was the sort of thing he did, wasn’t it? It didn’t get any easier though. Confronting what might be labelled the enemy was always scary even when you knew what to do.
He followed the corridors towards the noise. As he rounded one corner he could see that he was moving towards the light. Then the cave opened out and he could see the source of the noise.
He had never seen anything quite like this. Was this some sort of intelligent being? It was an alien form, not from a colonised planet, though it had a vaguely humanoid shape. It had no hair and what passed for skin was a dusty orange. It had a head but no neck. It appeared to have limbs; there were four of them at that. The beast was sitting in what looked like a mixture of blood and excrement. If these were bodily fluids though they were different from anything he’d seen before. The liquid was streaked green and purple. So this was the source of the putrid smell he’d noticed from the beginning of his journey into the cave. It was much stronger here.
The beast seemed to be sleeping. What might be described as a chest was heaving up and down. It breathed then. Was it taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide? Or did it breathe another way? What was it exactly?
It stirred and grumbled to itself. Its eye lids opened. It probably couldn’t see though; there were only milky cataracts in the sockets.
“Well, boy. What do you want?”
It knew he was there and that he was male. How? Was it some sort of telepathy?
“Tell me boy. Or go away. You’re disturbing my peace.”
It was sophisticated and intelligent enough to run a translator programme then. That was Terrestran English - and almost without any accent at all.
“Speak!” A dart of blue light shot out of the tip of a long protrusion at the end of one of the creature’s upper limbs.
Kaleem dipped out of the way.
The creature made a deep gurgling sound and started to shake. Kaleem had the impression he was laughing. ”Very clever. Tell me what you want or I will get you next time.”
What did he want? Well to find out what was really behind the House of Clementine. But how did he broach that? “How do you know where I am? You can’t see me surely?”
The creature wobbled again. “I can feel you. Sense you. Don’t even you humans only use eyes to check? The other senses do most of the work. Surely you knew that?”
He’d heard the theory before but never really had the opportunity to test it.
The creature laughed. “Oh, and I can tell you’re a snazzy boy.”
“You can? Who are you? And why are you here?”
The creature wobbled again. “You haven’t figured it out?”
Kaleem shook his head. Now what?
“Before you ask. Yes, I know you’re shaking your head.” He pulled himself up. “I am the incarnation of Oroban.”
Incarnation? This thing wasn’t of the universe, then? And if not, then where had it come from? Kaleem shuddered.
Oroban sighed. “I am trapped in this body. In this piece of rotting flesh. It is dying but not quickly enough.”
“So where have you come from? What are you doing here?”
Oroban sighed again. “I am from a different realm. I am a demon of the first class. Some of you might call my home Hell. But you universals don’t really understand the other realms so you make up all sorts of interesting stories. Very colourful sometimes.” He started shaking again and now it really did sound as if he was giggling. “Fire and brimstone. Whatever next?”
“Well, what is it like? The place you would call home.”
“Like nothing you could imagine. And it isn’t even distasteful or unpleasant. Not as much fun as this very physical world, though. Or at least, how this world is when you have a functioning body.”
“So what is a demon then?”
“We’re partly made up from the imaginations of the physicals. Then we become a test for them. Each demon develops his or her own specialities.”
“And yours are what?”
“Speaking the truth. Predicting the future. Commanding other demons.”
“But you’re connected to the House of Clementine?”
Oroban made a sound that Kaleem now recognised as a chuckle. He plucked at his leathery skin. “You’d noticed the colour?”
“So you’re saying the Clementiners invented you? Do they - worship - you? The bad ones?”
Oroban chuckled again. “It’s not that simple, my sweet Peace Child. They don’t believe in me as such. They may have a sense of something lurking in the shadows but they don’t really know I’m here. Their thoughts and actions have brought me into being. As I get stronger, so do their deeds. And as they become more competent at those things their deeds become more effective. It has gone so far this time that I am stuck in this wretched body. Yes, the Clementiners mainly invented me but the hearts of ordinary universals can also reach me. You remember the ones in brown? Yes, they come up every now and then. When everything is uncertain. When they think they’re being deprived.”
“So, we’re talking about evil?”
“Good and evil. Two sides of the same coin. Okay, I’m one of the manifestations of evil. But the House of Clementine isn’t all bad is it? You do know that it all started out with Obek Lampeter growing clementines to perfection? That isn’t evil, is it?”
“No. But when the pursuit of excellence excludes and corrupts?”
Oroban nodded. “That’s all part of universal nature. You universals; when you are good you are very, very good. But when you are bad you are horrid. It’s all comparative isn’t it? And snazziness is always so important isn’t it?”
“If you could get out of this body would it make a difference?”
“Something would change. It would allow the lighter side a better chance.”
“So how can you get out?”
“I can’t. I can’t even die. Some Clementiners are good enough that the body is decaying. But others are evil enough to keep me here.”
“Are you in pain?”
Oroban nodded. “And so undignified.” On cue, the demon farted loudly and purple liquid flowed out from him. The smell was overpowering and Kaleem began to retch.
“I am so sorry. I have lost all bowel and bladder control.” Oroban’s voice quivered as he spoke. Was the demon close to tears? He chuckled again though. “I could do with a dose of your or Clementine’s snazziness.”
Kaleem managed to recover. He chose to ignore the smell. “Do you even eat? Or drink? Do you need food?”
“I can enjoy a physical existence on the same terms as you physicals when the body is fit and well. But the only food I consume now is the evil that the Clementiners and other universals send me. As you can see, it’s enough to give me the runs. Oh, and that was a particularly good one. President Exton threatening to attack Lupino. Poor little isolated planet. Such a defensive little leader. So scared of the big boys that he shouts all sorts of abuse and makes empty threats. Exton should know better. You know better don’t you? Oh yes, that fed into this putrid body all right.”
“So, what can we do?”
“Can you kill me, Peace Child?”
“I don’t know.” It would be murder, wouldn’t it? It would make him as bad as the evil Clementiners, if not worse, surely?
“Don’t forget, I’m not real, not in your sense of the word, even though I’m manifesting really strongly. Once the body has gone, I am gone and there will be no trace of me at all.”
“Well, can I kill you? How?”
“You could bash my head with a rock.” He chuckled. “Oh yes, I created the torcal rocks. They couldn’t form naturally here. But one of those would be superb. Go on. Pummel me to death.” He nodded to the side of the cave room and there was a large rock. It looked like something that would belong to the cave but not in its present state with the lined walls and floor.
Oroban chuckled again. “As you’d expect, we can do clever tricks. But it’s all illusion. You may certainly use the rock but what you think will have even more power.”
“And what should I think?”
“Good thoughts. And in particular what is good about the House of Clementine. Go on.” He nodded towards the rock again.
Kaleem picked it up.
“You can do this thing.”
Kaleem hit at Oroban’s head. The rock slipped right through it.
“Good thoughts, Peace Child. Good thoughts.”
Kaleem struck him again. He thought of how well the Clementiners treated their workers. The demon gasped. With the next blow he thought about his knight’s training. The demon slumped forward. Next the very high standards the Clementiners set themselves and the one he set for himself.
Oroban cried out in pain. But then he laughed. “Go on Peace Child. You can do it.”
Then Kaleem couldn’t hold back. He hit the demon over and over again. A blow for the perfection of the Zenoton non-monetary monetary system. Another for the excellent medical system on Zandra. One for the gentleness of the Z Zoners on Terrestra. One for the kindness of Saratina. One for the perfection of Rozia. One for the lovely nature of Petri, always so cheerful despite her pain. One for everyone’s sense of snazziness. One for a society without brown tunics. Now that he’d got started, he couldn’t stop.
Oroban weakened. He became unconscious. He began to fade. Kaleem gave him another blow. “That is for the goodness that is the basic nature of all universals.”
There was a loud bang. The unpleasant stench was replaced with a faint smell of orange blossom. There was no trace of Oroban. Everything seemed lighter.
Kaleem sat down, exhausted.
But then he heard a voice calling.
About the Peace Child Series:
Everything about Kaleem marks him out form the rest: the blond hair and dark skin, the uncomfortable cave where he lives and the fact that he doesn’t know his father. He’s used to unwelcome attention, but even so he’d feel better if some strange old man didn’t keep following him around.
That man introduces himself and begins to explain the Babel Prophecy – and everything in Kaleem’s life changes forever.
Gill James is published by The Red Telephone, Butterfly and Chapeltown.
She edits CafeLit.
She writes for the online community news magazine: Talking About My Generation
She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing and has an MA in Writing for Children and PhD in Creative and Critical Writinghttps://www.cafelitmagazine.uk/search/label/The%20House%20of%20Clementine